Ask any Grand Prix rider for his top three circuits, and you can bet that two names will figure on almost everybody's list: one will be Mugello, and the other will be Phillip Island. The order which the rider in question will put them in may vary, but the two appear so often because they share something special. Three factors make the two tracks such magical places to ride: they are both fast, they are both naturally flowing, and they are both set in spectacular locations.
Though their settings may be equally stunning, there is one major difference between the two. While Mugello sits amid the Mediterranean warmth of a Tuscan hillside, the Bass Strait, which provides the backdrop to the Phillip Island circuit, is the gateway to the cold Southern Ocean, with little or nothing between the track and Antarctica. The icy blast that comes off the sea will chill riders, fans and team members to the bone in minutes, gale force winds often buffeting the bikes and trying to blow them off course, when it isn't throwing seagulls and larger birds into their paths. The fact that the the track has a corner named Siberia tells you all you need to know about conditions at the Australian circuit.
Despite the Antarctic chill, changeable weather, gale force winds, tiny garages and general shabbiness of the place, Phillip Island remains perhaps the best motorcycle racing circuit in the world. It is exactly what a circuit is meant to be: fast, flowing, with one corner leading into another, a few blind corners, and lots of places where the rider's courage is tested to the very limit. At Phillip Island, the rider who is willing and able to carry the speed is the rider who wins.
Does the fact that it is a circuit which favors corner speed over acceleration make it a Yamaha track or a Honda track? In all honesty, Phillip Island is neither. As veteran reporter Dennis Noyes put it, Phillip Island is not a Honda track, it is not a Yamaha track. Phillip Island is a rider's track. If you want a clear indication of how little difference the bike makes, just compare the lap times between MotoGP and World Superbikes. At a tight track like Misano with a similar lap time, the difference between the two series is over two seconds. At Phillip Island, the difference is half that. Indeed, World Superbikes provides an even better yardstick: all year long, the Ducati Panigale has struggled to match the pace of the other WSBK machines. At Phillip Island, the Panigale was on pole.
A sceptic might point out a Honda has won the MotoGP race at the Island for the past two years in a row. But that rather masks the fact that the man riding that Honda had also won the race for the preceding four years, this time on a Ducati. Casey Stoner owned Phillip Island, just as Valentino Rossi had between 2001 and 2005. This is a track where the rider makes the difference, much more so than the machine.
That factor gives Jorge Lorenzo hope that he can claw back points on Marc Marquez before the series heads to Motegi, a circuit which clearly favors the Honda over the Yamaha. With few spots where there is any really hard braking, the Yamaha M1's weakest point - stability in braking - is neatly masked, and it comes down to willingness to push fast through corners. Corner speed is Lorenzo's strongest point - there is arguably no rider on earth capable of carrying as much corner speed as the reigning world champion, though Marc Marquez clearly comes very close - and that can be key to winning here. Lorenzo's record at Phillip Island is very strong since 2010, always finishing and qualifying second, though he was forced to miss the race in 2011 after crashing in the morning warm up and losing the tip of a finger. If Lorenzo is to achieve his increasingly distant aim of taking the championship battle down to Valencia, this is his best chance.
The trouble is, Lorenzo finds himself up against a pair of highly motivated Hondas. Dani Pedrosa arrives at Phillip Island coming off the back of his first victory in five months, winning convincingly at Sepang. Pedrosa has a point to prove, and another win would bring his season total to four, showing that if things had gone a little differently - he hadn't broken a collarbone at the Sachsenring, and he hadn't been thrown from his bike after his teammate had damaged his rear wheel speed sensor at Aragon - he would have still been in genuine contention for the title. Sadly for Pedrosa, luck has always been a very cruel mistress to him.
And then there's Marc Marquez. The youngster looks destined to become the youngest premier class champion of all time, and match Kenny Roberts Sr's achievement of winning the title in his rookie year. Lorenzo praised his young rival as a phenomenon, pointing to both his immense talent, but also to the bike and team he has. Marquez spent the press conference fielding questions comparing him to Casey Stoner, but he played down the comparisons. Of course he had looked at Stoner's data, he said, but the way Stoner rode around the track was special. Emulating that would be hard.
Marquez is also likely to be more cautious than otherwise. As in Sepang, his first priority ensuring he finishes with as many points as possible. He does not need to win the title in Australia; in fact, Honda would probably prefer it if he didn't. If he can take the championship at Motegi, Honda's home track, in front of Honda's board, it would be a much greater coup for the Japanese factory.
The difference between Marquez and Lorenzo is 43 points, meaning that Marquez needs to extend his lead by 7 points to take the title at Phillip Island. Given that both Lorenzo and Marquez are almost guaranteed a podium, based on their form this season, that would mean Marquez would have to win and Lorenzo come third. With Phillip Island being favorable to both Lorenzo and Yamaha, and Lorenzo going all out for the win, with nothing to lose, that outcome seems unlikely.
Throwing a real spanner in the works is one Valentino Rossi. Before Casey Stoner dominated at the track, this was the circuit at which Rossi reigned supreme, much as he did at Mugello in the past. Rossi has been slowly creeping up on the three championship leaders in the last few races, as his crew have worked to resolve the braking problem Rossi has had. With braking less of a problem at Phillip Island, this is the track where the Italian should be able to show where his true potential lies. If Rossi can stay close to his teammate and the two Repsol Hondas, then it will give him hope of a return to more frequent podiums in 2014, once (or if) Yamaha have fixed the braking problem with the M1.
The corollary of that conclusion is that if Rossi can't close the gap to Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Marquez, he must surely start to doubt his own abilities. If the nine time world champion can't match the pace of the front runners at a track where he used to dominate, and where the weaknesses of the bike he is on are most effectively masked, then it could be the first sign that he has lost the very sharpest of his racing edge. If that is the case, then fourth - a position which he has almost exclusive rights to at the moment - could be the best he could hope for.
Not being on the podium would not be a disaster for Rossi, but a sizable gap to the top three would. If Rossi crosses the line just short of the Spanish armada, it will give him hope for the future. If he manages to actually get on the podium, then it could throw a real spanner in the works of the title chase. If he gets ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi could be the deciding factor in the title - or rather, in the timing of when Marquez becomes champion. If he can get between Lorenzo and Marquez, then he could help bring the title back within Lorenzo's reach. It is an intriguing prospect indeed.
Even Cal Crutchlow could get into the mix. Last year, the Tech 3 man took third on the podium, and with his confidence now building again, a podium spot is not beyond the realms of possibility. At Sepang, the Englishman and his crew found the wrong set up for the very hot Malaysian track, but it could work very nicely for the cold conditions at Phillip Island. Crutchlow would dearly like to get back on the podium before the season ends, and Australia is his best hope of doing so.
The flowing layout of Phillip Island could have a major impact in Moto2 and Moto3 as well. In the Moto2 championship, Pol Espargaro has been slowly regaining ground on Scott Redding, cutting the Englishman's lead in the title chase to just 9 points. Espargaro destroyed the field at Phillip Island last year, his lead nearly 17 seconds. But at a track where he does not suffer with the disadvantage of his height and weight, Scott Redding will be determined to pull back as many points as he can. Redding can run the corner speed which Phillip Island demands, and if he can qualify well - the area where he has been underperforming in recent races - he should be able to give Espargaro a run for his money, and perhaps even build a bit more of a cushion again.
In Moto3, Phillip Island could be kind to the Hondas. With top speed less important, the riders on FTR Hondas and the Mahindras should be able to take the fight to the KTMs. The FTR Hondas, in particular, are strong through the corners, and the Honda-mounted men will be looking to exploit whatever advantage they can. There might even be another Australian winner, Jack Miller having been deeply impressive throughout the year on the Racing Team Germany FTR Honda. If Miller can get within a few seconds of the winner at a horsepower track like Sepang, he should be a real threat at Phillip Island.
Of course, all such ruminations could go out of the window if the notorious Phillip Island weather strikes. So far, the forecast looks fair, with sunny conditions - if strong winds - for Friday and Saturday, with more cloud predicted for Sunday. But this is an island on the edge of the largest and fiercest ocean in the world. The weather can turn at any moment. As the saying goes, if you don't like the weather, just wait a couple of minutes. All three Grand Prix classes will be hoping that doesn't hold true on Sunday.