Phillip Island is the best circuit in the world, according to just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock. At least, that's what they thought yesterday, before they actually rode the circuit, and found out that the recent visits by the Australian GT series and the V8 Supercars have torn the track up and left bumps everywhere.
The verdict was unanimous, but as ever, Casey Stoner phrased it the best. "This year, the track's terrible," he told reporters. "It's always been a little bit bumpy into Turn 1, but this year, they're a lot more aggressive than they were in the past, and I'm not too happy with the condition of the track. I don't know what they've been racing around here, but it's made the track a lot worse." So bad was the surface that Jorge Lorenzo said he and the other riders would bring the subject up in the Safety Commission on Friday night, and ask for the track to be repaved.
The problems are now everywhere, but were worst at Turns 6 and especially Turn 12, the long, fast and spectacular last corner that leads out onto the straight. The problem is that the bumps are now on the outside of the corner, the wide line that allows the riders to build speed as they head back across the front straight. It was forcing everyone to hold the inside line, Lorenzo said, meaning that you lost a lot of speed. "The last corner is really critical," Nicky Hayden explained, "but it's bad in a lot of places." The last corner was a real problem, Hayden added. "You have to go in low, under the bumps and scrub too much speed," he said. The speed lost holding the tighter inside line through Turn 12 probably explains why almost everyone was at 7 or 8 km/h slower in the afternoon than they were in the morning.
Bumps or no bumps, there was no stopping Casey Stoner. While Jorge Lorenzo kept the Repsol Honda man honest in the morning session, in the afternoon, nobody could get close. Stoner was clearly comfortable posting 1'30.6s, while Marco Simoncelli and Lorenzo were half a second slower, only occasionally getting close to a high 1'30. On current form - and that would include form going back to Mugello, so he's been this fast for a while - the race could be over before the pack crests Lukey Heights for the first time.
While Stoner looks a safe bet for the victory, the chances of him lifting the title at home are pretty slim. Lorenzo may be slower than the Australian, but he is still a cut above the rest, Marco Simoncelli the only rider to get close to him. The mystery is that the other Repsol Hondas are nowhere near the Australian, Dani Pedrosa 7th fastest overall, and just a fraction behind Andrea Dovizioso in 6th. The problems they are having are familiar, as they are the same problems that everyone is reporting: there's no rear grip, the rear tire is just spinning, and the bumps are making it difficult to get round the track.
Most mystified and disappointed of all were the Ducatis, with Nicky Hayden and especially Valentino Rossi disconcerted to be so far off the pace. Rossi had come to Phillip Island feeling confident that his crew had finally got a handle on the fickle Desmosedici setup. But despite using an almost identical setup to the one that worked so well at Motegi - a rear spring the only difference - the bike felt completely different, Rossi complaining that he could not ride the way he wanted to. The pain in his little finger - sustained in the first-lap crash at Motegi - had not helped at all, and riding without painkillers in the morning had not been possible. Even the medication tried in the afternoon hadn't been sufficient, the Italian still suffering pain while riding. To try and solve the front end issues, Rossi and his crew will be moving the position of the front wheel, and will hope that this will make a difference. But all his hopes of having a "normal weekend" seem to have disappeared, and it will be another long weekend for Ducati.
What may help is the weather forecast: rain is forecast for Saturday afternoon, which should help the Ducatis qualify much further up the grid. Race day should be dry, though a lot colder, but having a decent starting position is at least one step. The run of podium finishes for Ducati looks to be at an end, unless some magic happens.
The big talking point of the day was the crash at the end of the Moto2 FP1 session, where Marc Marquez smashed into the back of Ratthapark Wilairot at high speed after the session had ended. Wilairot was badly shaken up in the crash, and was transported for further medical checks to a local hospital. Fortunately, the Thai rider had not broken any bones in the crash, but he was banged up badly enough that he will not be able to race on Sunday.
Marquez - clearly at fault, though the Spaniard claimed he could have done nothing to prevent the crash - was punished twofold by the crash, once by Race Direction, adding a minute to his QP time and putting him at the back of the grid, and once because he had destroyed the only Suter 2012 chassis he had, leaving him to race the 2011 chassis. He's fast enough with the old bike, but the 2012 chassis was enough of an improvement that going back to the old bike is a definite handicap. After the momentum of the Moto2 championship had been swinging so inexorably in Marquez' favor since Stefan Bradl's race crash at Assen, it stopped quite abruptly at Phillip Island, and Marquez has his work cut out again. No doubt Marquez will finish in the points on Sunday, but with just a 1-point lead over Bradl, he'll have to work hard to limit the damage from his error.
Both Stoner and Lorenzo were critical of Marquez, blaming the Spaniard entirely for the incident. "That was extremely immature of Marc," Stoner told reporters. "I mean, people shouldn't be cruising on the racing line, but, Marc should not have been pushing that hard after the checkered flag." Lorenzo thought that Marquez must have seen Wilairot, but had simply not braked hard enough or early enough to avoid the crash.
There was much debate about the penalty imposed on Marquez, with rumblings that because of Marquez' supposedly privileged position in the paddock (a Spanish rider flying the Repsol flag) he was receiving lenient treatment. Critics pointed to the treatment of John Hopkins back in 2003, who was banned for a race after a crash at Motegi, but Marquez supporters noted the fact that this appears to have been an honest mistake.
There can be no question over apportioning blame, as the crash was clearly caused by Marquez. The Spaniard was still traveling at high speed after the checkered flag had been waved, and should have been aware that other riders on the track could be going much slower. Though wandering across the racing line at low speed as Wilairot did is inadvisable, despite the session being at an end, it was Marquez' responsibility to back off and pay attention, especially at spots where riders may have been practicing starts. The time penalty is entirely justified, though adding a minute is merely a show of disapproval, rather than an actual punishment. Eight seconds would be sufficient to put Marquez to the back of the grid, as that is outside the 107% qualifying limit. But a public and humiliating punishment is probably a good idea, as it presses home the magnitude of Marquez' mistake.
Punishment could also be handed out in the World Superbike paddock, where the WSBK riders are assembled for the final round. The protagonists were, as ever, Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri, the two having a run-in after FP1 had ended. What occasioned the dispute is unclear - most likely, the problem was the the mere existence of the other, and the impertinence each showed in daring to share the track with each other. But after much fist-shaking, leg-waving and apparently even a couple of slaps, the pair returned to the pits.
With the championships in both World Superbikes and World Supersport settled, most of the attention is currently on who will be riding where in 2012. Despite the fact that preseason testing starts on Tuesday, the bulk of the paddock have still not signed contracts. Biaggi, Melandri and Leon Haslam know where they will be riding, but even newly-crowned WSBK champion Carlos Checa is uncertain where he will be racing. He has an offer to remain with Althea Ducati, but a big-money offer from BMW Italia could possibly tempt him away. Eugene Laverty will be on an Aprilia, though which team that will be is uncertain, while former Aprilia rider Leon Camier appears to be headed off to ride a Ducati, in some shape or form. By Sunday night, things should be a lot clearer, but until then, you can catch up with the latest gossip over on Bikesportnews.com or on GPOne.com.