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Bagnaia on brink of world title as MotoGP returns to Malaysia

Italy’s Francesco Bagnaia can win his maiden MotoGP world championship crown this weekend when motorcycle-mad Malaysia hosts its first grand prix since 2019, as a thrilling title fight reaches its climax.

The Ducati rider usurped Fabio Quartararo at the top of the standings on Sunday in Australia when the Frenchman crashed out, putting a huge dent in his hopes of retaining his title.

At one point during this topsy-turvy season, Yamaha’s Quartararo enjoyed a gaping lead of 91 points on his rival.

But Bagnaia now leads the championship by 14 points with two races left and can clinch the world title on Sunday if he wins at Sepang and Quartararo finishes fourth or lower.

“I don’t want to say now, I just want to be calm,” the 25-year-old Bagnaia, who finished second last season in the title race behind Quartararo, said after finishing third at Phillip Island.

“We just focus on the next race, without thinking about the championship. Be smart.”

“Keep going, keep going, I don’t want to think about the championship,” the Italian added.

The permutations are complicated, but Spain’s Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia) and Italy’s Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing) are mathematically also still in the title hunt.

Espargaro, though, has dismissed his hopes.

“I think that in the last three races, we proved that we are not together as a team,” Espargaro, third in the standings, said after coming a distant ninth last weekend in Australia.

“We are not at the level to fight for this title.”

Quartararo, 23, has been left to reflect on how — coupled with Bagnaia’s form in the second half of the campaign — his defence has fallen apart.

The title is now out of his hands going into Sepang and the season finale in Valencia, Spain on November 6.

Quartararo’s last win came in Germany in June and the Frenchman has failed to score in the last two grands prix.

Rival Bagnaia, meanwhile, has triumphed in four of the eight races since Germany to turn the title race on its head.

And he has tasted success before at Sepang, taking the chequered flag in 2016 in Moto3.

But Quartararo says the championship tussle could change yet again — and in his favour this time.

“I feel that we can make two great last races. We need to be focused, work well and then we’ll see,” he said.

“We go to Malaysia with full motivation. I want to enjoy these last two races, that will be the most important, because when I enjoy the races, I know we can be fast.”

MotoGP is back in Malaysia for the first time since 2019 after recent races were cancelled because of Covid-19.

Organisers are hoping that 170,000 spectators will turn out across three days of racing, starting with practice on Friday. Qualifying is on Saturday.

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