Two freshly anointed champions, three impressive winners, and a large crowd of ecstatic and yet wistful fans, come to say goodbye to a departing hero and hope to spot a new one arriving. Even the weather cooperated. That’s how good the Australian Grand Prix was at Phillip Island this year. All three races were a lot less intense than the previous two weekends, but even that didn’t matter, because of the manner in which the winners secured their victories, and because the Australian crowd had something to cheer about in all three categories.
It started in the Moto3 race, where Sandro Cortese rode one of his best races of the year, the title he clinched last weekend at Sepang clearly a weight off his mind, allowing the young German to ride freely. He had Miguel Oliveira to contend with for most of the race, but in the end, he would not be denied. The home crowd still had much to cheer about, as local boy Arthur Sissis, the 17-year-old former Red Bull Rookie, won an intense battle for third, putting an Australian on the podium for the first time on Sunday.
In Moto2, Pol Espargaro gave a display of dominance rarely seen in the intensively competitive class. It was hardly unexpected, Espargaro having stamped his authority on practice for the past two days, but the style in which the Spaniard won was very, very impressive. It took him a couple of laps to get past Marc Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami, but once he did, he put a second or more a lap on most of the field, before cruising home to a spectacular victory. Espargaro could do nothing to prevent Marquez becoming champion, concentrating solely on the task ahead, winning as many races as possible.
The home crowd had something to cheer for as well, Ant West riding an outstanding race to hold off a late charge from Marc Marquez to secure second place, making it two podiums in a row. West’s podium at Sepang last weekend took the weight of the Australian veteran’s shoulders and has given him the confidence boost he needed.
The team have been making slow progress, West had said earlier this weekend, and Sepang was the reward from that hard work. Most of all, though, it had helped him find his belief in himself again; that alone is worth half a second or more a lap. At this level, motorcycle racing is 90% mental.
Marquez finished third, but still took the 2012 Moto2 title with honor. He may not have been able to win – no one had the measure of Espargaro at Phillip Island – but he gave an impressive account of himself and secured the championship with a podium. Marquez is a deserved winner of the championship, despite the criticism sometimes aimed at the young Spaniard. The onboard video of the first lap at Motegi shows one of the most compelling displays of courage, skill and racing sense of recent years, and justifies on its own his ascension to the premier class next season.
There has been much made of Marquez’ backing and support, and of the special treatment he has received. It is true that he has had solid sponsorship and always been in a strong team, but the reason why he has had the backing is because of his extraordinary talent, rather than the other way around. A MotoGP team manager who was at the test where Marquez took his first laps on a Moto2 machine was in awe: “He is a very special talent.”
Winning the title on what is a very ordinary chassis – the massive success of the Kalex bikes compared to the mediocre results of the other Suters – speaks volumes about the ability of Marquez, and the Spaniard will be very fast from the very first MotoGP race at Qatar. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto has already said that he expects Marquez to be on the podium at that race; it would not surprise me in the slightest.
The main course, however, was the demonstration to be given by Casey Stoner in the MotoGP class. Stoner had almost humiliated the rest of the field during practice, consistently half a second or more quicker than anyone else, the gap often closer to a second. At a track where the lap is usually 90 seconds, that is a massive advantage.