This weekend's Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island is going to be a very Australian affair, more so than most other years. For one obvious reason: this is the last chance to see Casey Stoner race a Grand Prix motorcycle at the iconic venue before he hangs up his helmet and retires from MotoGP. Record crowds are expected, and local media coverage is expanded as everyone gathers to say goodbye to the latest in a long and honorable line of Australian Grand Prix champions who have left an indelible mark on motorcycle racing.
The weekend started off with Stoner's name being added to those of Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, in a ceremony to rename Turn 3 Stoner Corner. Gardner's name has been given to the front straight, Doohan's to Turn 1, and Stoner's name follows after the Southern Loop. It is a fitting tribute to the man who has started from pole four times in a row, won here five times in a row and achieved some remarkable feats in MotoGP.
The only man to have won on a Ducati MotoGP machine since 2007, when Loris Capirossi won a flag-to-flag race in difficult conditions at Motegi. The only rider to have regained the premier class title after three seasons. Tied with Mike Hailwood for 4th in the all-time list of premier class winners, with 37 MotoGP victories. Tied with contemporaries Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa for 8th in the standings for victories in all classes, the three leading riders in the championship having 44 wins each, though the two Spaniards have vastly fewer wins in the top class.
I spoke to a selection of riders and team managers for a story I am writing about Casey Stoner once his career comes to a close, and all of them said the same thing. Jorge Lorenzo summed it up best: "Casey Stoner is the rider with the most raw talent I have ever seen." Stoner's place in MotoGP history was already assured, the renaming of Turn 3 into Stoner Corner now immortalizes his name for as long as there will be racing at the circuit.
Why Turn 3? For a full explanation, see the story on the renaming ceremony elsewhere on the site, but the gist of it is that this is the corner where Stoner dominates. Fast - 260km/h fast, or a touch over 161 mph in old money - sweeping, a corner that requires talent, commitment, and the courage to combine the two without backing off. It was a corner he had struggled with in his early years at the track - Stoner only came to race at the circuit when he started racing Grand Prix, having left Australia before he was old enough to race at the circuit - but he had unlocked its secrets and found a way to go fast through there. Was Stoner confident he was the fastest person through that corner, he was asked? "Without a doubt," was his simple answer. Would he like to share the secret to his speed there? Maybe after the weekend is over.
Winning his sixth in a row at Phillip Island will not be quite so straightforward. Though he did not feel any real pressure to win there - that had grown during his first four wins, but had left him once he arrived at the track on Honda - but Stoner is still struggling with his ankle. The ankle has gradually been swelling up since he returned to riding again at Motegi. "It's not really enjoying the thrashing that we're having to give it these last two races, and three races back to back is a lot of hard work," Stoner said, before giving an insight into the kind of pain all of these riders have to endure when riding injured. "They did recommend that I stay off it for a while and only put very light weight, but unfortunately I have to put quite a lot of weight on it," Stoner explained, "I have to get it used to this before I get on a bike, then when I get on the bike, I'm used to it. When I'm on the bike I'm sure I'll deal with it. It's just mainly when I get off the bike the pain's a lot worse."
The good thing for Stoner is that the track goes mostly left, and there are very few sections where they are hard on the brakes. That means he does not have to test the mobility of his ankle quite so much, with more of the strain being carried by his uninjured left ankle. The track going left helps Stoner another way, in that the Honda RC213V suffers massively less with chatter when turning left. If there is a track where Stoner could win a final race before he retires, this is surely it.
He will have to deal with Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo first, however. Pedrosa is on roll, having won five out of the last six races, and is looking nigh on invincible. Pedrosa, too, has struggled with chatter, though you would not know it to watch him control the five races he won. The only race where Lorenzo could put up any resistance was Brno, the Yamaha man taking the fight right down to the wire. Since then, though, Pedrosa has been unstoppable, and it is hard to see what Lorenzo can do to prevent him from closing the gap even further.
This raises the question of whether Honda might consider telling Stoner to make way for Pedrosa, and help him close the gap on Lorenzo. The answer to that, though, is almost certainly no. All parties concerned, from HRC team boss Shuhei Nakamoto, to Dani Pedrosa to Casey Stoner himself, have all denied that team orders would either be issued or would be necessary, all three saying that championships should be won outright, rather than via assistance from teammates. Even if team orders were issued, the chances of Casey Stoner listening are very slim indeed. The Australian is not known for his willingness to bend to authority, and as he will be leaving the team and the series at the end of the year, he has very little to lose by ignoring any orders given.
In truth, it may not make that much difference even if Stoner were to place himself between Pedrosa and Lorenzo. Pedrosa trails Lorenzo by 23 points, and if Pedrosa were to win and Lorenzo come 3rd, then that gap would be cut to 14 points. That would still require Pedrosa to win at Valencia - something he is more than capable of doing, and has done in the past - and Lorenzo to come 5th or worse in the final race for Pedrosa to take the title. Finishing 3rd is just about conceivable, especially at Phillip Island, with a determined Stoner and an on-form Pedrosa. Finishing 5th, however, would require nothing short of a miracle, the kind of race last seen in 2006, when Valentino Rossi crashed early to hand Nicky Hayden the title. So far, Jorge Lorenzo hasn't put a foot wrong, winning when he can, and finishing lower than 2nd just once, when he was taken out by Alvaro Bautista in the first corner at Assen.
The pressure is on both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, and both are dealing with it in the same way. "Just try to go out and do good practices, try to enjoy, keep focused and ride well," said Pedrosa in the press conference, echoing the earlier sentiments of Lorenzo. Take each session as it comes, focus on the work that needs to be done, and think no further ahead than that.
The weekend may end up with a Spanish winner, but it will still be a very Australian affair. Stoner will be etched into the memories of every Australian fan at the track, taking his place alongside Doohan, Darryl Beattie, Wayne Gardner and Troy Bayliss. The question is whether Stoner is to be the last in a line of success which has stretched almost unbroken since the mid-1980s. Without Casey Stoner, it is hard to see where the next Australian success story is coming from. Ant West continues to race in Moto2, but the chances of West getting a competitive MotoGP ride seem remote. Jack Miller and Arthur Sissis have both made impressive debuts in the Moto3 class, with Miller being particularly impressive on what is almost a bog standard Honda NSF250R.
Casey Stoner expressed his concerns over the position of motor sports in general and motorcycle racing in particular. When asked who he saw as the future of Australian motorcycling, Stoner had no ready answers. "To be honest, I don't know," he said. "Internationally, it's going well as far as motor sport visiting Australia. But unfortunately, motor sport inside Australia doesn't have support. There's nobody out there that's stepping up with sponsorship, or helping to find places to ride or start learning, or helping to run the Australian championship, or anything like this," Stoner told the press conference. "There's a lot of tracks being closed down. Motor sport in general in Australia struggles to a certain degree."
Part of the blame lay in a change of culture, an Anglo-Saxon tendency to sue first and ask questions later. "It's very disappointing," Stoner said. "I think everybody wants to be wrapped up in cotton wool too much. There's too many court cases fought out because something happened to some young rider. There's many instances like that which I just think are unnecessary." Riders, their families, their teams should all be aware of the dangers of the sport. "Everyone does things at their own risks, understands the risks, and should just be there to enjoy it. Motorcycling is a fantastic thing, it's what I grew up loving to do and will continue to do in the future. But it definitely needs a boost in Australia."
As far as Stoner's own future, he has two more races to go, and his racing career is at an end. He will race at both Phillip Island and Valencia, he said, in reply to a question asking whether he would consider quitting directly after his home race. He had decided to see out the season, Stoner said, and that is exactly what he would do. After that, he would continue riding, and would continue to visit the Island, terrifying the fast group at track days aboard a Honda CBR1000.
He will not make a return to racing, however, at least not on two wheels. Unless MotoGP dropped four strokes and went back to two strokes, something that seems almost impossible at the moment. But Stoner's ears pricked up when French journalist Thomas Baujard of Moto Journal told him that Michelin still has the machine they used to build the tires used on the old 500cc two strokes. "Hmmm! Very interesting!" he replied, perking up considerably. "Why don't we all start racing 500s! Then I'll come back, no electronics!"
Given the advances being made with two-stroke technology, that may not be such a bad idea after all. There is not a MotoGP rider in the paddock who does not long to ride a 500cc stroker - or even a 750, as suggested by Stoner in the past. Given the exponential rate at which the four-stroke MotoGP bikes have driven up costs - something which many engineers had warned of prior to the switch from two strokes to four strokes - it might just be a way of bringing costs back down again.