Racing is always about balancing risk and reward, but sometimes, that balance is put into very stark contrast. Phillip Island is a very fast track with notoriously blustery weather, with strong winds commonly blowing in rain showers. The weather gods have not looked kindly on this year's Australian Grand Prix, though it has stayed largely dry. Gale-force winds, icy temperatures, and the occasional downpour have, shall we say, livened the proceedings up considerably.
The upside to being battered by strong winds is that the weather can blow out again as quickly as it blew in. Scattered showers are just that: scattered away towards the mainland in the blink of an eye. But they can be scattered over the circuit again in a matter of minutes.
This does not exactly make things easy for the MotoGP riders. Heading along the front straight well north of 330km/h and seeing spots on your visor, then wondering whether Doohan Corner, a 200+km/h corner is going to be completely dry or not is, shall we say, unnerving. Doing all that during qualifying, when you know you only have 15 minutes to post a quick time, doubly so. As the reward goes up, so does the tolerance for risk.
Heart in mouth
"Oh, it's scary, it's real scary!" was how Jack Miller summed it up on Saturday. "Every time I was going into Turn 1, I was going, please don't be too wet, please don't be too wet, please don't have cooled the right hand side of the tire down too much, because I haven't been on the right hand side since Turn 10. So the whole way down the straight, you're just going, god I hope I make it through Turn 1."
It doesn't get much better if you make it through Turn 1 either. "It's heart in mouth, sort of put your stuff on the table and see what you've got," Miller said. "Because I can tell you, going through Hayshed with the bike shaking a little because it's slick, coming out of Turn 6 and through 7 and it starts shaking, and you've got to go through the next corner at really high speeds... it gets the heart pumping, that's for sure."
The weather had everyone's heart pumping before the start of Q2. A brief shower a couple of minutes before the green lights went on tested the nerves of the twelve riders who had made it through to the second qualifying session. Do you go out early, and try to post a lap in case it rains again later, or do you wait and hope the track dries out a little?
Gambling on the weather
Jack Miller decided to gamble. His strategy was simple. "Just try to get out there and get a lap in as soon as possible, because it looked like the rain was rolling in," he said. "But it didn't really roll in, it was in patches, Turn 3, mainly in the parts of the track you don't want it, Turn 3, Turn 1, and the last couple of corners." The problem was it stayed dry for longer than he hoped. "I sort of missed my window to do the lap time. I was sort of doing the donkey work out the front, I was the first bike on track. Which was a good thing for if the rain had come, but it didn't."
That left Miller chasing the times of others with his second tire. The clouds started to gather again as the clock ticked down toward the end of the session, but Miller had dropped down to sixth. It was do or die, and he had to, as he put it, "put his stuff on the table".
In those final minutes, when he, Maverick Viñales, and Johann Zarco were the only riders still pushing for a quick time, as the rain flags were waved and spots of rain struck terror into the hearts of mere mortals, they showed their mettle. All three got close to their fastest times, but couldn't quite improve them.
Nerves of steel
The speed and bravery they showed were quite exceptional. Miller had the bike shaking through Hayshed, had to save the bike on his knee through Lukey Heights, then nearly wiped out altogether at the final corner, a 200km/h left hander. The front slipped, the rear slid, and Miller's foot came off the peg. "Turn 12 was the worst one," Miller said. "I was on a good lap, I think it was my best lap, and just as I went in, full angle, I cracked the gas back on, it was a little bit slicker than I expected and had to hold it up on the elbow for a good while, the leg came off and everything."
Trying to set a quick lap time in those conditions was very difficult, Valentino Rossi concurred. "It was a big risk," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "You have to be very brave because you go very fast and here in Phillip Island you never know how much rain there is. You have to enter with a slick on asphalt that you don’t know if it is dry or wet. You need to have very big balls!"
It was not an experience Johann Zarco was keen to repeat. "It's too much stress," the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider said. "Already in the box we were two minutes before the start, and we saw almost some heavy rain. Then we said, okay, we will try to prepare a bike for the rain. Then I saw the guys going out with the slick tires. So I have to go out with the slick, and you see these drops on the visor, on the helmet, on the screen also of your bike and you wonder if you can push or not. But you know the track is normally still dry. So, it’s almost a switch to do in the mind, and this has been difficult."
Getting it right
Not so difficult he didn't end up third fastest, though. And in stark contrast to the last time he was riding in such mixed conditions, at Assen in 2017. The conditions had been very different, though, according to Zarco. "I remember my decision in the race in Assen 2017," the Frenchman said. "It was maybe after half race that I was already tired. Tried to follow the group because I was fast enough, but I was like at the limit on the dry, so when I saw the rain I stopped into the box thinking that it’s going to be even more rain." That didn't happen, though, and Zarco was left out of contention.
Qualifying at Phillip Island was very different, he explained. "Today it was slick tires, track still dry, but you just need to believe that it’s dry everywhere. Because when you start a fast lap, then you cannot give up too much during the lap. If the bike is running away from you a little bit, it’s okay, but at this speed sometimes it can just go. So I was happy to finish every lap."
Strategy secures pole
Neither Miller, Viñales, nor Zarco were fastest, however. That honor went, naturally enough, to Marc Márquez. Or perhaps not naturally enough: the Repsol Honda rider has been struggling all weekend, his race pace a little way off the pace, unusually for Márquez. "For some reason, all Hondas, we struggle here," he said. "But then step by step we did a really good job with the team, with all Japanese staff. Step by step we improve our feeling. Now looks like I’m very equal on the race pace to the others. There is just one rider, that is Iannone, that is faster than everybody."
Mind games by Márquez or is he serious? His behavior in qualifying made it clear that he fears the Suzuki rider. Márquez keeps a watchful eye on the rider he regards as his main rival on track, which an acute observer can pick up on. At Motegi and Buriram, it was Andrea Dovizioso, but in Australia, it's clearly Andrea Iannone. Márquez made sure he was in the vicinity of Iannone when he went out for qualifying, chasing Alex Rins, who was behind Iannone, on his fast lap of the circuit.
Márquez used Rins and Iannone as a target, rather than getting a tow, and posted a lap which no one could get close to. The Repsol Honda rider took pole, his sixth of the season and fifth in a row at Phillip Island, winning the BMW M Award for best qualifying performance into the bargain. As usual, he made it look easy, but it had been anything but.
"It was so difficult to understand which parts were wet, or the way to push with the bike, because here we are riding over 200 km/h during nearly all lap and it is scary when you see some drops on your visor," Marc Márquez said. "Apart from that, I tried to find the good lap and that was in the first run. Then I already saw that 1'29.1 was a really fast lap."
That was good enough, Márquez decided, not willing to take a risk in the middle of the three flyaway races. "With the second tire I felt not so bad when I went out from the box, but then I saw another small drop. It was raining a little bit and I said, I will not take the risk. We will see if somebody improves, but tomorrow is the race and then next week we have another one. During this weekend we see many, many crashes, and here is easy to be injured."
If it worked for Márquez, it left Andrea Iannone sitting on the second row. The Suzuki Ecstar rider was irritated, but confident of being quick on Sunday. "It was a difficult qualifying, and unfortunately, we did not use 100% of our potential, and we will start from the second row rather than pole position which isn’t so bad," Iannone said. "But in any case today we had a really good chance to take pole but we will not start from first position which is the disappointment. In any case we can control everything apart from the weather so it was a difficult situation but it was okay."
"We’ll see about tomorrow as we arrive with potential and we have a good pace and I am happy," the Italian continued. "The feeling with the bike is not so bad, so this is the most important thing. On the other side it is really important we arrive in the last five laps with good performance from the rear tire to be able to fight on the last give laps. This is key at the moment but we will see."
Could he make the tires last? "It depends on the development of the race and also the wind, so many things, the pace, in case we start from the beginning and push, then it is important to push," Iannone said. "It is very difficult as every race is different, and I have an idea for tomorrow. I know I have a good pace but we will see, it is difficult to know who is strong. For sure Marc also Vale, Viñales, Rins, Dovizioso. Everybody is very close."
Hard or soft?
The key will be tire choice. All three tires work well at Phillip Island, though as usual when that happens, it means riders will tend to go with either the soft or the hard, as the medium rear has neither the grip of the soft nor the duration of the hard. Which tire a rider chooses will determine their strategy. Go with the soft and you might be able to escape early, then try to manage the gap. Go with the hard, and you may be a fraction slower at the start, but have much more performance at the end.
Which way is Andrea Iannone inclined? The race on Sunday will be similar to 2017, but have a different outcome, he predicted. "Tomorrow is more or less like this, but the last five laps no." It was in the last five laps that Iannone lost out in 2017.
The Suzuki Ecstar rider tipped his hand in FP4. Iannone ended the session not just fastest, but with much better pace. His fastest lap was over half a second quicker than Maverick Viñales', but it wasn't just a single lap. He posted 5 laps in the 1'29s, the only rider to get under 1'30. And he did them all on the hard rear tire, posting a 1'29 on a tire with 16 laps on it, or nearly two thirds distance. Marc Márquez knew what he was doing when he singled Iannone out for attention.
Yamahas bounce back
Can the Yamahas match the pace of the Suzuki, or of Márquez? With two Yamahas on the front row, you might expect so. But Maverick Viñales made a point of stressing that it wasn't Yamaha that had got him on the front row, but Maverick Viñales. "I'm happy because in the track that the bikes don't count so much, I can be in the front challenging the top, so it means that our level is there," he said. But the bike was in good shape, at least, and letting him do what he wanted. "I'm actually happy how everything goes. I have a good front, so that’s really important."
Though Valentino Rossi only qualified in seventh, he too is looking better than in recent races. "For me personally it was a good day because I improved the feeling with the bike from yesterday and I am more competitive," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "I was not so bad in FP3 or FP4, which is good for the pace. Unfortunately for the quali the conditions were very, very tricky. It rained a little bit and you don't know how much, you still need to use the slick but you don't know if you can push much or to 100%. This is not my best condition usually."
If conditions had been a little better, Rossi felt that he could have qualified further forward. "I think with a normal quali my potential is a bit better. From the other side, seventh place is the third row, and is nothing special but is not a disaster."
The fact that there were three Yamahas in the top seven was a positive sign, Rossi said. "At this track we are a bit more competitive. Zarco is fast but also Maverick is in good shape and he likes this track. This is positive and we hope to bring the Yamahas on the podium and arrive to the front." Was that because Phillip Island is more of a riders track than a bike track? "It is both. But anyway our bike here works well."
At the other end of the third row sits Andrea Dovizioso. With Danilo Petrucci beside him in eighth, and Jack Miller ahead in sixth, the Ducatis are looking better than they have in a while at Phillip Island. But Dovizioso felt he had been penalized by the conditions during qualifying, which is why he ended up in ninth. "In this first run I didn’t make a good lap time and I exited quite early in the second run to make the lap time immediately but it started to rain immediately. I couldn’t try to improve my lap time. Ninth is not our position but we are struggling a little bit."
The good news for Dovizioso was the improvement from 2017. "We are faster than last year. When we make the pace the speed is not too bad. It’s not like the fastest, but we’re not too far. So it’s better than last year but still our DNA remains." The specific problem for the Ducatis is the sensitivity to wind. " We are struggling, especially when the wind becomes very strong like today. In the middle of the corner it’s very difficult," Dovizioso said.
It was a problem for Danilo Petrucci as well, as the largest rider on the grid. "We are sure that I am bigger than anyone in MotoGP and this puts me back when there is a still opposite wind in fast corners," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I feel the wind pulling my head back and the front becomes very light so I don’t have the same feeling."
Nice day for it
The good news for Ducati – for everyone really – is that Sunday looks set for fair weather, with less wind. But it will also be colder than Saturday, making tire choice very tricky indeed. If you can get the hard rear up to temperature, it shouldn't drop so much once you're underway. But cooler temperatures may make the soft tire a better option, adding durability.
Good weather almost invariably means good racing at Phillip Island. Andrea Iannone may look like he has the best pace, but he must go up against Marc Márquez, who is quick everywhere. Three Yamahas can mix it at the front, though at the moment Maverick Viñales looks stronger than Johann Zarco and Valentino Rossi. Alex Rins is not that far off his teammate, and Andrea Dovizioso, Jack Miller, and Danilo Petrucci could benefit from lighter winds. It should be a good day for a motorcycle race, at one of motorcycle racing's greatest tracks.
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