Phillip Island, like Mugello, is one of the tracks which any motorcycle racer worth their salt puts at the very top of their list of favorite tracks. And rightly so: swooping over gently undulating ground sitting atop cliffs overlooking a bay on the Bass Strait, it is perhaps the greatest of the natural race tracks. It has everything a race track should have: a collection of fast, sweeping corners which richly reward bravery; a couple of hard braking corners fast and slow at which to overtake; a superb and treacherous combination of turns in Lukey Heights and MG at which to make a last ditch passing attempt, and a long enough run to the finish line to make drafting a possibility. Add in arguably the most breathtaking setting on the calendar, and you have just about everything.
Of course, the glory of Phillip Island also has its downsides. The flowing nature of the track and limited number of turns means that the bikes spend a lot of time on the left-hand side of the tire, often at very high speed. With very high loads on the left-hand side, and very low loads on the right, both producing and managing tires is difficult. Add in the fact that in October, the start of the Australian spring, it can be still be very chilly indeed, especially with the strong winds blowing off the Bass Strait, with next to nothing between them and the Antarctic, and it is a potential recipe for disaster. Tires cool quickly, and each right hander has to be approached with respect. Get it wrong, and your race is over very quickly.
Tires have always been an issue at Phillip Island, providing just the sort of challenge which tire manufacturers relish. That they are not always up to the challenge was demonstrated in 2013, when Bridgestone drastically underestimated the effect of the newly resurfaced circuit. Massive problems with overheating forced Race Direction to shorten the race and introduce compulsory pit stops, a workaround which produced a fascinating race, with the added spice of a disqualification, Marc Márquez being black-flagged for not making his pit stop in time.
Last year saw another solution to the perennial tire problems at Phillip Island. Bridgestone brought an asymmetric front tire to the circuit, with much softer rubber on the right-hand side of the tire. The tire worked well enough during practice, but a dramatic drop in temperature during the race – some 10°C in less than half an hour – created severe problems for anyone who used the asymmetric front. Most crashed out, others circulated cautiously, and the rider order across the finish line changed many times before the checkered flag.
Bridgestone are bringing the asymmetric front tire once again this year, and that already has a number of riders spooked. "I'll tell you what, there is no way I am touching the asymmetric front," Cal Crutchlow said, speaking at Motegi. Things should be better this year, though, as the design of the tire has changed. The point at which the two rubbers meet has been modified, and the transition changed to make it easier to manage. Those who choose to avoid it could end up regretting that choice, if the new tire performs as expected.
Because the track places such a heavy load on tires, Bridgestone will not be bringing the edge-treated tires to Phillip Island. Contrary to popular fan mythology, that does not mean you can write Jorge Lorenzo off, however. Phillip Island is like Mugello in another way, not needing the edge treatment to make the tires work. At Mugello, Lorenzo walked away from the field, despite not having the edge-treated tires. At Phillip Island last year, Lorenzo qualified in third, and ran a strong pace early into the race until he ran into tire troubles. Not with the rear, the tire which gets the edge treatment, but with the front. Lorenzo had elected to run the extra soft front, and though the right side had worked perfectly, the left was destroyed. Probably as a result of the extra load Lorenzo places on tires from carrying corner speed.
King of Old
Valentino Rossi, using the same tire, did not suffer the same problems. Rossi took his second win of the year at Phillip Island in 2014, staying upright after Marc Márquez had crashed out in front of him. Rossi rode a strong race in the middle of a strong final stretch, and went a long way to securing second place in the championship here. With his victory, Rossi brought his total tally of wins at the Island to six, after winning five in a row from 2001 to 2005. It is an astonishing record, fifteen podiums from nineteen starts in all classes, and thirteen podiums in MotoGP. The only two times he didn't make a trip to the podium were during his years at Ducati.
The fact that this is Rossi's twentieth visit to Phillip Island is a mark of his longevity. On Sunday, he will draw level with Loris Capirossi for the most Grand Prix starts with 328. The difference between the the two Italians is marked, however. When Capirossi racked up his 328th start, he had become a tail-ender, languishing near the bottom of the championship. Rossi starts his 328th race hoping to extend his lead in the championship, preferably with a win.
To do that, he has a lot of people he needs to beat. First and foremost, there is his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo also no slouch around the circuit. The Spaniard holds the pole record for the circuit, set in 2013. He has finished on the podium at the Island for the past three years, winning once in 2013. He has not finished lower than second since 2010, though he also missed 2011 with injury. The flowing nature of the track suits his riding style down to the ground, all about carrying corner speed.
It is a good job Lorenzo is so fast around Phillip Island. Trailing Valentino Rossi by 18 points with three races to go, he really needs to start getting points back, preferably by winning the race. He has not yet reached the point of desperation, where he must risk crashing in an all-or-nothing dash for points. But he there is little room left for caution.
A helping hand
Even if Lorenzo wins the remaining three races, he will still need help from other riders to get in between himself and Rossi. Fortunately, Phillip Island is everyone's favorite, and the list of riders gunning for a podium is very long indeed. Marc Márquez must surely be the prime candidate to finish ahead of Valentino Rossi, though the danger for Lorenzo is that Márquez is probably capable of taking points from both Movistar Yamaha riders.
The question Márquez must face is whether the Honda is up to it, after the RC213V has been problematic all season. Phillip Island is a track which masks the bike's problems, offering hope to all of the Honda riders. There are only two corners where the rear braking issue is a problem, and success for Márquez will come down to whether his crew manage to solve the Honda's lack of grip. If they can find some drive for him out of the corner, the reigning world champion should be in with a shot at a win at PI. As one of only two tracks were the Spaniard hasn't won on a MotoGP bike – the other being Motegi – he will be keen to rectify that.
With a disqualification in 2013, and a crash on the asymmetric tire in 2014, Márquez will not want Phillip Island to turn into a bogey track for him. The circuit already holds bad memories for the Repsol Honda rider, after his horrendous and extremely dangerous crash during practice with Ratthapark Wilairot in Moto2. Márquez received a remarkably lenient punishment for that incident, caused when Márquez was still pushing at race speed despite the session already being over. He came through the field to finish third, but arguably, he should never have been allowed to start.
Márquez is not the only Honda who could get between the Yamahas, Dani Pedrosa coming off a dominant win at Motegi and bursting with confidence. He is starting to believe that the arm pump surgery he underwent earlier this year has been a complete success, and at a flowing, largely left-handed track like Phillip Island, it should not trouble him at all. Pedrosa has a point to prove, and though is record in Australia is rather poor, this could be the year that things change. Dani Pedrosa could well put the cat among the pigeons at Phillip Island.
In fact, the pigeons at Phillip Island could well end up filing a lawsuit for harassment given the potential number of cats they may to contend with. As Casey Stoner proved during his period of domination at his home circuit, the track is much, much more about the rider than the bike. Fast corners mean that outright horsepower is less of a factor, helping to level the playing field. The bike has to turn, but a half-decent set up will allow a good rider to go fast whatever he is on. The Ducatis were already fast here last year, Cal Crutchlow almost getting on the podium on the GP14.2. The Suzukis, which are probably the best handling bike on the grid, are lacking in acceleration, but that should not be an issue. Bradley Smith got his maiden podium at Phillip Island last year, and is both a better rider and on a better bike in 2015. Cal Crutchlow is now on a Honda, but equally capable of causing the front runners problems. The two factory Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone should also threaten the Yamahas and Honda, and you can't rule out Danilo Petrucci or Yonny Hernandez on the Pramac bikes.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie
The good news for local fans is that there will be the grand total of three Australians on the grid at Phillip Island. In addition to LCR Honda rider Jack Miller – improving fast, now that he is under the tutelage and iron fist of Alberto Puig – Ant West will be substituting for Karel Abraham, the Czech rider still recovering from a badly injured foot. They will be joined by Damian Cudlin, the Australian taking the place of the injured Alex De Angelis at Ioda Racing. The news emanating from the De Angelis camp is positive: the Italian is still in hospital after his crash at Motegi, but his condition is stabilizing. His family has arrived and is with him now, a relief for any seriously injured rider.
With the Moto2 championship wrapped up, attention turns to Moto3. Danny Kent has a lead of 56 points over Enea Bastianini, and is close to wrapping up the title. A top two finish would do it, as would a third, as long as Bastianini does not win. But Kent has plenty of opportunities left, even if he does lose more than six points to Bastianini. With 19 more points from the next three races, the title will be Kent's.
The Englishman will go into Phillip Island confident, knowing that he can do well at the track. Kent was in the group battling for the win last year, until he was taken out by Brad Binder. That is something he must avoid this year, but the track is built for epic battles. If this year's race is only half as good as the Moto3 race in 2014, fans are in for a treat.
It's Phillip Island, so they are in for a treat anyway. There are race tracks and there are race tracks, and then there is Phillip Island. The jewel in racing's crown.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.