When Casey Stoner was asked on Thursday about the key to his speed through Turn 3 - now renamed Stoner Corner in his honor - he refused to answer, saying only that he might tell everyone after he had retired. To anyone watching Stoner scorch around that corner and the rest of the track, the secret was plain to see: the Australian is completely in his element, totally comfortable and confident in every move he makes at the circuit. Stoner left thick black lines round most of the left handers at the circuit, including daubing them all over the inside of the kerbs at Turn 3. It was a display of mastery that left even the injured Ben Spies in awe, watching at home on the computer. "I gotta say without a doubt Casey Stoner does stuff even GP racers watch and scratch their head at!" Spies posted on his Twitter page. Stoner ended nine tenths of a second up on second-place man Dani Pedrosa, the only man to dip into the 1'29s (just, his fastest lap being 1'29.999), and the only man bar Pedrosa to hit the 1'30s.
Confidence. That's Stoner's secret. And it's the secret of another Australian, a rider almost surprised to find himself at the front of the Moto2 class, Ant West having bagged the 3rd fastest time on the first day of his home Grand Prix. The podium at Sepang had kicked him into gear, West admitted, pointing out the importance of confidence to results. "I must have woke myself up!" West joked. "This class is all about having good confidence, because from 1st to 20th, everyone's fast. I just feel confident, and it makes everything so much easier. Today I feel good, and the bike's working really well." West's success was more than just an overnight transformation, West insisted. Things had slowly been improving since the QMMF team switched from the Moriwaki to the Speed Up chassis, West now able to close the gap the front. "We've been building up the last few races getting better and better, and I'm happy today. It just seem to be going well, even went out the first part of this session on old tires and still had quite a decent time."
It is reminiscent of the squabble over the brakes in the Tech 3 garage at the start of the season, with Cal Crutchlow complaining that Andrea Dovizioso had uprated version of the calipers and brake disks that he did not yet have. Despite the difference, Crutchlow was still matching Dovizioso's pace, and battling the vastly more experienced Italian at every track on the calendar. Eventually, Tech 3 team boss Herve Poncharal caved, and arranged for Crutchlow to receive the uprated brakes from Brembo. The difference in Crutchlow's results is nigh on impossible to discern: the former World Supersport champion continues to impress, qualifying brilliantly, battling with Dovizioso and fighting all race long for the last of the podium places. But he was doing that before he got the uprated brakes as well.
The truth of the matter is that each rider has at least half a second between their ears. There is a mindset, a way of tapping into the confidence that every top-flight sportsperson has, allowing them to get more out of themselves and their equipment than they have any right to expect. That confidence is key: any doubt, even the smallest, and the rider comes up short, and ends up battling the machine trying to find the difference, instead of looking inside.
Examples are legion, on both sides of the argument: Marco Melandri, a candidate for the podium on the Honda, went to pieces when he switched to Ducati. His confidence was destroyed in the first test on the bike, coming in feeling quietly confident after his first run on the Desmosedici, and confident of finding more. He then watched in dismay as his new teammate Casey Stoner went out and beat his fastest lap on the Australian's first flying lap out of the pits, and his first full lap during the test. Melandri never recovered, never posted a fastest lap, his season over before it had even begun. Once move to the Kawasaki, the Italian was quick once again, and in 2012 he showed his ability by pushing Max Biaggi almost all the way to the line for the World Superbike championship.
Marc Marquez is the opposite example, a young man who rides with utter conviction and confidence in himself, with no regard to anything else. Estoril 2010 was a prime example: the Spaniard crashed on the sighting lap in difficult conditions, came into pit lane and sat quietly on his bike as his team worked frantically to repair the damage. Forced to start from the back of the grid, Marquez was up to 4th by the first corner. Two weeks ago at Motegi, something similar happened, this time Marquez not checking the bike was properly in gear at the lights. He entered the first corner close to the back of the 32-strong grid, having got off to a very late start. By turn 5, he was in the top ten, slicing through the field with a confidence and conviction that is the mark of the true champion. That lap is an astonishing display of riding, and the onboard footage worth watching over and over.
Confidence may come free of charge, but that does not mean there is an abundant supply of it. Very few riders can simply turn it on at will, needing a little encouragement to help find it. That is why teams will spend a fortune on parts: not because they hope that the few hundredths of a second a particular part may in theory provide will give them an advantage over the other machines on the grid; because if the rider is convinced that the theoretical advantage that the part offers is there in practice, the rider themselves will find tenths of a second from inside themselves, and make the real difference on the track.
This confidence is why Stoner is so fast at Phillip Island, despite a badly damaged ankle and a bike that is still chattering in the few right-hand corners at the circuit. He believes he is virtually invincible, and can do things that others believe they cannot. When asked about Stoner's speed at the Island, Valentino Rossi - a man who has no love for Stoner, and with whom he has waged a war of words throughout his career - expressed admiration in expressive terms, and with very good grace. "He is like Super Saiyan, from Dragon Ball," Rossi said of Stoner, comparing him to a cartoon character immune from the laws of physics. "He is in a bubble, you know? When he walks, he walks one meter from the ground, without touching the ground." Being at home helped, Rossi said, boosting the confidence already there."When you arrive in your home Grand Prix, sometimes the track that is your track give you something extra. Already Stoner and Honda are fast everywhere, every time, so here he have a huge advantage. He has two or three points where he makes the difference compared to the other guys, because also Pedrosa is fast. I follow [Pedrosa], he ride very well, he slide also a lot, in a very good way, but Stoner is faster."
If Casey Stoner has confidence in the MotoGP class, Pol Espargaro is following suit in Moto2. Like Stoner, Espargaro's pace is untouchable, half a second quicker than second-place man Scott Redding in the morning, then over nine tenths ahead of Tom Luthi in the afternoon. Espargaro even looks different when riding the track. Not quite as spectacular as Stoner, perhaps, but clearly in a league of his own. Sportspeople like to talk about "being in the zone" when they are performing at their very best. At Phillip Island, both Casey Stoner and Pol Espargaro are giving guided tours of the zone.
Elsewhere, there has been much talk of politics. The day started with Maverick Viñales making a public apology for walking away from the team at Sepang, though it looked more like the Spaniard going through the motions than an actual heartfelt apology. Viñales' reasons for walking away at least appeared to have triggered some action, with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta telling the Spanish sports daily Marca that he was looking at imposing a minimum salary in MotoGP. Any team that could not guarantee to pay its rider less than 300,000 euros a season would not be admitted onto the grid, Ezpeleta said, in an effort to address one of the biggest issues in recent years. Some riders in MotoGP earn less than mechanics, the average wage for a mechanic being between 40,000 and 70,000 euros in MotoGP, according to Marca. That situation was simply not acceptable, Ezpeleta said, and promised to address it.
But perhaps the biggest news of the weekend came after the paddock in Australia had taken to its collective bed. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, a Canadian pension fund, announced it had acquired a 39% stake in Dorna, and in running both the MotoGP and World Superbike series. The stake had been sold by Bridgepoint, the private equity firm which owned the majority stake in Dorna, Bridgepoint making a tidy profit on the transaction, getting close to what they paid for Dorna when they purchased the whole series back in 2006.
News of the acquisition put the recent announcement that Dorna is to run the World Superbike series as well as MotoGP into a different light. Having acquired Infront Motor Sports (which runs World Superbikes) as part of the package when they purchased Infront Sports and Media, the marketing giant which makes its money from soccer and winter sports, Bridgepoint consolidated its two motorcycle racing series into one company, bringing Infront Motor Sports under the Dorna umbrella and away from the Infront Sports and Media parent company. With a coherent package, and a guarantee of an end to the internecine battles which have seen MotoGP and WSBK cannibalizing each others' markets, TV audiences, sponsors and schedules, Bridgepoint was able to dispose of the majority of its own holdings in motorcycle racing.
Dorna is now to be run by a pension fund, as CPPIB is now the largest stakeholder in the company. This is surely a good thing: pension funds tend to think in the long term, wanting to create stable and predictable income and growth from their acquisitions. Where a private equity firm is interested solely in maximizing the medium-term return on its investments, pension funds are more interested in long-term stability. Stability is the one thing which MotoGP has been missing, and if Dorna can put a stable rule package in place for MotoGP without disrupting the stability of the WSBK series, then there could be a rosy future for both series. Not next year, nor the year after, perhaps, but once the new rules package is in place for at least a five-year period, then CPPIB might start to see a strong return on its money.