Two freshly anointed champions, three impressive winners, and a large crowd of ecstatic and yet wistful fans, come to say goodbye to a departing hero and hope to spot a new one arriving. Even the weather cooperated. That's how good the Australian Grand Prix was at Phillip Island this year. All three races were a lot less intense than the previous two weekends, but even that didn't matter, because of the manner in which the winners secured their victories, and because the Australian crowd had something to cheer about in all three categories.
It started in the Moto3 race, where Sandro Cortese rode one of his best races of the year, the title he clinched last weekend at Sepang clearly a weight off his mind, allowing the young German to ride freely. He had Miguel Oliveira to contend with for most of the race, but in the end, he would not be denied. The home crowd still had much to cheer about, as local boy Arthur Sissis, the 17-year-old former Red Bull Rookie, won an intense battle for third, putting an Australian on the podium for the first time on Sunday.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro gave a display of dominance rarely seen in the intensively competitive class. It was hardly unexpected, Espargaro having stamped his authority on practice for the past two days, but the style in which the Spaniard won was very, very impressive. It took him a couple of laps to get past Marc Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami, but once he did, he put a second or more a lap on most of the field, before cruising home to a spectacular victory. Espargaro could do nothing to prevent Marquez becoming champion, concentrating solely on the task ahead, winning as many races as possible.
The home crowd had something to cheer for as well, Ant West riding an outstanding race to hold off a late charge from Marc Marquez to secure second place, making it two podiums in a row. West's podium at Sepang last weekend took the weight of the Australian veteran's shoulders and has given him the confidence boost he needed. The team have been making slow progress, West had said earlier this weekend, and Sepang was the reward from that hard work. Most of all, though, it had helped him find his belief in himself again; that alone is worth half a second or more a lap. At this level, motorcycle racing is 90% mental.
Marquez finished third, but still took the 2012 Moto2 title with honor. He may not have been able to win - no one had the measure of Espargaro at Phillip Island - but he gave an impressive account of himself and secured the championship with a podium. Marquez is a deserved winner of the championship, despite the criticism sometimes aimed at the young Spaniard. The onboard video of the first lap at Motegi shows one of the most compelling displays of courage, skill and racing sense of recent years, and justifies on its own his ascension to the premier class next season. There has been much made of Marquez' backing and support, and of the special treatment he has received. It is true that he has had solid sponsorship and always been in a strong team, but the reason why he has had the backing is because of his extraordinary talent, rather than the other way around. A MotoGP team manager who was at the test where Marquez took his first laps on a Moto2 machine was in awe: "He is a very special talent." Winning the title on what is a very ordinary chassis - the massive success of the Kalex bikes compared to the mediocre results of the other Suters - speaks volumes about the ability of Marquez, and the Spaniard will be very fast from the very first MotoGP race at Qatar. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto has already said that he expects Marquez to be on the podium at that race; it would not surprise me in the slightest.
The main course, however, was the demonstration to be given by Casey Stoner in the MotoGP class. Stoner had almost humiliated the rest of the field during practice, consistently half a second or more quicker than anyone else, the gap often closer to a second. At a track where the lap is usually 90 seconds, that is a massive advantage.
Unusually, the weight of expectations got to Stoner a little, the Australian knowing that he could not afford to make a mistake if he was to win. Beating the rest would not present a problem; ensuring he did not fall off in the process required intense concentration, as would become all too apparent later on. It meant that Stoner entered Doohan Corner in 3rd, with Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa ahead of him. Lorenzo knew he had to finish ahead of Pedrosa, and only had eyes for the Spanish Repsol Honda man. But Lorenzo's lead lasted just a few corners, Pedrosa getting past him at the Honda hairpin, and then Stoner blasting past along the front straight. Having Stoner between him and Pedrosa would have made Lorenzo's life much more complicated at Valencia, but it was not to be. Pedrosa would fall at Honda corner on the second lap, crashing out of contention and out of the championship. It was his first error of the season, and a very costly one.
Pedrosa had no regrets afterwards, however. He had one option, and that was to stay ahead of Lorenzo, and if possible win the race. Staying ahead of Lorenzo meant taking risks, and Pedrosa paid the price for those risks. He had to keep pushing, Pedrosa said afterwards, because the window of opportunity was getting smaller at every race. He was sad for his team, his friends, his family, rather than disappointed. But he was also proud of what he had achieved this season, in what is clearly his best every year in MotoGP. "I'm very proud of my performance," Pedrosa said afterwards.
Casey Stoner had had a front-row seat for Pedrosa's fall, and described to MotoGP.com what he saw had happened. "Basically, about 2 meters out from the inside kerb, there's a lot of rough surface where the tarmac is not in good condition, it is very old and very used. If you put any pressure on the front tire there, then more or less you're going to crash. He went in there a little bit deep, he ran just a little bit wide, and this was just too much to turn on this tarmac, and unfortunately he lost it. It's so easy to happen, you have a very small patch of tarmac that is good, and the rest is very bad. I understood immediately what had happened to Dani and I felt very sorry for him, because I did this last year in practice, and also this year in practice I had a small closing there, so it's a very difficult point."
With Pedrosa out of the way, Stoner's triumphant parade could begin. Still, though, he would not push to the limit, actually finishing with the win more important that pushing to get everything out of the race. That meant that Nicky Hayden's lap record from 2008 did not fall, surprisingly, as had been widely expected. Stoner did not want to take those risks, preferring instead to build the gap, then manage it at home. The crowd loved it, giving him a standing ovation on the final laps as he seared around the circuit which will now forever bear his name in the third corner, a fast, furious corner requiring bravery and skill. "I'm not a very emotional person," Stoner said afterwards, "so I'm not really gonna talk about emotions and how it is, but I think it says enough, seeing the people out there on the pit straight, and the reception we got for winning this race, I have so much support over the years racing at home here, but this year was so much more than all the years previously, it was quite something to take in. I even took notice in the last few laps of all the people cheering me on, it was just amazing to see the people standing up in the grandstands and I think it was just a fantastic weekend."
It was not enough to change his mind about retiring, however. Asked in the press conference if the reception he had been given at Phillip Island gave him any regrets about his decision, Stoner was clear. "No. I'm very established about where I'm going, I'm not changing my mind every couple of minutes." The only way to tempt Casey Stoner back to MotoGP is a return to the fire-breathing two strokes.
Pedrosa's crash meant that Lorenzo only had to cruise home to collect his second world championship. That is not really Lorenzo's style, however. The Spaniard has one speed, a relentless, punishing, crescendo of speed, getting faster and faster until the flag falls. He pushed at first to stay with Stoner, but after nearly losing the front trying to match the Australian's speed, decided that winning the title was more important than crashing out trying to win the race. Lorenzo clinched his second MotoGP championship with his tenth second place finish of the year, in addition to the six wins. Except for the race at Assen, where he was taken out by Alvaro Bautista, Lorenzo has finished either first or second in every single race this year.
Jorge Lorenzo has been like the Terminator this year, the unstoppable robot that just keeps on coming, no matter what you do to try to stop it in its tracks. Lorenzo's method is simply building a metronome-like pace, clocking lap after lap at a scorching pace, each one a fraction faster than the previous one, turning the screw tighter and tighter until the opposition cracks. Lorenzo has been relentless in 2012, winning when he can, taking second when he can't, always a threat. This has been one the hardest fought and most impressive championships in recent memory.
It was very emotional to win at Phillip Island, Lorenzo said, one year on from the big crash which had cost him a fingertip in 2011. "Last year was one of worst moments in my career. For sure a scary one," Lorenzo told a special press conference. "Then one year later I could celebrate my second world title in MotoGP. So yes, a big emotion, because this year has been even tougher than the first try to win the world title in 2010. Because I knew the competitors were stronger and more constant this year, so I had to be stronger and more constant than them. It was not easy, because I had to be very strong, very fast, and take a lot of risks but I didn't make a mistake. Also, Yamaha offered me a much better bike than last year. For this reason we are the best in 2012."
He had learned from his mistakes, learned to find where the limit was and ride at it, not go over it. He was much less consistent when he was younger, Lorenzo explained. "I didn't know where was my limit. I was fast, I was quick, but like this I couldn't become world champion, which was my goal for my career. So I needed to learn from the mistakes, to understand my limit where it was, and try not to go over the limit. For this reason I am very proud of my evolution." He also named his team as a a big part of the reason he had become champion this year, because they, like him, had been flawless. "[I am] also very grateful to my team," Lorenzo said. "Because they didn't make any mistake during the season, the bike never had any failure and was very competitive, so we are also world champion for this reason."
Where Honda and Yamaha had succeeded, Ducati had failed, with Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden crossing the line over thirty seconds back from the winner Stoner. While Valentino Rossi was almost stoic (see this story for his full thoughts on his time at Ducati), Nicky Hayden was very downbeat. "It's really hard, because normally I love it." Hayden said of the Phillip Island track. "I can remember battling with Valentino for the win here and being on the podium a lot, and today, having to race for 7th and 8th is really frustrating."
Part of Ducati's problems is the bumpiness of the track, something which the riders complained had become even worse than it was last year, when it had generated a spate of complaints. That problem is to be fixed for 2013, with Casey Stoner acting as an adviser to the resurfacing effort. When MotoGP returns here next year, the surface should be considerably better.
The Ducati needs a smooth track to be able to perform better, the chassis unable to cope with an uneven surface. The next race at Valencia should make things a little easier, as that track was resurfaced earlier in the year, and is now in much better condition. While that will make it easier for the Ducati men to find a set up, it will not work to their advantage exclusively. The Honda and Yamaha men will also be out for a result, and with the championship out of the way, everyone is free to race for glory, without trying to save engines, without just settling for points. There will be burnouts and wheelies, and desperate attacks, with no more engine allocations to think of. It should be fun.