Phillip Island is a magnificent circuit. Perched on the edge of the Bass Strait, it is a visceral thrill in a spectacular setting. It is fast, flowing, the very essence of what a race track is supposed to be. But all that glory comes at a price. It is also a dangerous place. When you crash at Phillip Island, then it hurts, and more often than not, it hurts a lot.
Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes points out that in the 1990s, the FIM commissioned a study into crashes at various tracks. The track with the most crashes, Estoril, had the fewest serious injuries. The track with the fewest crashes was Phillip Island. But it was also the track with the most injuries. The difference? Estoril was the slowest track on the calendar, thanks to a couple of tight turns, while Phillip Island was the fastest. Newton's second law is immutable, and enforced 100% of the time.
The weather makes things even more complicated. A freezing wind blows in with great force off the Bass Strait, sucking any heat you may have generated out of your tires. Cold tires plus high speeds are a recipe for disaster, and hospital food. "Obviously the weather is really strange here," Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday. "Very cold, not easy to warm the tires. I would say that it's one of the more, close to being dangerous tracks that we have on the calendar, but I don't know why this makes the track enjoyable, and I think almost all riders like this layout." Behold the dilemma of Phillip Island.
Changing dates and times
There are some measures which could be taken to make Phillip Island safer, or at least, to take the sting out the track. The race (and therefore practice) is held at 4pm, around the time the afternoon warmth starts to seep away. Temperature changes between the start and the end of the race are common, a problem made worse by the wind. The race is held in October, toward the end of the Antipodean spring, when the weather tends toward the chilly. The race would be made much better if it was held a month later, or even better, in February, at the end of southern hemisphere summer.
Both of those things are impossible, however. The Australian Grand Prix Corporation, which runs both the F1 race in Melbourne and the MotoGP race at Phillip Island, don't want to have both races in the same season. And for some reason – I know very little about F1, but I presume so that it will be the season opener, like Qatar for MotoGP – they are unwilling to switch the dates around, even though it would make little material difference to the F1 cars, but potentially save a lot of broken bones for MotoGP.
It is an issue which comes up pretty much every year in the Safety Commission at Phillip Island. "It's a long story, this," Valentino Rossi reflected ruefully. "We push very much to come to Phillip Island in the right moment, March, so we start the season here. But they say it is impossible because they have F1 in Melbourne. The guy that organizes are the same and they say ‘no, no way’."
If the race date is impossible to shift, then how about the time? "OK, this is difficult. More easy is the time of the race. We fight all year, I think in every Safety Comission meeting, all the riders ask the organization through Dorna to modify the time to come back to 2 o’clock and they always say no. So what can we say? What can we do? They say at 4pm it is better than 2pm. Dorna say it is a decision of the organizer. We ask 15 times to change the schedule. We say we have to race at 2 o’clock and they say no way. We fight and we say at 3pm: no way. We go at 4pm or you stay at home. Dorna say it is the Australian organization."
Where does the obstacle lie?
Is it really the Australian organization, or is it Dorna? Who knows? This is exactly the kind of political football that gets passed back and forth, with no one wanting to say openly who wants this one way or another. Off the top of my head, I have no idea why the Australian Grand Prix Corporation would want the race at 4pm, but then again, I have never run a MotoGP round.
As for Dorna, I imagine that a race held at 6am Central European Time – Dorna's biggest TV market – is more valuable than one held at 4am, which is when a 2pm MotoGP race at Phillip Island would start. Would it make that much difference in terms of a contract for a 19-race season? I have never negotiated a TV contract for a major race series with a national broadcaster, so I have no idea.
But something needs to change. In general, the riders are extremely happy with all the work Dorna do to improve safety, and will praise the series organizers unsolicited. But Phillip Island, the time and date of the race, is a glaring blot on their copybook. The race and practice could be made a little safer, by juggling either the calendar or the timing.
Turn 1 claims a victim
On Friday, it was Cal Crutchlow who paid the price at Phillip Island. The LCR Honda rider lost the front at Doohan Corner, the blisteringly fast Turn 1, and tumbled through the gravel, smashing his right ankle, fracturing tibia and malleolus in two places. Crutchlow was examined at the medical center, then flown to hospital in Melbourne for surgery.
What happened? The media didn't get to speak to Crutchlow, and his team only released a statement saying he had crashed at Turn 1 and broken his ankle. But there were plenty of other riders who crashed on Friday, though not as many as last year. The majority of falls in MotoGP were at Turn 1, Doohan Corner, or Turn 6, Siberia (Gateway to Hypothermia, as Barry Sheene dubbed it). Both those corners have in comment that they are heading straight towards the Bass Strait, and the prevailing wind direction.
But it was also a particular problem for the Hondas. Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Taka Nakagami all fell on Friday, leaving Franco Morbidelli and Tom Lüthi as the only Honda riders not to have crashed. None of them really understood what had happened. "I don't know," Dani Pedrosa responded when asked why he had crashed. "I went out there in the morning with a normal feeling in the first run, and then in the second with the same tire and bike I lost the front on the second lap. I wasn't going faster because it was the second lap also. This afternoon I went out with the afternoon and still in the first section I was very slow, especially in Turn 1 so…not so much feeling but I don't know what is the thing."
Marc Márquez had fallen at MG in FP1, a very different corner, but again, due to a similar lack of feeling. "It was strange," Márquez said. "The feeling with the bike - and the other Hondas – to understand the feeling with the front tire. I don't know if it was the first or the second time this season that I crash without pushing."
Perhaps he hadn't warmed the medium front tire he had switched to up enough, Márquez conjectured. "My crash was one of the reasons: maybe I changed too early," he said. "I crashed in a straight line and this means a cold tire. Maybe it was too early to use the medium tire, but at this circuit many riders crash without knowing why and today there were many. It can be the cold conditions or the wind but it’s important we understand and this afternoon I was happy because I came back with feeling."
He had seen Crutchlow's crash, Márquez told reporters. "I was far away but I saw someone having a big crash at Turn 1," the Repsol Honda rider said. "When I arrived in the box I saw that it was Cal I slowed down there. Dani crashed there this morning too. It’s one of our weak points. When we arrive there…I don't understand the front. We did a change this afternoon and I start to understand in a better way. You need to be patient. This is a very special circuit and sometimes the base setup is not working."
Matching tires to climate
It is a very specific problem for the Hondas, heavily dependent as they are on the front tire. Normally, the Honda RC213V needs the stiffest tire available, but that is a risk at Phillip Island, as it makes it that more difficult to get, and more importantly, keep heat in the front tire. "We need to understand what will be the best tire for us: we need to go with the medium or hard. The soft is not working. I can go with the soft but if I want the same speed as the others I need to risk on the front."
That doesn't mean that Márquez believes that Michelin got their allocation wrong, however. "Michelin brought the perfect allocation for here," Márquez said. "You have all the options if you want. Today we did the race distance with the soft but tomorrow we’ll try the medium and hard and will keep working."
What this does once again underline is the risk of Michelin being forced to select the tires to be used before the season has even started. Predicting the weather is tricky at the best of times, and just as at Buriram in Thailand, conditions can be radically different to the average expected conditions used as a guide back in February. Though the rule change forcing Michelin to decide its tires a year in advance has brought the series stability, it is not without risks. The question is, are the risks worth it?
The lack of feeling from the front meant that Marc Márquez wasn't fastest at Phillip Island for a change. That distinction fell to Andrea Iannone, who ended the day on top of the timesheets. But Iannone's speed is not the deceptive pace of a quick lap on soft tires: the Ecstar Suzuki rider was quick throughout practice, on a hard rear for a long run, and on a soft rear for a single lap. Phillip Island is a track where Iannone often goes well, and things are looking very promising indeed for the Italian.
"The feeling with the bike is not so bad, so we have a good speed," Iannone said. "But in any case, from mid-corner to the end, especially on the exit of the corner, we need a little improvement. We need to control a little bit better the slide and spin on the acceleration point, and for sure it's important we try to maintain the tires a little bit with higher performance. So this is the priority, the most important for the race, and today is the most important day, it's the key for the race."
This is where he had suffered last year, Iannone explained. "The most important is that we arrive in the last five laps with good speed, not arrive on the limit, like last year. Last year, we lost the race because the last five laps, we don't have nothing more, and everybody had one or two tenths more than us, and at the end, finished in front of us. So in any case, this is the priority and we focus on this way."
Better, but still not there
Andrea Dovizioso was also both quick and comfortable at Phillip Island, though he was also typically cautious. "You know, every time you come here you have a few question marks so until you ride you can’t really know," Dovizioso said. "I’m happy. But we are not the fastest so we have to improve."
There had been some questions answered from 2017, Dovizioso said, and the improvement was real, if limited. "I think it was clear today where the bike was a little bit better so I’m happy," the factory Ducati rider told reporters. "Still the DNA is that one so we can’t ride in a different way and we can’t be faster in a different way. But we are a bit faster. It’s what we have to do and we have to continue to improve."
Dovizioso pointed out that both Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi were missing from the top of the timesheets, but this was not a situation he expected to hold. "The result of today is quite strange because Valentino and Marc weren’t strong like I expected," he said, "but I can expect them very strong tomorrow and Sunday."
Valentino Rossi was not quite so optimistic. "For me, we are very similar to Motegi," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "Unfortunately I lose a little bit too much time with the medium rear because we expected it to be good but unfortunately no grip. At the end with the soft I was not so bad. I’m not happy and we have to work because I spin too much still. We need to improve the setting."
The two Yamahas who finished ahead of him were much more upbeat. Especially Maverick Viñales, who had both the pace and the single lap speed, though not quite the pace of Andrea Iannone. "It's been good," he said. "I always like to be in Phillip Island, it's a really nice layout so I can push myself even more. I'm happy, because we worked in the correct way today. Maybe in the afternoon we tried a bit too much, but we have to continue with the same bike, I had a great feeling on the bike, so if I can be really concentrated and precise, we can be top three."
Johann Zarco was also pleased, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider ending the day as fifth, and with a solid pace. "It was a good day, and I quickly got a good pace and I was happy to feel comfortable almost immediately," the Frenchman said. "It has been difficult to improve because maybe we were close to the good things so then the improvements become more complicated to find. It the afternoon I think we did that, the step that we need under acceleration to control the bike well."
The strength of the Yamaha, as far as Zarco was concerned, lay in the solid front end. "Overall with the safe front that we have, then yes, it is a good track for Yamaha," the Tech3 rider said. "With the bad acceleration that we have it is complicated to have a good last sector. Who had the best lap time? Iannone? It means he has good acceleration and it is working well there. That’s why. I think we are not far from a good acceleration and once we will catch it then I think about the podium."
Friday isn't Sunday
The Suzukis were certainly quick at Phillip Island, with Iannone fastest and teammate Alex Rins also inside the top ten. Rins said the bike had been improved almost everywhere since last year. "I feel a little bit more power in general, we improve in all areas, a little bit on brakes, on acceleration, on the wheelie area; we are racing today without the winglets and it looks comfortable." That bodes well for the Japanese factory on Sunday.
But with the Hondas mostly absent, and Valentino Rossi not as competitive as he should be at one of his favorite tracks, there is still all to play for. As usual, Andrea Dovizioso summed it up perfectly. "Like always, Friday is not the reality of Sunday." First, there's another day of practice, and qualifying.
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