If you thought the MotoGP race at Phillip Island was thrilling, you should have seen Moto3. Phillip Island is a track where it is almost impossible to escape on a Moto3 bike, the long fast straight, usually with a headwind, allowing a chasing group to draft each other forward and catch anyone trying to get away. The only hope is for something to happen, to split the group and force a break.
Boy, did something happen. There was only one crash all weekend in the MotoGP class; there was the grand total of seventeen crashes in Moto3, with just nineteen of the thirty five starters actually making it across the line to finish the race. The reason? The heady mixture of close racing and youthful exuberance inevitably leads to people taking too much risk, and taking either themselves or someone else out. Add in some tension over the 2015 Moto3 title, and you have an incendiary mix indeed.
And tension there was. Danny Kent started the race in Australia with a simple goal: finish ahead of Enea Bastianini if possible, and within five positions of Miguel Oliveira. That would see him finally wrap up the Moto3 title he could have had his hands on already, if he hadn't made a silly mistake at Aragon and crashed. Beating Bastianini should be easy: the Italian had a nightmare weekend at Phillip Island, unhappy with the bike from the very beginning, qualifying 28th and starting from 25th due to penalties for other riders.
The unexpected rival
Beating Oliveira would be a much bigger problem. After a troubled start to the season, he has been getting stronger in the second half of the year. Coming off a streak of a win and two second places, and starting from the front row, Oliveira was clearly a threat. Even then, all Kent had to do was keep his cool, try to stay at the front of the group, and make sure Oliveira never got too far ahead.
Everything was going to plan from the start. Romano Fenati got a lightning start, helped by a strong qualifying performance, carrying on momentum from Motegi. His lead did not last long, the end of the first lap ably demonstrating why it is so hard to escape at Phillip Island, Fenati being swallowed up by the hunting pack. A group started to form in the early laps, containing some nine or so riders. It contained the usual suspects: Oliveira, Kent, Fenati, Brad Binder, Efren Vazquez, Jorge Navarro as well as polesitter John McPhee, Karel Hanika, Pecco Bagnaia and Jakub Kornfeil.
It was clear that Oliveira was strong in the group, the Red Bull KTM Ajo rider always near the front. Wherever he was, he had one of two powder blue Hondas shadowing him, either Vazquez or Kent close. With Bastianini stuck in the group which had lost touch with the leaders, Kent appeared to have the championship situation under control. What he didn't have under control was Pecco Bagnaia, the Italian youngster seeing a shot at his second podium of the season after setting the fastest lap of the race.
This is Moto3, not Moto2
Bagnaia was right up in contention with the leaders, but then blew it on lap ten. Trying to follow Kent through to chase Brad Binder, Bagnaia found himself braking too late into the Honda Hairpin, his Mahindra getting sideways like a Moto2 bike. He clipped the back of Kent's Honda on the way in, crashing as he went. Bagnaia went down, but Kent managed to keep it upright, though he lost a lot of time running through the grass and back onto the track.
With the leaders gone, and finding himself in the chasing group, Kent started charging hard. He posted his fastest lap of the race to get in among the front of the second group, and took over the lead within a couple of laps. He led the group through the final two corners onto the front straight, but found himself the victim of a mass drafting, riders flying past him left and right.
Through Doohan he had Niccolo Antonelli and Enea Bastianini ahead of him. Knowing he was faster than the group he was in, he hurried to make his way past. He was in a rush, and attacked both Bastianini and Antonelli in the Southern Loop, going round the outside of the Italians. Though he left enough space for Antonelli to hold his line, he took the Ongetta-Rivacold rider by surprise, causing him to twitch and briefly lift the front a fraction. It was not much, but just enough to clip the back of Kent's wheel, taking Kent, Antonelli, and Bastianini down in one fell swoop.
Dangerous riding or racing incident?
Whose fault was the crash? Antonelli blamed Kent for closing his line and basically chopping off his nose, giving him nowhere to go. Bastianini blamed Kent for being in too much of a hurry and making a mistake. Bastianini's team boss Fausto Gresini blamed Kent for making 'a risky maneuver' and causing the crash. Kent himself blamed Antonelli, saying "he can see I'm on the outside, and he just gets on the gas, pushes wide and takes out my back wheel."
Who was really to blame? From the overhead footage, you can see both that Kent left room – not a huge amount, but enough if Antonelli holds his line – and that Antonelli twitches on the bike, then lifts and hits Kent's wheel. Antonelli clearly did not expect Kent to pass him round the outside of the Southern Loop. It is not unusual, but it is a brave and risky move. The sudden sight of Kent in his peripheral vision may have spooked the Italian. The overhead shot shows Antonelli's bike move just as Kent comes into view. The Italian did not have enough time to think about where Kent was, he just reacted. In reality, you would have to say this was a racing incident.
Yet there is also some merit in the accusations of Bastianini and Fausto Gresini. Kent was doing his best to get out of that second group, but was in too much of a hurry to do so. After being taken out by Bagnaia initially, it is understandable that he should be so spooked. But in his haste to get away from other riders, he was not patient enough, and paid the price. "I got hit twice in the race, and that's the problem in Moto3, there's too many idiots out there," Kent told British newspaper MCN. All the more reason to be cautious.
The crash did put Bastianini out of the championship. The Italian needed to score at seven points to stay in it, and the DNF put paid to that. But Kent's DNF allowed Oliveira to get a lot of points back on him, and reopen the championship.
The pride of Portugal
Whether Oliveira knew Kent was out or not made very little difference to the Portuguese rider. The front group was now down to six, with the two Red Bull KTMs of Oliveira and Binder, Fenati, Navarro, Vazquez and Jakub Kornfeil. Oliveira played his cards perfectly on the last lap, taking over the lead as they headed into the first corner, and setting a pace the others could not quite follow. He entered the last corner with just enough of a gap to hold the lead all the way to the line. His winning margin was just over a tenth of a second. Not much, but enough.
Before Phillip Island, all eyes in Moto3 had been on Danny Kent and Enea Bastianini. With 56 points between them, most observers, including myself had concluded that the title would be settled between the Englishman and the Italian. We had forgotten that Miguel Oliveira was still in with a shot at the title. That was understandable, given that he had a gap of 65 points to overcome, but he was still in with a mathematical chance of the title. He would need a lot to happen, though.
A lot has happened. After Kent's win at Silverstone, Oliveira trailed the Englishman by 110 points. Since then, Oliveira has made massive inroads: a second place at Misano, a win at Aragon, another second at Motegi, and now another at Phillip Island. In the same period – just four races, remember – Kent has scored two sixth places, and two DNFs, crashing at both Aragon and Phillip Island. The gap in the championship now stands at just 40 points. Still a big ask, but given Kent's recent run of bad luck – or bad decisions, call it what you will – all of a sudden Oliveira is in with a shot.
Moto3 mathematics for advanced students
Kent is still in control of the championship, needing eleven points – a fifth place in one race – to clinch the title. The danger for the Englishman is that Oliveira is on a roll. If the Portuguese rider wins the next two races, he will be level on wins with Kent, both having taken six victories. The problem for Kent is that Oliveira has more second place finishes: three to Kent's one. If they end up tied on points, and tied on wins, then it will be decided on the number of second place finishes.
This is true only if Oliveira wins both races, though. If Kent has two DNFs and Oliveira finishes in second twice, they will both be tied on points, but Kent will take victory based on the number of wins.
The championship arithmetic makes you wonder what might have been for the Portuguese rider. Oliveira had a rough start to the season, going pointless in the first two races. At Mugello, he got the first win of his career – and the first win for a Portuguese rider in Grand Prix racing – which he followed up with a second win at Assen. A broken metacarpal during practice at the Sachsenring put him out of the German GP, and three difficult races followed. At Misano, KTM brought a new chassis, which gave their Moto3 riders a little bit more feel for what the bike was doing. Since then, Oliveira has been unstoppable. Kent needs to ride a sensible race at Sepang, stay out of trouble, and concentrate on scoring points. Oliveira just needs to win. The two riders are to be teammates next year in Moto2. The tension in the box could be rather high.
The attrition in Moto3 made room for some good results further down the field. Maria Herrera had a strong qualifying session, then got involved in the big group fighting over seventh place. She ended the race in eleventh, the best finish for a female rider since Ana Carrasco's eighth place at Valencia in 2013. Herrera finished behind Remy Gardner, the son of 500cc world champion Wayne Gardner. Remy Gardner had a good weekend at his home Grand Prix, scoring his best ever result in Moto3. The result will come as a relief to Gardner senior, and to Mahindra. Father Wayne has been very vocal on Social Media criticizing the top speed of the Mahindra. That difference was less apparent in Australia.
Rins another Maverick?
In contrast to the Moto3 and MotoGP races, the Moto2 race at was pretty straightforward. Alex Rins showed his class once again, converting the pole he took on Saturday to a win on Sunday. It took him a lap to get past Sam Lowes and Axel Pons, then another couple of laps to dispose of a tenacious Lowes. Once free of the Speed Up man, the Moto2 rookie took an undisputed victory. With Tito Rabat out at both Phillip Island and Sepang, Rins is now the favorite to take second in the Moto2 championship.
That is going one better than Maverick Viñales did in his rookie season in Moto2 last year, but then again, Viñales took four wins to Rins' two. Viñales' points total of 274 is also out of reach, Rins having 214 this season. Comparisons to Viñales remain valid, and there are a number of factories who have their eye on Rins for 2017.
Behind Rins, Thomas Luthi was engaged in a close battle with Sam Lowes, which Luthi seemed to have under control. Until lap 17, that is, when a false neutral – a common complaint with the CBR600RR gearbox – caused him to run wide at MG and onto the grass, where he fell and lost a lot of ground. Fortunately for the Swiss rider, he could remount, but scoring a solitary point for fifteenth is no consolation for losing a certain podium.
With Luthi gone, Lowes took an easy second, while Lorenzo Baldassarri took his first Grand Prix podium. Baldassarri is one of the Italian riders being coached by the VR46 Academy, an effort which is starting to produce real results, and a crop of genuinely fast young Italian riders. Valentino Rossi has given motorcycle racing in general a huge amount. It is greatly to his credit that he is now giving even more to Italian motorcycling in particular, investing his own money to bring on young riders. When I mentioned this to a prominent Italian manager in the paddock at Aragon, he quickly agreed. "Yes, and it is Valentino doing this. Not our Italian federation." Just imagine what they can achieve if they combine forces.
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