Valentino Rossi came within four laps of his first MotoGP Grand Prix win this year through the glimmering heat haze of Sepang, Malaysia but will have his disappointment of a late race crash tempered at the party being thrown for new Moto2 World Champ Pecco Bagnaia.
The Italian became the second VR46 Academy recruit to earn FIM title success, a year after buddy Franco Morbidelli won the category with his third place in the Sepang sun. The Grand Prix was a memorable one for the SKY Racing Team VR46: not only did Bagnaia bring home their first crown in only four years of existence but teammate Luca Marini set a storming pace to take the chequered flag for the first time in his career.
The sparks from Rossi’s Yamaha as he slid out of the lead at slow speed through Turn 1 in what was the penultimate fixture of the year only landed on the fierce fire of joy in the SKY pitbox as the whole VR46 set-up had started the celebration early. The Doctor was downcast at the loss of his opportunity to personally add to the festivities (as was the capacity crowd at Sepang that otherwise avidly cheered Monster Yamaha Tech 3’s Hafizh Syahrin as the first native to set off from the MotoGP grid and #55 made his way to a decent 10th position). “It was a great shame because this was my best race of the season,” Rossi lamented. “I felt comfortable, I had a good pace, I pushed, and I had the chance to win, but unfortunately with four or five laps to go I fell - I don't understand what happened. I made a mistake because I crashed. It's such a pity, but it still remains a good weekend.”
Step-brother Marini kept the winner’s champagne in the family.
“I started immediately strong to try to stay ahead and breathe with these temperatures,” he said of his Moto2 milestone. “I had a great feeling with the bike, I knew how to handle the tyre and the physical effort. It is my first victory in the world championship, a special day to share with the Team, the Academy, all those who have always supported me and Pecco who has done something incredible.”
“It is difficult to find the right words: we are World Champions,” grinned Bagnaia, who is MotoGP bound for 2019. “A unique, incredible emotion. I arrived here with a lot of pressure, I knew I could win the championship and tried not to think of it. Then yesterday, after qualifying, something changed. Everything started to become real. After pre-season, I understood that we had the potential to fight for the title, but now it's different, we are World Champions after a record year with eight wins, poles and a great job from everyone. The list of people to thank is endless: it is everyone's victory. The last 10 laps was very hard, then the penultimate lap I started to cry and shout inside the helmet. A difficult race and Luca was great.”
Further mirth was seen on the MotoGP podium with Johann Zarco claiming his third trophy of the year and first since Jerez in May.
“I’m pretty happy, it was a fantastic race!” the Frenchman said. “But also difficult like usual in Malaysia. I was tired at the end, but the energy is coming back already. I think the key for that podium was the beginning of the race. I was thinking about overtaking Valentino (Rossi), but he was fast and it was good to be behind him.”
Joining Rossi in the ‘what could have been?’ camp was Marco Bezzecchi. The Italian’s 5th place in the Moto3 Grand Prix was not enough as Jorge Martin streaked clear to win and definitively close the championship duel.
Bezzecchi will get the chance to bury the demons at the nineteenth and last Grand Prix of the year at Valencia in two weeks time.