Phillip Island always delivers. If you came to the track on the edge of the world hoping for a spectacle, you got more than your money's worth. Three stunning races at arguably the greatest racetrack in the world. Three races which really mattered: with just two rounds left after Phillip Island, the results had a significant impact on all three championships. And to cap the day off, one of the best MotoGP races of all time, the second here in the space of three seasons. The sun even shone. Well, most of the time, anyway.
Is it a coincidence that two of the greatest Grand Prix races, perhaps of all time, have happened at Phillip Island in the last three seasons? I don't think so. This place, and this time, have conspired to create the perfect conditions for motorcycle racing. Firstly, there has never been a greater concentration of riding talent on the grid at the same time in the premier class. Secondly, performance parity between the different factories, and between factories and privateers, has never been so great. And thirdly, the Phillip Island circuit is simply made for motorcycle racing. A flowing track in a stunning setting, where brave and skilled riders can make passes at nearly half of the corners on the track.
The 2015 MotoGP race at Phillip Island was a four-way dust up which saw Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone, and Valentino Rossi pass each other a grand total of 52 times in 27 laps. The 2017 race saw seven riders slug it out over the same distance, passing and repassing each other a total of 73 times. Blink, and you missed a change of the lead. But you had to blink, just to catch your breath. It is a good job the assiduous Tammy Gorali was willing to go back and tally up the action.
Rubbin' is racin'
It wasn't just the number of passes, it was the intensity. None of the leading group came away without rubber painted all over their leathers. Marc Márquez ended the race with the tail of his Honda RC213V cracked. Yet unlike 2015, the race ended with the protagonists all smiles. "All riders are very aggressive, so you have to be more stupid than them," Valentino Rossi laughed afterwards. As Rossi's mechanic Alex Briggs said in a post on Twitter after the race, rubbin' is racin'.
What made the 2017 MotoGP race more exciting than the edition from a couple years ago? The addition of Johann Zarco is a very big part of it. So is having Maverick Viñales on a more competitive bike, and with a couple more years experience under his belt. And Jack Miller on a factory-spec Honda, not an Open Class bike.
The old man of the paddock lauded the arrival of the youngsters. "Especially in the last period, the level of aggressivity and contact during the race is raised a lot, especially when the young riders arrive from Moto2," Valentino Rossi told the press conference. "Also Zarco is very, very aggressive. You can get angry, but anyway it won’t change nothing. This is the game, if you want to play, is like this. Is a bit more dangerous, but this is the way. If not, you have to stay at home. I enjoy very much. It was a great, great race."
Holding out for a hero
The race got off to a great start, especially for the home crowd. Jack Miller, who had broken his leg just 22 days prior, rocketed into the lead from the second row of the grid. Miller pushed hard in the early laps, trying but ultimately failing to open a gap. The Marc VDS rider's lead never grew to be a second, and the early charge would backfire towards the end of the race. "I got a little carried away at the start, maybe spent a little bit too much tire in the first three laps but it was all in good fun," Miller said afterwards.
Behind Miller a group was gathering. The cast of characters contained some of the same names as in 2015, with Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, and Andrea Iannone giving chase. Maverick Viñales took the role played by Jorge Lorenzo in 2015, making it two Movistar Yamahas at the front. Aleix Espargaro had tacked his Aprilia RS-GP onto the group, while Johann Zarco took a lap to make up for a thoroughly mediocre start from the front row, then flung himself with great gusto into the fray.
Battle was fierce from the beginning. Valentino Rossi put a block pass on Pol Espargaro on the first run into MG, while Johann Zarco muscled Espargaro's KTM teammate Bradley Smith aside in the same corner. Next lap, Zarco dumped his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha right onto the racing line in front of Andrea Iannone at the Honda Hairpin. He then ran up the inside of Rossi through the Hayshed, a brave move indeed.
Let battle commence
But things really kicked off on lap 3. Maverick Viñales lined Marc Márquez up perfectly to slip underneath the Honda at the Honda Hairpin, and Johann Zarco saw an opportunity to follow him through. It was an opportunity which proved illusory, Márquez slamming the door unaware that the Frenchman was coming. The front wheel of Zarco's Tech 3 Yamaha bumped the tail of Márquez' RC213V, cracking the tail unit in the contact. Márquez had the presence of mind to lift the bike a fraction, and the pair got through the corner with only a loss of ground to Viñales.
Zarco explained that he had been taken a little by surprise by Márquez' ability to make the corner. "Maverick overtook [Viñales] in Turn 4, and I was almost at the same speed so I came into the corner, but Marquez we know is strong to come into the corner with good speed," the Frenchman explained. "It was not possible to slow down more and I had to touch him. But he was clever because when he felt that something is wrong from the rear of his bike, he picked up the bike and we saved it."
Zarco's nudge had caused Márquez to reassess his expectations of the race. "From the beginning, I went out and I was quiet," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Try to warm the tires well, try to be calm. But suddenly I don't know if it was the second or third lap, there was already the first contact from Johann," Márquez told the press conference. "I start to realize that, okay, we will see during the race, but this will be tough."
From there, the action got furious fast. The group reeled in Jack Miller, expanding its ranks to eight members with Cal Crutchlow getting past Pol Espargaro to dice with Andrea Iannone. A little later, Alex Rins also latched onto the tail of the group, putting both factory Suzukis in with the leaders. On lap 8, Aleix Espargaro lost the front at Turn 1, sliding out of the group, yet still buoyed by having run with the leaders up until his crash.
Miller had been caught at the end of lap 4, the factory Yamahas sweeping past out of the slipstream over the line. The crowd seemed in two minds as to how they felt about that. They had been willing Miller on with loud cheers ever lap. But here was universal hero Valentino Rossi coming by to take the lead, albeit briefly before being held off into Turn 1 by Maverick Viñales. The crowd cheered anyway, for Rossi, for Miller, for Viñales, but above all, for the sheer visceral thrill at the spectacle unfolding before them.
Riders running riot
The melee intensified, with riders swapping places from corner to corner. Valentino Rossi led. Then Johann Zarco led. Then Valentino Rossi led. Then Johann Zarco led. Then Maverick Viñales got involved, before Marc Márquez took over at the front. Passing behind the leaders was just as fierce: Jack Miller passed Valentino Rossi, and Rossi passed him back. Marc Márquez passed Jack Miller, and Miller got him back. Cal Crutchlow passed Andrea Iannone, Andrea Iannone passed Maverick Viñales, Maverick Viñales passed Marc Márquez, Marc Márquez passed Johann Zarco, and Valentino Rossi passed Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales. It was a rollercoaster ride for the spectators. Was the race like a Moto2 race, Johann Zarco was asked? "Maybe like a Moto3 race, but we are 100km/h more!" the Frenchman declared.
It was Australian carnage from start to finish. Positions swapped hands in the group 73 times, people making passes every lap. There were five passes made on lap 3, then again on lap 25. Valentino Rossi found himself making 18 passes in total, three more than Johann Zarco, and twice as many as the rest of the group. Passes were hard, sometimes physical, with riders touching several times during the race.
The race was like watching a gang of teenagers rampage through a fairground. Sure, there were the ringleaders – Johann Zarco and Andrea Iannone showed neither respect for others, nor concern for their own safety – but none among them was innocent. They egged each other on to greater heights of impudence, outdoing either other in feats of derring-do. If their mothers were watching, they would have given them a clip round the ear and forbidden them from running with the other rough boys. But these are racers: you can bet your bottom dollar they will do it again, just as soon as they get the opportunity.
When questioned by the media, the members of the Lukey Heights Gang showed no remorse and shared no recriminations. "I have marks on my leathers, on my bike, but also I was aggressive," Marc Márquez said. "They were aggressive to me but I was playing the same cards. This was racing, it was really nice." Maverick Viñales agreed. "It’s racing. We try to give our best always. I think it was quite good and nice to see these battles during all the race."
"It was a great battle, it was a great show," Cal Crutchlow added. "We enjoyed the race, a lot of us. There were some hard moves in it, but it was good fun. I think everybody gave as good as they got. There should be nobody complaining, because we all tried our best, and we all enjoyed it. Nobody knocked anybody off I don't think. And that's racing. Obviously some weekends we do knock each other off, and that's it." The point, Marc Márquez said, was that aggressive passes are a part of racing. "For me, of course it’s a limit, but today was normal. It was aggressive, there was some contact, but in the end this is racing. If we go down with the limit, it becomes like Formula 1 races. In the end this is why MotoGP is going up [in popularity]."
Why do they do it, when they know they are quite literally risking life and limb? Johann Zarco said it best. "They overtook me and there were some hard moments with Marquez. It's part of racing and I lived some moments I've never lived before. Fighting at this speed is so incredible. You need to live this emotion to believe it." Had he been scared? "More than once I think! As I said an emotion to be fighting at over 300km/h, you can fight on other circuits but here I think you are really not many times under 200km/h. It's incredible and I want to call my coach and see the race with him!"
Above all, battling all race long with Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, and the rest had taught him new respect for his rivals. "I saw it before, but I had confirmation again that they are on a different planet these guys, because they can fight and analyze so many things at this speed and it's quite incredible," Zarco said. He had learned a lot.
A leader arises
There may have been even more battles in this race than in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, but it played out the same in the end. Now, as then, Marc Márquez had been cosseting his tires, saving them for a final push at the end of the race. He took the lead on lap 21, and a couple of laps later he dropped the hammer. On lap 23, he was four tenths quicker than the chasing group, on lap 25 a whole second quicker, and by that time, he had opened a gap of nearly two seconds. He backed off a fraction, and cruised home to victory.
Saving tires during the middle part of the race had been crucial, Márquez said. "In this racetrack is so important the tire life and you cannot do all the laps at the maximum. Honestly I go out on the race and I did more or less the same strategy like 2015, try to be calm during the race and try to attack in the end. It was my job. It was my target. In the end I was going in the good way."
Márquez' win capped a weekend where he had controlled the proceedings from the start. The reigning champion had been fastest in every session but one, and even then, he was only five thousandths of a second slower than Aleix Espargaro in FP2, and without putting in a new tire to chase a time. He needed to bounce back from a sensitive defeat at Motegi, to swing the championship pendulum back in his favor. Taking 25 points from pole position was exactly the right way to do just that.
Dark days for Dovi and Ducati
That pendulum was also given a mighty shove by his main title rival, Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian had expected to have a tough weekend, but perhaps not quite as hard as this. Most of the problems were of his own making: a poor qualifying left him in eleventh on the grid. Then on lap 2, he missed his braking point at the end of the straight, and ran wide into Turn 1. He rejoined in twentieth place, and fought his way back up to eleventh place.
But that battle burned though his tires too quickly. On the final laps, Dovizioso had no traction left exiting fast corners, and fell back into the clutches of Dani Pedrosa and Scott Redding. On the final lap, coming out of the final corner, his drive was gone, and both Pedrosa and Redding slipped past to push him down to thirteenth. He finished just four hundredths of a second behind Redding, but those paltry hundredths cost him 2 championship points.
Not that it would have made much difference. With Márquez winning the race, his championship lead over Dovizioso is now 33 points. Had the Italian finished in eleventh, the gap would have been 31 points. In either case, Dovizioso has left himself with a mountain to climb. Márquez can wrap up the title next Sunday at Sepang simply by finishing in second, regardless of where Dovizioso finishes. And Márquez' job gets much easier the further down the field Dovizioso finishes.
Realistically, Dovizioso's best shot at the title needs Márquez to suffer some kind of problem that drops him out of the top ten, and preferably out of the points altogether. That is extremely unlikely: Márquez worst finish – barring three DNFs, two of which were crashes – is sixth at Mugello. And a mistake by Márquez is now also unlikely. "Now is the time to breathe, time to understand where are our options, where we can fight, if in Malaysia, Valencia," Márquez said. "But try to take points and don’t be too aggressive. I take a lot of risk during all the season, now is time to be more patient."
The old trouble
What was the cause of Dovizioso's woes? Though the Ducati Desmosedici GP17 is a vastly superior bike to the ones that came before, its core underlying weakness remains: it is still harder to turn, which means it hates long fast corners. The only way to get it around long corners is to lay on the edge of the tire and use lean angle. This eats up the edge of the tire, as the smaller contact patch is carrying more load and generating more heat, especially if you try to use the gas on the exit. Where other bikes can turn tighter, and get on to the fat part of the tire with more rubber, the Ducati is left balancing on a sliver of Michelin through the turns.
"It’s not news," Dovizioso said after the race, "because the characteristic of this track is to have good turning. This confirms we still have that limit. We finished the tire eight laps from the end, but I believe all that – our speed and the consumption of the tire - is a consequence of the turning. This track needs turning."
Ducati had made steps forward at other tracks such as Barcelona and Silverstone, but nowhere quite exposed the GP17's weakness like Phillip Island. "We did really good races this year at tracks where I wasn’t fast in the past," Dovizioso explained. "But this track has a particular characteristic and the turning is so important. In those tracks we were fast but because of the turning. But here you can be fast only if you’re fast in the middle of the corner and if you don’t use too much the rear tire."
Dovizioso admitted that his speed on Friday had been illusory. "It was the approach of the weekend. I approached it very aggressive to try and be on top in every practice. Phillip Island is a strange track with the wind, with the temperature. I tried to do that. I did that lap time because I was behind Espargaro and Maverick. It was a strange situation and I did perfect things. But it wasn’t the reality." The reality turned out to be thirteenth. Even if he hadn't made the mistake, Dovizioso said, the best he could have been capable of might have been ahead of the KTMs in ninth.
That this is a fundamental issue with the Ducati is evident from the results. Scott Redding was the first Ducati home in eleventh, 21 seconds behind the winner, Marc Márquez. The other seven finished in thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first. Dovizioso won the last race at Motegi, and was now 21 seconds behind the winner. Danilo Petrucci was on the podium in Japan; in Australia, he had only substitute rider Broc Parkes behind him. Had Jonas Folger been fit and riding the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, Ducati's day would have been worse.
Yamaha on the up
If Ducati had a disastrous day, Yamaha's turned out pretty good. OK, neither the Movistar Yamaha riders, nor Johann Zarco had anything for Marc Márquez, but they had all been extremely competitive. Valentino Rossi had been playing down his chances all weekend, speaking in the vaguest terms of the podium as a possibility. He had started from the third row of the grid, and had pass through Q1 to get a shot at P7. Maverick Viñales had been a little more positive, especially as he had started from the front row, but both he and Rossi feared their tires would not last the full distance.
What happened? Perhaps the track conditions helped a little, a combination of warmer air temperatures and recent rain showers creating conditions no one had experienced so far. But both Movistar crews also found the final details they had been seeking on Saturday night. "Sincerely, during the practice here is always very difficult to understand, but it was not so bad, especially Friday," Valentino Rossi said. "I already had a quite good pace in the normal conditions. Also, we understand the way to improve from yesterday because I was too much on the limit. This morning we had the bike ready but it was wet so we don’t try but we decide anyway to go because I was quite sure for what I need and what the right move, also the right choice. I feel comfortable with the bike."
The same was true for Maverick Viñales. "We improve a lot the traction," he said in the press conference. "I did the podium about the traction because if not I was out of the podium. I was even able maybe to overtake Vale but Vale pushed, I saw Vale like this [tucked in]! Not this time! Next one."
Exposing the fiction of team orders
The fact that Rossi had beaten Viñales also answered the question of whether team orders would be issued, and if they were, whether they would be obeyed. Coming in to Phillip Island, Maverick Viñales still had a theoretical shot at the title, though he trailed Márquez by 41 points. If Viñales had finished in second, and given up 5 points to Márquez, he would be 46 points behind the Spaniard and his title hopes would still be alive, though hanging by a thread.
When Valentino Rossi led Viñales across the line on Sunday, he took 4 vital points from his teammate. The Spanish youngster was left 50 points behind Marc Márquez. Though he could still theoretically draw with the Repsol Honda rider, Márquez has six wins, while Viñales has three, and a potential maximum of five if he were to win the next two races and Márquez were to have two DNFs. In the case of a draw in points, championship positions are decided by count back. The rider with the most wins, then the most second places, the most third places, and so on, takes precedence.
Despite losing to Marc Márquez, the results of Phillip Island were reason for hope. At a track where the rider counts more than the bike, both Rossi and Viñales proved they are still competitive. And a result like this makes it more likely again that Valentino Rossi will not retire at the end of next year, when his current contract expires. Rossi will keep racing for as long as he believes he can be competitive. Phillip Island is proof positive that this is still the case.
Could have had more?
The race may have left Maverick Viñales feeling rather frustrated, though he did not show much sign of it in the press conference. Viñales was clearly biding his time in the final laps, waiting to launch an attack on Márquez. On lap 21, Rossi passed him for second at MG, then at the start of the next lap, Johann Zarco launched a truly audacious attack round the outside at Turn 1, one of the most terrifying turns on the circuit.
It was a perfectly clean pass by Zarco, but it forced Viñales to subtly adjust his line to behind Zarco. The trouble was, a rampant Andrea Iannone saw a gap that was largely theoretical, and forced himself into it, cutting off the nose of Viñales, almost clipping his front wheel. The Yamaha rider was forced to sit up to regain his balance, losing two more places to Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller as he ran wide at the Southern Loop.
"Our plan was to push with five laps to go," Viñales said afterwards. "I was preparing myself when I overtake Johann. I think I was able to overtake riders well. I had a really strong braking point in turn four. It was my strongest point. But I had some contact with Andrea. I went back to the back of the group. Then I get some laps to recover and to overtake Jack, Cal."
Despite what may have been, Viñales was happy to finally be back on the podium and to be competitive. "Anyway I’m happy we make ourselves on the podium," he said. "It’s been really tough the last races. This is the first race in the second part of the season I felt really strong, so that’s good for us. I think in the morning we understand the way to go in the wet and that’s something really positive."
Yamaha's struggles make clear that the Japanese factory took a wrong turn in their development of the 2017 M1. While the factory team has struggled, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders have been very consistent, with Johann Zarco making an outstanding debut in the class. The 2016 Yamaha the Tech 3 riders are using is clearly better in some respects to the 2017 bike, though overall, the 2017 machine is probably better.
Zarco? No! No!
Both Ducati and Honda put select satellite riders on factory bikes to aid development. Danilo Petrucci has been used as a test mule in the Pramac garage, doing setup experiments on the GP17 which the factory riders have then used in the race. Cal Crutchlow has also taken on a significant role in the development of the Honda RC213V, providing a valuable counterbalance to the extremes of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa.
Would it be an idea to put Johann Zarco on a factory Yamaha bike in the Tech 3 team next year, Rossi and Viñales were asked in the press conference. Their responses spoke volumes of just how much they fear the Frenchman. "I don’t know if it’s a good idea for Zarco to have our bike," Rossi joked. Viñales' tone was a little more conciliatory, but it was not an option he had any interest in exploring. "I think to have a third rider can be more experience. Johann is riding really well the last part of the season. It’s interesting, but as Valentino said maybe he get a little bit confused."
Viñales' charge out of the final corner meant Johann Zarco was just pipped to the podium. But the Frenchman was too busy buzzing with adrenaline and excitement to be disappointed. "I tried to have the second place because I was feeling good behind Rossi," he said, describing the last lap. "He is so strong on the brakes, closing well the line and you can see he has the experience. So I tried to have better acceleration by changing the line in the last corner but instead of second I had fourth. But no worry. After this kind of fight and kind of day I can just enjoy and take this fantastic moment."
Fourth place was good enough for Zarco to wrap up the Rookie of the Year title, though the absence of his teammate Jonas Folger through illness made it something of a foregone conclusion. Still, it was a strong class of Moto2 rookies who entered MotoGP this year, and Zarco has lived up to the expectations as 2016 Moto2 champion. He made a splash at Qatar by leading the first few laps, and has consistently impressed. If the field weren't so strong this year, he would probably have had a lot more podiums. The proof of Zarco's pudding will come in his second season. But the signs so far are pretty good.
Cal Crutchlow crossed the line in fifth, just holding off Andrea Iannone to the line. It was a well-deserved result, and a relief after a string of bad races. It was a surprise, too, as Crutchlow had been in two minds about racing on Sunday morning after his massive crash in the wet warm up. "A big crash," he called it. "Probably one of the worst that I had in a long, long time. Not the fastest, but I just went so high."
"I hit my head, I hit my back, my ribs and my back," he told reporters. "I came back with the bike simply through sheer adrenaline to say, OK, I'll go back out, I need to get back out if it's wet. And I went back out and went faster. But I shouldn't have gone back out, because honestly I felt so bad. An hour before the race, I didn't know whether I was going to race, honestly. I didn't feel well. I still don't feel well."
High times in Hamamatsu
It was a good day for Suzuki too, with Iannone sixth and Rins in eighth. An extra boost, coming off the back of a strong result at the last race in Motegi. It was especially good to see Andrea Iannone looking like the rider he was the last couple of years on the Ducati, rather than the shadow of himself he has been in the last few races. For a while, it even looked like Iannone would get a podium, though in the end the Yamahas and Cal Crutchlow were just too strong.
Are Suzuki back on the right track again? It is a little too early to say. The GSX-RR is a bike that handles beautifully and can carry corner speed, that makes it a perfect tool for Phillip Island. It's biggest weaknesses are a slight lack of power and problems in braking, but the layout of the track at the Island can help to camouflage those.
Suzuki's results were also perhaps flattered by the lack of Ducatis at the front. If Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo, Danilo Petrucci had been competitive at Phillip Island, sixth and eighth may not have been on the cards. At Motegi, Suzuki had also benefited from the lack of Yamahas at the front. This at least shows that the bike works well in a range of conditions. There is clearly reason for hope.
Jack Miller finished his home Grand Prix in seventh, just 22 days after breaking his right leg. Given his condition, he was more than pleased. "Considering I broke my leg three weeks ago to lead my home Grand Prix for the first couple of laps and to be mixing it with the boys until the end was good," the Australian said. "I got a little carried away at the start, maybe spent a little bit too much tire in the first three laps but it was all in good fun. I was just missing a little bit of grip in those last few laps. Eight laps to go I started yo-yoing to the group in front. I was losing a lot in the last two lefts. It was a shame I couldn’t fight right at the end for a podium. But to finish that close, I’m pretty happy."
Austria rising in Australia
Behind Rins, the KTMs managed another double top ten, Pol Espargaro beating teammate Bradley Smith in a fierce battle to the line. The two were 16 seconds behind Márquez, around the same as Espargaro was at Aragon. The RC16 is clearly a more competitive machine, but what was perhaps most hopeful for the Austrian factory is that turning has long been a weakness of the bike. Like the Ducati, the KTM needs to be ridden on the edge of the tire to get it to turn, and that eats up the rear late in the race. For the KTMs to spank the Ducatis offers hope for 2018.
Phillip Island turned out to be an excellent weekend for KTM, as the Austrian factory also bagged their first win in the Moto2 class with Miguel Oliveira. Oliveira made a break shortly before the halfway mark, and escaped to take the win unchallenged. The only real threat to his supremacy was a brief smattering of rain in the final laps, which made him cautious and cost him a couple of seconds.
Adding to Oliveira's joy was Brad Binder's second place. It was the South African's first podium in Moto2, and came after what has been an incredibly tough season. Binder broke his arm badly in preseason testing, and was forced to go back for a second bout of surgery early in the season. That meant he lost a lot of strength in that arm, as the injury left him unable to train for a long time. He is only now getting into his stride, and second place at Phillip Island is a sign of things to come.
Binder took second place after Takaaki Nakagami crashed in front of him, and he put in the fastest lap of the race despite spots of rain starting to fall. He held off Franco Morbidelli, putting enough of a gap on the Italian to secure second.
Moto2 nearly done
Morbidelli was not too unhappy, however, despite only finishing third. The Marc VDS rider took a big step towards wrapping up the 2017 Moto2 title with that podium, in part thanks to the rough weekend Tom Luthi has had. Luthi had a massive crash in the wet warm up, the second of the weekend after a fall in FP2. Tenth place was a pretty decent result given how beaten up Luthi was at the start of the race.
Morbidelli now has a 29 point lead over Luthi as they head to Sepang. The Italian need only follow the Swiss rider around to be almost certain of wrapping up the title. It is a title which Morbidelli deserves to win, too, given his dominance in the class. He has won eight of the sixteen races so far, compared to Luthi's two. Luthi is only still in the championship race thanks to his incredible consistency. But this is now Morbidelli's championship to lose.
Joan Mir need worry no longer about the Moto3 title. The Spaniard has been dominant all season wrong, finding ways to win race after race. After an uncharacteristically poor weekend at Motegi, where he finished outside the points while Romano Fenati won the race, Mir was back with a vengeance at Phillip Island. He was quick all weekend, and it was obvious he would be a factor during the race.
In the end, Mir crowned his championship with a win, though it came in a strange way. The race had started on a dry track with damp patches, and dark skies threatening more rain. There were spots of rain from time to time as the race went on, until a sudden downpour greeted the riders as they crossed the line to start lap 17. The leading pack all sat up holding their hands in the air, and the race was red flagged. Counting back to the last lap which the entire field had completed meant the race was called at lap 15. That just happened to be the lap where Mir had cross the line in the lead, fortuitously just ahead of his Leopard Racing teammate Livio Loi.
Even then, both the win and the championship were entirely deserved. First, the title: the only rider who could keep him from the title was Romano Fenati, but the Italian was behind Mir for 8 of the 15 laps raced, and only in a position to actively prevent Mir from winning the title for 4 laps. Mir's title had an air of inevitability to it. The only real question was whether he would get the job done in Phillip Island or at Sepang.
The Next Big Thing
Mir's Moto3 crown is just reward for his supremacy in the class. The win at Phillip Island was ninth of the season, Fenati and Aron Canet sharing three apiece. Win number nine put Mir into the record books, and among illustrious company. He is now the rider with the most wins in one season in Moto3. He is one win shy of Marc Márquez' tally of ten in the 2010 125cc season, and two shy of Valentino Rossi's record of eleven 125cc wins in 1997. With two rounds to go, he could match both of them.
This is the reason why so many in the Grand Prix paddock are excited about Joan Mir. The Spaniard has shown speed, but above all, racecraft. He won races by always being in the right place at the right time, managing his tires, and only pushing when it mattered. He was not caught out very often, and was consistently in the top three or four for almost every lap of every races. He has the most laps leading, only Romano Fenati getting close. But unlike Fenati, Mir knows how to get the job done on the final lap.
Joan Mir moves up to Moto2 for 2018, joining Alex Márquez in the Marc VDS team. He will have the right people around him and the right resources to be able to succeed. Joan Mir has all the makings of the Next Big Thing.
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