Well, it’s that time of the year. A rather warm goodbye to winter for motor racing fans – with the season opener of the World Superbikes season at Phillip Island, Australia.
Being exposed to the spectacular Bass Straits, the reality is the weather changes so often at Phillip Island that you can have all four seasons in a day.
This did indeed prove to be the case on Friday and Saturday, and it resulted in some pretty special light – which every photographer is on the lookout for. Cloudy skies, spots of sun, and micro-climate.
The green machines with Rea and Sykes seem to have picked up pretty much from where they left off last year. Chaz Davies, who had a terrific second half to 2015 was brimming with confidence – and it showed in his times.
And for American fans, there was of course the welcomed sight of Nicky Hayden’s #69 to look forward to. Welcome to the season opener of World Superbikes 2016 from Phillip Island – where questions outnumber answers.
The Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP’s rule-making body, met last week to make a few minor updates to the rules for MotoGP in 2016. The two biggest changes to the rules relate to the two biggest changes to the series for next year: the change of tire suppliers and the switch to spec-electronics.
The change that will most please the fans will be the official end of the Open class. All references to both the Open and Factory classes are to be removed from the regulations, as the switch to spec electronics, all teams running both the standard Magneti Marelli hardware and official Dorna unified software, mean there is only one class in MotoGP again.
This does not mean that all factories are equal, however. Special concessions remain for factories that have not won a race and have not yet accrued six concession points (based on podium positions).
Manufacturers with concessions will be allowed to use twelve engines for a season instead of seven engines, they will be allowed unlimited testing with factory riders instead of test riders, and engine development will not be frozen.
There is nowhere left to hide. On Sunday, it is time for the men and women of Grand Prix racing to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend their eyes a terrible aspect.
Much is at stake: a Moto3 title that really should have been wrapped up by now; a MotoGP title rendered complicated by the impetuosity of youth and old age; and just sheer thirst for glory in Moto2.
Glory is what is at stake in all three classes, what young men and women dedicate their lives and sacrifice their bodies and their time to chasing. Sweet victory is there for the lucky few, the bitter draught of defeat for the rest.
It looked like the cards had already been dealt ahead of Sunday’s race when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Valentino Rossi’s request to have his three penalty points suspended.
Then Rossi came out swinging on Friday and Saturday, not his usual eight or ninth times, and a struggle to make it through to Q2, but strong pace from the outset and competitive times.
“I’ve been impressed with how fast he’s going,” Nicky Hayden said of Rossi after qualifying today. “He’s looked very solid. We know he’s a nine-time champion because he’s fast on Sunday, but he’s come out of the gate, might not be breaking track records, but compared to a normal Friday, Saturday, he’s looking strong.”
Then came qualifying. Rossi had earned passage to Q2 by right, and had told us on Friday he would be treating qualifying the same as he had every weekend, pushing hard for a fast lap. Rossi seemed to have the upper hand going into Q2, especially as Jorge Lorenzo was clearly suffering with nerves.
He forgot to take off a tear off in the pits, then spent long seconds trying to sort it out with his assistant, before finally leaving the pits in a bit of a fluster. Not a good omen, we all thought.
The atmosphere hangs heavy over the Sepang International Circuit, both literally and figuratively. The thick gray haze casts a pall over the circuit, dulling the light, restricting vision, cloying at the throats of everyone at the track, and in the region.
There is another oppressive weight over the proceedings, this time of expectation. There is the pressure of a MotoGP title battle going down to the wire, and a Moto3 championship that should have been wrapped up two races ago, before a new rival emerged on the scene.
Then there is the electric tension created by Valentino Rossi, when he decided to use the pre-event press conference to accuse Marc Márquez of helping Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
Since then, it has been impossible to view any action by either Rossi or Márquez with an objective eye. Rossi’s accusations, Márquez’ defense, and Lorenzo’s entry into the arena color everything that happens, on and off the track.
Dani Pedrosa claimed pole position for tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Marc Marquez returns to his pit box during during Q2. He will start from 2nd place for tomorrow’s race.
Valentino Rossi completes the front row. Much to the delight of the members of the Valentino Rossi fan club in the main grandstand.
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.