Will championships be decided tomorrow? The Moto3 title could well be settled after the race, a lot of bleary-eyed British fans clinging to their cappuccinos in a desperate attempt to stay awake. It won't take much: Danny Kent just has to finish ahead of Enea Bastianini and higher than seventh to be sure. The MotoGP title is still too close to be settled at Phillip Island, but tomorrow's race could well turn out to be pivotal. If Valentino Rossi finishes ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, the Italian will have one hand on the MotoGP crown. If Lorenzo finishes ahead of Rossi, and especially if he can put some bodies between himself and his Movistar Yamaha teammate, then the pendulum might finally start to swing back Lorenzo's way.
Lorenzo put himself in a good position to try to achieve that, ably assisted by Valentino Rossi, and hindered by Andrea Iannone. Once again, Lorenzo and his crew showed themselves to be masters of tactics in the 15-minute qualifying sessions, and not afraid of a little sleight of hand. As the clock counted down towards the start of Q2, Lorenzo's mechanics pushed his bike up onto the starting rollers, and prepared it for him to leave the pits. Lorenzo walked out towards the bike, stood beside it, and looked around to see that the rest of the twelve riders in Q2 were all making their way onto their bikes and into pit lane.
Once certain they were all on their way out, he turned around, marched back inside the Movistar Yamaha garage and sat down for a minute. Pit lane now cleared, and an empty track both ahead and behind, Lorenzo went out for his first flying lap, and attempt at pole. He came up a little short, managing only the third-fastest time, and came in after just one lap. The shortness of Phillip Island, combined with a relatively short and straightforward pit lane, meant he still had plenty of time for a two-stop strategy. His crew put in a new tire ready for another attack at pole, and out Lorenzo went, just behind Andrea Iannone.
The best-laid plans of mice and men
This is where Lorenzo's strategy started to go askew. Once Lorenzo started to get up to speed, he passed Iannone and pushed to try to close the gap on the pole time set by Marc Márquez. He got close, cracking into 1'28s and starting to make an impression. Unfortunately, Iannone had seen him go by, and latched onto his tail, certain of a having a fast wheel to follow. Lorenzo crossed the line in 1'28.839, Iannone was 0.018 quicker, the Ducati aided by the tow from Lorenzo. Lorenzo came in one last time for a fresh tire, and went out once again. Iannone followed Lorenzo in, grabbed another tire and followed the Spaniard out again. When Lorenzo pushed, Iannone was once again perfectly placed to use Lorenzo as a target and follow him home. They both crossed the line in identical times, a lap of 1'28.680. Tied on qualifying times, the rules state the grid must be settled by the second fastest lap. That was Iannone's first lap following Lorenzo, and the Italian will start ahead of the Movistar Yamaha on the grid, taking second spot and leaving Lorenzo third.
Lorenzo was clearly furious, feeling that Iannone had stolen second place from him. Iannone acknowledged his debt to the Spaniard, admitting that he had gained at least a couple of tenths from the tow. He apologized to Lorenzo afterwards, and told the official MotoGP.com website that the Spaniard had forgiven him, as it was the first time this year that Iannone had taken advantage of him. But Iannone understood Lorenzo's frustration. "He's a big champion," Iannone said. Lorenzo later told reporters that Iannone had promised to pay him back at some point in the future. Tomorrow would be as good a time as any, as far as Lorenzo is concerned.
Lorenzo's anger is perhaps understandable. He will now start from the right-hand side of the track, which puts him on the inside line for Turn 1. Starting from the second on the grid in the middle of the track would give him a much better run into the first corner, and a chance to try to make the break. Having Iannone beside him makes things hard enough, the Ducati man having already shown he is capable of getting as good a start as Lorenzo, if not better. Having to start on a worse line and a couple of meters behind Iannone makes Lorenzo's task all the more difficult.
If you think you have it bad...
The only consolation for Lorenzo is that his teammate has qualified so poorly. Valentino Rossi starts from seventh, on the third row of the grid. Though the Italian is not far off in race pace, qualifying simply did not go to plan. "The last qualifying worked not so bad, but unfortunately, this time we didn't arrive ready," Rossi said. The problems were not just in qualifying, but also in FP4. "We tried two bikes, but nothing worked." The gambled on an untried set up during qualifying, but it did not pay off as hoped. "It's a shame, because in reality, if I'm one tenth faster, I can start fifth. But like this, on the third row, it's more difficult," he told reporters.
Starting from the third row has not been that much of a problem so far this year. He has started from there six times this year, twice from seventh, and always finished on the podium, winning twice from eighth position. But the danger of being swallowed up at the start is greater than ever at Phillip Island. He has Iannone ahead of him on the Ducati, but also Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki, and Aleix Espargaro beside him on the Suzuki as well.
So far this year, the Suzuki has been a poor starter, struggling with a lack of acceleration, their conventional gearbox losing out to the seamless gearboxes of the other bikes on the grid. They appear to be struggling less with the rear grip, and may also be able to race the soft rear, where the rest of the field will have to use the medium rear. That soft rear would give the Suzukis an advantage off the line, and make them a tough obstacle in the first laps of the race.
Grip is where Rossi is struggling most. The rear tire just keeps spinning instead of providing drive, even the medium perhaps a fraction too hard for everyone. Rossi put that down to Bridgestone being a little too conservative, after their high-profile problems at the track in 2013. But the track appears to be losing grip faster than expected, and everyone is having problems with rear grip. So Rossi is losing a lot in the final sector, including the two long lefts where the rear is spinning and sliding all the way onto the front straight, the bike just wanting to understeer through those turns.
He was fast, Rossi said, but he was maybe a tenth slower than Lorenzo. He and his crew would have one more shot on Sunday morning, and try to find an improvement during warm up. They needed to find that mythical "something" that so often makes the difference on race day. The one comfort for Rossi was that this is Phillip Island, rather than anywhere else. "This is a very special track," he told Italian media, "the race is very different to the practice."
Asked who he feared, and who could help him in his battle with Lorenzo, Rossi said the key was to be fast from the moment the lights go out. "For me, the race for tomorrow will be about the start and first corners," he said. At least he was not too far off Lorenzo. "Sincerely also Jorge is not fantastic because also he have some problem, but anyway is a bit faster than me." Rossi expected a group of four or so riders to be battling, with himself, Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Iannone all having roughly the same pace.
Follow the leader
They will be fighting over second, though, Rossi believes. "I think that Márquez is clearly the favorite for the race, because he is very fast. Today, unbelievable," he said. The Repsol Honda rider is one of the very few people not complaining about a lack of grip, the Spaniard perhaps suffering less as he is used to not having much grip at the rear, and has found ways of dealing with it. His supremacy in qualifying was vast, putting first a tenth of a second between himself and Lorenzo, then opening the gap up to three tenths.
To put that in context, the gap between Márquez and Iannone in second is almost as much as the gap between Iannone and Aleix Espargaro in eighth. Márquez was fastest all day on Saturday, by four tenths in the morning, six tenths in the afternoon. His race pace is just as superior, three or four tenths a lap quicker than the rest of the field.
It looks like Márquez is heir apparent to Casey Stoner's crown as the fastest man around Phillip Island. But Márquez sounded a note of caution. He is yet to finish a race at the Australian circuit, after disqualification in his first year, then crashing out on the asymmetric front tire in 2014. "We will try to finish the race here in Phillip Island and be there on the podium because here I didn't finish a race in MotoGP," he told the press conference.
Approach with caution
Even though he is the clear favorite, victory will be no pushover. For the past two years, the Honda's weakness has been its starts. Despite starting on pole for the eighth time this year, he has rarely led into the first corner. Both Lorenzo and Iannone are better starters than he is, so Márquez will have to find a way past before he can up the pace. Passing people has not been a problem for the reigning world champion in the past, yet he will be a little more cautious this time round. He is aware of the fact that the two Movistar Yamaha riders are involved in a fight for the title, and so any passes he makes will be done with a little more caution than usual. "It will not be like Jerez, don't worry!" he joked with Lorenzo, a reference to the race in 2013, where Márquez had bumped Lorenzo wide.
While Márquez looks to have the strongest cards, with Lorenzo holding a slight advantage over the chasing group, the question of injuries comes into play. Phillip Island is a circuit which is mostly left handers, and the three men on the front row are all carrying some kind of injury on the left. Márquez has a broken metacarpal in his left hand, Iannone has been struggling with a weak left shoulder all year, after dislocating it in a crash, and Lorenzo suffered a mild sprain in his left shoulder just before Motegi. Phillip Island only really has one place on the track where you can rest a little, and even then, you can find yourself struggling into the headwind and trying to keep the bike stable. Twenty seven laps is a long race, and plenty of time for an injury to start playing up. So far, none of the three has struggled particularly, but then again, this is Phillip Island.
Though his advantage may not be as great as Márquez', Alex Rins is dominating the Moto2 class as completely as Márquez has MotoGP. The Moto2 rookie has come to Phillip Island on a mission, and nothing is standing in his way. He is joined on the front row by Sam Lowes in third, hardly a surprise given that the British rider loves the circuit. But in second sits the son of the man who runs the Pons HP40 team, Axel Pons. Pons has been quick all weekend, and is likely to put up a fight. So far, it has been his teammate Jonas Folger who has stolen the limelight in the AGR team, but it could well be Axel Pons' turn to shine.
Ladies' day down under
There are surprises on the Moto3 grid as well, though they come both a little and a lot further down the grid. Maria Herrera posted the eighth quickest time during Moto3 qualifying, the Husqvarna rider beginning to show some of the potential she showed in the Spanish CEV championship. Herrera's eighth fastest time is the best qualifying performance by a female rider since Ana Carrasco qualified in seventh in 2013, also here at Phillip Island. It is a curious coincidence that both of the women racing in Moto3 should have set their best times at the Australian circuit, with no ready explanation to hand. Even Carrasco's seventh spot is not the best qualifying position by a female rider, though. Taru Rinne, a talented young Finnish woman, put her Honda into second place on the grid for the 125cc race at the West German GP at Hockenheim in 1989.
Herrera may have qualified eighth, but she will not start the race from that slot. Race Direction once again rained down penalties in the Moto3 class, punishing riders throughout practice for lapping too slowly. While Herrera was handed a three-place penalty, and forced to start from eleventh, the highest profile victim was Danny Kent. Kent had been punished for cruising on two separate occasions during FP3, and went into qualifying knowing that wherever he qualified, he would start from six places further down the grid.
Though a painful punishment, it spurred the championship leader on to greater heights. With a minute left in the session and seeing P13 on the board, he knew he needed to pull his finger out. He did just that, carving his way through a group to lay down a time over a third of a second faster than anyone else on the grid. That created the strange situation where Kent was present at the qualifying press conference, and awarded the Tissot watch for his efforts, but he will start from seventh, not pole. That honor goes to John McPhee, the Scotsman riding for Racing Team Germany. McPhee now has a pole position and front row to go with the podium he scored at Indianapolis. That result came from strange conditions, McPhee's time at Phillip Island was earned outright.
Shaking off a tail
There is an irony that it should be Kent to be punished for riding slowly, but it was an inevitable result of the wording of the rules. Any rider found going slower than 110% of their fastest lap through three sectors is given an automatic grid penalty, the aim being to prevent riders from cruising on the racing line looking for a tow. In Kent's case, he was doing the opposite: he was riding slowly alright, but he was riding slowly in an attempt to shake off the pack of riders all trying to get a tow off of him. The scale of the problem was apparent during qualifying: when Kent left the pits for his final run, he found a group of eight or more riders sitting waiting for him. He even stopped the bike at the exit of pit lane, in an attempt to get riders to go past him. They just parked up beside him, and waited.
Starting from seventh is not necessarily an obstacle standing between Kent and the title. Enea Bastianini is having a terrible weekend, struggling for speed in every session. The Italian qualified down in 28th, giving himself a big hill to climb. Kent warned against complacency, however, reminding the press that he had started the Le Mans race from the back of the grid, and fought his way through the pack to finish in fourth. If Bastianini has his day, he can spoil Kent's party. To do that, Bastianini has to score seven points more than Kent, as the Englishman has a 56-point lead over the Italian with three races to go.
Miguel Oliveira could also potentially ruin Kent's party, the Portuguese rider not yet out of contention for the title. He trails Kent by 65 points, and needs to score 16 points more than Kent to prevent the Englishman from winning the title. Kent may feel the title is close, but he will also be wary. Last year's Moto3 race was a classic, with a large group battling for the lead. Kent was in among that group, and got knocked wide and out of the points. He will start the race with a mixture of determination, fear and excitement. "It could be one of the biggest days of my career," Kent said. Though it may feel like it to him if he does clinch the title, the race at Phillip Island will not matter that much. The hard work for Kent's title was done much, much earlier, at just about every race this year. Sunday may be the icing on the cake for Danny Kent, but it was a cake that has been six months in the baking.
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