Why is it that arguably the greatest motorcycle racing track in the world is built in exactly the wrong place? Sure, the scenery at Phillip Island is spectacular: photos of riders heading down the Gardner Straight looking like they are about to fire off into the Bass Strait have become iconic. But to actually get to create that image? It's one hell of a trek, facing considerable challenges.
The circuit sits balanced on the top of a cliff overlooking the Bass Strait, not quite at the southernmost point of the Australian continent, but not far off. It is located on Phillip Island, normally a place for a quiet vacation, or to go to watch the Penguin Parade, when large numbers of little penguins come ashore at sunset. Phillip Island is two hours from Melbourne, 1000km from Sydney, and 2600km from Jack Miller's home in Townsville, Queensland.
The remoteness of Phillip Island lends it a great deal of charm. Accessible only via a two-lane bridge, and with a number of small towns on the island, it has a rustic, wild feel. A place to surf, to wander the cliffs, to stand and stare across the sea, and ponder the majesty of nature and your own insignificance in that greater whole.
The pilgrim's way
And that's precisely the downside when it comes to grand prix motorcycle racing. A round of MotoGP is a spectacle, an event which deserves to draw the masses to witness it. But to do that, you first have to get there – it is, as said before, a long way from anywhere. Then you have to find somewhere to stay, which is next to impossible, unless you decide to risk hypothermia by camping out on usually soggy ground, or risk a long ride and the hyper-vigilant Victoria traffic police and their excessive enthusiasm for handing out speeding tickets.
To do all this, you also have to brave the weather, the tail end of the antipodean winter, and start of the southern spring. MotoGP's October date is the result of the Australian Grand Prix Corporation's preference that the race be held late in the year, to avoid a clash with the Melbourne F1 race, which is traditionally one of the first races on the F1 calendar, and is held in March or early April. As the AGPC organizes both MotoGP and F1, they get to set their priorities.
Given Melbourne F1 attracts over over 400,000 people over four days, or well over 100,000 fans a day, it is no surprise it takes priority over MotoGP, which sees roughly 35,000 fans on race day, and 86,000 over all three days. Then again, Melbourne F1 takes place in Albert Park, not far from the center of a major city. And Phillip Island is, well, remote, and with little accommodation.
And yet it is a crying shame. Phillip Island is as close to perfect as a motorcycle racing circuit can get, in terms of layout. The only other track that comes close now (since Assen lost its North Loop in 2006) is Mugello. For most riders, fans, journalists, and everyone in the paddock, you would have to put a gun to their heads to make them choose between the two.
What makes Phillip Island so great? It is a track made of corners, rather than straights. That is, the corners all lead into one another, the track flows. The straights are just there to connect the corners, rather than the other way around. Its origins as public roads, reminiscent of Assen, give it a far more natural feel than most purpose-built circuits.
It's starts with that front straight, named after the father of the reigning Moto2 champion Remy Gardner, which rises gently before cresting and leading into the fast and fearsome sweep of Turn 1, named after another great Australian racer, Doohan Corner. Then the long and fast hairpin at Turn 2, a fine place for passing, before exiting onto Turn 3, another candidate for the best corner on the calendar.
A fast exit from Turn 2 leads onto a short straight before that fast left of Turn 3. Fifth gear, over 250 km/h and leaned well over, you also have the wind to contend with, blowing off the Bass Strait. And all that to prepare for the tightest corner of the circuit, the Honda Hairpin at Turn 4.
Talent makes the difference
It is only right that Turn 3, one of the greatest corners on the MotoGP calendar, should be named after one of the greatest riders in MotoGP history. Stoner Corner, named after Casey Stoner because the Australian truly made that corner his own. "We can see that he had in his pocket two and a half tenths, three tenths because of that corner," Stoner's former crew chief Cristian Gabarrini told me when I spoke to him at the Sepang test this year. "He can use it or not. Doing like a human or doing like Casey Stoner means three tenths."
Where did Stoner find those three tenths of a second at his eponymous corner? "If you ask him, he replies to you, 'Okay, there is all this wind, I take some support from the wind. You can easily take some support from the wind.' What? Yeah, support from the wind. So, you are 50 degrees lean angle, 270 km/h, fifth gear, with the steering in the other side. Keep there. Not going outside, and then doing like this, brake, and turn."
After Stoner Corner comes the Honda Hairpin, one of the trickiest points around the circuit. A tight right corner needing a lot of braking to prepare, and consequently, and excellent place to overtake. And because it's a great place to overtake, it's also an easy place to outbrake yourself, or misjudge whether the right side of the front tire has enough heat to carry you though the corner.
Up, down, around
From Honda, the circuit flows through the aptly named Siberia, perched close to the edge of the cliff, before winding its way to Lukey Heights, the most spectacular point in the circuit, and the other best place to overtake. You can try to make a pass through Lukey, or you can line up for the hairpin at Turn 10. The challenge is that you are firing over a crest at Lukey Heights – the clue is in the name – before dropping down to the hairpin at the bottom of the hill. Again, a great place to pass, and an easy place to crash.
Exiting Turn 10 and you get on the gas, punishing the left side of the rear tire. Starting slowly through Turn 11, you build speed through the final corner and back onto Gardner straight, and fire yourself at the crest at the end in an attempt to brake before you launch yourself across the Bass Straight to Tasmania.
The flowing nature of the track, with a lack of hard acceleration and only a couple of places where you are braking really hard, makes for fantastic racing. Like Assen, Silverstone, Mugello, the track lends itself perfectly to close, hard battles, with lots of different ways of going fast. The rider is always capable of making the difference at Phillip Island, reducing the importance of bike performance.
The rider matters
The fact that Phillip Island gives the riders the feeling that they are in control again is why they love it. "The first time you come here it's so unique and special, and you have to use so much of the track," Jack Miller said. "I think that's one of those things that you never lose, is how you can ride around here with the elevation changes, going up over Lukey Heights, and then especially on these 300 horsepower monsters, where you're constantly trying to keep the rear in control, and fighting the thing to change direction."
Miller was reminded of this again when reviewing the 2019 race, where Marc Marquez, Maverick Viñales, Andrea Iannone, Cal Crutchlow, Alex Rins, Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, and himself battled it out in the early laps until Marquez and Viñales broke away.
"Watching the race back from 2019, seeing all the bikes twitching and carrying on, and everybody wrestling to stay over it, that's what gives you the emotion, more than anything," Miller explained. "You RIDE the bike around this track, you really need to force it for everything you do, and I think as a rider, when you're doing all these inputs, and fighting with it, it's like a dance, I guess you can say." Phillip Island is a rider's track, because your riding can make all the difference.
That is obvious from the list of winners at the Australian circuit. Casey Stoner has won six times at Phillip Island, on both a Honda and a Ducati. Valentino Rossi won here five times, on a Honda and a Yamaha. And Marc Marquez has won three times on a Honda, varying from an only just fixed RC213V in 2015 to the bike he dominated on in 2019.
Pick your fighter
What does that mean for this year's edition? It makes it pretty hard to make any kind of prediction at all. The track suits riders, not bikes, and there is quite the collection of riders to choose from in 2022.
But before we turn to riders, perhaps we should first look at Ducati. It has been a very long time – 12 years and nine editions – since a Ducati won the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island. And even then, the race wasn't really won by Ducati; it was Casey Stoner who was doing the winning.
But there are reasons to think that might change this year. First because of the incredible depth of talent at Ducati right now. Ducati have had three different riders win races and six riders on the podium. With three races to go, three Ducati riders – Bagnaia, Miller, and Enea Bastianini – are still in the running for the championship. With that much strength in depth, the odds of a Ducati win are good.
Not your grandaddy's Desmosedici
What has changed? "I think that the biggest difference is the handling of the bike. The chassis is the same, so not so many changes apart from the front fairing, that already this year has helped us a lot in fast corners," Pecco Bagnaia said. Jack Miller also pointed to the new fairing. "For me, our wings and our fairing is smaller than it was in 2019, they work more efficiently, so the bike is actually easier to ride now in terms of aero fighting against the wind."
Bagnaia also comes to Phillip Island on a roll. Since his crash at the Sachsenring, he has racked up 136 points out of a possible maximum of 175, and that includes his crash at Motegi. Four wins and two podiums means he is in very good shape. And more importantly, he has momentum.
Perhaps his biggest threat right now, at least in terms of victory on Sunday, is from his teammate, Jack Miller. Miller's season has completely turned around since the Barcelona test, and has been on an upward trajectory ever since. He arrives at Phillip Island after a win at Motegi, a second place at Buriram, and his own wedding last week in Townsville, Queensland. He has never looked so relaxed, and riding on home turf at a track he loves is pretty much a guarantee of going fast.
Will Miller be allowed to beat his teammate? Just like Johann Zarco in Thailand, Miller is free to go for the win if it's there, as long as he can do so without taking the kind of risks that might end up endangering Bagnaia. Miller himself is conscious of not wanting to have a negative impact on the main title fight, between Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo.
"At the end of the day these guys have a battle between themselves," the Australian told the pre-event press conference. "I’ll try not to do anything silly out there, but it’s every rider’s dream to win their home Grand Prix, it feels awesome to be back here on a factory bike and yeah if we can try to challenge for that on Sunday there’s no doubt I’ll be going for it."
What of Fabio Quartararo? Phillip Island has seen a lot of Yamaha wins, and it is a track where the weak points of the M1 are neatly disguised. There are no slow corners with hard acceleration, and the top speed is set down the front straight coming out of the furiously fast final corner, making it easy to slipstream a much faster bike.
On the other hand, Phillip Island plays directly into the Yamaha's strength. The Yamaha is capable of carrying an inhuman amount of corner speed, and Quartararo can take that even further than any of the other Yamaha riders. At a track where the bikes spend such a long time on their side – so much so that Michelin have to bring a special tire – the Frenchman is more than capable of matching or beating the lap times of any of his rivals.
The real weakness of the Yamaha is its inability to overtake. But even that will be less of a factor at Phillip Island: there are lots of places round the track where you can beat someone with corner speed, and use that to get past.
Warming the front
Of course, the bugbear of overtaking has always been the temperature of the front tire. As that rises, so does the pressure, and that makes the bikes hard to handle. At Phillip Island, the teams usually face the opposite problem: the icy wind blowing in off the Bass Strait sucks the heat out of the tires, meaning you have to treat the front with care. Being in a slipstream may actually help, especially if the temperatures really are in the mid teens Celsius, as forecast for Sunday. "It's going to be more important to understand how to warm up the tire quickly and to manage the tire temperatures, because it's going to be quite cold during the weekend," said Aleix Espargaro
Two other Yamahas to watch, though not necessarily for victory. Franco Morbidelli has been making quiet progress on the Yamaha, and though qualifying remains a problem, his race pace is getting stronger and stronger. At a track which should suit his less aggressive style a little better, he may be further up the field than we have been accustomed to.
The other rider to keep an eye on is someone who has won at Phillip Island before. Cal Crutchlow is demonstrating that he is so much more than a test rider, or at least, he cannot suppress the racer's urge to be as competitive as possible once he sees bikes ahead of him on the track. Though this is a track where he broke his ankle in 2018, an injury which causes him problems to this day, there is no doubting his commitment. At a track where he is fast and where the bike is competitive, he might just put the cat among the pigeons.
Great leap forward
The most interesting question at Phillip Island is where the Aprilias might end up. In 2019, on a much less competitive machine, both Andrea Iannone and Aleix Espargaro were in the middle of the battle for the final podium place, eventually finishing sixth and tenth respectively. But Iannone was less than a second off Jack Miller in third, and Espargaro two seconds behind.
This is a totally different and radically more competitive Aprilia RS-GP. Aleix Espargaro, still in the thick of the championship battle, believes he will be fighting for the podium at least in Australia. "I can’t wait to try the '22 Aprilia here at Phillip Island because in the fast tracks this year, the bike has been very competitive – in Assen, Argentina… Many tracks where you don’t use the brakes, the bike was very competitive," Espargaro said. "So, in this track, I think the bike will work very good, and I can’t wait to try it because it’s a place where you normally enjoy riding, so I can’t wait."
Teammate Maverick Viñales is another winner at Phillip Island, taking victory in 2018. He was fighting with Marc Marquez in 2019 before he crashed out at Lukey Heights, lured into an error by the Honda man. Viñales has been on the podium at Assen and Silverstone, two of the other flowing tracks on the calendar, so Phillip Island ought to suit him as well. Once again, qualifying will be what makes the difference.
Back to the old Marc?
What of the man who beat Viñales in 2019? Marc Marquez is the only rider on the grid to have won multiple MotoGP races at Phillip Island. Normally, he would start the race as favorite, even though he is coming back from that fourth operation on his right arm. This is a track which goes left – perhaps a reason why he has won multiple races there – and will therefore be less of a problem for his arm, as he is gaining strength.
But in the press conference, Marquez was once again playing down his chances, and restating the fact that his main focus is next year, once he is fully race fit again. This year's Honda RC213V may be more of a hindrance than the previous reincarnation, however.
"This 2022 Honda is a Honda that makes me a bit confused," Marquez said. "Sometimes I expect to be struggling a lot and then for some reason we’re going better. Theoretically, here we will struggle a bit but on the other hand it’s one of my favorite tracks, so yeah we will see. We still start with a positive mentality and then during the weekend we will see where we are." But Marquez will be testing parts and setup for Honda again this weekend. "It’s also a weekend where I need to try some things for the future which can affect the weekend a bit, but now it’s time to do it."
Brad the Impaler
The most interesting rookie – or rather, rookie in the MotoGP class – at Phillip Island has to be Brad Binder. He has not finished off the podium since 2014, and won the last two races he competed in here in 2018 and 2019. That was in Moto2, of course, but given how strong Binder has been in the second half of the season, there is reason for him to be optimistic.
Phillip Island also suits the KTM RC16, the layout not featuring many of the tight corners where the bike has struggled. "We haven't been here since 2019 and our bike's changed a lot since then for sure," Binder said. "And honestly, I think from my feeling, where I see our strong points, we seem to be pretty good in the fast and flowing stuff. I expect this to be a good track for us."
His teammate, fresh off a win in Thailand, faces more of a challenge. Miguel Oliveira never managed to perform quite as well at Phillip Island, and the last time he was here on a MotoGP bike in 2019, his weekend ended badly. Oliveira was blown badly off course during a very windy FP4, running into the grass before Turn 1 and crashing heavily. That caused qualifying to be rescheduled, and ruled Oliveira out for the weekend.
Fun with fairings
There is a chance that something similar happens on Friday. The weather is looking reasonable (if very cold and changeable) for Saturday and Sunday, but after the downpour over the past couple of days, very strong winds, with gusts of up to 60 km/h, are expected on Friday. With the grass around the track waterlogged, the chance of rain, and strong winds making riding at a very fast track a treacherous proposition at best, the odds of having a regular, calm Friday to work on the bikes look minimal.
Because Phillip Island is such a blustery spot, the riders are allowed to remove the wings from the fairings. There is some confusion among everyone bar MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge over what, precisely, the teams are allowed to do. But as Aldridge explains in this video on the MotoGP website (registration required), the choice is between all of the wings or none of the wings.
The rules state that at certain tracks (currently only Phillip Island), the following applies: "At certain circuits, for safety reasons it will be permitted for teams to remove the side pods from the aero body. The conditions are that all side pods are removed, and it does not affect the external profile of the homologated fairing."
The confusion is in that phrase "side pods". The riders refer casually to "side pods" to mean something else, just the structures on the side of the fairing, rather than all of the various wings. But as far as the rules are concerned, all attachments on the side of the bike (i.e. including the upper wings, side boxes, and the downforce ducts at the bottom of the Ducati fairing) must be either attached or removed.
In reality, almost everyone will keep their wings, despite the wind. Removing them would have a massive effect on setup, and require a lot of work to get it right. Though some teams have tried the bikes without wings at a couple of tests this year, it is much better to start with the wings, as that is the base of the bike they understand.
Another factor is that the aerodynamics on the 2022 bikes are light years ahead of the aero on the 2019 machines. The factories have so much more data, experience, and understanding of aerodynamics, and of how they affect the bike. As Jack Miller pointed out, today's aero is much more efficient than it was the last time they rode here, and so should also suffer fewer problems when the winds pick up.
To drop or not to drop
One 2022 technology which probably won't be used at Phillip Island is the ride-height device. That is meant to counter wheelie and to help get drive out of slow corners. But there aren't really any places around Phillip Island where it brings much of an advantage.
"I had the rear ride-height device here in 2019 and we never used it. It didn't work for us," Jack Miller said. Teammate Pecco Bagnaia agreed. "I think too that maybe in this track we will not use it. Because the difference that it can make is not so big, we don't have a wheelie problem in this track, so I don't think we will try to use it."
There is another reason not to use the ride-height device, Alex Rins explained. "I was planning to ride without, because in the end it is extra weight," the Suzuki rider said. There is some truth in that. In addition to the hydraulic cylinder attached to the suspension link, there is also all the plumbing taking hydraulic fluid to and from the lever or automatic trigger which operates the device, as well as a reservoir for that. A conservative estimate would put the weight of the entire unit at somewhere between 0.5 and 1.5 kg, and for some systems, even more.
No easy choices
Speaking of Suzuki, how will Alex Rins and Joan Mir – back from injury, at last – fare at Phillip Island? This is a track which ought to suit the GSX-RR, fast, flowing, and a place where corner speed counts. With Suzuki pulling out at the end of the year, this is one of the best chances Rins and Mir have for a good result.
If all the above sounds like I am hedging my bets, you would be right. Phillip Island is a track where the racing has always been close, and where the rider has counted more than the bike. And we arrive in Australia with the field stacked deeper with talent than it has ever been. Are there favorites to win on Sunday? Sure there are. The problem is, the number of favorites is probably in double figures.
That is not a bad thing. The greatest race track on the planet should once again serve up some of the greatest racing in the world. It makes the long trip to the ends of the earth to get to Phillip Island more than worth it.
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