There's something ineffably romantic about a newly-crowned champion returning to his native soil to be feted in his home race. And at first sight, Casey Stoner would seem to fit that poetic notion just perfectly: a handsome youngster and his beautiful young bride return home after securing the world title in a tightly-fought battle with a grizzled veteran. But cast anything more than that cursory glance at the situation, and the romance disappears faster than a Ducati GP7 down Qatar's front straight.
First of all, although Sunday's MotoGP race takes place on Australian soil, Phillip Island is a long way from being home for Casey Stoner, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because the wind-blown track perched on the edge of the Bass Strait is over 700 miles from Stoner's home town of Kurri Kurri. And metaphorically, because Stoner left Australia shortly after his 14th birthday, to go race in Europe, first in Britain, then also in Spain, before graduating to the world stage. So although Casey Stoner is still thoroughly Australian, he's been a racing exile for over one third of his life already.
Then, there's Casey Stoner himself: Young and handsome he may be, and scarcely a word is uttered against the beauty of Adriana, his 18 year-old wife, but if there's one thing that Stoner is not, it's romantic. The Australian champion is very cool, level-headed, and rational about his racing, his responses to victory and defeat almost equal in their stoicism. Not for Casey Stoner the heroic battles of rider against rider, fought out for lap after lap, only to be decided in the final corner. What Casey does is turn up at the track on Friday morning and dominate every session, finally leaving his opponents gasping for breath several seconds behind him at the end of the race. There is little romance in what he does, it is cold, brutal, and very, very effective. Dorna must be fearing that Sunday's race could turn out to be little more than 26 laps of honor for the newly-crowned Australian champion, something which is likely to please the home crowd, but not the millions of viewers watching around the world on TV.
The Fly In The Ointment
Fortunately for the TV rights holder, the Phillip Island circuit has a habit of casting a spanner in the works of displays of dominance, with several factors combining to help make the racing close and competitive. First, there's the track, possibly the best circuit left on the MotoGP calendar. Apart from the breathtaking scenery, perched on top of a cliff overlooking a vast ocean, there's the sweeping layout, with fast combinations of turns matched by tight hairpins, traversing the rolling hills of the island. With nearly every corner having something to commend it, it's hard to single out particular parts of the track for special praise, but the second half of the circuit is one of the finest stretches of track currently being used in motorcycle racing. The riders leave the tight left hander of Siberia to sweep left and right up the hill towards Lukey Heights, before plummeting down the hill into the near-hairpin of MG.
MG is the very heart of Phillip Island. It is the corner where races have been won and lost, and a place steeped in spectacular passing maneuvers. If you get it right, you can get past the man in front, and leave him for dead through the next fast section leading back towards the home straight. Get it wrong, and you end up off the track, covered in gravel rather than glory. But getting it right requires a huge amount of courage, as you have to start by drawing level and then holding the outside line as you enter Lukey Heights, a blind left hander approached over the crest of the hill, which then drops steeply down into MG. If you were brave enough to hold your line round Lukey Heights, you're now in the perfect position to stuff the bike up the inside into MG, putting a punishing block pass on your opponent, forcing him wide, and wrecking his drive for Turns 11 and 12, which start tight before opening up, and get faster and faster as they come round to cross the finish line, by which time you are several bike lengths ahead, and poised to take victory.
Apart from the layout, there's the location. Hosting a MotoGP race in the early Antipodean spring besides a vast body of cold water is asking for trouble, and the Southern Ocean likes to oblige with liberal applications of rain, wind, and cold, blustery conditions, and the occasional stray seagull thrown in for good measure. This weekend looks like being no exception, with cool and showery weather predicted for Friday and Saturday, and only a little less chance of rain on Sunday. After the tricky conditions at Motegi 3 weeks ago, we could see yet another unpredictable race, with the weather playing a starring role.
For Local People
That's a role the local boys will be keen to claim for themselves. Chris Vermeulen has already taken his place on center stage, unveiling a stunning Barry Sheene tribute livery for his Suzuki GSVR. He'll be hoping to at least repeat his podium of last year, if the conditions play to Vermeulen's strengths, as they so often do here. But conditions which suit Vermeulen are likely to suit Kawasaki's Ant West at least as well. Westy is a virtuoso in the cold and the wet, and after clawing his way up the field to take a strong 7th place at Motegi, despite being hit with a drive through penalty for a jump start, the Kawasaki rider will be hungry for more.
As for the other local boy, it is hard to bet against Casey Stoner continuing the dominance he has shown all year. And coming to Phillip Island after clinching the title can only boost the confidence he has exuded all season. But Stoner also arrives in Australia after his poorest result of the year, and spending all weekend at Motegi struggling, a situation which he has not been in this year. Friday's free practice sessions will soon tell whether Stoner and Ducati have turned this situation back round again.
For the rest of the riders, it's mostly about pride. Although the championship has been decided, 2nd place is still up for grabs, with both Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa determined to take runner up before the season is out. Rossi currently holds the strongest cards, leading Pedrosa by 26 points with just 3 rounds to go, but Pedrosa is a long way from admitting defeat. This weekend, though, looks like going to Rossi. The Doctor loves Phillip Island, and won every race here from 2001 to 2005, last year's wet race forcing Rossi to settle for 3rd. What's more, Rossi will want to honor a personal hero of his, Norick Abe, the former Japanese GP star who died in a tragic motorcycle accident earlier this week. And the best way of honoring Abe would be to win the race.
As for Dani Pedrosa, he had a nightmare here last year, finishing in 15th spot, troubled by a leg injury. And the Spaniard starts the weekend with injury problems again this year, his big crash at Motegi aggravating some arthritis problems in his foot. But in 2005, Pedrosa won the 250 race to clinch the title, after Casey Stoner crashed out while in the lead, so he is no stranger to success here. The prospect of a repeat of Pedrosa's battle with Stoner here is a mouthwatering one indeed.
Behind Pedrosa, things are even more fluid, with John Hopkins narrowly ahead of his Suzuki team mate Vermeulen, and keen to keep things that way. But Gresini Honda's Marco Melandri is closing up behind them, and after his destruction of the field here last year, crowned by the smoking, one-handed power slide into the final corner, Melandri is likely to be a factor on Sunday.
The fight for 7th looks like being between Ducati's Loris Capirossi and ex-world champion Nicky Hayden, with Capirossi making a big jump forward by winning at Motegi, after failing to get to grips with the Ducati GP7 earlier in the season. Capirossi will be keen to maintain that momentum, while Hayden will be trying to get back onto the podium, after missing out for 3 races. Hayden's fortunes have improved since the disastrous start to the season, and though his title aspirations disappeared a long time ago, he is determined to put the #1 plate where it belongs, at the front of the field. The Kentucky Kid has had run well at Phillip Island in the past, so he should be able to put on some kind of a show on Sunday.
For some, there's more at stake than just pride. They are riding for their future. And the newest addition to their ranks is the young Briton Chaz Davies. Davies made a big impression on his first outing on a MotoGP bike, when he was drafted in after the first free practice session at Laguna Seca to replace Alex Hofmann, who had injured his hand in a crash. Now that Hofmann has been sacked, Davies will be riding the German's Pramac d'Antin bike for the remaining 3 races, with the prospect of a full time ride for next year on offer. Davies' task is clear: get faster in every session, and beat the backmarkers. If he manages that, he'll be well on his way to securing the seat for 2008.
The T Word
The one thing which everyone is talking about is tires, and it is the one subject which no one can agree upon. Bridgestone's dominance this year has led to calls for a switch to a single make of tire, and a decision is due to be made on the issue next week, as the Malaysian Grand Prix. The complaint is that Michelin has failed to be competitive, and that has spoiled the spectacle, and it's the spectacle which keeps money flowing into the series. Phillip Island is Michelin's chance to turn things around, and history is very much on their side. Bridgestone have never done very well here, Chris Vermeulen's second place last year the best result the Japanese tire maker has ever had here, so Michelin must be ready to pounce. It's possible that their future in MotoGP could depend on it.
Over the summer, complaints were rife that MotoGP had lost its excitement, and its spectacle, and become a rather processional affair. Things have started to improve over the past couple of races, and at Phillip Island, that trend looks likely to continue. If there's one track that's a guarantee of spectacle, in one form of another, it's Phillip Island. The show is back in town.