Round 17 of the MotoGP World Championship sees the paddock travel over to our side of the equator for only the second time this season for its annual date with one of the most spectacular and demanding circuits on the whole calendar, our own Phillip Island.
The 4,448m layout is one of the fastest tracks of the year and its high-speed nature makes it one of the most extreme tests for tyres. Fast, flowing turns produce huge amounts of heat, with the final corner being the bend which shows the highest temperature of any of the 278 turns that the MotoGP field face during the 19-race season.
Phillip Island looks directly out over the Bass Strait and on to the Tasman Sea, but this stunning backdrop can also provide extremely inclement weather, from heavy rain to wintry showers. At this stage though, we are looking set for a mainly fine weekend.
Marc Marquez will be the favourite as arriving in Australia this season. Not only for his seventh crown, wrapped up only days ago at Motegi, or even for his stats from the season. It’s not even for his win count at the track, it’s his pace at Phillip Island that widens eyes – with pole position taken often. Marquez has won some incredible races here – and taken some DNFs – as well as going from P38 on the grid in Moto2 and getting on the podium. The king around here used to be Casey Stoner; now he goes by another name.
Repsol Honda are heading to Australia chasing a record 24th Constructors Title, which would also be Honda’s seventh in the past eight years. With a 47-point lead and three races remaining in the season, there is a chance for the company to reach the prestigious achievement at Phillip Island.
“It’s a great feeling to arrive in Australia with the Title already won, and I really look forward to enjoying the end of the season. Of course there are also the Constructors and the Teams’ titles to think of, so we’ll try to keep the same level of performance and win more races to achieve those goals as well, as they’re important for us and for Honda. I love Phillip Island; it’s a fast track that always favours race-long battles that are a great show for the fans. I just hope the weather will be good because it can change from sunny and warm to cold and windy in a matter of hours. Anyway, we’ll see; we’ll definitely try to be at the front and have fun.”
The other rider with the top recent record isn’t racing, either – with Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) out through injury. So that leaves only Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) as the other man with a great track record at the Island – including his most recent win in 2014 – but the ‘Doctor’ also dominated the venue before the arrival of Stoner. Phillip Island could suit Yamaha a little more than some tracks of late…
So what of the man whose absence on the final laps in Japan was so notable? Andrea Dovizioso’s crash may have assured Marquez the crown, but it also robbed us of another incredible duel. On a more positive note the Italian went out swinging and if the 04 machine crashes out, it usually means one thing – he gave everything.
Now ‘DesmoDovi’ resets to making sure he’ll end the year second overall, and carries on trying to garner as many wins as possible, race by race. Last year in Australia the race was one of the toughest of the season for Ducati so that may not be here, and some more points and keeping tabs on the Yamahas will be the goal. Rossi lurks within striking distance, but the gap back to Viñales gives Dovizioso a little more breathing space.
The fight to be top Independent Team rider, meanwhile, is beginning to space out a little more too. With his second place at Motegi, Cal Crutchlow moved to 148 points, within seven points of Viñales – and he’s a previous winner at the Island.
Behind the Brit, Johann Zarco is on 133 – and Danilo Petrucci has exactly the same, but Zarco remains ahead in the fight by virtue of his podiums. It quite literally couldn’t get any closer, and last season Zarco was tantalizingly close to the podium.
“Phillip Island is an amazing track, pretty fast and with the MotoGP it feels like pure adrenaline on every lap. I had a fantastic race there last year and it would be nice to have a race in the front group again this time. I know, that my team likes this track a lot as well and this helps me to give me a strong bike. It’s a nice place to race, I hope we are going to have some good weather, because if it’s rainy and cold, the conditions are quite tricky, but when it’s sunny, it will be funny for sure.”
Alex Rins is beginning to home in on all three, too, and after another podium he could be a complication for the three ahead of him. But the home crowd will likely have eyes for Jack Miller, who had a front row start in Japan and solid pace until crashing out of contention. He’s got form at Phillip Island, and he’ll be aiming to be more than just top Independent…
Rookie of the Year is also close and Franco Morbidelli is ahead but Hafizh Syahrin took a top ten just ahead of his rival last time out – so there’s plenty life left in that fight. That’s not even everything to look for in Australia – with Alvaro Bautista riding Lorenzo’s Ducati Team machine and a rookie to the GP18.
“I’m looking forward to Phillip Island, because we’ve just done a very good race in Motegi and we are in great shape with the bike and had a decent rhythm. It’s not my best track, but I’ll try my best for sure. I aim to be in front of my rookie rivals in order to get closer in the points. But most of all, I hope to have good weather there.”
Another rookie will be in the mix this weekend as 24-year-old Mike Jones will saddle up on an Avintia Ducati GP16. The young Aussie stepping in to the Spanish MotoGP team to replace Álvaro Bautista, who in turn will cover for the injured Jorge Lorenzo at Ducati. Jones actually rode an Avintia Ducati back in 2016 at both Motegi and Phillip Island, and thus will know what to expect in his wildcard appearance with the Angel Nieto team.
“ I’m very excited and grateful to race with the Ángel Nieto Team at my home race of the MotoGP. Phillip Island is a circuit that I know well and enjoy very much. I look forward to learning step by step throughout the weekend and ultimately riding to the best of my ability”.
Even though the Championship is decided and you’d think the pressure is off, there’s still the manufacturer title to win, and it’ll be all-or-nothing at the Island. Find out what happens from the slightly later race time of 1600 (GMT +11) on Sunday as the lights go out at one of the greatest racetracks in the world.
MotoGP Standings following Grand Prix of Japan
Marc MARQUEZ Honda SPA 296
Andrea DOVIZIOSO Ducati ITA 194
Valentino ROSSI Yamaha ITA 185
Maverick VIÑALES Yamaha SPA 155
Cal CRUTCHLOW Honda GBR 148
Johann ZARCO Yamaha FRA 133
Danilo PETRUCCI Ducati ITA 133
Jorge LORENZO Ducati SPA 130
Alex RINS Suzuki SPA 118
Andrea IANNONE Suzuki ITA 113
Dani PEDROSA Honda SPA 95
Alvaro BAUTISTA Ducati SPA 83
Jack MILLER Ducati AUS 74
Franco MORBIDELLI Honda ITA 38
Tito RABAT Ducati SPA 35
Pol ESPARGARO KTM SPA 35
Hafizh SYAHRIN Yamaha MAL 34
Aleix ESPARGARO Aprilia SPA 32
Bradley SMITH KTM GBR 23
Takaaki NAKAGAMI Honda JPN 19
Scott REDDING Aprilia GBR 12
Mika KALLIO KTM FIN 6
Karel ABRAHAM Ducati CZE 5
Katsuyuki NAKASUGA Yamaha JPN 2
Michele PIRRO Ducati ITA 1
Francesco Bagnaia thought he’d taken a valuable second at Motegi, but some time after the race there came an announcement: the man who’d taken the flag just ahead of him, Fabio Quartararo, had been disqualified after running tyre pressures lower than the required minimum. It was heartbreak for the Frenchman but for Bagnaia it was another small step towards the crown.
That means there are a few scenarios for Bagnaia to take the title at the fast and flowing Phillip Island. If he wins, he’ll be Champion if Oliveira doesn’t finish better than fifth. If he’s second, he’ll take the title if Oliveira doesn’t finish better than P9. A third place for Bagnaia means Oliveira has to finish better than 13th, and finally, a fourth for the Italian would mean the Portuguese rider would have to suffer a DNF or not score for Bagnaia to be crowned. But who won last year?
Phillip Island 2017 was the first win for the new KTM Moto2 chassis as Oliveira made a little history, and it was also the start of a three-in-a-row rampage that saw the Portuguese rider unbeaten in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia – with teammate Brad Binder on the podium too. So the Red Bull KTM Ajo team should be walking fairly tall on the way on to the Island, with recent stats on their side.
Luca Marini will also want to get in the battle and join Binder as their teammates fight for the title, and the South African also has third overall in his sights. Alex Marquez took fourth despite a huge highside on Friday in Japan and is another to watch for back at 100%, as well as Motegi podium finisher Lorenzo Baldassarri.
Finally, one man with even more at stake is home hero Remy Gardner (Tech 3 Racing), who has big aspirations. Phillip Island is a track the Aussie hopes will prove a much better fit than the last two.
Moto2 Championship Standings
Francesco BAGNAIA Kalex ITA 279
Miguel OLIVEIRA KTM POR 244
Brad BINDER KTM RSA 167
Lorenzo BALDASSARRI Kalex ITA 148
Alex MARQUEZ Kalex SPA 137
Fabio QUARTARARO Speed Up FRA 136
Joan MIR Kalex SPA 128
Marcel SCHROTTER Kalex GER 123
Mattia PASINI Kalex ITA 114
Luca MARINI Kalex ITA 110
Xavi VIERGE Kalex SPA 109
Iker LECUONA KTM SPA 59
Jorge NAVARRO Kalex SPA 55
Simone CORSI Kalex ITA 47
Sam LOWES KTM GBR 46
…18. Remy GARDNER Tech 3 AUS 28
It was a KTM show in qualifying at Motegi, and on race day it was a group of the Austrian factory’s machines largely fighting it out – joined by the likes of eventual podium finisher Lorenzo Dalla Porta and Championship leader Jorge Martin fighting for Honda glory on their home turf.
In the end, however, it was a push too far for Martin and the Spaniard crashed out – as closest challenger Marco Bezzechi judged the drag to the line to perfection and won in style. That cuts the gap back to just one point.
Phillip Island is a very different track to Motegi and that will likely play a role in equaling the playing field again – and it would be no surprise to see Martin back to having a target on his back. But it’s also a track that provides some of the best racing on Earth and with Moto3 already enjoying that rep, it will definitely be a showcase of what everyone’s got. Can Martin pull that gap back out? Will Bezzecchi be able to pounce?
There are a few seriously fast faces sure to make it more than a duel, however. Dalla Porta, teammate Enea Bastianini, Darryn Binder fresh from his first podium, Gabriel Rodrigo, Dennis Foggia, John McPhee…and last but not least, Martin’s teammate Fabio Di Giannantonio.
‘Diggia’ suffered a huge highside in Japan but thankfully escaped largely unscathed. With Martin’s crash the Italian didn’t lose any ground to the top of the Championship, so his gap remains at 29 points – a longer shot but very much a possible one.
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