Despite the typically variable and sometimes awful weather all week at Phillip Island, the clouds seemed to understand that Sunday afternoon was to be Casey Stoner’s last race at the Australian track, and obliged the jam-packed Aussie crowd with warm rays of sunshine.
On form all week, despite his ankle injury, Stoner was a landslide favorite to win the Australian GP, and the 53,100 fans in attendance were treated to one more showing of Stoner’s unique understanding of the Phillip Island race circuit, which now has a corner bearing his name.
With Casey doing what he does best at PI, the attention as the race started was as to whether a second World Champion would be crowned this Sunday, as Marc Márquez had locked up the 2012 Moto2 World Championship just a few minutes before the MotoGP race. With Lorenzo needing to beat Pedrosa to claim his crown, the Australian GP got underway in earnest.
Two championships could be settled at Phillip Island on Sunday. Marc Marquez looks certain to wrap up the 2012 Moto2 title in Australia, as the Catalunya Caixa rider needs just 2 points to put the title out of reach of Pol Espargaro. Marquez’ chances of wrapping up the Moto2 title with a win look slim, though. Pol Espargaro has been in a class of his own at Phillip Island, his love for the circuit showing through in the way he has been riding.
The only man to get near to Espargaro all weekend has been Scott Redding, as Phillip Island is one place where Redding’s size is less of a handicap. With few places where hard acceleration from low speed is required, Redding can rely on his natural speed to get around the track. Despite still being the youngest rider ever to win a Grand Prix – a title he is likely to hold in perpetuity, since the minimum age went up to 16 – Redding is still winless in Moto2. If he can follow the pace of Espargaro, Phillip Island could well provide him with a real shot at his first win.
The MotoGP title may not be settled in Australia, though. Jorge Lorenzo leads Dani Pedrosa by 23 points, and just needs to finish ahead of the Honda man to wrap up the championship at Phillip Island. The odds of that happening looked much better on Saturday, Lorenzo taking 2nd spot in both the morning’s free practice and qualifying in the afternoon, finishing ahead of Pedrosa in both sessions.
But Lorenzo may yet have to leave the box of championship t-shirts in the flight cases, as a closer look at the race pace between Lorenzo and Pedrosa gives the advantage to the Honda man. Lorenzo is lapping consistently in the high 1’30s and low 1’31s, but Pedrosa has been reeling off strings of high 1’30s in race trim.
In typical Phillip Island fashion, a range of weather was featured during qualifying for the Australian GP — though, it was mostly cold, cloudy, and windy. With spots of rain throughout the day, it was anyone’s guess when the weather would, could, or should arrive on the coastal track, which meant every minute of qualifying counted.
Unsurprisingly, Casey Stoner dominated the time sheets throughout Free Practice, and was heavily favorited for the pole-position for Sunday’s race. With the MotoGP Championship going down to the wire for Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, MotoGP fans were perhaps more concerned what was happening behind Stoner, despite this being his last home grand prix.
When Casey Stoner was asked on Thursday about the key to his speed through Turn 3 – now renamed Stoner Corner in his honor – he refused to answer, saying only that he might tell everyone after he had retired. To anyone watching Stoner scorch around that corner and the rest of the track, the secret was plain to see: the Australian is completely in his element, totally comfortable and confident in every move he makes at the circuit.
Stoner left thick black lines round most of the left handers at the circuit, including daubing them all over the inside of the kerbs at Turn 3. It was a display of mastery that left even the injured Ben Spies in awe, watching at home on the computer. “I gotta say without a doubt Casey Stoner does stuff even GP racers watch and scratch their head at!” Spies posted on his Twitter page. Stoner ended nine tenths of a second up on second-place man Dani Pedrosa, the only man to dip into the 1’29s (just, his fastest lap being 1’29.999), and the only man bar Pedrosa to hit the 1’30s.
This weekend’s Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island is going to be a very Australian affair, more so than most other years. For one obvious reason: this is the last chance to see Casey Stoner race a Grand Prix motorcycle at the iconic venue before he hangs up his helmet and retires from MotoGP. Record crowds are expected, and local media coverage has expanded as everyone gathers to say goodbye to the latest in a long and honorable line of Australian Grand Prix champions who have left an indelible mark on motorcycle racing.
The weekend started off with Stoner’s name being added to those of Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, in a ceremony to rename Turn 3 Stoner Corner. Gardner’s name has been given to the front straight, Doohan’s to Turn 1, and Stoner’s name follows after the Southern Loop. It is a fitting tribute to the man who has started from pole four times in a row, won here five times in a row, and achieved some remarkable feats in MotoGP.
Ever since Jorge Lorenzo’s #3 engine went up in smoke at Assen, after the Factory Yamaha man was scuttled by Alvaro Bautista in the first corner, MotoGP followers have been asking themselves whether Jorge Lorenzo will make it to the end of the season with the remainder of his allocation, or whether he will have to take a 7th engine and start from pit lane at some point.
As each race goes by, the questions have become more urgent: will this be the race where Lorenzo finally runs out of engines, and hands Dani Pedrosa the advantage in the championship fight?
So how is Jorge Lorenzo doing with his engines? Is he, as many suspect, in imminent danger of losing an engine, and with it potentially his second World Championship? What strategies have his pit crew been using to manage with one engine prematurely withdrawn? And will those strategies be enough to see him through to the race at Valencia?