That Phillip Island is a special racetrack is self evident. It is unique in so very many different ways. It flows like Mugello, and has the same high speed nature, with fast corners sweeping through a loop dictated by geography rather than a CAD program. It has a fast front straight, yet it is also a track where slower bikes can find a way to stay with, and even beat, faster bikes. Speed is a factor, but the rider counts for a lot more.
What makes Phillip Island even more unique is its location, exposed to the wild weather which blows in across the Bass Strait. The track has grip, but conditions can change quickly. The sun can warm the asphalt, and the cold ocean wind can whip the heat right out of asphalt and tires just as fast. The track feels more like a force of nature than a technical challenge to be mastered.
Phillip Island is the most visceral circuit on the calendar. It is track you ride with your heart, your body, your emotions, rather than your rational intellect. You have to feel the track to go fast there. And if you're not feeling it, you're not going fast. "It is a circuit that if you don’t feel it, then it is better to stay calm and try to finish on the podium and try to finish the race," is how Marc Márquez described it at the press conference on Thursday before the race."Like Marc said in the press conference on Thursday, you need confidence," Johann Zarco repeated on Sunday. "If you don't have the confidence, it's almost you better don't try."
Sunday's action at Phillip Island was prime example of just how important confidence and feeling is at the track. In all three races, the results were determined by who was feeling it best, who had the confidence in their bikes and themselves to make the moves they needed to win, or get on the podium. And the riders who weren't feeling it, they were abandoned, stragglers who couldn't keep up.
Finding that feeling was made tougher by the weather. Strong winds and heavy rain had limited useful track time on Friday, and then forced the cancellation of qualifying for the MotoGP class on Saturday. That mean reshuffling the schedule to fit qualifying in between warm up and the Moto3 race, starting proceedings an hour earlier than planned. With limited track time, riders had to be up to speed, or they were lost.
Maverick Viñales was the rider most at home on Phillip Island. On Friday afternoon, he had been half a second quicker than anyone else. On Saturday, he was fastest in the morning, and only the red flag and cancellation of FP4 stopped him from getting a shot at reclaiming top spot. In the warm up, he was nearly seven tenths quicker than the opposition, before going on to claim pole by over half a second on Sunday lunchtime. Viñales was the man to beat, and everybody knew it.
The lack of set up time made finding a way to stop Viñales even harder. Arriving on the grid, choices had to be made about tires. Nobody had more than two thirds race distance on either the soft or the hard rear tire – the medium was neither fish nor flesh, not distinct enough from soft or hard to offer any advantage – to know whether the tire would last the distance, and how it would react in the final laps. Track temperatures were higher than they had been for most of the weekend, but dark clouds loomed on the horizon. Riders were faced with a choice, to play it safe or gamble.
The gambling went on all the way to the grid, with Johann Zarco, Fabio Quartararo, and Marc Márquez all switching rear tires when they returned from the sighting lap, Maverick Viñales and Tito Rabat swapping fronts. When the lights went out, it was a journey into the unknown for most of them.
Maverick Viñales may have been unstoppable during qualifying, but starting from pole position did not bring him much advantage. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider got off the line well enough, and held his preferred line as they approached the braking point for Turn 1.
The problem was, others got off the line better. Cal Crutchlow fired through on the inside to the front of the pack momentarily, towing Andrea Iannone along in his wake. On the outside, a determined Valentino Rossi got a rocket start from fourth, firing over the kerbs outside Viñales and past to grab the ideal line on the entrance to Turn 1, swooping past Crutchlow to rocket into the lead.
Marc Márquez, meanwhile, had found himself slightly swamped, dropping down to seventh before changing his line to slide up to fifth. On his outside, Danilo Petrucci, on his inside Andrea Iannone, Márquez tried to hold his line through Turn 2. That forced Petrucci to sit a little wider than he wanted to be, out on the dirt, Márquez bumping him as he defended his position.
Into the grass
As they passed the first apex of the Southern Loop, Fabio Quartararo discovered that his decision on the grid to swap from the soft rear to the hard might have been a mistake, the left side of the tire not warm enough to grip properly, and letting go momentarily to lift him out of the saddle. Danilo Petrucci, out on the dirty line, reacted to the sight of Quartararo's rear tire stepping out and touched the throttle a little too firmly, highsiding himself over the handlebars, and slamming into the rear wheel of Quartararo's Petronas Yamaha back first.
Petrucci came off worse, but was miraculously relatively uninjured. The factory Ducati rider had slammed his left ankle into the ground, but was fortunate that nothing was broken. "At the moment it looks like nothing is broken, but my ankle hurts a lot," Petrucci said. "I hope that the tendons have not been damaged. You can not see that on the X-rays. My hip hurts on the left side, but I think it's just bruises. I hope I feel a little better tomorrow. We will see."
Quartararo could not find any blame with Petrucci. "Honestly, Petrucci hit me, but if he didn’t hit me it would’ve been the same," the Frenchman said. "I’d have gone on the grass and lost all the positions. Maybe I’d have finished the race but honestly the fight for the podium or the top five would’ve been really difficult."
His fate was sealed on the grid, he acknowledged. "We were a little bit strange about the tyre choice. It was between the hard and the soft. In the end we went with the hard and I think it’s easy to say now, but the soft was a safer choice." It was a tough end to the weekend, his second crash in three days, after his big smash in practice on Friday. The race crash brought his total to six, an increase of 50% in one weekend, having only crashed four times in the previous sixteen race rounds.
Sorting itself out
The disappearance of Petrucci and Quartararo made life a fraction simpler for Maverick Viñales. He entered Turn 2 in eighth, exited in sixth, with only Aleix Espargaro between him and Marc Márquez, the man he feared most.
At the front, Valentino Rossi was trying to do his own disappearing act. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider had seized his 400th Grand Prix start like a bull by the horns, and was trying to escape at the front, making the most of his new soft rear. But his lead would not last long. Every lap, as they crossed the line, Cal Crutchlow drew closer.
At the end of Lap 3, Crutchlow had Rossi in his sights. As they howled down the Gardner Straight, Crutchlow pulled out of Rossi's slipstream and used the superior horsepower of the LCR Honda to fly past Rossi as they headed toward Turn 1. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider tried to carry corner speed through the inside of Turn 1, but that just opened the door for Andrea Iannone, the Aprilia rider unleashed at a circuit he loves. In the space of a couple of corners, Rossi had lost two places, and now had Marc Márquez on his tail to worry about.
Iannone was inspired. Second was good, but first was better, and so the Italian hunted down Crutchlow from Siberia all the way to Lukey Heights. Once there, Iannone pounced, inching round the outside at Lukey to dive inside into MG, and into the lead. It was the first time an Aprilia had led a MotoGP race since 2012, when Aleix Espargaro led for a couple of laps in the wet at Valencia astride the Aprilia RSV4-based ART machine.
Sadly for Iannone, he would not recorded as leading a lap, as the Aprilia RS-GP's lack of drive left Iannone parked on the exit, with Cal Crutchlow flying back past into the lead across the line.
The leaders assert themselves
The battle up front had kept a large group together up front. Crutchlow led comfortably, while Iannone, Rossi, Márquez, Viñales, Aleix Espargaro, Jack Miller, Alex Rins, and Andrea Dovizioso slugged it out behind him. Within a couple of laps, that group had sorted itself out, Márquez and Viñales sitting behind Crutchlow, as the rest swapped places behind them.
Viñales was looking ever more dangerous. On Lap 9, he slipped past Márquez at MG Corner and went to chase down Crutchlow. He got past the LCR Honda rider inappropriately at Honda Corner, or Turn 4, sliding clinically inside on a much tighter line. And once past, he turned up the wick, unleashing the speed he had kept bottled up as he made his way through the field.
Anyone with illusions of victory knew they would have to stick with Viñales for as long as possible. Márquez knew that his moment had come, but getting past Crutchlow would not be easy. As the LCR Honda rider crested Lukey Heights, he left a sliver of daylight between himself and the kerb. Márquez did not need a second invitation, and he shoved his Repsol Honda inside Crutchlow on the inside of Lukey.
It was a marginal move, on the limits of the permissible, but there was a gap, and Márquez used it. It surprised Crutchlow, who bumped Márquez when he found the Spaniard on the line he was planning to take. That nudged him wide, and on the wrong line into MG, allowing Andrea Iannone back past.
Crutchlow didn't take the move badly, though. "I'm sure he sees stuff differently to us now and again," the LCR Honda rider joked. "But I have no problem with the move. I stayed on the bike, and that's it. We're racing motorbikes, sometimes there's contact, sometimes there's not."
Márquez was partially contrite about the move on Crutchlow, but the charge of Viñales had left him no choice, he explained. "I was waiting for him, waiting for him, and when he overtook me I just overtook him to try to be there in second place," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Because then I knew that when he overtook Cal he will push a lot. And that is exactly what he did. I did a strong move on Cal, but it was the only chance for me, because if in that lap Maverick opened a half second or a little bit more, then it will be impossible for me."
Viñales upped the pace, and Márquez pushed hard to follow, the pair pulling clear of the rest. Crutchlow tried to follow, but he couldn't match the scorching pace of the leading pair. He was the only one to get anywhere near, however: while Crutchlow was giving away half a second or so a lap, the group behind him were well over a second slower than the leaders.
Márquez had put himself in place to give himself a chance to win, but it was far from simple. The one place he was faster was out of the final corner and along the front straight. From Turn 1 to Turn 10, Viñales had the upper hand, using the superior corner speed and traction to edge away. Márquez had to use every trick he had to stay with the Monster Energy Yamaha rider.
His options to win the race were limited: he didn't have the speed to lead the race, and if he passed, he would simply use up his tire trying to defend. Instead, he sat as close behind Viñales as he could get, and practiced the move he would need to win.
Lap after lap, Márquez exited Turn 11 and tried to close on Viñales through the final corner. Using that drive, he fired onto the straight and closed on Viñales. But he did not pass: as he neared the end of the straight, he eased off the throttle a fraction to stop the engine revving out and taking him past the Yamaha.
He had one, or possibly two shots at the win. As he exited Turn 12 for the penultimate time, he could let his Honda top out, and use the extra horsepower to drive past on the straight. He had already had to test the speed of the Honda, when Viñales gained a little too much of a gap and Márquez had used the straight to close up the gap again. If he took the lead but Viñales came back past again at some point, there was still the very last corner. There might just be enough of a run to the line for Márquez to get past.
Márquez would not need that second option. The Repsol Honda fired past Viñales along the front straight, finally unleashing all of the horsepower available. The difference in speed is visible on the timesheets: for most of the race, Viñales had been going through the speed trap around 330 km/h, with Márquez a little lower as he rolled off earlier. On the last lap, Márquez clocked 337.5 km/h, 16 km/h more than Viñales, who had started to brake earlier to take a wider line and carry corner speed for a counterattack.
That tactic worked for Viñales, and the Monster Energy Yamaha rider was on the tail of the Honda, and ready to pounce. His best chance was at Turn 10, the strongest part of the track for the Yamaha rider, and the place where he had already passed so many riders. It was obvious he was pushing hard, the M1 twitching beneath him, very little grip left in his tires. He came over Lukey Heights seemingly perfectly placed to try to dive up the inside at MG, but the rear of his Yamaha betrayed him. The rear stepped out a fraction, and the M1 started to fishtail, before dropping Viñales to the ground.
Win it or bin it
The Monster Energy Yamaha rider showed no remorse for trying after the race. He was going to try to make that pass come what may. "That was my plan," Viñales admitted. "On the kerb or not, my plan was to go in. Today was a race to win, not to be second. I had the chance so I tried."
Viñales had known it would come down to the last lap when his attempt to break Márquez' resistance mid race had failed. "When I got into first place already I could do 1'29.3. Very fast, and that was important. To keep the good rhythm. I tried to break a little bit at the beginning, but as soon as I saw 15 laps, 'Marc +0.2-0.3' I say 'okay, I'll wait for the last lap'."
He knew that Márquez would attack. "I knew." Viñales said." If Marc was +0, I knew he would overtake in the straight because it's normal. He played his cards. I knew. On my mind was only Turn 10. There was where I was strong, so Turn 10 I needed to be very close to make the attack."
He had no real explanation for the crash. "I locked the rear, maybe I did a mistake or not I don’t know," Viñales said. "I just shifted down one gear and… it 'jumped'. So I really don't know. Maybe I was had a little bit more banking, trying to go to the inside. I really don’t know. For sure it was my fault, because if I made it in a normal way I wouldn't crash." There were lessons to be learned from the race, Viñales insisted, lessons which could bear fruit in the future. "I keep working, I need to understand the way to fight with the Yamaha. So if this time I fell down, maybe next time I can make the attack. We will see. Today was important to learn."
With Viñales out, Márquez went on to claim victory unchallenged. He celebrated the win exuberantly, in no small part because he had not expected to be able to beat Viñales. "Incredible victory because today we were not the fastest one on the racetrack," Márquez said after the race. "Maverick was faster than us, but I was for waiting him. I knew that he was the target."
His strategy was simple. "I just used his slip stream because he was incredibly fast in T2 and T3, I was faster on the last sector and especially on the main straight. We used our engine." The engine Márquez had asked for, with more horsepower, to give him a weapon to wield against the Ducatis, in particular.
As Takeo Yokoyama had explained after Márquez had won the title in Thailand, they gave him more power without worrying would do to the handling of the bike, knowing that Márquez would change his riding style to compensate. "Immediately, Marc understood the bike characteristic had been changed, and immediately, he changed his riding style," Yokoyama-san had explained. "He said many times, if he has a good engine, he doesn't need to push into the braking, push in the corner, and he can save the tire for when he needs it."
That was what Márquez had done at Phillip Island, hung in until the end, and waited for a chance to strike. "That was my plan on the last lap, I overtook him in the main straight then I just tried to close all the doors." The weather added a curve ball, with spots of rain starting to appear on that final lap. "Then I saw that it start to rain, especially on turn 3, on turn 6. I said, what’s going on? But just I was trying to brake so deep going in. I was sliding a lot on the rear because the tire was finished."
Beating the odds
Márquez knew where to expect the counterattack. Viñales had been imperious through MG corner, passing Aleix Espargaro there, and Márquez twice." In turn ten already he overtook me two times," Márquez said. "I knew he will come. Then I just went in so deep and with quite strong braking. I didn’t know that he crashed, but I had a second chance. I think before the finish line I was able to overtake him too."
This is not modesty on Márquez' part, trying to hide his superiority over the rest of the field. His track record in 2019 tells the tale of when Márquez believes he can win and not. He and his team study the results of practice, and when he knows he has an advantage, the reigning champion grabs the front and makes a break.
Argentina, Jerez, Le Mans, Brno, Aragon, these were races which were never really in doubt after the first couple of laps. Misano, and now Phillip Island, these were races where he had one shot at victory, and that was to try to outfox the faster rider on the last lap. That he can manage is testament to just how good Márquez has been this year.
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