The three men on pole for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix have a lot in common. One is already champion in MotoGP, another could become champion on Sunday, the other looks to have taken control of the Moto3 title chase in the past few races. The MotoGP and Moto3 pole sitters are brothers, and the man on pole for Moto2 is a good friend of the brothers. Most importantly, perhaps, all three train together.
The "Rufea Team", as they are known to the Spanish media and among themselves, spend long days pushing each other hard at the dirt track oval in Rufea, a small parish outside of Lleida in Spain. Moto2 championship leader Tito Rabat doesn't spend as much time there as the Marquez brothers Marc and Alex, as he is mainly based in Almeria, where he spends his days whittling away the circuit record. But when he does go, the three go all out for glory, even though they are only racing among themselves, and in front of a couple of friends, and maybe the Marquez brothers' father Julià.
Is it coincidence that the trio should find themselves leading their respective championships? Marc Marquez has already proved his talent, by wrapping up four world championships, including three in a row. Tito Rabat has grown enormously as a rider after switching to the Marc VDS Racing team, and stepping out of the shadow of Pol Espargaro at Pons. Alex Marquez already proved himself in the Spanish championship, got up to speed in Moto3 last year, and is proving to be the steadiest of the Moto3 riders.
But it is about more than talent, despite the abundance of it the trio have. All three have got where they are by hard work – hours and hours spent training, and training at full intensity – and by their commitment to their goals. People who have gone and watched Marc Marquez and the other members of the Rufea Team training at the track (set up at the behest of Emilio Alzamora, who persuaded the local council to lay out a dirt track oval) come away amazed at the ferocity of the training. When Marc Marquez broke his leg there in February, several people who have watched him train commented to me that they were not surprised that he injured himself.
At Motegi, Marquez countered that he had to ride that hard. If you don't ride hard enough to be taking a risk, he argued, then you wouldn't be able to learn enough while training. This, above all, is the key to Marquez' success, and the success of the other members of the Rufea Team. Their attitude, their focus, their approach. Talent will only get you so far, even though it may take you into MotoGP. But talent isn't enough once you start competing with the best in the world. From that point on, it becomes all about dedication, hard work, the will to win, and above all, the willingness to do whatever it takes. To push hard and take risks during training. To shut off the rest of the world while you focus on your goal. To ignore distractions, and punish yourself. It may not make you a particularly good human being, but it is the only path to become an elite athlete, and beating the best in the world.
Marc Marquez has already established himself as the best in the world, and looks set to strengthen that reputation again on Sunday. Not only does Marquez have pole, but he set the strongest pace during FP4. His margin over the Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi is only small, but it may still be fast enough. Despite being free of pressure in the championship, Marquez did all he could in the press conference to suggest that the two Movistar Yamahas would be the bikes to beat. Clearly Lorenzo is fast – and has been all weekend – but the step Marquez made after a difficult start on Friday morning was large. It would be foolish to bet against him here.
If anyone is to beat him, it is Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo started the weekend strongly, and has been improving every session. Not much had been needed, only 'small details' in every sector, he said. Starting from the front row is key, the Spaniard having perfected the art of the fast start. Getting off the line is Marc Marquez' one weakness, so creating a gap on the first lap will be a crucial part of Lorenzo's strategy.
While Marquez is riding without any pressure in the championship, that is not true of Lorenzo. The Movistar Yamaha rider is gunning for second in the championship, lagging just three points behind Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa. His two rivals are behind him on the grid, Pedrosa starting from fifth, while Rossi is in eighth, and the third row of the grid. Rossi's starts have come on strongly in the second half of the season, and he should be close to the front off the line. Dani Pedrosa, on the other hand, has struggled in the early part of the race, and also off the line.
Pedrosa is lucky to be in fifth, however. The Repsol Honda rider has had a pretty awful weekend, struggling with the combination of cold temperatures and hard tires. He has bad chatter, clearly visible on the super slow motion video captured by Dorna. His problems left him eleventh fastest after FP3, meaning Pedrosa had to go through Q1 to get onto the second row. That meant he was short of a tire in Q2, so he did well to end up fifth. Pedrosa will have to hope that his fortunes have now turned around, and try to carry momentum through warm up and into the race.
Cal Crutchlow's second place on the grid marks a real turn of fortune for the Englishman. It is his best qualifying result on the Ducati, and as his year with the Italian factory draws to a close, he appears to be getting a handle on the bike. Since Aragon, Crutchlow has been getting faster, and is no longer just the slowest of the factory Ducatis, despite being on the same bike he started the season on.
The secret of Crutchlow's revival? "I brake later and open the gas earlier," he joked in the press conference. Later, he explained that what he was doing differently was simply giving up on trying to find the perfect set up, and just riding what he has. "If you change things and it makes no difference, you may as well ride what you have got and not change it so much. We have made a couple of changes that haven't worked, so we went back to what we started with and just rode, which is what we did at Aragon and Motegi," he told reporters.
It is a familiar story. Andrea Dovizioso complained of the same thing last year, Valentino Rossi during his years at the factory, Nicky Hayden throughout his tenure at Ducati, even Casey Stoner, until now the only rider capable of winning on the Desmosedici, they all said the same thing. You can turn the bike upside down, move weight backwards and forwards, shorten or lengthen the bike, run it low or run it high, and make absolutely no difference to the feeling with the bike. The key was to accept this, and just ride it like you stole it, taking a lot of risk while you do. Paradoxically, the faster you push the bike, the better it gets.
A front row may be possible with the Ducati, but competing at the front will be hard. After ten laps, the tire starts to drop, still a bigger problem for the Ducatis than for the Yamahas and Hondas. The changes made to the Desmosedici since the start of the season have helped a little in that area, but Crutchlow does not have any of those parts. He will have to cling on at the front for as long as possible, then try to nurse his tires home.
Crutchlow isn't the only strong British rider at Phillip Island. Bradley Smith had his strongest qualifying session since Brno, and will start from fourth on the grid. Smith occasionally shows flashes of the ability which landed him the Tech 3 ride in the first place. If he can put it all together on race day, he should be in for a good result.
In Moto2, the big question is whether Tito Rabat can wrap up the championship this weekend, or whether he will have to wait until Sepang. He has a 38 point lead over his teammate Mika Kallio, meaning that he does not have the championship completely in his own hands. Rabat must win, but Kallio has to finish off the podium. Going by the evidence of free practice, both of those seem very likely. Then again, Rabat dominated practice at Motegi, and still only managed to finish third.
The two men tested their mettle in FP3. Both riders went out and did long runs, full race simulations plus a couple of extra laps, 27 in total. Over the full 27 laps, Rabat was the quicker of the two, completing them just under five seconds quicker than Kallio. Moto2 race distance is 25 laps, however, and take the best 25 laps of each rider during his race simulation, and Rabat is 10.6 seconds quicker. On paper, this is a foregone conclusion. But on track is where it really counts.
The Moto3 race should be the spectacle of the weekend, as ever, and the pressure seems to be getting to the protagonists. Not to Alex Marquez, who sits easily in pole, just ahead of his teammate Alex Rins. But certainly to Jack Miller, who is keen to win in front of his home crowd, and start to cut the gap to Marquez in the championship. Miller's problem is that he will have to start from eighth, two rows behind his main rivals.
That is not a reflection of Miller's real pace, the Red Bull KTM Ajo rider turning very fast laps on his own. But the key to a strong qualifying time in Moto3 at Phillip Island is getting a good tow. Miller's problem is that everyone wants a tow off of him, giving him no option but to try to lap on his own. The situation is clearly frustrating, as demonstrated when Miller sat up just after starting a lap with a clear track ahead of him. Little improvement could come without someone to give him a slipstream, and part the powerful headwinds which blow down Gardner straight.
Miller has beside him an unusual bedfellow. Dutchman Jasper Iwema lost his place in Moto3 this year, after five mediocre seasons in the junior class. That situation was enough to give him the wake up call he needed: his wildcard appearance at his home race in Assen was promising, and since replacing Bryan Schouten (ironically, the more talented rider of the two) at the CIP team, has shown real commitment to improving. In previous years, Iwema's problem was his attitude. He has gone a long way towards fixing that this year.
Ahead of Miller and Iwema are Danny Kent and John McPhee. Kent has found his form in the past few races, with podiums at Brno and Aragon. Likewise, McPhee has really picked up his pace towards the end of this year, as he has grown more comfortable with the bike. Both Kent and McPhee have been accused of lacking aggression, but both riders are working hard on improving. So far, it has paid off.
The weather at Phillip Island has so far been glorious, with the exception of a very light shower at the start of Q2 for MotoGP. That turned out to be nothing more than a quick flurry of rain, the water drying as soon as it hit the track. For Sunday, the weather looks good, only starting to worsen towards the end of the day. That is right when the MotoGP race is due to be run, with a small chance of a shower some time after 4pm. That's the thing about Phillip Island: you never know.
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