It was the race we had been waiting for. We knew it had to be coming, but each time we thought, "this will be the race!" the magic dissolved into thin air after a few laps, and the race settled into a rhythm. Not this time. From start to finish, four of the best motorcycle racers in the world – three of the best the world has ever seen, and one candidate to be elevated to that elect club – fought a close quarters battle for victory, spiced up with a dash of very serious consequences for the championship. No more runaway victories, no more cat and mouse, no more stalking until the final lap. It was all-out war, from the moment the lights went out all the way to the checkered flag.
There was a rather keen irony that this race should be such a thriller. At Brno, at Misano, at Motegi, so often, the barnstorming race we had expected based on practice and qualifying failed to materialize once the flag dropped. At Phillip Island, the question on everyone's minds after Saturday night was more like how large Marc Márquez' margin of victory would be, and whether the battle for second would last longer than a few laps. How very wrong we were, and how very happy would we be to have been proven so.
Jorge Lorenzo's worst fears were confirmed from the start. On Saturday, he had been furious about Andrea Iannone's using him as a target during qualifying, and stealing second place on the grid. Iannone got the drag to the line and took off like a scalded cat. Lorenzo followed, and before the first lap was halfway done, we got a taste of what was to come. Lorenzo cut underneath Iannone at the Hayshed in a brilliantly audacious move at an unusual place to pass. It would not be the last brave move. It would not even be the best. We were in for a treat.
Lorenzo's lead lasted exactly four corners. Though the Movistar Yamaha man got good drive onto the straight, he had the misfortune of having a Ducati behind him. The peerless top end of the Desmosedici pushed Iannone past Lorenzo along the straight, and the much-improved handling of the GP15 helped get it through the fast and challenging Doohan Corner, while keeping Lorenzo behind him. Iannone pushed on, challenged and harried by Lorenzo at every turn, who in turn had Marc Márquez snapping at his heels, along with Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi and Aleix Espargaro.
As they flowed over the crest of Lukey Heights, Iannone faced an unexpected obstacle. A seagull sat in the middle of the track, flying up lazily to avoid the onrushing horde. Not quick enough, though. As the first rider to come across the seagull, Iannone ducked his head, hoping that if it were to hit him, he would rather be struck on the crown of his helmet than have a bird shatter his visor and injure his face. He was lucky: the seagull got no higher up than the front of his fairing, hitting just above the handlebars and below the screen. The poor seagull was killed almost instantly, but Iannone came away having only missed his braking marker. Lorenzo, already lining up a move up the inside at MG, took back the lead, and Iannone recovered his composure and tucked back in behind the Yamaha.
At the press conference after the race, Iannone was asked about the encounter with the seagull. "The seagull was waiting for me for a kiss!" he joked, adding that he had told the bird to wait for him before the race, not during. It was a good thing the seagull had flown up, Iannone explained, because if it hadn't, it might have hit his front tire rather than the fairing of the bike. If that had happened, he could have found himself on the floor.
The dogs of war
Along the front straight again, Lorenzo's Yamaha found itself outgunned. Passed on the one side by Iannone, on the other by Márquez, Lorenzo was left seething in third, forced to regroup and find another way past. Márquez tried to barge through on Iannone at the Honda Hairpin, but ran wide and let both Iannone and Lorenzo back underneath. Iannone led through Hayshed and up and over Lukey Heights, but Lorenzo took the better line through MG and exited ahead of Iannone into Turn 11, and on to the straight. Iannone tried again down the straight, leading into Doohan once again, but Lorenzo had lined up another brave move. This time around the outside into the Southern Loop, closing the door on Iannone as they hit the apex of the turn.
The fierce battle at the front had allowed Valentino Rossi to fight his way forward from sixth, and get on the tail of the trio on the lead. Márquez passed Iannone into the hairpin to take second, while Valentino Rossi disposed of Cal Crutchlow, who still clung on to the fight for fourth. A lap later, Rossi was harassing Iannone, failing to get through at the hairpin, instead putting a spectacular move on the Ducati up the inside of Lukey Heights. Crutchlow followed Rossi through, but was dispatched with ease down the front straight, the LCR Honda suffering worse with the wheelspin through the final corner than the Ducati of Iannone.
With the group battling behind, it looked like Jorge Lorenzo was starting to make the break. He opened a gap to 1.4 seconds in the space of three laps, and the race started to look like it was settling into a pattern. Lorenzo was in control, while the others fought among themselves.
That familiar pattern proved to be an illusion. Several times throughout the race, it looked like the race was settled, Lorenzo or Márquez pulling out a gap. But each time they did so, the gap would suddenly stop growing, and find himself being reeled back in again. It was as if the lead four – for by now, a group consisting of Lorenzo, Márquez, Rossi and Iannone had formed – were bound together with climbing rope, and each time one or the other got too far from the group, the rope snapped taut, hauling the leader back to the chasing pack.
The race ebbed and flowed, the lead swapping between Lorenzo and Márquez, less than two seconds covering the front four all race long. Whoever led, those behind were engaged in furious combat, passes coming thick and fast. Andrea Iannone and Marc Márquez used the superior speed of their bikes to motor past the Yamahas on the straight, while Rossi and Lorenzo preferred the surgical precision of MG, Lukey Heights, and Hayshed to make their passes. As the laps ticked off, the battle grew more intense. The moves were hard, there was contact, but it was never dangerous, never pushed over the edge into the unacceptable.
The pass of the race came on lap 25, when an attack on Márquez by Rossi at MG Corner left a sliver of daylight open for Andrea Iannone. Not one to refuse an opportunity, the Ducati man sliced underneath both Rossi and Márquez to take second, closing the door on the entry to Turn 11. It was surgical, brutal, and fearless, all qualities we came to admire in Iannone when he raced in Moto2. It was also very clever, a quality we had not previously associated with the Italian. But Iannone is confounding all our preconceptions of him in 2015.
There were still more passes to come. By the end of the race, an industrious and curious Tammy Gorali, TV commentator for Sport 5 in Israel, worked out, there had been 52 passes in total among the top four. Top of the class was Iannone, bagging a total of 18 passes in all. Marc Márquez had the second highest number, passing other riders 16 times throughout the race. Valentino Rossi had 11 passes, while Jorge Lorenzo had "only" 7. Given that Lorenzo led the race for 23 of the 27 laps, he had the least need to overtake.
First, you must finish
Lorenzo may have led the most laps, but he would not lead across the line. He started the final lap six tenths ahead of Andrea Iannone, which seemed like a comfortable gap given the closeness of the racing. But the Spaniard had not reckoned on the speed and determination of Marc Márquez, still brimming with foiled ambition after a tough year on the overly aggressive Honda RC213V. Iannone ran a fraction wide into Turn 1, and Márquez struck straight away, taking over second.
From that point, the Repsol Honda rider embarked on what would be one of the greatest laps of his career. "It was like a qualifying lap," Márquez said afterwards. "When I overtook Andrea, I pushed at 100%. Especially at Turn 4 I brake really, really deep, and there I catch a lot of meters back from Jorge." That gave him the belief that he could catch Lorenzo, and try to take the win. They arrived at the top of Lukey Heights, and Márquez made up his mind to attack. "But only if it is clear," he said afterwards. He did not want to inadvertently decide the championship by taking out Lorenzo in a pass that just was not there. The pass was there, in part because Lorenzo had shown equal caution, leaving a tiny crack open to ensure he and Márquez got tangled up. He held the lead through Turn 11, and took not only his first win at Phillip Island, but also his first actual finish at the track in the MotoGP class. With victory at Phillip Island, only Motegi remains unconquered by the Spaniard.
How hard had Márquez' last lap been? On arrival into Parc Fermé, his team hurried flung a cover over his rear tire. They did not want his rivals to see just how much he had used of his rear tire, nor where the wear patterns were. An experienced paddock hand can cast an eye over a worn tire, and deduce much about the power delivery and geometry of a bike. Clearly, Márquez and his crew found something to help him go fast around the Island, and they are not keen to divulge their secrets.
Jorge Lorenzo settled for second, while Andrea Iannone put a final dazzling pass on Valentino Rossi, sliding up the inside at Lukey Heights, then closing the door into MG to snatch third. Rossi was simultaneously annoyed and impressed. "It was good, I wanted to do it!" he joked. "Sincerely, when Iannone do it to me, I don't like it a lot. Better the opposite." But the battle had been thrilling, though it was a shame to miss out on the podium. That had meant that Lorenzo had taken 7 points from Rossi's lead of 18, leaving him with an advantage of just 11 points with two races left. It could have been a lot worse: if Lorenzo had won the race – and he came very close to doing so – then Rossi's lead would have been slashed to just 6 points. Rossi still holds the advantage, but his lead looks a good deal more precarious than it did after Motegi.
The hardest battle ever?
Was it the hardest battle of their lives, the three podium men were asked? For sure, said Lorenzo. He had been forced to pull out every trick in the book early in the race, to try to get a gap over Iannone to prevent the Italian using the outright horsepower of the Ducati to motor past him. Márquez had seen the Moto3 race in the morning, and wanted a piece of the excitement. He had not expected to find it in MotoGP, and he had ridden one of the best races of his career, he said. Iannone remembered tougher battles with Márquez, but only when he was back in Moto2, and especially at Aragon.
It was indeed a classic race. I started writing about MotoGP in 2006, and this year has seen shades of that season. What was missing so far was a battle between multiple riders, and Phillip Island certainly delivered on that. To have four riders going head to head, finishing just a second apart, with the championship contenders involved and important points at stake was a glory and a joy. This was Sachsenring or Mugello 2006, an unpredictable battle at the front where the protagonists were putting everything on the line. There have been plenty of great races since 2006, but none quite as good as this. The real winners of the 2015 Australian Grand Prix were us, the lucky spectators who got to see it. This is one we will watch over and over.
Four riders, three different manufacturers. What made it such a fascinating race? First of all, because the differences were small between each rider and bike. Dani Pedrosa explained it best. "In this track, you can see Valentino, Iannone, Jorge, Marc, Crutchlow, Viñales, and some other riders were doing more or less the same lap time, because the track doesn't demand a lot of the bike. But with the same tire also and everybody having a lot of spinning, you cannot apply very much the difference on the track." It was all about finding the tiny differences, trying not to make a mistake, and exploiting what you had. But small gains could be lost in a moment.
Marc Márquez lost in the second half of the race when he overheated his front tire and had to drop back, only being able to push again once it had cooled a little. Jorge Lorenzo had struggled with rear grip all weekend, trying to find drive out of the corners where little as available. Valentino Rossi had found something in warm up, but he and his team had chased down a blind alley on Saturday, meaning he had started too far down the grid and had to work too much to make his way forward. Andrea Iannone rode a brilliant race, but had needed the help down the straight, making a point of thanking Ducati for giving him a relatively simple way of getting past riders when he had to. The passes he made elsewhere showed that speed wasn't the only weapon in his armory, but it was a powerful one nonetheless.
Where did the Ducati's speed come from? First and foremost, the Desmosedici has always had more top end than others, an advantage of the desmodromic valve system the bike uses. Using tumblers to both open and close valves means that little power is wasted opening valve springs, and more radical cam profiles can be used with no fear of valve bounce. The Ducati also has 22 liters of fuel, rather than 20, under the factory concessions rule, and this means they have that little bit more fuel to burn, especially at a track which is not particularly heavy on consumption like Phillip Island.
Most of all, however, Ducati have twelve engines per rider for each season, so that they can afford to run the bikes in a slightly higher state of tune without worrying about reliability. While Márquez, Rossi and Lorenzo were all using their fifth engine, which already has plenty of miles on it, Iannone uncorked engine number nine at Phillip Island, and there are still two more rounds to go. Fresh is fast, and Iannone showed how to turn that into an advantage. The bike also has some rear grip, perhaps a consequence of the winglets adding stability at the front.
There was more to Iannone's performance than just his engine, however. The Italian said that what he was most proud of was being able to mix it with the best riders in the world all race long, and hold his own among them. The engine may have helped keep him there, but he earned the rest round the sweeping turns at Phillip Island. It was always clear that Iannone had talent, but I doubted that he had the maturity and intelligence to make the transition from a fast rider to great rider. Iannone has been proving me wrong all season, and removed the last vestige of doubt. Ducati have needed an Alien to transform their bike from a contender into a winner. Maybe, just maybe, they have one at last.
Speaking of potential Aliens, the ride of the day must surely go to Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. The Spaniard spent all race long battling with Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow over fifth place. Despite being down on horsepower and acceleration – though curiously, not down on top speed – he kept pace with them all race long, eventually beating Crutchlow to take sixth. His team had found a new set up at Motegi which allowed him to ride better, and he had more grip than the Hondas, a consequence perhaps of having less power. Where the Suzuki was gripping, the two Hondas he was racing were spinning, giving Viñales a chance to compete. He was still being overtaken by both bikes down the straight, but he could make up for it round the fast corners, he said. He beat his teammate soundly, and finished just over six seconds behind the leaders. The gap they had expected to have was 22 seconds. Aleix Espargaro finished 20 seconds behind the leaders on the Suzuki.
With two races left in the 2015 season, the championship is very much open. On paper, Valentino Rossi is stronger than Jorge Lorenzo at Sepang, and Lorenzo is better than Rossi at Valencia. But on paper, Rossi had the stronger record at Phillip Island. And on paper, Marc Márquez had the pace in practice to leave the field standing in the race at Phillip Island. If there is one thing we have learned from the 2015 season, it is that all of our preconceptions must go out of the window. Whatever we expect to happen at the next two races probably won't, and we'll be left dumbfounded and gasping for breath once again.
2015 has been a season to remember, for so many reasons. We truly are in a new golden age of racing, one which we will look back on in the future and counted ourselves lucky to have witnessed first hand. Phillip Island delivered the race the championship deserved, a thrilling battle with no obvious favorite contested all the way to the line. It is a great time to be a MotoGP fan.
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