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How Sepang 2015 stained Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo

In the next feature in our series looking back on motorsport in the 2010s, we revisit the '15 Malaysian MotoGP race and the famous feud involving the championship's biggest personalities and how it shaped their subsequent achievements.

How Sepang 2015 stained Rossi, Marquez and Lorenzo

At 3.15pm at a typically scorching Sepang International Circuit, the 2015 Malaysian MotoGP race, a pivotal encounter in the destiny of that year's world championship, is in its seventh lap.

Honda's Dani Pedrosa leads title protagonist Jorge Lorenzo on his Yamaha, but all eyes are firmly on the battle raging behind.

Points leader and Lorenzo's team-mate Valentino Rossi and the second Honda rider, Marc Marquez, are embroiled in a tussle tinged with venom - and it's about to take a dark turn that would come to sour the year.

As Marquez retaliates on Rossi around the outside of the Turn 13 right-hander, Rossi takes matters into his own hands and forces the Honda rider to the edge of the track into Turn 14. Taking a menacing glance to his left, Rossi sees Marquez hit the deck. It's a 'collision' that remains debated to the present day.

In retrospect, the MotoGP destinies of both Lorenzo and Marquez were set into motion at that precise moment. The repercussions of that weekend would ultimately harden Marquez into the ruthless dominator he now is and would lead Lorenzo onto the path that ended with his ignominious demise in 2019.

The road to the 'Sepang Clash' had been set into motion at the third round of the 2015 season, which took place in Argentina and featured a collision between Rossi and Marquez.

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team and Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team and Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Repsol Media

The Honda rider had gone against the grain and opted for the slightly softer option Bridgestone rear tyre, hopeful of using that advantage to escape at the front, while Rossi was on the extra-hard option.

Rossi reeled in Marquez and engaged at the start of the final lap. The pair touched at the Turn 5 right-hander at the end of the straight, and collided again on the direction change into Turn 6 - where Marquez's front wheel was taken from under him.

Overall, Marquez's 2015 season was a scrappy affair. An aggressive Honda bike, plagued by harsh acceleration and engine braking, was at odds with the bombastic style that had taken him to the previous two titles. By mid-season, after a handful of falls, his challenge was more or less over.

The Argentina incident came and went without much issue. But Marquez's next clash with Rossi would eat at him a bit more.

While they diced for the victory in a thrilling Dutch TT, the pair touched at the last chicane on the final lap. Rossi had leant in to take the right-hander and the late-braking Marquez connected with him. The Yamaha was sent across the gravel, but Rossi stayed mounted and held on to win. Marquez left Assen feeling aggrieved, believing Rossi had acted incorrectly.

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Repsol Media

As the season wore on, the Rossi/Marquez clashes faded into the background as the title race between the Yamaha riders intensified. Rossi led Lorenzo by 18 points heading to the third-from-last round in Australia, which would become the turning point in the championship.

The race was an epic, capped by an immense final lap where Marquez wiped out an eight-tenth deficit to Lorenzo and passed him with a handful of corners to go to secure victory. Rossi ended up off the podium in fourth, his points lead down to 11 as the paddock headed to Sepang.

But on the cooldown lap, paranoia had crept into Rossi's mind.

He was intrigued by four particular laps at Phillip Island - a set of low 1m30s laps produced by Marquez that were a sudden drop of six tenths compared to his previous efforts. Officially, Marquez was cooling off his tyre at a circuit famed for its punishment of rubber.

Rossi, however, believed a conspiracy to stop him winning the title was being enacted by Marquez and Lorenzo, with the former supposedly deliberately backing off to stop Rossi from advancing up the order, before shooting back up the road to take the win.

He went public with his 'findings' on the Thursday ahead of the race at Sepang.

"[Marquez] slowed to create a gap to Jorge," Rossi accused. "His bad luck was that on Sunday Jorge was not so strong, because otherwise it would have been over already.

"Instead, he always kept Jorge in check, knowing that he could catch him within three laps, and then [he] tried to slow me and [Andrea] Iannone, perhaps trying to put other riders between me and Lorenzo."

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing, Andrea Iannone, Ducati Team

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing, Andrea Iannone, Ducati Team

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Both Marquez and Lorenzo dismissed this theory, pointing out that the Honda rider was in any case a lousy saboteur given that by winning the race he had taken points away from the rider he was supposed to be helping.

Marquez had made no secret of his childhood admiration for Rossi when he stepped up to MotoGP in 2013. What Rossi found out that infamous Sunday in Sepang was that playing mind games with someone raised in his image would be like playing hot potato with a grenade.

As Pedrosa and Lorenzo escaped at the front, Marquez and Rossi's moves grew in aggression before their coming together.

Marquez may not have actively aided Lorenzo at Phillip Island, and he didn't just let him through on lap three at Sepang. But he didn't exactly put as much effort into catching back up to Lorenzo as he did with Rossi when he came past soon afterwards - an act of revenge Rossi had ultimately engineered by his accusations ahead of the race.

For his part in the clash, Rossi was hit with three penalty points and a back of the grid start for the finale at Valencia, while Marquez was blamed for deliberately antagonising his former hero - although that isn't a punishable indiscretion in the FIM rule book.

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing and Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing and Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team

Photo by: Repsol Media

Lorenzo branded Rossi's punishment inadequate and, after giving him a thumbs down on the Sepang podium, made a failed appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Threats to release data that apparently proved Rossi kicked Marquez followed from Honda and a crisis meeting between the FIM and the riders was called at Valencia. In the subsequent winter, a new stewards panel was set up to take the responsibility of such moments away from MotoGP's Race Direction officials.

As furious Rossi fans cried foul play to Dorna Sports - for it ostensibly joining in on the 'great Spanish conspiracy' - a review of MotoGP's stewarding procedure was inevitable.

Lorenzo won the race in Valencia and took the title, as Rossi came from the back of the grid to finish fourth, but was left to rue a wasted opportunity - while kicking up his 'stolen championship' rhetoric, and publicly doubting Marquez's claim to be a fan in his formative years.

This created a hostile atmosphere around MotoGP. The devout Rossi fans became rabid, with their chorus of boos growing louder from race to race in the following season, and, following numerous threats from Rossi supporters, Lorenzo and Marquez even had to be surrounded by increased security at the Italian rounds in 2016. Marquez also had a couple of Italian television personalities attempt to break into his house prior to the Valencia finale.

The tension eventually simmered down, and Rossi and Marquez's feud was temporarily put on hold after the 2016 Catalunya race as the pair embraced in parc ferme, just days after the death of Moto2 racer Luis Salom in practice for the event.

Podium: second place Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, race winner Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Podium: second place Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team, race winner Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Marquez took numerous lessons from 2015. His difficult bike forced him to alter his approach to a more considered one. His battles with Rossi and the resulting negativity gave him motivation. If people were going to boo, he subsequently reasoned, he'd give them something to boo about by beating their hero at every opportunity.

At Misano in 2019, Marquez came under fire for an on-track scuffle with Rossi in the dying stages of qualifying. After winning the race 24 hours later, Marquez admitted the events of qualifying acted as his main motivation behind his victory. He was again putting across the lesson he learned from that infamous 2015 day at Sepang: so long as people continue to boo him, the more he will win.

For Lorenzo, 2015's ending was the writing on the wall for his time with Yamaha. The team's muted celebrations of his third premier class title spoke volumes, and its steadfast approach to rider status equality ultimately left the door wide open for Ducati to secure his services for '17.

But after nine years on an M1, he found adapting to the Desmosedici difficult. His average debut campaign and lacklustre start to 2018 meant Ducati got impatient and kicked him to the kerb for the '19 season - paving the way for his switch to Honda and the misery that would demolish his confidence and motivation to the point where he saw no option but to retire.

Yamaha suffered in Lorenzo's absence. Although his replacement, Maverick Vinales, did win three of the first five races in 2017, he only won three across the next two. Rossi hasn't won since Assen '17 and the M1 has slipped further behind its rivals due to problems Yamaha only recently began to get a handle on.

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Rossi is no stranger to controversy and rivalry. But his actions at the end of the 2015 season are still hard to fathom.

Was it all just a big mind game that went awry and he had no choice but to double down on his comments? Or did he genuinely believe there was a conspiracy to stop him winning?

It has long been thought the seeds were planted from within his personal circle. Perhaps the stress of the situation - the aging star facing up to what now appears to have been his last hope of winning an eighth premier class title - simply got to him and meant he dropped his guard.

Whatever the truth, some of the mystique of the Rossi legend crumbled that weekend in Sepang. But his career statistics and accolades still command top respect.

But all three of the riders involved in the fallout - Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi - were stained by day at Sepang.

Ultimately, it transformed one of the best MotoGP title fights into arguably its ugliest episode, and its spectre still haunts the series to this day.

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team and Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team and Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Yamaha MotoGP

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Series MotoGP
Drivers Marc Marquez , Jorge Lorenzo , Valentino Rossi
Author Lewis Duncan
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