Just two points separate Ducati Lenovo’s Pecco Bagnaia from the MotoGP Championship after a dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.
A lightning start and race-long battle with Gresini’s Enea Bastianini were rewarded with his seventh victory of the season as Monster Energy Yamaha Fabio Quartararo recovered from a disappointing Saturday to complete the podium in third.
As expected, a clean sweep saw the entirety of the premier class opt for medium front, soft rear Michelin tyres as the grid prepared for the 20-lap Malaysian battle. Prima Pramac’s Jorge Martin lined up on pole from Bastianini and Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez while title fighters Bagnaia, Aleix Espargaro and Quartararo sat deep in the mid pack in ninth, tenth and twelfth respectively.
Martin maintained control as the lights went out. Bagnaia storming through to second with Franky Morbidelli leading his Monster Energy teammate from fifth. The Suzuki Ecstar duo circulated seventh and eight before Joan Mir broke the Yamaha pairing ahead, Quartararo advancing to head the trio as the Italian faced a double long lap penalty for his FP3 misdemeanours.
Martin held a seven-tenth lead on lap two as Luca Marini pulled the Mooney VR46 into the pits following a technical issue on the start device - for his first retirement of the season. Bastianini just a quarter of a second adrift of his 2023 teammate with Marquez a second further behind.
Aleix Espargaro’s championship hopes faded as the Aprilia continued to fall down the standings, to 15th, with Ducati Lenovo’s Jack Miller and WithU Yamaha’s Cal Crutchlow narrowly ahead. Maverick Viñales having a similarly difficult weekend on the RS-GP from 20th.
Quartararo advanced to fourth before Marquez briefly hit back. Both Suzukis and Marco Bezzecchi on the wheels of the lap five battle as Morbidelli dispatched his first penalty and regrouped in tenth. The leading trio almost three seconds clear out front as the pace continued to ignite.
Drama saw Martin crash out of the lead as lap seven fired up. Bagnaia released into victory contention with Quartararo rounding out the podium positions. Mir was through on Marquez for fourth with Bezzecchi quickly on the charge. The Italian the next to take ‘best of the rest’ as the pair behind switched again while the Red Bull KTM duo of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira held off Miller at the edge of the top ten.
After a strong start for Darryn Binder, the RNF Yamaha was ultimately captured by Pramac’s Johann Zarco and Espargaro having run 11th for the opening laps. Viñales and Morbidelli now behind in the final points positions with teammate Crutchlow cut adrift.
Bezzecchi began to reel in the defending champion at the halfway stage. The Frenchman over three seconds shy of the leading duo with the third Ducati edging closer. 23 points split the title fight if positions remained as is, with edge of seat moments seeing Bastianini upset the action - and factory bosses - as he took charge with ten to go.
The VR46 rider lit up the pace as he got closer to podium contention, three tenths the deficit as the Gresini rider pulled a similar gap out front. Rins taking advantage of a struggling Marquez for fifth as Miguel Oliveira faded to the back of the points.
The battle at the front saw the Ducati pair inches from each other as the factory struggled to watch. Bagnaia through on his countryman with six to go but Bastianini was not done yet. The fight playing firmly into Quartararo’s, somewhat broken, hands as he clawed his way back to just 1.5s in arrears.
Miller was up to seventh with four to go. His teammate holding a half-second lead as the Gresini rider settled for second. Mir sliding out in the closing stages after fading from fifth to eleventh as the race counted down.
Late progress found Morbidelli and Crutchlow on the fringes of the top ten with Espargaro and Zarco ahead. Oliveira, Vinales and younger brother Pol looking to collect the final points on offer as the latter duo enjoyed a final lap fight.
The closing moments saw the Ducatis inches from each other once again during a dramatic final sector, Bagnaia securing the celebrations with an impressive victory as the title fight rolled on to Valencia’s finale.
Bastianini and Quartararo completed the Sepang podium from Bezzecchi, Rins and a determined Miller with Marquez, Binder, Zarco and Morbidelli locking out the top ten. Aleix Espargaro’s championship hopes over after an 11th place finish from Crutchlow, Oliveira, Pol Espargaro and a late-charging Raul Fernandez. Vinales empty handed at the flag ahead of Alex Marquez, Remy Gardner and the remounted Mir.
A late 3-second penalty for dangerous riding amid the final lap battle with Espargaro dropped Morbidelli back to 11th, the additional point returning the Aprilia man to third in the overall standings at the expense of Bastianini.