Will championships be decided tomorrow? The Moto3 title could well be settled after the race, a lot of bleary-eyed British fans clinging to their cappuccinos in a desperate attempt to stay awake. It won’t take much: Danny Kent just has to finish ahead of Enea Bastianini and higher than seventh to be sure.
The MotoGP title is still too close to be settled at Phillip Island, but tomorrow’s race could well turn out to be pivotal. If Valentino Rossi finishes ahead of Jorge Lorenzo, the Italian will have one hand on the MotoGP crown.
If Lorenzo finishes ahead of Rossi, and especially if he can put some bodies between himself and his Movistar Yamaha teammate, then the pendulum might finally start to swing back Lorenzo’s way.
Blame it on the Bass Strait. The weather, or perhaps more accurately, the weather, the climate, and the environment, has a huge effect on the Phillip Island circuit.
The weather, because the strong winds which blow in off the Strait brings regular dowsings of rain. The climate, because the hot summers, cool winters and wet weather places a severe strain on the asphalt. And the environment, because the sea breeze brings in salt, and the Antarctic ozone hole means UV levels are high, both of which have a corrosive effect on the circuit surface.
Perched on top of cliffs overlooking the Bass Strait is a stunning setting for a race track, but the Phillip Island circuit pays a heavy price for the privilege.
All of those factors have combined this year to throw the Australian round of MotoGP a curveball, or to make it more colloquially accurate, bowled MotoGP a googly.
The weather at Phillip Island was at its most deceptive, relatively warm and sunny, but with clouds bearing quick showers blowing in at regular intervals.
No class would escape the tricky conditions, though some were more badly affected than others, Moto3 losing the first half of FP2 to the wet.
Phillip Island, like Mugello, is one of the tracks which any motorcycle racer worth their salt puts at the very top of their list of favorite tracks. And rightly so: swooping over gently undulating ground sitting atop cliffs overlooking a bay on the Bass Strait, it is perhaps the greatest of the natural race tracks.
It has everything a race track should have: a collection of fast, sweeping corners which richly reward bravery; a couple of hard braking corners fast and slow at which to overtake; a superb and treacherous combination of turns in Lukey Heights and MG at which to make a last ditch passing attempt, and a long enough run to the finish line to make drafting a possibility.
Add in arguably the most breathtaking setting on the calendar, and you have just about everything.
Has Valentino Rossi finally mastered qualifying? The Italian has struggled since the format changed, from the extended hour of qualifying which started out as free practice and ended up as an all-out time attack, to the frenetic fifteen-minute dash for pole.
His biggest problem, he always explained, was getting up to speed from the start: leaving pit lane and going flat out from the very first meters. He had spent a lifetime slowly sidling up to a blistering lap, rather than getting the hammer down as soon as the lights changed.
The switch from an analog to a binary format had been hard to swallow. Millions of older fans sympathized, as they faced the same struggle in their own lives.
Lorenzo, on the other hand, has thrived in the new format, having learned the skill while doing battle with Casey Stoner. The Australian’s greatest legacy was his ability to go as fast as possible the moment he left the pit lane.
I was once told by Cristian Gabarrini, Stoner’s crew chief, that when they looked at his sector times, they would see that he had set his fastest sector times on his out lap. To beat Stoner, Lorenzo had to learn to emulate him.
It’s only Friday, but already, one championship has been decided. Tito Rabat’s mission to outscore Johann Zarco was tough enough before he crashed at Almeria and broke his wrist, but trying to handle the immense braking stresses of the Japanese circuit with a freshly plated radius proved too much to ask.
Rabat’s attempt was brave, but ultimately doomed to failure. After riding in FP1, Rabat realized that it wasn’t so much the pain, but rather a lack of strength in the arm needed to control the bike safely. Forced to withdraw, Rabat’s title defense came to an end, and Johann Zarco became the 2015 Moto2 World Champion.
It was a rather bewildered Zarco who faced the press later on Friday. His mind was still focused on Sunday’s race, rather than on becoming champion. He could barely comprehend that he had already won the title.
Mentally, he had prepared to celebrate on Sunday, after the race, so the title had come unexpectedly early. It did not put him off his stride, however. Zarco was twelve thousandths slower than Tom Luthi in FP1, and nineteen thousandths faster than Alex Rins in FP2. He remains the man to beat in Moto2, exactly as he has been all year.
Motegi was the stage for a parade of the walking wounded on Thursday. The first question to half of the riders in the press conference was, “How’s the injury?”
The answers mattered quite a lot, given that Jorge Lorenzo is engaged in a battle to the wire with Valentino Rossi for the 2015 MotoGP crown, Marc Márquez has proved to be capable of being the joker in the podium pack, and Andrea Iannone is the dark horse always looking to disrupt proceedings at the front.
If any of those three are severely hampered by their injuries, it could have a major impact on the outcome of the championship.
There is, of course, one minor problem with asking riders how their injuries are, and how much trouble they are causing: you never know just how close to the truth the answer they gave you actually is.
This is not necessarily because they are trying to deceive you, but as Valentino Rossi himself pointed out, often, a rider does not know just how much trouble an injury will cause until they actually get on a bike and ride. “For me, I think it’s impossible to know,” he replied, when asked if he thought Lorenzo might be hampered by his injury at Motegi.
And so the most crucial part of the season begins. Although you could justifiably make the argument that every race is equally important, the three flyaways to the Pacific Rim often punch well above their weight in terms of determining the outcome of the championships.
If riders haven’t all but wrapped up the title before heading East for the triple header at Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang, then events can throw a real spanner in the works of a title fight.
These are three grueling weeks of racing under any circumstances; throw in the pressure of a championship battle and mistakes are easily made.
The first challenge the riders face is the sheer amount of travel it takes to get from one race to the next. First, they must spend at least 18 hours on planes and at airports traveling from Europe to Tokyo.
They face a further two-hour drive to get to Motegi, and unless they are well-paid enough to be staying at the circuit hotel, will have a 50-minute commute into the circuit every day ahead of the race.
On Sunday night or Monday morning, they return to Tokyo for another 10-hour flight (or longer, if they can’t fly direct) to Melbourne, and a drive down to Phillip Island. A week later, another flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, this time an 8-hour flight.
After the Sepang round, they finally get to head home, another 17+ hour return flight back to Europe, and a week to rest up ahead of the final round of the season at Valencia. They travel from a wet and humid Motegi, to the chill of Phillip Island’s early spring, to the sweltering tropical heat of Sepang.