This weekend’s return to Sepang marks the first match point in the championship battle, with Ducati’s Francesco Bagnaia able to wrap up the title as he comes to Malaysia 14 points clear in the standings.
Bagnaia needs to outscore reigning world champion Fabio Quartararo by 11 points and ensure he only loses two points to Aprilia’s Espargaro to seal the deal.
Espargaro’s morning at Sepang was hellish, as the Spaniard completed just one flying lap as he crashed going through Turn 8 in the first 15 minutes of the session having aborted his first run following his initial lap time.
When he returned to the circuit he was forced to pull into pitlane with some sort of technical issue, leaving him down in 20th with a 2m01.654s.
Quartararo led the timesheets after the initial salvo of laps on his Yamaha with a 2m00.543s set with just under half an hour of the 45-minute session remaining.
This remained the benchmark until the closing five minutes, when initial pacesetter in FP1 Jorge Martin on the Pramac Ducati went top with a 2m00.105s on a fresh hard rear tyre.
Martin improved to a 1m59.966s, before Marc Marquez deposed him on a factory Honda fitted with a new soft rear tyre with a 1m59.623s.
But it was KTM’s Binder on a new medium who would see out FP1 fastest of all with a 1m59.576s.
Binder was just 0.097 seconds clear of Australian GP winner Alex Rins on the first of the Suzukis, who ran a fresh soft tyre at the end of FP2.
Marquez rounded out the top three ahead of Gresini’s Enea Bastianini, who topped the pre-season test at Sepang back in February and still has an outside shot at the championship standing at 42 points behind Bagnaia, and the second Suzuki of Joan Mir.
Martin was shuffled back to sixth come the chequered flag, with Quartararo electing against fitting a fresh rear tyre at the end of FP1 to finish seventh.
Gresini rookie Fabio Di Giannantonio shot up to eighth late on ahead of VR46’s Luca Marini and his teammate Marco Bezzecchi – who had an early crash at Turn 1.
Championship leader Bagnaia was 11th having joined Quartararo in not running a fresh rear tyre in the latter stages of FP1, while Yamaha’s Franco Morbidelli shadowed the Italian ahead of LCR Honda’s Alex Marquez, the sister factory Ducati of Jack Miller and Pramac’s Joahnn Zarco.
Pol Espargaro was a distant 16th on the second of the factory Hondas ahead of KTM’s Miguel Oliveira and RNF Racing’s Cal Crutchlow.
Crutchlow’s RNF teammate Darryn Binder was the only other faller in the session, the Moto2-bound South African 22nd behind Tech 3’s Remy Gardner and the Aprilia duo of Espargaro and Maverick Vinales.
Raul Fernandez on the other Tech 3 KTM and Takaaki Nakagami’s continued injury relief at LCR, Tetsuta Nagashima, completed the field.