A walk on the wild side: What’s happened so far at Phillip Island
The Kangaroo that bounced across the expanses of the freshly-cut grass on more than one occasion at Phillip Island on Friday reflected some of the general mood that MotoGP was returning to this spectacular setting once more and since the Australian Grand Prix surged into popular consciousness at the same venue 30 years previously. The mammal was not an unusual sight at a site renowned for its blustery and changeable climate and for the ‘local inhabitants’ (like seagulls) that like to form part of the fabric of a visit to ‘PI’.
Phillip Island is a staggering stage. It sweeps and curls across the lay of the land. Riders talk of the technicality of the course, the multiple lines and the ability to make a difference in lap-times that were still hundredths of a second apart.
There was a dark shade across this 24th edition of the Grand Prix in the Victorian state complex however. And we’re not talking about the frequent cloud cover. The first day programme shuffled late into Friday afternoon after Stefano Nepa allowed his KTM to spew oil over a large section of the lap, which necessitated a two hour track clean-up operation, in the rain, and caused consternation for the Moto3 riders who have so far dealt with the coldest and most unpredictable of the weather.
Then, among the run-offs and near misses (watch Fabio Quartararo’s fine effort) there were the falls. Cal Crutchlow’s was the most costly, Hafizh Syharin’s the most vicious as his terrifying FP3 dismount at the merciless Turn 1 fortunately led to just a sore left elbow) and both Brad Binder and Iker Lecuona were lucky and thankful that their spiralling Moto2 bikes flicked clear after two rapid tumbles. Fabio Di Giannantonio’s attempt to turn his Honda into a spinning missile by locking the front brake into Turn 4 and narrowly avoiding Naka Atiratphuvapat was another breath-holding moment.
Scott Redding, now making more of an impact for his personality and zany (but entertaining) social media exploits revealed how thrilling Phillip Island is for the riders but how the already wafer thin margins of performance and risk somehow narrow even further because of the flow and the speed. “It is f**king scary,” he admitted on Friday. “If I’m honest it scares the shit out of me but I love it at the same time.”
“There are so many fast corners. You ride being scared and it’s not good, but we have to do it,” said Johann Zarco; one of two Yamaha riders on the front row after Saturday’s QP sessions
Marc Marquez bent a first Grand Prix since his fifth MotoGP title win around to his will for a fifth consecutive Pole Position at Phillip Island with a well-timed rush in Q2 – a twelve minute wind-battered and with lashings of sporadic showers. “When you see drops on the visor then you don’t know the limit,” he grimaced. “We are 200 [kmph] for many corners here.”
A visual reminder of Marquez’s ability was provided towards the end of FP3 when the champion rear-wheel steered through Stoner Corner (Turn 3) and then slid – almost Moto2 style – with the front end into Honda (Turn 4, and scene of his crash in 2016). Needless to say the chance to appreciate the Mick Doohan replica gloves and boots set from Alpinestars was in short supply as he topped the time screens in a blur.
Saturday was encouraging for the HRC man. Friday was dismal in comparison. He plummeted down Lukey Heights in a crash that was difficult to explain (“that was also a question inside our box!”) and then ran off the track in FP2. Marquez labelled the day “strange” in a media debrief Friday evening. The arse-tightening descent into Turn 1 had claimed an unimpressed and frankly miserable Dani Pedrosa and – to more devastating effect – Cal Crutchlow. The Brit will have to endure nine days in a Melbourne hospital for two operations on a tricky right ankle break. The Grand Prix had begun in a concerning way for HRC. “It is something we want to know, we want to understand why,” Marquez said on Friday. “It is true that our bike in fast corners is unstable and is our weak point. Normally here in Phillip Island we are able to be fast and we were today but with a lot of risk.”
Pedrosa also talked of little grip in turning the RCV but is one of the very few riders that dislikes Phillip Island. The soon-to-be retired/soon-to-be MotoGP Legend was instead at the centre of news circles for the different shade of orange he’ll wear for the next two years. KTM made arguably their last (but you never know with the Austrians) powerplay to surge up the MotoGP results sheets with their recruitment of the 33 year old for the next two years alongside Mika Kallio in the test team.
“I don’t know exactly what to expect but for sure it’s a different role,” he coyly remarked on Saturday evening. “I did testing every year when we tried prototypes; I know a bit what it’s about…not only to be a test rider. So I don’t know what to expect exactly, but for sure it’s a different approach regarding pressure and regarding excitement. So there is less adrenaline and less feelings, but still you are riding a bike and this is a good thing.”
Pedrosa brings undoubted pedigree to the development of any motorcycle and eighteen seasons of experience developing one of the most potent and cutting-edge machines on the grid. What he might lack in diversity of technical insight courtesy of that rare one-brand association (it’s remarkable that he will complete eighteen years with one manufacturer) his overall knowledge of Grand Prix is impressively deep. If KTM want to mine a wealth of Honda knowledge then they have their man. The link with former Crew Chief Mike Leitner enlarges the potential, even if Leitner will be preoccupied with the race team while Pedrosa will do a lot of his work away from the glare of MotoGP. He may be wilting in results and competitiveness (perhaps understandably) but it is hard to imagine any other testing operation with such a proven athlete at the sharp point.
“It’s a young team with high expectations,” he said. “They are working hard and maybe with my experience I can give some help to develop the bike in a good direction or maybe a faster way.”
Pedrosa will receive his Hall of Fame status in Valencia (and will not test for KTM until 2019 apparently) but it was former four times World Champion (250 & 350 in just two years) Kork Ballington that became the 28th MotoGP Legend in Australia. The 67 year old broke ground for South Africa as a motorcycle racer but is also remembered for his distinctive eyewear and the five-year link with Kawasaki (the factory won their last Grand Prix title in 1982 after Ballington delivered four of their seven in 1978-79). “Kork is one of the mythical names of the world championship,” said Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta.
“What an occasion; I’m deeply humbled to be alongside these other racers,” the man himself said, watched by current South African Grand Prix riders and brother Brad and Darryn Binder. “I remember my first GP win in ’76 at Montjui Park [Barcelona],” he reflected. “Nobody could see us that day. I suddenly realised I could do it and it made the rest of the wins [31 to his name] seem a bit easier.”
Elsewhere Jorge Martin must have made a large group of family and friends happy this year. The Moto2-bound Spaniard has now bagged ten Tissot watches for Pole Position in 2018 but it looks as though he’ll have to deal with the resurgent Darryn Binder in search of a seventh victory on Sunday. Moto2 was claimed by Mattia Pasini, still without employment for 2019 as title rivals Miguel Oliveira (20th) and Pecco Bagnaia (16th) toiled in the wind and didn’t fancy throwing caution to it.
A talking point by the end of Saturday was the suitability of the season date for the Australian round. 47 crashes so far had been logged (the overall number for 2017 is 86 and for 2016 there were 90 but bear in mind wet conditions) so the accidents were not freakishly high but the violent and speedy nature had caused uncomfortable bouts of tension.
“Is a long story this…” began Valentino Rossi on the persistent October slot for Phillip Island and an unstable springtime meteorological beat. “We push very much to come to Phillip Island at the right moment: March. So we start the season here but they say it is impossible because they have F1 in Melbourne. The guys that organise [the races] are the same and they say ‘no, no way’. OK, this [a date switch] is difficult. More easy is the time of the race. We fight all year: I think in every safety commission meeting all the riders ask the organisation – through Dorna – to modify the time to come back to 2 o’clock and they always say no. So what can we say? What can we do? They say at 4 it is better than 2. Dorna say it is a decision of the organiser. We ask 15 times to change the schedule. We say we have to race at 2 o’clock and they say no way. We fight and we say at 3: no way. We go at 4 or you stay at home. Dorna say it is the Australian organisation.”
“I think moving the race one hour earlier will help because we find the top temperature at 3 [pm],” offered Maverick Viñales; somewhat rejuvenated through his improved competitiveness. “But the crashes come because of the weather. It is very cold always and, this year especially, it is so windy. It is always cold at this time of year. If [have] to push then I would change the date because when we came here in February [for the test] it was excellent.”
“Every time we come many things change with this track and everything feels slower than last year,” said Pol Espargaro who made Q2 for the first time this season on the Red Bull KTM and sits 11th for a personal best in 2018. “I think we did a 29.0 last year and I was completely on the limit doing a 30.1. The top guys were also slower by quite a lot. The bikes should be a little bit faster every year!”
“Here we are riding very fast and it is cold and everything becomes very ‘stiff’ and the actions of the bikes are more aggressive; for this we have a lot of crashes,” explained Marquez; already two spills recorded for the weekend. “We also speak about other [safety] things like changing the natural grass in some areas.”
Zarco pointed out that Phillip Island was actually later in the calendar and a week closer to the summer to fit the new Thai Grand Prix onto the slate. “This race is later than usual and I expected to have better weather but finally not; it is still windy and cold,” said the Frenchman. “For me it is more about the date. At the beginning of the season maybe we could have more chance of warmer weather.”
“I’ve been here around WorldSBK time and it is a lot nicer…but it is still windy. It depends how riders are complaining. The wind will always be a factor here and the layout of the track means that it happens. The factor this weekend is that the tyre that seems to be working for most guys on the front is the Soft and we are out of them! We are using tyres up to maximum race distance and nothing more. I think that is the only danger. The wind is also making it more dangerous. It is something that needs to be considered but it depends whether you see the danger in temperature or wind.
How much will Marquez risk tomorrow? He has already tipped Andrea Iannone for the win – the bizarre Italian was setting a mean race pace with Hard tyres in FP4. “The feeling with the bike is not so bad so this is the most important thing,” #29 said. “On the other side it is really important we arrive in the last five laps with good performance from the rear tyre to be able to fight on the last give laps. This is key at the moment but we will see.”
Iannone is poised and could seize his last realistic chance to bag a win with the Suzuki (or just a ? podium result) before he contemplates an Aprilia that is still out of sorts and continues to give Aleix Espargaro cause to frown. “We will start with a new project and I work with my power, my strength,” Iannone said in typically forthright fashion. “We will start working, working, working to improve the situation. This year is this year, next year is next year, today is today, tomorrow is different.” Insightful!
Back to Marquez and the shackles of championship pressure has gone but the Catalan is just over a month away from collarbone surgery that will force a quiet winter. “They put like a ‘stop’ or ‘limiter’ in the shoulder because when the shoulder goes out many times the bone is getting smaller and smaller and it is easier to go out,” he revealed. “So they just ‘increase’ this bone by a plate or a bolt, I don’t know, and then it will be better. It takes one month and a half to be 100% so for that reason I need to wait until December. I will wait until the first week to then be 100% for the bike in mid-January.”
The weather forecast predicts a dry but even cooler Sunday. Phillip Island could – maybe – deliver the good again. “Last year it was the best race of the season for sure because it was a wild battle from the beginning until the end: I hope to be in the group,” said Rossi. The eight time winner in Australia also succinctly described the feeling and requirements to excel on this fearsome but also hallowed ground. “You have to be very brave because you go very fast and here in Phillip Island you never know how much rain [has fallen],” he said. “You have to enter with a slick on asphalt that you don’t know if it is dry or wet. You need to have very big balls!”
By Adam Wheeler @OnTrackOffRoad
Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP