If there is one thing that you need to ride fast around Phillip Island – apart from an appetite for scaring yourself silly, that is – it is confidence. You have to have blind faith the front will stick as you pitch it in to Turn 1 at 190 km/h, or slide the rear at 250 km/h plus through Stoner Corner. You want to be sure you're going to make it through, because if you don't, you'll fall off at speed, and it will hurt. A lot.
Meanwhile, the elements are doing their best to sap your confidence. Gusts of 40 km/h or more are coming in off the Bass Straight at different angles, picking the bike up in some places, pushing it down in others, getting in under the fairing and trying to pull the front away from you. Clouds rush past, some sprinkling droplets onto your visor, others dumping enough rain onto the track to leave it soaked, most blowing over without leaving a mark. Cold winds suck the heat out of your tires.
When you're in the zone, you can blaze around the track lap after lap, banging in times that should be good enough for the podium. But one misstep and you take a tumble. And one tumble is enough to shake your blind faith in the front end, plant the seeds of doubt in your mind. At other tracks, that might cost you a tenth or two. Phillip Island will find your lack of faith disturbing, and punish you with a second or more on your lap time.
That, in a nutshell, was the tale of qualifying. Marc Márquez is so confident at Phillip Island that he was able to punch in lap after lap during FP4, then toy with his rivals to take pole by a third of a second. Andrea Dovizioso was shaken by a crash in FP4, and that hit his confidence, and left him lapping slower in qualifying than he had in FP2 on Friday. With Márquez on pole and Dovizioso in eleventh, Phillip Island may have helped steal the championship away from the Italian.
Mr Pole Man
That it should play out this way is perhaps not surprising. Or rather, it is not so surprising that Márquez should be so strong after qualifying. Qualifying, after all, is his specialty: this was Márquez' 72nd career pole history, leading the current era modern era, and probably closing in rapidly on Giacomo Agostini, whose pole total is unknown because records are incomplete. Márquez has been flying all weekend, so it was a safe bet he was going to take pole.
It was also a safe bet that someone would try to take advantage of that. On his first run out of the pits, Andrea Iannone and Jack Miller latched onto his tail. Márquez did a 1'29.314 on his first flying lap, but was knocked off top spot by Iannone, who posted a 1'29.265. Márquez improved his time on the next lap and took back pole, but Iannone hung on to second in his draft.
This did not please Marc Márquez, and so the Repsol Honda rider decided to take action. After Iannone followed him into the pits, Márquez parked the bike outside the garage, shouted something into crew chief Santi Hernandez' ear, then went to sit down. Meanwhile, in the Suzuki garage, Iannone's crew were looking back down pit lane, keeping an eye on Márquez' garage and waiting to send the Italian out when the reigning champion started on his second run.
But Márquez and his crew knew what Iannone's game was. Márquez marched out to his bike, sat down on it, and made as if to start the bike. Iannone had been called to his bike by his mechanics, and departed pit lane ready to latch on to the Repsol Honda when Márquez came past. But Márquez did not come past: he had dismounted, and returned to his garage, where he waited for long enough to leave Iannone without the benefit of a tow.
A cut above
On his own, Márquez was unleashed. Johann Zarco had temporarily knocked him off top spot, and in turn had Maverick Viñales take over at the top. But on Márquez' final run, the Repsol Honda rider put a third of a second into his rivals. It was a display of self-confidence verging on arrogance, but it is the kind of thing you can do when you are much faster than everyone else.
If Márquez is on pole, what of Andrea Dovizioso? The Italian was refreshingly frank about why he could only manage to qualify in eleventh, three rows back from his championship rival. "It’s a consequence of the crash," he said. "In the qualifying I didn’t have a perfect feeling to really make a good lap time. Phillip Island has strange characteristics. You have to be so confident to take a lot of speed in the really fast corners so if you do not have the feeling it’s so easy to lose tenths corner-by-corner. This is what happened. With a bad feeling I did three mistakes on my fastest lap so I wasn't able to make a better lap time. No excuse, but for sure the reality about the pace in the race is completely different."
Yet Dovizioso remains surprisingly optimistic. "If we check my pace yesterday and today in the FP4 it was quite good. The only riders that went fast were Marc, Zarco and me. All the other riders with the medium were quite slow so I think we confirm a good speed," he said. Qualifying had been a help, despite being so slow, as he had still managed to learn a few things.
Sunday will be difficult. "To start on the back can be a limit," the Ducati rider said. "To fight Marc tomorrow will be very difficult. This is the reality. The nice things of our sport is everything can happen and this is the reality. I believe in that. For sure he have the best pace but we have a good pace to fight for the podium. It’s important to make a good start and be smooth when I’m riding; it’s so important. It’s the key to be fast on this track. But I didn’t ride in qualifying in that way."
To finish first...
There is some reason for Dovizioso's quiet confidence, though he has left himself with a hill to climb. "Dovi starts from eleventh, but in Motegi he started ninth and was behind me by lap 4," Márquez reminded the press conference. And starting from the front, it can be tempting to push for a gap. The last time Marc Márquez did that, in 2014 and 2016, he found himself sliding into the grass, asking too much of his front tire in cold and windy conditions.
Yet Márquez hinted that he had learned from the past so that he would not end up repeating it. "We will see how the feeling is with the bike and also especially it's important to warm the tires well," Márquez told the press conference. "The race is very long, 27 laps, and the tires can drop, but I feel good with the soft and medium tire on the rear and we just need to look for the weather."
So though Márquez probably has much better race pace than anyone bar Johann Zarco and Andrea Dovizioso, he may not want to take off like a scalded cat once the lights turn green. He might want to bide his time behind the Yamahas of Maverick Viñales and Johann Zarco. But that too is not without its risks. "For sure being on the front row is really good for us," Viñales said, who starts from second on the grid. "We want to push from the beginning of the race so it’s the place to be."
Does Márquez let Viñales go, and potentially give up on a good chance of victory? "The most important thing is to try and finish on the podium and especially in front of Dovi," he told the press conference. That is the theory, but when the green lights go out and the red mist descends, theory can quickly go out of the window. Márquez cannot afford to take risks the way he did last year, or three years ago.
Much is going to depend on the weather. Not just whether it's wet or not, but also on the temperature, and how quickly it drops. A lot of things can happen in 27 laps, especially if the temperature changes a lot during the race, or if it starts to rain. Márquez is clearly favorite, but the race is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Six into six gives parity
Apart from the championship battle, Saturday at Phillip Island threw up plenty of talking points. The fact that the track can help disguise minor weaknesses of a bike was evident in FP4, when the top six consisted of Marc Márquez on a Honda, Johan Zarco on a Yamaha, Andrea Iannone on a Suzuki, Aleix Espargaro on an Aprilia, his brother Pol on a KTM, and Andrea Dovizioso on a Ducati. Six different manufacturers in the top six, separated by less than seven tenths of a second.
That is something which has never happened before, and shows the strength of the series. That was also encouraging for the riders, Johann Zarco said in the press conference. It gave them more options when it comes to negotiating contracts. No longer do you need to be on one of four bikes if you have ambitions to win races and titles. And the series is likely to get closer in the future.
KTM once again had a remarkable day, Pol Espargaro posting the Austrian factory's best qualifying result in sixth, while Bradley Smith will start from ninth. It was a small victory, Espargaro said. "It's in small moments like this one that you show the potential of the bike and it's like a way of saying thanks to the guys that are in the factory and the guys working in the pit box, because they are doing more hours than anybody else in this paddock and they are working double of what everyone else does to try to arrive where they are."
It was also a decent showing by Bradley Smith, who finally appears to have turned his season around and is competitive. Smith had to come through into Q2 via Q1, and the way he did so was confident and impressive. How competitive the KTM can be over race distance remains to be seen, but Smith and Espargaro could have an advantage if temperatures are cool, as they are very comfortable with the soft rear tire. "It looks like we will handle all the race with this tire," Espargaro said. "But it's also going to be hard to finish the race with the soft. I think it's going to be important to save the tire in the first laps and don't burn it at the beginning."
Andrea Iannone is fast on the Suzuki, though his pace is not quite at the level of Márquez, Zarco, and Dovizioso. Valentino Rossi also had to come through Q1, but he was less optimistic than his teammate, despite qualifying in seventh, better perhaps than he had feared. Last year, Rossi had come through from fifteenth on the grid to finish second. "Last year was a great race. I enjoy a lot. But unfortunately today I'm not fast like last year," was his assessment. Rossi is caught between finding a good feeling with the front and a desire to save the rear tire at the start of the race. The weather will have a big factor both in his tire decision, and for how he perceives his chances in the race.
Jack Miller carries the weight of expectation on his shoulders, as he was grilled by Australian journalists after securing a very fine fifth spot on the grid. He was happy, but also trying to temper expectations. "I always want to challenge, especially when I come home to the Island, but even this is exceeding it," he said. His leg was much better than yesterday, the muscles now accustomed to movement and so causing him much less discomfort.
He held off on predicting what was possible for him during the race. "Everything and anything, I guess. I don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but we're just going to have to do all we can. My goal is try to get a decent start, try not to get caught up in anything on the first laps, especially between Turn 3 and Turn 4, and being fifth on the grid should make that a little bit easier. And yes, just try to follow the front guys as long as possible and see where we end up at the end. If I can stick with them for the majority of the race, I think we can come away in a good position. But it's hard to say, it depends, so I'll just say top eight."
Overall, it was a bad day for Ducati, however. Andrea Dovizioso may have to start from eleventh on the grid, but he was the only Ducati in Q2, and the only one not to struggle badly. Ducatis pack the back of the grid, filling the slots from fifteenth to twenty-second, with only Broc Parkes on the Tech 3 Yamaha disturbing the group.
Jorge Lorenzo, who crashed heavily during FP3 and sprained his left ankle, summed up Ducati's situation. "For the moment, it's not our track," he explained. "Dovi is riding well, is in very good shape physically with the bike, and mentally he's strong, so he's doing well. He crashed in FP4 so he probably lost a little bit of confidence, but he's riding well. The rest of the Ducatis, we are mostly struggling more than at other tracks." Lorenzo had certainly lost confidence, and so had many of the others.
Will the title be settled in Australia? Márquez on pole suggests it could be a big factor. But a lot can happen in 27 laps, and the weather will play a role. Cal Crutchlow's outspoken comments about the race being at 4pm sparked another discussion in the Safety Commission on Friday, where the subject was brought up once again. Both Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales spoke out against a 4pm start, saying the race really needs to be moved to an earlier slot if it is to be run safely. As a rookie who has not yet raced in MotoGP at 4pm, Johann Zarco, refrained from comment, but joked that he might be open to persuasion. "If I'm on the podium, for me 4 o'clock is good"
Moto3 over at last?
One title that could be settled on Sunday is the Moto3 crown. Joan Mir starts from the front row, ahead of Romano Fenati, but as was plain from qualifying, Fenati is occupying Mir's thoughts just a little too much. Fenati may have been playing up to that a little, following Mir around a couple of times and distracting him. In reality, all Mir needs to do is finish immediately behind Fenati to lift the 2017 Moto3 crown. But staying calm and focused enough to do that is not easy. Even for the normally ice-cold Joan Mir.
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