Just days after the 2016 World Champion was decided, the paddock has unpacked on the shores of the Pacific for the Australian Grand Prix at the breathtaking Phillip Island Circuit.
The island itself is simply stunning and as a race track it is truly unique, there is nothing like it and for that reason, it is a very special stop on the MotoGP calendar.
The circuit boasts fast corners, elevation changes and a fast straight that makes you think you’re heading out to sea before coming to a stop as you twist and turn your way around the tarmac ribbon that hugs the coast. There are a couple of hard braking points such as the tight Honda corner at turn four and MG corner at 10, both of which are key overtaking points along with Doohan’s turn one after the long Gardner straight and the fast turns of seven and eight.
Because of it’s positioning the track is incredibly susceptible to the weather and it’s perfectly normal to experience all four seasons in one day, so the riders and teams will need to be prepared for anything to happen. It’s also vulnerable to strong winds that come off the Bass Strait, and they’re normally quite chilly! These winds do pose a problem because in the high-speed corners they make the bike feel heavier, which makes the change of direction difficult.
Stability will be the key part of the bike setup this weekend, particularly as the riders spend so much of their time cranked over on the side of the tyre. The strong winds can also cause wheelie issues, so wings will probably be out in full-force but there have been issues with them at the Island before, such as when Dani Pedrosa nearly crashed following along behind Iannone in the “bubble” they create, so make sure to keep an eye on them this week.
Because stability will be so vital at Phillip Island, Michelin have continued their development and brought a special compound that will only be used at the Australian circuit. The track is an abrasive one so it will need to stand up to those demands, while still battling against whatever the weather throws at it. Both front and rear slicks will be asymmetric boasting a harder left side, with soft, medium and hard for the front (of which only the medium is symmetric) and medium and hard for the rear. Wets might get a bit of running if the current forecast is correct (let’s hope it isn’t) and intermediates could even make an appearance.
Speaking of special appearances, this weekend is going to be a very important one. Dani Pedrosa is still out injured and at Phillip Island, he will be replaced by the MotoGP Legend that is Nicky Hayden. Yes, you read that correctly; Nicky Hayden will be donning his Repsol Leathers (probably not his old ones..) once again and partnering the new World Champion Marc Marquez. Exciting isn’t it?
Speaking about his second comeback this year Hayden said: “it’s a chance, 10 years after winning my World title, to get back to my old ‘Dream Team’.. there was no way I could say no.” Now I’m not saying he’s going to win on Sunday but don’t be too surprised if he’s right up the sharp end once he’s settled himself on the Honda.
There’s more than one stand-in for Australia as Hector Barbera will once again replace the injured Andrea Iannone at the Factory Ducati team, while he, in turn, will be replaced by Australian Mike Jones, who was incredibly excited to be racing at home in “since it’s my home Grand Prix there will be a lot of support.. I know the circuit, so hopefully, things will go a bit smoother this weekend”.
With Jones’ second MotoGP appearance, there will be two Aussies on the Premier Class grid at Phillip Island for the first time since 2009 (Stoner and Vermeulen). The second this year obviously being Assen winner Jack Miller, who returns home as a MotoGP winner for the first time. The Australian rider is finally back to fitness and is looking forward to the weekend “it will feel extra special this year going back as a MotoGP winner”.
But while it will be exciting for the Aussies, the Australian Grand Prix is going to have quite a strange feel for the Yamaha riders, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo as they now only have the battle for second to focus on. Lorenzo enjoys the track and is definitely aiming for a win on Sunday but admits “Phillip Island is going to be a bit strange because the fight for the championship is over”, while his team-mate Rossi is also ready for a fight back to the top after what he calls “a very bad season, our worst season on paper” and hopes that the weather will play ball because in his words “if it’s cold it can be dangerous”. The two riders are both desperate to be the one who ends their time as team-mates on top. If they are in the same space on Sunday, and I expect they will be, things could get a little feisty.
Another person who might have all guns blazing is the new World Champion Marc Marquez. He’s been in sensible mode for so much of the season and that’s led to people lamenting the lack of the “old Marc” but the Spaniard admitted in Motegi that his alter-ego might be making a few more appearances now the championship is secure and it just so happens that Phillip Island is one of his favourites.
Aside from the Hondas and Yamahas, you’ll want to keep your eyes on Suzuki. The Australian circuit should suit their bike, and in particular Maverick Vinales, he expects to be competitive and if he’s not stood on the podium he won’t be happy. Which is pretty much how his team-mate Aleix Espargaro felt in Japan last weekend after missing out on a top-three finish. He wants a podium with Suzuki before he leaves, so if the track suits their bike as well as they think it will, both should be very competitive.
Ducati as always will pose a threat, this time with Andrea Dovizioso, although Dovi doesn’t really like Phillip Island. But the Italian has had a confidence boost after a podium at Motegi and as he said “last year I probably had my worst race in the entire championship” he’ll be wanting to put that right this time around.
While 2015 may have been one to forget for Dovizioso, for those at the front (and everyone watching) it was one of the most incredible races in recent memory, with some even dubbing it the “Race of the Century”. High praise indeed, but boy did it deserve it. The battles between Marquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Iannone (minus the seagull) were simply breathtaking and impossible to look away from.
Will we see the same this year? I hope so. Tyres will play their part as they always do at Phillip Island and with it being Michelin’s first visit they’ll be under intense scrutiny. The weather could make or break the weekend, and there’s an American and two Aussies ready to impress as well.
With the Yamahas at war, the new King of MotoGP ready to let loose and the Suzukis ready to get stuck in, anything could happen when the lights go out on Sunday afternoon.