From one seasonally misplaced track to another. Fresh from Motegi, which MotoGP visits at the tail end of typhoon season, the Grand Prix paddock heads south – a very long way south – to Phillip Island, on the south coast of Victoria in Australia, perched on the edge of the Bass Strait. It is a glorious location at the end of the antipodean summer, with good weather very nearly guaranteed. But unfortunately, MotoGP doesn't visit at the end of the antipodean summer in February or March.
Instead, MotoGP is condemned to brave the elements in October, when it is spring in the southern hemisphere. And all because the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, the company which runs the MotoGP round at Phillip Island, is also the promoter of the Australian Formula 1 race, held in Melbourne Park, pays a premium to host the first F1 race of the year.
With Melbourne just under two hours away, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation doesn't want to have its two biggest events too close together, to prevent fans from being forced to choose between the two races. And having paid to make the F1 race the first of the season, moving MotoGP to October is the obvious choice. An understandable choice too: the F1 race at Melbourne Park draws over 100,000 fans on race day. Race day at Phillip Island sees around 35,000 paying customers through the gates.
It is a shame that the Phillip Island circuit suffers from both a (relatively) remote location and the threat of poor weather, because it really is one of the most glorious circuits on the calendar. Phillip Island and Mugello are the two circuits that every motorcycle racer worth their salt will choose as their favorites.
And for good reason: both are fast, flowing, and can be mastered only with the right mixture of bravery and talent. Too much courage, and bad things happen, as fast crashes are always waiting in the wings. Talent without enough bravery and you are simply not fast enough.
Mugello and Phillip Island also share spectacular settings. Mugello sits snugly between two Tuscan hills, while the Phillip Island circuit sits on an undulating clifftop overlooking the Bass Strait. That location offers spectacular views, but also unique challenges.
There is no more spectacular a view than charging down the front straight at Phillip Island, the track dropping away ahead of you, looking for all the world as if you are about to launch yourself into the ocean. What awaits is nothing as simply as flying off off a cliff. Instead, you face Doohan corner, the blisteringly fast Turn 1, and the first right hand corner after a vast sequence of lefts.
Turn 1 is also an ideal passing place, as the fast Gardner Straight is the perfect spot to slingshot past out of the slipstream, after hiding from the blast of the wind coming off the Bass Strait. It takes courage to pass there, but the slipstream boost is too much temptation to resist.
Get it right, or suffer the consquences
There are two problems with Doohan Corner. First, the speed, meaning that if you get it wrong, it will be painful: Cal Crutchlow destroyed his right ankle there last year in a huge crash, and is still in pain as a result. The second is that if you manage to make a pass on someone going into the corner, it is all too easy to run wide and let them back past as you line up for the Southern Loop.
This, the second corner, is a long left hander which comes back on itself, another place where you can run wide, but also somewhere you can attempt a pass. Getting drive out of the Southern Loop is vital, as the most fearsome and fastest corner on the track approaches. Take the right line through Turn 3, the appropriately named Stoner Corner, and you can gain tenths of a second over your rivals. The trick, as Stoner demonstrated on his way to six successive wins at the circuit, is to slide the rear and hug the inside kerb. Not unusual, but you have to do it 265 km/h. Doing that takes commitment.
Out of Stoner, and on to Honda corner, the tight hairpin at Turn 4. Another favorite passing place because it offers somewhere to outbrake a rival, then turn hard to get drive on towards Turns 5 and 6. Siberia, as Turn 6 is called, is another corner which earns its name: it sits on the edge of the cliff, with the icy blast of winds blowing in off the Southern Ocean.
From Siberia, the track winds back inland, past Hayshed and up to Lukey Heights. It's possible to pass at Hayshed, but your best bet is to wait until MG Corner, the bottom of the hill after Lukey Heights. But that isn't easy: you need to carry speed through Lukey to stop anyone from taking the outside line and grabbing the inside line for MG. But carry too much speed and you will struggle to stop the bike at the bottom of the hill for the tight right hairpin, running wide and letting your rivals underneath.
From MG, the track builds to a crescendo of speed, bikes leaned hard left through Turn 11, then the final corner, Turn 12. You are then catapulted out of that final turn and onto the straight, with enough space before the finish line to try pulling out of the slipstream and trying a pass. It is hard, demanding, terrifying, and glorious.
"All the riders love the circuit because it is something special compared to the rest. It is one of the best places," is how Valentino Rossi described it on the eve of his 400th Grand Prix. "We pray, everybody prays, for the weekend weather to be like this with the blue sky and fantastic temperature but unfortunately the good weather has arrived a little bit too early ahead of the weekend so we will have to fight with difficult conditions at Phillip Island. Anyway, it is always a pleasure."
Whatever the weather
The weather is always a factor at Phillip Island, and this weekend will be no different. Thursday was glorious, with bright sunshine and high temperatures. But Friday, Saturday, and Sunday look like being cold, wet, and windy, though at least the wind is likely to blow bad weather out again just as fast as it blew it in.
The weather is also a source of frustration for the riders. "It's just **** that you have to come into the race weekend having to prepare for the weather, and not being able to prepare for the race, or lap times, or stuff like that," Cal Crutchlow sums up the feelings of everyone. "But this is Phillip Island at this time of year, we should come here earlier in the year and the likelihood is you're going to have good weather."
Mixed weather makes predicting how the race will play out difficult. Then again, one of the glories of Phillip Island is the fact that so many bikes can be competitive there. There are different ways of getting around the track, and rider skill can overcome any weaknesses of the bike.
"It works two ways round here," Crutchlow explains. "You can slide the bike a lot around the track to turn it, or you have a lot of grip and the bike turns well." The Honda slides nicely at high speed, which can overcome its unwillingness to turn. The Yamaha and the Suzuki don't slide so much, but they have lots of grip to help them turn through the corners. The Ducati has a lot of drive and a lot of speed, which can help out of the corners at Phillip Island. Even the Aprilia or KTM can shine at the track: in 2017, Aleix Espargaro was battling in the top six before crashing out.
Win it or bin it
Marc Márquez has to be the man to beat at Phillip Island. The reigning champion is in imperious form, having won the last four races in a row. He has a strong record at Phillip Island, though he has also managed to trip himself up on multiple occasions. In his first year, when Bridgestone misjudged the resurfaced track, he was disqualified for coming in too late for his compulsory pit stop to swap tires, forced out of the race when he was in the leading group.
In 2014, he crashed out of the lead, a feat he repeated in 2016, both times folding the front at one of the slow right handers. In 2018, he was in the middle of the front group when Johann Zarco clipped the rear of his Honda, breaking the seat unit and making the bike impossible to control. But Márquez won in 2015 and 2017 by a comfortable margin. In his current form, it would be foolish to beat against him extend his odd-year streak at Phillip Island.
He will face stiff competition. Phillip Island is ideal for bikes which can carry corner speed and use the grip available from the surface. The Yamaha is strong at the Australian circuit, as Maverick Viñales demonstrated by winning the race last year. Viñales comes to Phillip Island in good shape, coming off a run of third and fourth places since Silverstone. It's also a track where Viñales' tendency to lose ground in the early laps should not hurt him so much. It's a place you can make up ground, and catch a leading group.
First win coming?
All eyes will of course be on Fabio Quartararo. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider has been phenomenal in the second half the season, and been the only rider to come close to beating Marc Márquez since Alex Rins pipped the Repsol Honda rider to the post at Silverstone. Phillip Island looks like being Quartararo's best chance of winning a MotoGP race this year, the track being perfectly suited to the Yamaha.
The challenge Quartararo faces comes from the track itself. "You've got to ride this place different in general," Jack Miller says of Phillip Island. "It doesn't matter if it's a Ducati, a Honda or what, you've got to ride it different than other tracks. Some of the rookies might find it a little bit harder because it is so different here, but we'll have to wait and see. You've got to manage the wheelie a lot more. Especially going into Turn 3 and places like that. You need experience to understand how to go quick through there."
Quartararo has shown himself to be an incredibly quick learner in MotoGP so far this year, but it remains to be seen whether Phillip Island will give up its secrets that easily.
It's not just the Yamaha that goes well around Phillip Island. The Suzuki does a lot of what the Yamaha does, but better in many respects. The Suzuki GSX-RR has been on the podium in two of the last three years, once in the hands of Maverick Viñales, and once with Andrea Iannone, so Rins knows he has the tools for the job. And like Viñales, he may not suffer as badly with a bad starting position at a track where you can catch a group ahead of you.
Quartararo and Márquez could also face a challenge from Jack Miller. The Australian is on a roll on the Pramac Ducati, and always finds an extra tenth at his home Grand Prix. In past years, the Ducatis have struggled at the track, but things are looking a lot brighter for them in 2019.
"I think the GP19 should work better than the '17 did last year around here, so another positive and I'm excited," Miller said. "It's been a tough track for Ducati in the last few years, but no matter where Casey was in other races he'd always turn it on here, no matter what. Last year I was on the '17 which Dovi and those guys couldn't get inside the top ten and I managed to fight for the victory for much of the race and then dropped back to seventh. I think the bike is one part of it, but you've got to know how to go around here as well." Miller knows how to go around Phillip Island, and is motivated to do just that.
The Ducati GP18 was already a good bike at Phillip Island. Last year, Andrea Dovizioso put the GP18 on the podium, while Alvaro Bautista finished fourth. The GP19 is a touch better than the GP18, so Dovizioso should be able to put the bike in among the leaders. He was cautiously optimistic in the press conference. "Optimistic is a bit too much, but last year we did a really good and fast race. I hope to stay on the podium again. I think it will be hard because for sure Marc but also the Yamaha riders will be very strong, Rins I think he will be strong. So it will be hard but last race at the end of the race we were quite fast."
The prodigal son
Of course, all eyes will also be on Johann Zarco, making his return to MotoGP after being released from the remainder of his contract with the factory Red Bull KTM team. Zarco is riding the 2018-spec LCR Honda RC213V of Takaaki Nakagami, who is undergoing surgery on the shoulder he injured at Assen this year.
The big question is whether Zarco can ride the Honda, a bike similar in many respects to the KTM RC16 he hated so much he tore up the second year of his contract. Does he have any idea of what the bike is like to ride? "No idea!" Zarco told journalists. "I just saw one guy that is destroying everybody. I want to understand why or to learn from this. Let’s see. For me just I know the bike can be competitive. It will be more clear for me where is my level."
Those who have ridden both say the 2018 bike is easier to ride than the 2019 Honda, but that was not something Zarco was particularly concerned with. "I have a 2018 bike and I have to use it," he shrugged. "It remains a Honda for me. I’m so excited just to go on the bike. It doesn’t matter too much the technical things. I want to catch this opportunity that was coming to me."
He was also acutely aware that this is an important chance for him, one he can't afford to mess up. He wasn't afraid of not having any time to get used to the bike, he said. "Either I adapt and I enjoy and I learn and I can get back something on a good level to enjoy on a bike. Or I do not adapt and MotoGP will not be my place anymore."
Zarco's aim is to be racing again, which is why he turned down the Yamaha test job. "Never say never. But I want to be a top rider and to be a top rider you need to race. Even when you race in Moto2 you keep this top rider feeling inside you. You can see what Fabio is doing. Also when I came to MotoGP I had no experience in the class but I did well because the racing mood was there."
A lesson journalistic ethics
Zarco's name has been linked to replacing Jorge Lorenzo at Repsol Honda, and at Phillip Island, a stupid mix up helped stoke the fires of those rumors. In a group WhatsApp chat among the press officers of the MotoGP teams, someone posted then deleted a rumor that Lorenzo was on the verge of announcing his retirement.
Lorenzo was not amused by the whole situation, especially as he turned up to his debrief to find just about every journalist and photographer on hand, a change from the small and dedicated band who come to talk to him at the end of every day.
"I was surprised when I entered here and some of you were making pictures," Lorenzo said, dripping sarcasm. "Very strange." He dismissed the rumors out of hand, saying they were totally false. "Today you can take rumors from everywhere, from chats, for WhatsApp, from forums, from Internet, from some talk in the paddock. So it's a matter of your opinion to take it as true or not. But as you can see, and what I'm saying is that it's completely false, and this race is just a normal race that I have to try to improve my performance and my riding on the track."
Silly Season strikes early
The problem is, of course, that Silly Season Fever is starting to strike the paddock. With the championship settled, and everyone out of contract at the end of 2020, two things are happening. First, idle minds are looking for stories to fill the void left by the championship battle. And second, so many changes are expected at the end of 2020 that preliminary negotiations are already starting to fire up. Moto2 riders, for example, are all signing one-year deals for just 2020, to ensure they are available if a seat in MotoGP opens up in 2021.
So there is a mix of unsubstantiated rumor, real talks, and wishful thinking consuming the paddock. Alex Márquez is being linked with Pramac Ducati, a rumor which could well have some substance to it. Andrea Dovizioso is being linked with KTM, a rumor which appears to have nothing at all to it. Maverick Viñales is being linked to Ducati, which seems to be more a theoretical suggestion than anything based in fact. And there's the list of riders who will, could, or might retire: Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi, Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone. But also Tito Rabat, perhaps? One or both of the Espargaro brothers? Jorge Lorenzo?
And it is only just starting. The period between now and the end of November, before everyone departs for the winter break, is likely to see feverish mix of negotiations, real and imagined. Things will ramp up even further in the new year, once everyone returns from the Christmas and New Year break. I suggest you strap in and brace yourself.
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