MotoGP heads to South East Asia this weekend for the 16th round of the 2009 FIM World Championship season, as Valentino Rossi sits within touching distance of securing a seventh premier class title at the Shell Advance Malaysian Grand Prix.
A top-four ride for Rossi in Sepang would be enough for the Italian to be crowned the 2009 World Champion on Sunday.
Second place behind an impressive Casey Stoner at the Iveco Australian Grand Prix extended Rossi’s lead at the top of the title standings to 38 points, thanks in large part to title rival and Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo’s first-lap crash at Phillip Island.
The Spaniard’s inability to complete the race means that even if he wins at Sepang, Rossi only needs to finish fourth to take his ninth world title across all classes. Lorenzo is the only rider who can stop Rossi from taking the title in Malaysia and it is a place where, in his rookie MotoGP season last year, Lorenzo retired after crashing. A win in 250cc is his best result there.
Rossi has a rich history of good form at Sepang, where he won from second on the grid last year and has seven podium finishes in the premier class in total, including five wins.
Ducati Marlboro man Stoner overtook Dani Pedrosa in the standings with his third victory in as many years on his home track, and the Australian is back to full fitness after his three-race break. Last year saw the 24 year-old place sixth at Sepang, but in his title-winning 2007 season Stoner won in Malaysia, so has pedigree there.
Pedrosa is six points adrift of Stoner in fourth place in the championship, but his impressive record of always finishing on the podium at Sepang – he placed second last year – means he should be amongst the frontrunners as well, having finished third in his last three races this season.
Pedrosa’s Repsol Honda team-mate Andrea Dovizioso made the podium in Malaysia in his debut MotoGP season last year and will hope to improve on his sixth place in Australia, while hot on his heels in the championship is Monster Yamaha Tech 3′s Colin Edwards – the Texan has never finished in the top three at Sepang.
The points spread from seventh to tenth in the championship standings between Alex de Angelis (San Carlo Honda Gresini), Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda), Loris Capirossi (Rizla Suzuki) and Marco Melandri (Hayate Racing) is just one, as the battle for seventh place intensifies.
Marco Simoncelli’s win in a shortened 250cc race in Australia, combined with Hiroshi Aoyama’s seventh place at Phillip Island, means the defending World Champion is now 12 points behind the current championship leader with two races of the season remaining.
Simoncelli is taking each race as it comes in his bid to retain his title before his step up to MotoGP next season, but Aoyama is still the standard bearer as the riders head for South East Asia.
Aoyama could still end the title challenge of Simoncelli in Sepang by claiming the crown himself – a win for the Japanese rider and no higher than fifth for his Metis Gilera rival would deliver that, while there are a host of other permutations involving Álvaro Bautista (Mapfre Aspar) and Héctor Barberá (Pepe World Team) as well.
Simoncelli has only ever finished on the podium at Sepang once, coming in third in his title-winning season last year, while Aoyama has enjoyed a win and second place in his last two seasons.
Barberá’s second place in Australia narrowed the gap on the championship’s third-placed rider Bautista, who crashed and ended tenth in the race, to four points, while Mattia Pasini in fifth place in the standings failed to finish.
Bautista won last year’s race at Sepang and Barberá came second in 2007, so both have experience of faring well at the circuit.
A last-lap win in Australia delivered Julián Simón the world title after an enthralling battle with Bradley Smith, and now the British rider can further secure his grip on second spot in Malaysia.
Having seen his decision to step back down to 125cc from the 250cc class justified with his title at the weekend, Simón will now want to secure his first-ever podium at Sepang.
Smith’s fine season could continue in Malaysia, at a track where he finished second last year from 13th on the grid, and he has now put together a solid run of four consecutive podium finishes.
The 19 year-old can still be caught by third-placed Nico Terol (Jack & Jones), but with a 21-point gap going into the final two races of the campaign it would take a reversal of his impressive displays to date.
A further 20 points behind Terol sits fourth-placed Pol Espargaró who finished fourth at Phillip Island after qualifying on pole, with Sergio Gadea completing the current top five.
The first practice of the Shell Advance Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Sepang starts at 12.40pm local time (5.40am BST) on Friday.