There can hardly be a greater contrast between Motegi, the track where MotoGP spent last weekend, and Phillip Island, where they are headed next. Motegi is pretty much a state-of-the-art facility, with spacious pit garages, excellent spectator facilities and an air-conditioned press area. Phillip Island, on the other hand, is like a trip back to the 1950s: The pit garages are about as sturdy as your average garden shed, the spectator seating consists mostly of grass, and the commentary positions sway gently in the winds which sweep across the Bass Strait and buffet the circuit.
But despite the ramshackle pits, cramped press room and spartan spectator facilities, the riders, teams, press and fans all love Phillip Island, and would choose the Australian circuit over Motegi every time. For the track layouts are just as much a reflection of the philosophy and history of each circuit as the facilities are. The Motegi circuit is a purpose-built testing facility, and consequently, each turn is precisely engineered to test a particular aspect of vehicle dynamics, and connected to the following corner by the shortest means possible.
Nature Versus Nurture
Phillip Island, on the other hand, is an ancient road course which has grown and mutated organically over time to become a flowing, rolling ribbon of tarmac sweeping over the hills and dales of the terrain. None of the corners were really designed, and apart from the front straight hosting the start and finish line, there's hardly a straight line on the track. It is a testament to the genius of nature, rather than the human intellect, and shows just what can be done when track designers submit to the landscape, rather than dictate to it from behind a CAD station.
The rightness of this approach is made very forcefully straight from the first corner. As you cross the line to start the lap, the Gardner Straight drops away ahead of you, before you start braking for Doohan Corner. The corner does its venerable name perfect justice: it is big, fast, and very, very scary. It's then up and over the Southern Loop, the first of the many long left handers, followed by another fast left flick before the first opportunity to pass on the brakes.
Honda Corner is - by the standards of Phillip Island - a painfully slow right, with plenty of chances to outbrake your rivals into the turn. Naturally, this is likely leave you at a disadvantage on the exit, heeled over for the curve of Turn 5, before hitting another aptly named corner. Turn 6 sits at the very edge of the Island, not very far from the rocky shores which are lashed by the wind and weather coming in from the Bass Strait. Climbing up to Turn 6 with nothing ahead of you but sky, and a solitary tree, it feels like you are approaching the end of the world. They could have called this cold, wind-blown and lonely corner Finis Terra, but found a better name instead: Siberia.
Stairway To Heaven
Once out of Siberia, the track twists and turns, rolling downhill again past Hayshed, before climbing, gently at first, then steeply up to the most important part of the track, and one of the most spectacular spots in motorcycle racing. Laguna Seca has the Corkscrew, Donington Park has the Craner Curves, but Phillip Island has Lukey Heights. As you start to turn in, the climb gets steeper, taking you up, and off to the left. Then, just as you hit the apex of the corner, the turn starts to fall away from under you, gradually at first, then ever more precipitously, casting you down into the tight right hander of MG.
In the flat, two-dimensional simplicity of a paper track map, it looks simple enough. But in all three glorious dimensions, it is both a thing of beauty and big-time trouble rolled into one. For a start, there's the difficulty of the corners themselves. Gravity is pushing the weight of the bike backward as you push up the hill, yet you are heeled hard over to get through the turn. Then you hit the brow of the hill, the balance of the bike shifting as the ground starts to drop away, just as you start to think about sitting the bike up for the approach to MG.
As if that weren't bad enough, you are now pitched forward, both by the force of being hard on the brakes and the downhill drop to the bottom of the hill. The front tire is squashed flat, loaded to the limit, yet now you have to fling the bike over again right to get the tight line into the hairpin, ready for the fast and long lefts which follow. The whole section is crucial to a fast lap, yet danger beckons at almost every yard. Go too slow, and you lose many tenths of a second. Go too fast, and you can wash out at the top of the hill, or at the bottom, and your race, or even your weekend, is over.
And that's just riding it on your own. Add other riders into the equation, and the difficulty increases exponentially. Take the ideal racing line through Lukey Heights, and someone brave - or foolish - enough can take the outside line over the hill, putting them up the inside of you going into MG. Stay a little wider over Lukey Heights, and you sacrifice speed and open the door to an inside pass over the hill.
Even if you make it into the braking zone down into MG first, that means very little. The hairpin right rewards courage and brutality in equal measure, and is even tolerant towards sheer insanity, and so this is where your rivals will try to pass you, and where you will try to pass them. The tightness of the turn means that you will often enter this turn three abreast, a move which is only slightly more likely to end in glory than in disaster. But get it right here, and this is the place that you can win the race.
Out of MG, and all you have to do is hold potential assailants off for two corners and it's in the bag. Unfortunately, those two corners are two long left handers, which start fast and just keep getting faster. Not only do you have enraged riders who you have just cut across, block-passed, or jammed your bike underneath at MG pushing you from behind, but you are trying to keep the spinning rear under control, the left side of the tire getting hotter and hotter, while at the same time preventing the front from washing out at well over 130mph, dumping you painfully and ignominiously into the gravel.
The Four Elements
The track layout is difficult enough as it is, but MotoGP chooses to call at Phillip Island right in the middle of the Australian springtime. And sitting just a few yards from the biggest, wildest ocean on the planet, an expanse of water just brimming with energy, with only the island of Tasmania between the circuit and the vast frozen wastes of Antarctica, the weather at Phillip Island is unpredictable at best. The race has been run in the pouring rain, with teams wearing their warmest woolen longjohns in an attempt to stave off hypothermia, and in the blazing sunshine, with perfect racing temperatures making shorts and t-shirts the order of the day.
The one constant is the wind. Whatever the weather, the wind will blow at some point during the weekend, and with nothing to break its force, the wind buffets track and riders. The gusts make it difficult not just to keep the bike on the right line, they either slam into you on the main straight, robbing you of speed and making slipstreaming a highly profitable activity, or they whip up and push you forward, leaving you heading into one of Phillip Island's terrifyingly fast corners going suddenly much quicker than you had bargained on, and left to brake way too deep for either speed or safety.
The wind, the weather and the subtle complexities of the layout make the Phillip Island circuit almost impossible to master, yet there are a few riders who have come very close to perfection at the track. Of those riders, Valentino Rossi is, rather unsurprisingly, probably the best. The Doctor won 5 straight races in a row here, from 2001 to 2005, and has never been off the podium in the premier class. Rossi loves the place, and rates it as one of his absolute favorite tracks - but then, so does just about everyone else on the grid.
The key to Rossi's success is his mastery of Lukey Heights and MG. If you close on Lukey Heights with Valentino Rossi behind you, then the odds are stacked against you coming out of MG still ahead. The outside line, diving up the inside into MG is his trademark move at Phillip Island, and has gained him many a victory here.
And Rossi is sure to be gunning for another win this year. The two seasons that Rossi lost here were also the years that the Italian missed out on the championship, and now that he has the title in the bag, having wrapped it up in Motegi last week, he will want to crown it with victory at Phillip Island. With Rossi in probably the best form of his life, and the Yamaha easily competitive, he is going to be a very hard man to beat.
Rossi's job will not be easy though. The man he took the title from last weekend will want revenge in front of his home crowd. And based on his performance last year, there is a very good chance he'll get it. A year ago, Casey Stoner took off from the front, and after Nicky Hayden's engine destroyed itself in the attempt to keep up with the Australian's Ducati, ended up winning by a very comfortable margin. There can be no doubt that Stoner is fast here, and he will want to give the #1 plate he has been forced to relinquish a worthy outing at home.
The only question mark for the - still - reigning World Champion is over his wrist. The old scaphoid fracture which reopened at Misano has caused Stoner a good deal of pain, but more significantly, the constant battling with the bike and the pain has left his physical condition seriously deteriorated, meaning that the Australian tires much more quickly than usual. Stoner struggled with this problem at Motegi, starting to flag halfway through the race, but the more flowing nature of the Phillip Island track should not place so much stress on his painful left wrist. All the makings of an epic battle between Rossi and Stoner are in place, the only question is, can Casey Stoner hang on until the end?
If Stoner cannot, then the hopes for an Australian victory at home will most likely go unrequited. Unless, of course, it rains: both Chris Vermeulen and Ant West are acknowledged masters of the art of riding in the wet. But frustratingly for the Australian pair, the weather looks like being dry during the day, with the rain falling at night, leaving Vermeulen and West stuck like Tantalus, cursed to watch the water recede as they approach.
It Never Rains
Of the pair, Vermeulen stands the best chance of success in the dry, but of all the tracks that the MotoGP circus visits, Phillip Island is the one at which the Rizla Suzuki is least effective. The chassis upgrades the bike has received throughout the year have helped with some of the edge grip issues the bike has suffered, but the problem is still not completely fixed. The bikes spend a long time at very high speed on the edge of the tire at Phillip Island, and unless the team can find a way around this, Vermeulen's dreams of a victory, or even a podium, are likely to remain just that.
For Ant West, just a top 10 finish would make him happy. The Australian has had a dismal year aboard the Kawasaki, only part of which can be put down to West. Westy has become increasingly dispirited as he has struggled with the frankly awful Kawasaki, usually only able to engage in a fight not to finish last. With this likely to be his final appearance in front of his home crowd on a MotoGP bike, he will want to go out in style. Sadly, and undeservedly, the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
The Australians' team mates are likely to suffer the same fates. Loris Capirossi, Vermeulen's Suzuki team mate, has an outstanding record at Phillip Island, and has been a podium regular over the years. But his task will be a good deal more difficult this weekend, as he will have to overcome the same problems that Vermeulen faces with the Suzuki. The ray of hope for the Italian veteran is his performance in 2007. In a long and difficult year aboard the Ducati GP7, Capirossi came to Phillip Island and got on the podium. The difference with last year, though, is that then, Capirossi arrived fresh from victory at Motegi. This time round, he comes to the Island off the back of only a 6th place.
John Hopkins is in a much bigger hole than Loris Capirossi. The American must surely be regretting his move to Kawasaki by now, despite the extremely positive effect it had on his bank balance. The Kawasaki has been plagued by front end problems and a lack of rear end grip, effectively making it impossible to compete on. The best Hopper can hope for this weekend is a place somewhere in the top 10.
His team mate for next year is in much the same boat. Like Loris Capirossi in 2007, Marco Melandri has had an awful time trying to tame the Ducati, and generally has failed. But unlike Capirossi, Melandri has not really succeeded to tame the Beast from Bologna anywhere. Melandri's only hope for Phillip Island is that the track really suits the Ducati. If he can hang on, then just maybe he could hit the top 10, instead of the bottom 3.
Go Fast, Turn Left
The man slated to take Melandri's place at Ducati is in with a much better chance in Australia. Nicky Hayden has always gone well at Phillip Island, in part because the track consists mostly of very fast left handers, one of the things Hayden truly excels at. As the Kentucky Kid finishes his last few races as a Honda rider, after 10 seasons aboard the bikes with the golden wing, he will want to go out in style. Partly as a display of gratitude to Honda for all the years they invested in him, but mostly to show his thanks to his team, and to show Honda that maybe he was worth a little bit more attention than he received from HRC in recent times.
Hayden's biggest problem will be tires. Phillip Island eats tires, and the combination of the forecast cold weather - 15 degrees Centigrade, or just 59 degrees Fahrenheit - and the punishing track does not bode well for Hayden's Michelins. The French tire company has usually done poorly when conditions have been cold, and this year's race looks like being another test of their ability. Michelin are likely to be out of the MotoGP paddock next year, with Bridgestone heavily tipped to get the contract as the sole tire manufacturer for 2009. After nearly 20 years of domination in motorcycle racing's premier class, Michelin will want to exit MotoGP with their pride intact.
Michelin's woes could also spell disaster for Jorge Lorenzo. Since returning to action at Brno, the Fiat Yamaha man has recovered from his crisis of confidence caused by a series of horrific crashes, and is now on or near the podium at every race. Lorenzo's record here is excellent, winning the 250 race for the past two years, and he will be keen to extend his record. But much will hinge on how well-prepared Michelin are for the conditions if Lorenzo is to have a shot at the podium.
Like Jorge Lorenzo, James Toseland is another reigning World Champion with a record to defend at Phillip Island. JT has been on the podium at every World Superbike held here for the past two years and won the second race of 2007, which featured the second of a pair of epic battles with local hero, Superbike legend and heir to Toseland's World Superbike crown Troy Bayliss. If some of the MotoGP regulars were startled at Toseland's very physical style of riding at the first race of the year at Qatar, they are likely to be positively thunderstruck at Phillip Island. Bayliss ended the race with big black marks from Toseland's tires, so closely fought had the battle been. The fans would surely love to see a similar display from Toseland this year.
His team mate has been less successful in recent years at Phillip Island. But after a series of mediocre performances, his best outing a 7th spot last week, Colin Edwards will be determined to get his season back on track. Though a long-time Michelin rider, Toseland's Tech 3 Yamaha team mate has been increasingly critical of the French tire maker, and if Michelin don't have tires to cope with the low temperatures, Edwards' complaints are likely to become more vocal.
The cool conditions at Phillip Island will make Dani Pedrosa very glad he forced a switch to Bridgestones at Misano. Pedrosa earned a very respectable podium at Motegi, on only his 2nd outing on Japanese rubber, and held off a charging Jorge Lorenzo until the end. With his team learning more about the tires each time they hit the track, Pedrosa will be looking for a strong result once again in Australia. Not just for himself, but also to prove to HRC that they made the right decision in breaking up a very long-standing relationship with Michelin. Pedrosa is yet to get on the podium at Phillip Island on a MotoGP bike, but with the Honda improving, and Pedrosa on an upward spiral since switching tire brands, this could be the year that changes.
Pedrosa's future team mate, Andrea Dovizioso, will be looking forward to next year. Dovizioso has been the revelation of the rookies this year, making it devastatingly clear that he deserves the factory Repsol Honda ride he will have in 2009, but like the other Michelin riders, the young Italian is dependent on just what tires Michelin have brought. If the tires work, then Dovi has the ability to challenge, as his previous outings aboard a 250cc bike have shown. Dovizioso proved that he could stay with the much faster Aprilias aboard the underpowered Honda at a circuit which needs a fast bike, even managing a podium last year. On an underpowered satellite Honda this year, it should be business as usual for Dovizioso.
The Phillip Island circuit is arguably the best track on the MotoGP calendar, both as a place to ride and for creating a racing spectacle. With four men increasingly evenly matched, this year's race promises to be a thrillingly close affair. But as every year at Phillip Island, the weather looks like being a factor, with temperatures forecast to be on the chilly side of comfortable for the entire weekend.
The cold could have a profound effect on the race, if either tire manufacturer gets things absolutely right, or horribly wrong. With tenders for the tire contract due to be submitted by Friday, it is inevitable that tires are going to be the talk of the MotoGP world again all weekend. Hopefully, though, the glorious Phillip Island circuit will weave it's antipodean magic on the MotoGP field and produce another epic. Maybe then, we may start to have an inkling that the closeness of the racing in MotoGP is not just a factor of the tires or the electronics; the circuits have a major impact as well. As long as there are circuits like Phillip Island on the calendar, and as long as the character of the track isn't destroyed as a by-product of the future plans to host a Formula One race here, MotoGP can continue to provide the spectacle we all long for.