The Grand Prix Circus has barely had a chance to catch its breath after Motegi before the next round starts in Australia. With a few exceptions, perhaps, a number of teams being forced to either take a much longer route to Australia to avoid the landfall of typhoon Vongfong, or else severely delayed until the worst passed. Still, to call spending even more hours on a plane or at an airport for what is already a very long flight can hardly be regarded as a spot of rest and relaxation.
Still, they have now all gathered at what is almost unanimously regarded as the best racetrack on the planet. Phillip Island is everything a motorsports circuit is suppose to be: fast, flowing, and deeply challenging. There are plenty of spots for a rider to attempt a pass, or try to make up time, but every single one of them requires either exceptional bravery, or the willingness to take a risk. The many brutally fast corners which litter the track separate the men from the boys: Doohan Corner at turn 1, where you arrive at a staggering 340 km/h, turn 3, now dubbed Stoner corner for the way the retired Australian champion would slide both ends through it at over 250 km/h, the approach to Lukey Heights, which drops away to MG, or the final two turns culminating in Swan Corner, speed building throughout before being launched onto the Gardner Straight, and off towards Doohan again. At Phillip Island, there is no place to hide.
After the fiasco of 2013, when both Dunlop and Bridgestone brought tires which would not last the full distance of the race on the resurfaced track. The new surface was two seconds quicker than the old one, putting a lot more heat into the tires than expected. A tire test in March means that the two tire manufacturers now have tires which will last in both Moto2 and MotoGP, meaning that fans can at least be sure of getting their money's worth.
That's not to say that last year's tire fiasco did not generate its own excitement. The race was cut from 27 to 19 laps, with a compulsory pit stop to change bikes (and therefore tires) on either lap 9 or lap 10. The race turned into a tight, three-way battle between Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa. Lorenzo and Pedrosa pitted in time, leaving Marquez leading. However, a miscalculation by Marquez' crew meant that the Spaniard did not come in on the 10th lap. He exited completely level with Lorenzo in the lead, only to be disqualified for his late pit stop a couple of laps later. Marquez' disqualification meant that the 2013 title chase went all the way to the final race at Valencia.
This year's contest should be a lot more straightforward. It should also still be just as exciting, with a lot left to play for despite the fact that Marc Marquez wrapped up the 2014 championship at Motegi. The race for second in the championship is close, with Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi level on 230 points, while Jorge Lorenzo is just 3 points behind. Does second in the championship matter? It may only be first loser, but being first loser is still being first at something. It is about pride, about settling scores, especially in the fight between the three men who have scrapped over the position for much of the season. It is also about momentum: a strong finish in 2014 carries forward to the start of 2015, when the battle kicks off anew.
If Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Rossi are fighting among themselves for pride, and to shake off the humiliation of the early season domination by Marc Marquez, the newly-crowned champ can start racing again without the pressure of the title race. He had smiled and laughed his way through the last few races, he said after clinching the title at Motegi, but he had really felt the pressure, especially after crashing out at Misano and Aragon. He can now just concentrate on riding again, trying to win races and not thinking about anything else.
Marquez faces a pair of resurgent Yamahas, with Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi coming off a run of three wins between them. Rossi had been unstoppable at Misano, Lorenzo had timed his pit stop in the wet race at Aragon perfectly, then dominated the field at Motegi. They have momentum on their side, with Lorenzo looking especially like a steamroller, ready to crush anything in his path. Yet Phillip Island used to be Rossi's track, the Italian winning here five years in a row, until a certain Australian thwarted his run. Now back up to speed on the Yamaha M1, and growing as a rider again – a remarkable feat for a man of 35 years of age, when most riders are thinking either of retirement or World Superbikes – Rossi is out for vengeance, and Phillip Island and Sepang are his two best chances of obtaining them.
The track lightly favors the Yamaha, with its long flowing corners, but the Honda is no slouch around Phillip Island. Picking a favorite to win here is almost impossible: Marquez wants to wipe out the memory of last year, and can ride freely again. Jorge Lorenzo is on a roll, the kind of roll that usually ends in a long winning streak, and is exceptionally quick round the track. Rossi is competitive on the M1 again, and would like to reclaim his title as king of Phillip Island. Dani Pedrosa needs to get his championship back on track, after missing out on the podium for the past four races. Adding the final touch is the battle over second, spicing up the significance of the finishing order. With the weather set to stay dry all weekend, the prospects of a thrilling battle are good.
What of the Ducatis? They come to Phillip Island off the back of a promising weekend at Motegi. Andrea Dovizioso got the Italian factory's first pole since 2010 in Japan, and he ran at the front for the first part of the race, until his tire dropped off and he dropped back. However, if the nature of the Motegi circuit played to the Ducati Desmosedici's strengths, the opposite is true of Phillip Island. Motegi's high speed, high acceleration straights, with the toughest braking on the calendar and short, tight corners are exactly what the Ducati is made for. Phillip Island, on the other hand, is all about carrying corner speed, holding the bike on a line as fast as you dare. There are few braking sections to speak of, with only the Honda Hairpin a place where the Desmosedici might shine. Phillip Island is all about turning, and that is the one area which Gigi Dall'Igna is yet to fix on the Desmosedici. It's going to be a tough weekend for the Ducati men.
More interesting should be the contest in the Open class. Paradoxically, despite being a very high speed track, Phillip Island is less about outright horsepower and more about the ability to carry speed everywhere. That should give the Open class Hondas a chance to get closer to the factory machines, and Aleix Espargaro on the Forward Yamaha could be a lot closer to the front than he has been recently. Nicky Hayden held the lap record around Phillip Island until last year, set on an 800cc Honda RC212V. He may not be able to match that on the underpowered RCV1000R, but he will be chasing a strong finish. The track should be a lot kinder to his right wrist than Motegi was, with much less hard braking and more left handers than rights. Phillip Island could be the opportunity for Hayden to take stock of where he is once again, and see what the production Honda is capable of.
Phillip Island could see the Moto2 title settled. Tito Rabat leads teammate Mika Kallio by 38 points coming in to this weekend, needing just 12 more to wrap it up here. Rabat has been masterful in the last few races, extending his lead at tracks where Kallio had expected to close the gap. A win for Rabat with Kallio finishing off the podium would clinch it for the Spaniard, though that is a big ask. He could get help from Maverick Viñales, who is really coming into his own at the end of his rookie year, just in time before leaving for MotoGP next year with Suzuki. Viñales finished second in Motegi, and is looking increasingly threatening. Then there's Tom Luthi, who won in Japan and finish second here last year. It could be close at the front, which could have some unexpected consequences for the championship.
With the possibility of the championship being settled in Moto2 this weekend, it was strange not to see either Tito Rabat or Mika Kallio in the press conference at Phillip Island. Instead, the two main candidates for the Moto3 title were present, with Alex Marquez alongside his brother Marc, and Miller appearing at his home race. The championship is far from settled, with Marquez leading Miller by 25 points. Miller will be keen to both make amends for his mistake at Motegi, and win in front of his home crowd. The size of that crowd will be interesting as well: last year, the first after Casey Stoner retired, numbers were down significantly at Phillip Island. With Miller still in the running for a championship, a hot favorite to win the race, and on his way up to MotoGP in 2015, the appeal to local crowds must be larger.
There was news off track as well as on it between Motegi and Phillip Island. A number of crew chief changes were confirmed. With Jonathan Rea leaving Honda for Kawasaki in World Superbikes, his respected crew chief Chris Pike will be heading to MotoGP, where he will be working with Scott Redding in Marc VDS. Pike has some brief experience in MotoGP, having accompanied Rea when he subbed for the injured Casey Stoner back in 2012. Having a smart engineer, who speaks the same language as he does will be a positive boon for Redding when he climbs aboard the factory-spec RC213V.
At Ducati, Andrea Iannone will be bringing his crew chief, Marco Rigamonti, with him from Pramac into the factory Ducati team. Cal Crutchlow's crew chief, Daniele Romagnoli, will not be able to join Crutchlow at LCR Honda, Crutchlow being partnered with long-time LCR crew chief Christophe 'Beefy' Bourguignon. Romagnoli will be staying with Ducati, however, though it is not certain whether he will be placed with the Pramac or the Avintia teams.
With Jack Miller moving to LCR Honda to ride the brand new production bike, the RC213V-RS, he will also be needing a new crew chief. In a sign of HRC's belief in the Australian youngster, Miller is to have Cristian Gabarrini as his crew chief, the man who previously worked with Casey Stoner at Ducati. Gabarrini spent 2014 running the production Hondas for HRC, but will return to a role in the garage for next year. It now appears that the new Honda production bike, the RC213V-RS, will not be ready for the Valencia test, however. The 2015 bike, basically the 2014 factory option RC213V without the seamless gearbox, and the factory electronics, will only be available at the first test at Sepang.