If you needed to find a time and place to organize a MotoGP race, then Phillip Island in October is among the worst combinations in the world. A track located on the edge of the freezing Southern Ocean, with nothing between it and the South Pole but the brief blip of Tasmania. Held while the southern winter still has a firm grip on the track, wracking it with blasts of icy wind and soaking it in freezing rain. And yet it is the best race on the calendar.
The answer is simple. Phillip Island is arguably the purest motorcycle racing circuit in the world. Like all great circuits, it follows the lines dictated to it by the landscape. The track ebbs and flows, dips and rises its way around the rolling hills which sit atop the cliffs overlooking the Bass Strait. It is fast, the second fastest track on the calendar, but unlike the Red Bull Ring, which knocked it off top spot, its speed is all in the corners, brutally fast turns which require courage, balance, and bike feel in equal measure. It is above all a test of the rider, rather than machinery.
That makes Phillip Island beloved of every rider on the grid. The love of the place is nigh on unanimous, up there with Mugello, and the uncastrated part of Assen. It encapsulates the reason motorcycle racers ride: a chance to surf the wave of inner terror, face it down, and overcome it. The flood of adrenaline that engulfs the senses, knowing that you are teetering on the brink of disaster, and if you step over, it is going to hurt. Controlling the bike, sensing its movement, riding the edge of the tires and the limits of adhesion. This is what it means to feel alive.
Whatever the weather
There can be a heavy price to pay for that spectacular setting, however. Storms blow in quickly and the wind is a constant problem. Trying to hold a line through the fast Doohan Corner or even faster Stoner Corner while being buffeted by gusts coming in of the Bass Straight can be both difficult and terrifying. Rain is always a possibility, moving in quickly from the sea. Temperatures rise as the sun reaches its zenith, then plummet as the afternoon goes on. Teams find themselves wearing winter coats in the morning, stripping down to shorts and shirts in the early afternoon, before grabbing scarves and woolen hats again as the sun lowers itself toward the horizon. You never know what you are going to get.
This weekend, it looks like the weather will have a major role to play. On Friday, heavy winds and rain are set to lash the track, making it a treacherous place to ride around. In weather like that there is always a risk of injury, and with Sepang to come in just over a week time, riders will be cautious of the conditions. Fortunately, Friday should see the worst of the weather, with the wind dying down for qualifying on a mostly wet Saturday, and the likelihood of a dry race on Sunday. But let's not get our hopes up. This is Phillip Island, after all.
From glory to madness
A dry race is what the fans most want to see. Last year, Phillip Island served up the best MotoGP race in a decade, with Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Valentino Rossi going toe to toe in a 27-lap slugging match which was impossible to predict. It was a race won in the final two laps by hard-charging Marc Márquez, who beat Jorge Lorenzo to the line, while Andrea Iannone demoted Valentino Rossi to fourth.
That race kicked off what would become the most controversy-filled end to the season in MotoGP, when Valentino Rossi declared that Márquez' win was part of a conspiracy to prevent him from winning the 2015 MotoGP title, though why Rossi did not apply the same logic to Andrea Iannone taking third is not entirely clear. That conspiracy, it emerged at Motegi, had first been postulated by Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci, Rossi's childhood friend who runs the Sky VR46 Moto3 team, Uccio told the Spanish sports daily Marca. When he suggested that theory to Rossi, Rossi believed he saw it too. From that point on, the 2015 season went downhill, ending in bitter declarations and an uncelebrated championship at Sepang.
Something for everyone
All the more motivation for revenge, then. Phillip Island is a track which suits the Yamaha. But then again, Phillip Island is a track that suits most bikes, putting control back into the hands of the riders. The flowing layout favors the Yamaha's ability to carry corner speed, while the lack of hard braking means there are few places where the M1 loses out. The many third-gear corners mean that Honda riders will not have to fight wheelspin and wheelie while accelerating, but neither will they have many places they can exploit their superiority in braking.
The high-speed corner exits mean Suzuki doesn't lose out so much on the straights, while using the GSX-RR's agility to their advantage. Ducati may not be able to maximize their top speed advantage, but the drive they get out of corners should still give them an advantage onto the front straight especially. Even the Aprilia will not suffer as badly from its chronic horsepower deficit, though reluctance of the bike to turn will still hold it back.
With strengths and weaknesses of the different bikes effectively neutralized, victory in Australia will come down to a simple question of desire. The paddock is still flooded with that: despite Marc Márquez wrapping up the 2016 title at Motegi, there is still all to play for. Márquez says he is finally unleashed, and can go all out to win, instead of worrying too much about the championship. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are embroiled in a bitter battle for second, and the events of last year add extra piquancy to the race at Phillip Island.
Maverick making a move
Most intriguing prospect of all is perhaps Maverick Viñales. After his first race win at Silverstone, the Spaniard made it clear he expected to win at Phillip Island. After all, last year, he finished just six seconds from the winner, in a year when the Suzuki's average gap to the front was usually over twenty seconds. The GSX-RR is a much better bike than it was last year, and the extra horsepower should remove the last of its weaknesses at Phillip Island.
The cold should play into the hands of the Suzukis as well. The bike's biggest issue all year has been a lack of grip when track temperatures rise. The bike has been fast in cold conditions, often leading to impressive performances in the morning, but Viñales and Aleix Espargaro struggling in the warmer afternoon. With the race on Sunday at 4pm local time, to suit European TV schedules, temperatures should be more in the range where the Suzukis would like them.
Any success by Viñales will put Suzuki in a difficult situation. The Spaniard has been on the podium three times this year, including two third places and his win at Silverstone. With Suzuki being a new returnee to the MotoGP fold, they have extra concessions, allowing them to develop their engine during the season, and giving them much more freedom to test with the factory riders. They lose those concessions if they score one more podium, making their job more difficult next year, especially with two new riders in the shape of Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone. That may leave Suzuki in a quandary, but it will not be an obstacle for either Viñales or Espargaro.
Three-way cage match
Of the three championship front runners, Marc Márquez probably holds the strongest cards. Free of concerns for the championship, the Repsol Honda rider can afford to take risks in order to win, safe in the knowledge that the title is already in the bag. Márquez has always been fast in Australia, leading in 2013 until he was black-flagged due to missing the compulsory pit stop window, then crashing out from the lead in 2014 on Bridgestone's first attempt at asymmetric front tires, before finally winning last year.
But both Yamahas have always been strong here too. Valentino Rossi has won six times at Phillip Island, and been on the podium a further nine times. Jorge Lorenzo has been on the podium for five of his seven MotoGP races, including a win in 2013. But he has also suffered the consequences here, falling in 2011 and losing a piece of his pinky. 2015 showed just how fierce the competition can be between the teammates, and we should expect nothing less this year.
The weather may end up being the decider in the Movistar Yamaha battle. With cold and wet weather expected all weekend, that puts Lorenzo on the back foot. The Spaniard needs warmer temperatures to use the edge grip and feel from front and rear tires to generate his incredible corner speeds. Rossi's style is a little less dependent on extreme lean angles, and so is less vulnerable to that.
Tires are going to be a factor this weekend. Michelin have brought two asymmetric fronts, with a harder left-hand side to cope with the dramatic stresses of Phillip Island's seemingly endless corners. They have a third front tire, a medium, of symmetric construction, as well as their customary two asymmetric rears. They have also brought three different wet front tires, as well as two wet rears, and of course the intermediates. Money is being taken on every single one of those combinations being given a run out at some point during the weekend.
An emotional return
Phillip Island also sees the return of a fan favorite. Nicky Hayden has been flown in from Spain to replace the injured Dani Pedrosa, after test rider Hiroshi Aoyama failed to make much of an impression at Motegi. Hayden has a lot going for him as a replacement at Repsol Honda: first, he has already had a weekend on the Honda RC213V, having subbed for the injured Jack Miller at Aragon. He is familiar with the bike, and more importantly, with the Michelin tires, and of course he is no stranger round Phillip Island, having held the track record at the circuit between 2008 and 2013.
He was not everyone's first choice. A lot of fans had called for Cal Crutchlow to take the ride, but sponsorship clashes prevented that – Crutchlow is a Monster rider, Repsol Honda is backed by Red Bull. (Hayden is also sponsored by Drive M7 energy drink, but he is getting round that by the simple expedient of removing his cap when appearing in public).
Taking Crutchlow from LCR would also leave the team with a massive problem: as a one-rider team, LCR Honda are very dependent on Crutchlow's success for their exposure. They could never have found a competitive replacement, and that would have caused problems for Lucio Cecchinello and his sponsors, especially given LCR's event sponsorship model.
Crutchlow himself suggested Jack Miller as Pedrosa's replacement. That would have made a lot of sense: Miller is an HRC rider, and has been riding the RC213V all year. He has already won a race, and has shown he can be competitive at other tracks. But Miller is still recovering from broken bones in his hand, and while he is mostly healed, the added pressure of his home race would not have been conducive to avoiding unnecessary risks.
So Hayden it is. The 2006 world champion is between race weekends on the Ten Kate Honda in World Superbikes, jetting straight from a test after the race in Jerez to be in Australia, before heading to the final round of the year in Qatar next weekend. It was an emotional moment, he said, seeing his number on the Repsol bike. Memories of the championship he won with the team ten years ago, and teamed up with a rider he had his picture taken with when Marc Márquez was still only a young kid. Now Márquez has grown, and has taken over the mantle of world champion for Repsol Honda. The circle of racing is complete.
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