There are many fine racing circuits on the MotoGP calendar, but two of them are genuinely glorious. The reasons Mugello and Phillip Island are so glorious are pretty much the same. First, the setting: Mugello sits amidst the stunning hills, woods, and farmland of Tuscany, while Phillip Island is perched atop a granite cliff overlooking the wild and windy Bass Strait. They are both tests of courage and skill, fast, flowing tracks which require a deep understanding of what the motorcycle is doing, the bravery to let it do what it's doing at that speed, and the reflexes and talent to manage the bike within the confines of its performance envelope.
Like Mugello, Phillip Island flows across the terrain, following the natural slopes, dips, and hollows of the rock it is built on. The speed and the location provide a spectacular backdrop for motorcycle racing, and a terrifying challenge for the riders. That speed also makes them dangerous, though the two tracks are dangerous in different ways. At Mugello, the walls are a little too close in places, meaning that a crash can leave you to slam into an airfence. At Phillip Island, the problem is not so much the walls, as the sheer speed at which you crash. There are only really two slow corners at Phillip Island, meaning that if you fall off, your momentum is going to carry you a long way.
Two things make Phillip Island unique. First, there's the weather. With only Tasmania between the Island and the Antarctic, and the vast Southern Ocean beyond, the westerlies batter and blast the Island, bringing harsh squalls in one moment then carrying them away the next. Four seasons in one day, the locals say, and if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes. The one constant in October is the cold, however. Though the sun be out, the icy Antarctic wind can suck the heat out of tires, brakes, and bodies. The weather there is a treacherous thing.
Secondly, the fact that the track is so fast and flowing, with only really one corner where hard acceleration is needed, means that machinery is secondary. Faith in your front end will take you a long way, allowing you carry corner speed to launch yourself onto the straights. If elsewhere, being a few horsepower down leaves you incapable of putting up a fight, at Phillip Island, you need simply ride the front as hard as you dare through Turns 11 and 12, then tuck in behind the faster bikes and try to slingshot past them down the Gardner Straight. Phillip Island is far more a test of the rider, rather than the bike.
For riders, not bikes
"I think this track has always been more for a rider than for a bike," is how Dani Pedrosa describes it. "So it depends more if the rider likes the track or not, more than what the bike can do. Sure it's a track that's not easy for the setup, because it's all left corners, except a couple of rights, and there you struggle. Also, it's everything fast except two hairpins. So you have to find the right balance to be comfortable on the track."
There are plenty of riders who do love the track, and that makes predicting what might happen almost impossible. There are so many riders who are fast here, both at previous races and during the preseason tests. Testing, in particular, is a difficult yardstick against which to judge the riders. When the MotoGP circus was here for testing, it was mid-February, late in the Australian summer, with balmy temperatures and a warm track. In October, in the fickle Australian spring, air temperatures can be icy, and the cold wind and cloud cover can cause track temperatures to drop 10°C or more in a matter of minutes.
Managing those conditions could end up being the crux of this year's championship. More than one rider has been caught out by the drop in temperature and found themselves sliding through the grass. The right handers are especially tricky, as the bikes spend so much of the time on their left-hand side that the right side of the tire has a long time to cool down. Then, when you need to call on it, the cold tire has no grip, and down you go.
Podium or bust
Marc Márquez knows all about that. The Repsol Honda rider has crashed out of two of the last three races at Phillip Island, once at the slow right-hand MG corner in 2014, and once (ironically) at the slow right-hand Honda Hairpin in 2016. Both times, incidentally, were the first time the respective tire companies had brought asymmetric fronts to the circuit, and both times, conditions were far from favorable. Márquez touched the brakes just a little too hard, and down he went.
Conditions at Phillip Island look set to be remarkably similar this weekend as well. In his bid for the 2017 title, Márquez cannot afford to crash out of the race. His advantage over Andrea Dovizioso is just 11 points, and a DNF would see that advantage go up in smoke. A calmer approach is needed, but in the press conference, Márquez pointed to circumstances being very different his year. In both 2014 and 2016, Márquez wrapped up the title at the previous race in Motegi, and had nothing left to lose.
"I've had some ups and downs, especially in 2014 and in 2016 I crashed leading the race already with a few seconds advantage. When I won in Motegi, I crashed here, so this time I finished second and we are fighting for the championship, so of course the approach is much different than last year," Márquez told the press conference. That he was leading the race is a crucial detail: Márquez was clear by a comfortable margin when he crashed both times, a sign that the Spaniard is strong here.
He proved that by winning in 2015, in one of the most exciting races of recent years. Márquez managed that race - and his overheating front tire - to perfection, pushing in the last two laps to take victory from Jorge Lorenzo. It showed that despite a string of poor results at Phillip Island, Márquez is capable of winning at the track. It is a track that he loves, and that suits the Honda, and suits him. If Phillip Island is a track where the rider makes the difference, there is no rider who can make the difference quite like Marc Márquez can.
All on the line
Yet he is up against formidable opposition in the shape of Andrea Dovizioso. Like Márquez, Dovizioso's record at Phillip Island is surprisingly poor. The factory Ducati rider has had just a single podium at the Australian circuit, in 2011 in his final year on a Honda. Since then, he has had a string of fourth places, three in the last five years. But he has also finished ninth and thirteenth.
That may be something of a concern for Dovizioso, especially as the Ducati is not particularly well suited to Phillip Island. The Desmosedici GP17 is strongest in acceleration and in braking, with drive out of corners an especially strong point. With just two hard braking zones, there are few spots for the Ducati to shine, and the front straight is the only place its acceleration really comes into its own. The rest of the track is all about how much corner speed you can carry and how well a bike turns, and the Desmosedici is not particularly strong there.
Yet there is reason for Dovizioso to be hopeful. He has had strong results at tracks where the Ducati has not done particularly well in the past, and he can still exploit the top speed of the GP17 along the Gardner Straight. If he can get away with the leaders, there is no reason he can't take the fight to Márquez and attempt to take some points away.
But perhaps Dovizioso's strongest point is the aura of calm he has managed to create around himself. In a fascinating and revealing interview with the official MotoGP.com website, Dovizioso explained how he had learned to be a little less rational and a little more intuitive when it came to the races. He had also learned to eliminate trivial distractions around a race weekend, and concentrate on the job in hand. This has allowed him to grow both as a person and as a racer.
Dovizioso's championship run had started in earnest with his victory at Mugello, the Italian explained to the press conference. "To win the race makes a big effect to the rider, and also to the team," Dovizioso said, "because from Mugello, it was very important to win that race for me, for myself, but a lot for the team. We created a really good situation in the box, and small things make a big difference at the end of the championship. Now we are fighting for the championship, nobody expected this."
On the basis of testing, Márquez appears to hold the advantage over Dovizioso. But Márquez was not devastatingly faster than Dovizioso, the Ducati rider always within range. With Dovizioso having improved over the season, perhaps more than Márquez, it should be close.
A full, fast field
In the end, it could be the rest of the field which makes the difference. Though the eyes of the world are on the duel between the two title contenders, there are a host of others capable of being quick at the track. First and foremost of those is surely Maverick Viñales, who ruled the roost at the test here in January. Viñales was untouchable on all but the first day of the test, and ended three tenths ahead of Márquez.
It was no real surprise that Viñales should be quick during the test at Phillip Island. The Spaniard had been fast all preseason, but more significantly, he was very quick on the Suzuki in his first two years in the class. On a bike that was clearly inferior to the Yamahas and Hondas, Viñales was fourth in 2015, his rookie year, and third in 2016. On a Yamaha M1, a much more competitive bike, he was bound to be quick.
Phillip Island was also where the rivalry between Márquez and Viñales finally came bubbling to the surface. On the last day of the test, when Viñales was attempting to do a race run, Márquez slipped in behind the Yamaha man and started to follow him. Viñales angrily broke off his race run, going out again later to complete it."It's not normal," Viñales said afterwards. "You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out… you cannot stop. The track is 4 kilometers. Strange that he was there, where I was."
Márquez protested his innocence a little too eagerly. "Today there was one run that I go out and I saw that he passed. Then there was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike."
Will that rivalry be rekindled at the race? If there is a track where the Yamaha should be strong, it is Phillip Island. And if Viñales has any hope of getting back into the championship, Phillip Island is where he will have to make the difference. The young Spaniard trails Márquez by 41 points, but Márquez has not written him off yet. "Viñales is far, but not far enough," he told the press conference.
Yamaha's old problems
Viñales problem may also end up hindering his Movistar Yamaha teammate. The 2017 Yamaha M1 lacks traction and can't make the rear tire last. Surprisingly, Rossi suffered with the same problem during the test, while Viñales had no issues at all. Only the race will tell whether the problem is still there, or whether there is something about Viñales' riding style which protects him from the issue.
Rossi complained of the same problem last year, but that did not prevent him winning the race in Australia in 2014. It is a track where the Italian veteran once dominated, winning five races in a row in the last decade. He lost that dominance to his arch rival Casey Stoner, who was so utterly imperious at the track that they had to name a corner after him, the terrifyingly fast Turn 3 (now Stoner Corner), where the Australian regularly made up two to three tenths over his rivals. Last year's victory brought Rossi's tally of wins at the Island to six, to match Stoner's. That may spur the Italian on to try to surpass Stoner, and take seven.
Another possible interloper is Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard has become increasingly competitive on the Ducati since the summer break, and has threatened to get a breakthrough win at times. But there are still clear challenges for Lorenzo, as his clash with Johann Zarco at Motegi demonstrated. Once knocked out of his rhythm, he took a while to find his feet again, and get up to speed. When he did, though, he was just as fast as Márquez and Dovizioso, who by that time were many seconds ahead of him.
Lorenzo starts with another advantage at Phillip Island. The test back in February may be the biggest boon for the Spaniard, as he has an understanding of what the track feels like on the GP17. Though much has changed in the intervening period – not least in Lorenzo's riding style and feeling with the bike – he should have a head start once the track opens.
But above all, Lorenzo's performance is reliant on his confidence, and his affinity with a track. Lorenzo loves Phillip Island, though he has only won here once, in 2013. But he has a string of podiums, and could easily become a factor at the Australian track.
When he was asked whether he would help his Ducati teammate at Phillip Island, should the opportunity present itself, Lorenzo skilfully evaded the question. First, he said, he would have to be faster than both Dovizioso and Márquez, something which is not easy. He would take it from there when it happened, he said, before switching tacks to suggest that all three factory Ducatis (including Danilo Petrucci's Pramac Ducati GP17) shared data, which helped them improve.
Pick a card, any card
There are plenty of others who could also get involved. Cal Crutchlow rode a superb race last year to take victory, nursing his front tire to not make the same mistake as Marc Márquez, who crashed out of the lead. Dani Pedrosa can be quick anywhere, though the Spaniard struggles when temperatures are low, and especially when the track is wet as well.
That had been a major issue at Motegi, Pedrosa explained, though he and his Repsol Honda crew were still a little mystified as to precisely what had happened. "We can see clearly that the tire had a strange look," Pedrosa said, "and we can see also strange numbers also in the data. But we still don't understand, because theoretically it's hard to put those numbers and the look and the feeling together, and have an understanding of that. So together with the team and Michelin, we are working to understand why. But we still have doubts about it and we don't know exactly why."
Maverick Viñales showed how strong the Suzuki can be at Phillip Island in the past two seasons, and Alex Rins backed that up in the test. Coming off the back of their best result in Motegi, both Rins and teammate Andrea Iannone have the potential to do well at Phillip Island. The Suzuki GSX-RR is still an agile bike, and one of the best at carrying corner speed. It is well suited to the track, and two riders filled with confidence will surely help.
Aleix Espargaro could also be a factor at the Australian round of MotoGP. The Aprilia RS-GP has also made big steps forward in the second half of the year, though its weak point tends to be the kind of long corner of which there are so many at Phillip Island. But recent engine upgrades should help give him a little more acceleration and a bit more top speed. If Espargaro can get in among the group, he might be able to throw up a surprise.
Phillip Island is also the second chance for Joan Mir to lift the 2017 Moto3 crown. After a dismal weekend at Motegi, in which Romano Fenati gained the maximum 25 points on Mir and cut his advantage to 55 points, Mir once again needs to finish within 5 points of the Italian. His history at the track is inauspicious, however: Mir made his debut at Phillip Island in 2015, and crashed when John McPhee fell in front of him. Last year, in 2016, Mir crashed at the Southern Loop on the opening lap when Darryn Binder crashed in front of him. The Moto3 championship leader will be hoping for better luck this weekend.
Everyone will be hoping for decent weather, of course. As of Friday morning local time, the weather forecast is unsettled with the chance of showers over all three days. The only thing we know for certain about Phillip Island is that it will be windy and it will be cold; there will be sunshine, and it will be warm when the sun is out; there will be rain and clouds, and the wind will chase those clouds away. But above all, it will be glorious. It's Phillip Island. How could it be otherwise?
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