Race tracks come in all different shapes and sizes, from tight and twisty to wide and sprawling, from slow and ornery to fast and furious. There are boring tracks, adequate tracks, and great tracks. And then there's Phillip Island.
What makes Phillip Island special? A lot of things. Its location, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Bass Strait, with nothing but a couple of hundred kilometers of open water fed by the Antarctic Ocean between it and Tasmania. The layout, virtually unchanged for decades, which hugs the rolling hills of the Island and flows up and down. The speed: there are only really two places you brake, at Honda Corner and at MG, the rest of the time you're either accelerating, or rolling off before carrying momentum through the turns. The corners: sensuous, flowing curves without sharply delineated corners or straight lines. Peter Paul Rubens, not Pablo Picasso. A track drawn with a pencil, not a computer mouse.
It is a special circuit, which produces special racing: two of the five or six best MotoGP races of all time happened here in the past three years, with a group of five or six of the best riders in the world battling it out for victory down to the last couple of laps. Without the need to brake hard, or accelerate hard, without a long, high-speed straight, the rider counts much, much more than the bike. Holding your nerve through fast corners as the rear slides at 200 km/h – or at one point in the track, over 250 km/h - is the key to a quick lap, rather than braking late or opening the gas early.
Great track, great riders
That, perhaps, is why Valentino Rossi won here five times in a row between 2001 and 2005, and why Casey Stoner won here six times in a row between 2007 and 2012. Stoner was so fast at Phillip Island that it they named a corner after him, Turn 3, where he would regularly gain three or four tenths on everyone else. "For sure it was special," is how Andrea Dovizioso, who watched the Australian from close up, described it. "He was able to turn the bike with the slide in a special way, like Casey did with every bike."
"It is different," Red Bull KTM's Pol Espargaro says of the track. "I mean, when we say it is different it is not just about the track. It is all the rest, the atmosphere, where the circuit is, the people, where we are sleeping in houses instead of hotels. I don’t know it is pretty different. The track is windy and demanding of the rider, not just demanding of the bike. Not like Malaysia, for example. It is a fun track, as you have no time you can relax on the bike, as you need to push every lap and every lap is different because of the wind, the traction areas, the corners where you can’t see the end. It is special and different."
Pol's brother Aleix expanded on that. "You never stop the bike," the Aprilia rider said. "A very, very fast track. Normally you have a hard brake and hard acceleration at every track of the calendar, not here, it's always very smooth, a, let's say, consecutive corner track, there is no space between the corners, so this makes the track very different."
The best bike isn't always the best
Just because Phillip Island is not so exacting in terms of bike performance, that doesn't make it easy, especially if you have designed your motorcycle around extracting maximum performance from braking, acceleration, and top speed, as Ducati have found out. The Italian factory had a miserable race here in 2017, Phillip Island pretty much killing off any chance Andrea Dovizioso had of still winning the title.
"Phillip Island is Phillip Island," Andrea Dovizioso said, when asked about his prospect at the circuit. "It's difficult. It's difficult for many reasons: the characteristic of the track, for me, for the bike; the weather, the weather and the wind affect a lot every practice, and the race. So it's a different kind of weekend. It's very hard to be fast when you need to be. Because here, to be fast, you have to be very fast in the middle of the corner, it's not about aggressivity, hard braking, being precise on the braking. It's not like this. It's a completely different story."
But it's not just about the bike, it's also about Dovizioso's riding style on the Ducati Desmosedici. "I think it's not the best for me, and it's not the best for the bike. For sure the characteristic of the bike is not to make the speed in the fast corner. But also my style, I can use my best potential when I have to brake hard and come back. This is not the case."
Can Dovizioso still score some kind of success in Australia? He remains hopeful. "I'm so happy to make this race now," the Italian said. "Because from Brno, we always fight for the victory. So this means that we improve our speed, and this is the best moment to make this test, because it will be very important to have the maximum feedback we can have here to go into the winter with some clear idea if we can improve where we are still not the strongest."
It is a shame that Jorge Lorenzo is out with injury. Despite only having one victory at the track, it suits his style down to the ground. "He manages to stop the bike without using the brakes very much," Danilo Petrucci philosophized to Italian media. "In the end, this is the principle of racing: the rider who brakes less goes fastest."
In Lorenzo's place is Alvaro Bautista, though that is a one off: if Lorenzo is not fit enough for Sepang (a genuine possibility), Michele Pirro will take his place, Ducati MotoGP boss Paolo Ciabatti told Spanish media. Bautista has a lot to learn in just a few sessions of practice: not just a different bike, but a completely new crew, as he slots into Lorenzo's team in the factory Ducati squad.
It's hard work, just for a single race. "Especially as I have to adapt to the new bike and also the engineers need some time to know me, my preferences and my riding style," Bautista said. "It is not easy in just one weekend, it is very difficult, but in any case I will try to enjoy every moment."
He knows he has to adapt to the GP18, but he wasn't sure where the biggest differences were. "It is difficult to see, because you brake in one point, they brake harder or deeper but you don’t know which way if it is the rider or the bike that gives you the chance to do it," Bautista explained. "One thing is clear that on the straight I saw that my bike was slower than their bike, that’s the only point that is clear, for corners, turning, braking stability I have to discover. I don’t know exactly how much, better or worse, the GP18 is compared to the GP17. For sure the engine is much stronger."
Own worst enemy
If Ducati still have concerns over how well their bike is suited to the Phillip Island track, there are no such worries for Honda. Especially not for Marc Márquez, who is the heir to Casey Stoner at Honda in many ways. He may have a little bit extra at the track, but his history is checkered in Australia, to say the least. In his first year in MotoGP, he and his team nearly threw away the title when they miscalculated the mandatory pit stops imposed by Bridgestone after the track was resurfaced. In 2014, he crashed out of the race, despite having a comfortable lead. In 2016, he did pretty much the same thing again.
The common factor in those disasters? He was fresh from wrapping up the MotoGP title at Motegi. That might not bode well for this year, as Márquez arrives at Phillip Island, well, fresh from wrapping up the title at Motegi. But the Repsol Honda rider is prepared this time, or at least, that is what the told the press conference.
"My tactic is try to concentrate myself," Márquez said. "I won in Motegi in 2014, and I arrived here and I felt like I could do anything, and I crashed during the race. Then in 2016, I started to feel different but again I crashed in the race. This is something I need to control myself during all this weekend, because it's a circuit that I love, but now you feel more relaxed. But I will approach in the way to start the 2019 season, and start to be concentrated and be focused, and try things for next year."
Why does Phillip Island suit the Honda? The bike turns, and can hold a line. Though there are only two hard braking areas, one of them is literally called Honda Corner, and that's where a rider can use the Honda's strongest point. Above all, there are few places where the bike is at maximum acceleration, negating the bike's weakest point.
Cal Crutchlow has the best chance of the other Hondas to bag a good result. The LCR Honda rider is coming off a strong podium finish at Motegi, where he vied for the victory for the first half of the race. "We have to take on board that we had a great race last weekend in Japan and the team did a great job for me to finish in second place. I think that the momentum is there and I think I’m riding well at the moment," Crutchlow said.
But winning at Phillip Island is hard, because there are a lots of different ways to be fast at the track. "It’s quite a tactical track here I think and there are a few tricks of the trade that you can do, but I think it is important to lead and then you have the opportunity to go away. If you look at the race of Marc last year, he took the opportunity at the perfect time and was able to go away because the rest were battling, so we will attempt to use those tricks of the trade on Sunday and see how it goes."
Crutchlow's biggest problem is the competitiveness of the field. "If you look on paper now, I think there are potentially ten guys who could possibly win this race, but there are only three spots on the podium, so I think you’ll get to see a good race first and foremost."
That competitiveness could extend to the other riders on a satellite Honda. Without the disadvantage of last year's excessively aggressive engine, both Franco Morbidelli and Takaaki Nakagami could be much closer to the front than they have been in recent races. That could give Morbidelli a little breathing space in the rookie of the year championship.
Whether Dani Pedrosa can contend at Phillip Island is a question mark. He has won only once in Australia, and only two podiums. 2018 has been a tough year for Pedrosa, as he seeks the right feeling from his Honda RC213V. That task is made more difficult when the tires are stiffer, and when temperatures are lower, as it gets harder to get heat into the tires. Phillip Island is so hard on tires that Michelin has to bring some of its toughest tires to the circuit, asymmetric both front and rear to cope with the stresses of the many left-hand and few right-hand corners. And the weather forecast is for positively chilly temperatures for the weekend. The stars do not look like aligning for him at the Island.
In theory, it should work in practice
What of Yamaha? On paper this is a Yamaha track par excellence, all fast and flowing corners. In 2017, Yamahas finished second, third, and fourth, and there has been at least one Yamaha on the podium since 2012. But this is no ordinary year: Yamaha are still suffering with the rear spinning up, and a lack of acceleration.
The layout of the track leaves Valentino Rossi optimistic. "Last year I was quite strong and we had both Yamahas on the podium, so it looks like the track is good," the Movistar Yamaha rider told the press conference. "But every year is a bit different so we have to see from tomorrow morning and try to work because here in Phillip Island, it is very important to have a good balance that you can ride with the bike in a good way, because it is very fast with long corners. We will see if we can be competitive to fight for the podium."
His teammate is a good deal less optimistic, after Motegi proved that his podium in Thailand was a false dawn. "I don’t have expectations," Maverick Viñales said. "I just want to enjoy the track, enjoy the layout and try to make big slide and enjoy myself on the bike. It seems to be so difficult and complicated to enjoy it. But then let’s see if we can be competitive. I don’t know how the bike is going to be this weekend as it is always a question mark where we are going to be, especially in the race, I am just hoping to find the best setup."
The layout should at least help, Viñales said. "It's very similar to Silverstone, so let’s see. If one track can suit the bike it is this track, or Assen or Silverstone, where you don’t have to brake. Our problems start in the braking zone so if you don’t have to break then the bike is okay. We need to keep focused a lot and also don’t play too much on the setup. Just get one good setup in FP1 and working, as a rider, hitting the lines. On this track if you have a good line then you have a good lap time."
But Maverick Viñales' open rebellion is still simmering just under the surface, as it had at Motegi. Once again, Viñales hinted with little subtlety that Yamaha needed to listen to him, rather than Valentino Rossi, and give him a bike he can be competitive on. "Honestly, this year it has been so difficult to get an answer to the problems," Viñales said. "I think Yamaha need to change a little bit their minds. I ride quite different to Valentino, and I ride more stop and go in the corners, braking later and deeper. The bike from this year is not working for me, so we need to try to focus a lot into 2019 to try to find a bike that also suits the Michelin tires, because to generate the corner speed, it does not suit the Michelin tires. So let’s see. I am curious to see what Yamaha brings in the Valencia test."
A few new parts would not be sufficient, Viñales said. "They need to try to focus on the way I need a different bike than what we have now. I don’t need a different swingarm or anything, I need a different bike. I need a different kind of feeling on the bike."
There is one wrinkle that may make the weekend more interesting for Viñales, and for Yamaha in general. Because of the time difference with key European markets, the MotoGP race is on at 4pm local time. That means MotoGP has to practice at 4pm, to understand the conditions at a point in the day where temperatures can drop quickly. And so MotoGP and Moto2 have swapped places, meaning that MotoGP will get to practice on the rubber laid down by Moto2 before racing on it. The Yamahas have been especially badly affected by the Moto2 rubber, so we will have to see if it makes much difference.
Rule none out
The other bike which could do well at Phillip Island is the Suzuki. Maverick Viñales finished on the podium on the GSX-RR back in 2016, and Andrea Iannone was in the battle for the podium until the final laps last year. Alex Rins was on the podium in Motegi, and the bike has been competitive at pretty much every race since Austria. If history is any guide, there will be a Suzuki at the front this weekend.
Even KTM and Aprilia could be in the mix. The KTM was not a million miles off the front in 2017, Bradley Smith said. "It went very, very well here with both of us in Q2 and comfortably inside the top 10. Pol was maybe sixth and I was eighth or ninth in qualifying." Red Bull KTM teammate Pol Espargaro concurred that this was a good track for the RC16. "Yes, 100%, after seeing what we did last year in qualifying to get to Q2 and being one of the fastest in FP1, top 10, and qualifying to be sixth," the Spaniard said.
The race had not gone quite so well, however. "Just the problem or issue in the race was that we didn’t have the feeling in the race that we had all weekend," Espargaro said. "We struggled quite a lot to get the grip from the bottom and by the end we were spinning crazy and we burned the tire. Something really strange but I think we have a good chance to do a good race here and we were fast on the test and fast in the race."
Pol Espargaro's brother Aleix was also expecting good things in Australia. Aprilia have brought a new bike based on some of the feedback on the 2017 bike, which Aleix felt much better with. The bike was very different, he said. "A big difference," the Gresini Aprilia rider said. "Also the electronics, the chassis, the fairing. It's like a hybrid bike, some parts from last season's bike, some new parts, and trying to change the geometry, the weight especially, trying to put more weight in the rear to improve the rear grip, because this is the biggest problem. Trying to transfer a lot more, because we are not transferring as I would like. It's a big difference."
Will it make enough difference? Espargaro has been competitive here in the past. "In the last years, I was very competitive here, I crashed with Forward fighting for the podium, with Suzuki fighting for the podium, and with Aprilia, in the first group. So we've been competitive, but we need more consistency, and last year I was strong all weekend, and I felt quite competitive, close to the top guys. So I hope we can repeat it this year."
In the end, Phillip Island is a rider's track. Given that MotoGP has the best riders in the world – though some might argue that WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea should be included in that group – it should be quite the battle. History has served up fantastic races in recent years. We can only hope for a little bit of history repeating.
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