— MotoGP – Round 16 – Phillip Island
— Aussie watch: quick quintet under the microscope
Across the three classes at this weekend’s Tissot Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix there will be almost 100 starters – and five of the full-time World Championship riders will be racing on home soil. King Casey may not be racing, but there are still Aussies looking for home support in each of the three categories on view, Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP itself.
The numbers home fans are looking for are 50 – 67 – 95 – 8 – 61. The first two belong to our two representatives in the elite MotoGP field, Damian Cudlin and Bryan Staring.
Both are Johnny-come-Latelies in this high-class company: West Australian Staring got the call just before this season started to sign up with Fausto Gresini’s squad, while Taree man Cudlin arrived even later: the race in Aragon, Spain, two weeks ago was his first of the year as he replaced Yonny Hernandez at Paul Bird Motorsport.
It’s Cudlin who rides the #50 bike, a home-grown machine from the British-based Paul Bird Motorsport team. It’s a minor miracle that he is there at all: he crashed at Eastern Creek when he was 18 and was told he might never walk again.
Runner-up in the World Endurance Championship last year, Cudlin spent a long apprenticeship in that category and further honed his skills in his adopted homeland of Germany.
He was German Supersport champion in 2010, made his Moto2 debut in that year’s German Grand Prix, finishing seventh, and earned a MotoGP debut in Japan in 2011 as stand-in for the great Loris Capirossi on a Pramac Ducati.
Now the 30-year-old has been released from IDM Superbike duties with RAC (Racing Against Cancer) BMW in order to accept the PBM offer to ride in all three long-haul races at season’s end.
It hasn’t gone exactly to plan: early retirement in Aragon with gearbox trouble on debut for PBM was followed by a bizarre mishap in Malaysia last weekend when a ruptured exhaust left Cudlin with “a seat like a frying pan” and forced him out after seven laps.
Staring, who rides the #67 bike, proudly has Australian national titles in 125cc, Supersport and Superbike racing on his CV, but the MotoGP learning-curve has proved unusually steep for the 26-year-old from Perth.
“I’ll be going in wide-eyed,” he admitted when the news of his move to the Italian squad broke. Soon after, Staring’s debut turned sour when he retired after just one lap of the Qatar Grand Prix.
“Gutted with my race last night. I still can’t believe it,” he said. “More tricks to MotoGP than what’s in the handbook.”
Staring rides the CRT (Claiming Rules Teams) bike in the Gresini squad as opposed to the faster satellite Honda raced by teammate Alvaro Bautista. Development work and his own apprenticeship are tough.
“If ever we have something new to try I guess that’s where things are slowed down,” says Staring, “as it’s only me doing the laps and I can only do so many laps in a 45-minute session to learn not only the best outcome in terms of that new part while all the time still trying to learn the circuit.
“It’s just an absolutely enormous amount of information to take in over the four sessions before you race. I’ve only got two arms and two legs!”
He’s only got two World Championship points as well, picked up when he made it to the end of a Catalunya race that eight other riders failed to finish. Will he be around the MotoGP scene in 2014? Already we have learned that Moto2 front-runner Scott Redding is moving to the Gresini squad: where that leaves the likeable Staring remains to be seen.
The man on the #95 machine in the Moto2 class will be the most familiar of all to Phillip Island fans. It’s 15 years since Anthony West made his debut there as a 125cc wild card; his last race in Malaysia last weekend was the 200th of his Grand Prix career.
That is a remarkable statistic for two reasons: West has struggled year in, year out to find the machinery and the financial backing to prolong his career. And he is only the second Australian to pass the 200-race milestone, the other being the great Jack Findlay, winner of three premier-class Grands Prix in a 20-year career through the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Just once has Queenslander West stood on the top step of a World Championship podium, and that was at a wet Assen in the Netherlands a whole decade ago. That success cemented West’s enduring ‘Rain Man’ nickname. “I’ve always liked big bikes because you can slide them around and use the rear wheel like in dirt track racing,” he said. “That’s my style, and that’s why I can go fast in the rain.”
Rescued from relative oblivion by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation last year, West surprised everyone, himself included, with second place at Phillip Island. A repeat might be too much to hope for – he hasn’t finished higher than seventh this year – but with Ant West it won’t be for want of trying. He has just scored points for the seventh time this year with 13th in that 200th milestone Grand Prix in Malaysia.
Australia’s last two hopefuls race in the Moto3 class. The #8 Caretta Technology – Racing Team Germany FTR Honda belongs to another Queenslander, Jack Miller. He likes to call himself ‘Aussie Jack’ and is in his second full season in the class.
Miller has exceeded expectations this season with no fewer than 11 points-scoring finishes, putting him seventh overall in the Moto3 standings. Malaysia last weekend saw him storm through to the top six in the closing stages and he now stands seventh overall on 89 points.
Whatever else happens this year, Miller’s future is secure: he has already been signed by the top squad in the category, Aki Ajo’s Red Bull KTM team.
“We are very happy to have signed Jack Miller to ride for us next season,” said the man who has guided names like Mike di Meglio, Sandro Cortese and current MotoGP sensation Marc Marquez to world titles. “I think that everyone has seen that he is one of the biggest talents for the future in the World Championship.”
Where does Miller’s arrival leave current Red Bull KTM Ajo rider Arthur Sissis? The Adelaide youngster rides the #61 bike for that squad this season and must hope for a string of strong results between now and the last race in Valencia to cement his own place. Malaysia didn’t provide one: Sissis qualified poorly and finished 19th.
He too produced a surprise podium finish at the Island last year in third place but Indianapolis brought his only top-six result of 2013 so far and he is four places below his compatriot in the overall standings on 59 points.
All to play for, then, among the Aussie quintet: Staring and Cudlin seeking to secure a place at the elite level, West keen to build on his 200-race foundation, and teenagers Miller and Sissis desperate to make their own way to the top.