FP1 felt like a bad dream by the time FP2 came about, with clear stretches of blue sky, dry asphalt and fairings shining in the sun. Slick tyres finally got their moment for the first and possibly only dry practice session of the weekend and most of the attention was focused on the pursuit of a top time for direct Q2 qualification.
Phillip Island, Australia
The premier class arrived in Australia and immediately went surfing on soaked asphalt, swaying against the wind and finding the balance in challenging conditions that looked nothing like what Sunday promises. Rain or shine, the sight of Marc Marquez heading straight to the top of the timesheets raises no eyebrows but this time the world champion did not get to keep the laurels. Compatriot Maverick Vinales snatched the honours for Yamaha and ended the morning over a tenth of a second faster than local favourite Jack Miller, who found some early motivation on home soil.
The intermediate class got a soggy start in Australia, riders perhaps not too keen to face the cold and the wind in addition to the rain but they put their head down and looked for the limit. Some found it too soon, fresh victor Luca Marini crashing out at turn two on his outlap and, tired to be outdone, Alex Marquez immediately followed suit at turn four. While the two rivals were getting their sessions back on track with varying levels of success, Nicolo Bulega claimed top position and no one got within eighth tenths of the Italian’s top time until well into the session.
From one seasonally misplaced track to another. Fresh from Motegi, which MotoGP visits at the tail end of typhoon season, the Grand Prix paddock heads south – a very long way south – to Phillip Island, on the south coast of Victoria in Australia, perched on the edge of the Bass Strait. It is a glorious location at the end of the antipodean summer, with good weather very nearly guaranteed. But unfortunately, MotoGP doesn't visit at the end of the antipodean summer in February or March.
Instead, MotoGP is condemned to brave the elements in October, when it is spring in the southern hemisphere. And all because the Australian Grand Prix Corporation, the company which runs the MotoGP round at Phillip Island, is also the promoter of the Australian Formula 1 race, held in Melbourne Park, pays a premium to host the first F1 race of the year.
With Melbourne just under two hours away, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation doesn't want to have its two biggest events too close together, to prevent fans from being forced to choose between the two races. And having paid to make the F1 race the first of the season, moving MotoGP to October is the obvious choice. An understandable choice too: the F1 race at Melbourne Park draws over 100,000 fans on race day. Race day at Phillip Island sees around 35,000 paying customers through the gates.
There was nothing fast and furious about that start of action down under, with strong wind blowing around big drops of rain just as the lightweight class was putting on gloves and attaching knee sliders. The challenging conditions brought Tony Arbolino to the fore, the young Italian consistently finding more speed than his rivals. By the time the worsening deluge halted further improvements, the VNE Snipers rider was one step ahead – worth seven tenths of a second.
KTM have finally found a solution to their rider line up problem for 2020. Today, the Austrian factory announced that they will be taking Brad Binder directly into the factory Red Bull KTM team, to race alongside Pol Espargaro, while they have signed Iker Lecuona to race in the Red Bull KTM Tech3 satellite squad opposite Miguel Oliveira.
This is something of a shake up to KTM's original plans, caused by the early departure of Johann Zarco. The Frenchman's decision to leave the Austrian factory at the end of 2019 (accelerated to after Misano by KTM's decision to drop him from Aragon onward) left them with a puzzle to solve.
With almost everyone with MotoGP experience tied up for 2020, and most Moto2 riders holding on for 2021, when the entire MotoGP grid is out of contract, finding a replacement for Zarco was almost impossible. They had already signed Brad Binder to the Tech3 satellite team, and had few options to choose from.
The Frenchman is on his way to Phillip Island with his brand-new Alpinestars LCR Honda leathers. So is this judgement day for Johann Zarco?
Johann Zarco expected to watch MotoGP’s final few races from the comfort of his sofa in the south of France. Now, thanks to Takaaki Nakagami’s troublesome right shoulder injury – sustained at Assen when he got sideswiped by Valentino Rossi – he will spend the last three races sat somewhat less comfortably on the Japanese rider’s 2018-spec LCR Honda.
Before we wonder how Zarco will fare on the RC213V, we should ask why this is necessary. Why is Nakagami going under the knife when the 2019 championship isn’t over?
Johann Zarco is set to replace Takaaki Nakagami for the final three races of 2019, and race the 2018-spec Honda RC213V for the Idemitsu LCR Honda team. The news was first broken by Oriol Puigdemont of Motorsport.com, and though nobody contacted by MotoMatters.com would comment on the news, it was later confirmed by Zarco to Thomas Baujard of the French publication Moto Journal.
Some people hate MotoGP’s rules over track-limits, but to understand why they are there we need to look at racing safety over the years
It’s a funny old world. Here we are in 2019 arguing about MotoGP riders exceeding track limits when motorcycle racing already had the best punishment for this crime more than a hundred years ago.
Great big stone walls did the job just fine – the ultimate deterrent to riders who sought to better their lap times by taking faster, wider lines.