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.
The Grand Prix Circus came to Sepang with three titles in the balance. Only one of them got wrapped up on Sunday, though, tropical rainstorms throwing a spanner into the works of the other two, but generating some fascinating racing. The fans had one fantastic dry race, one fantastic wet race, and a processional MotoGP race that looked much the same as it would have had it been dry.
There was a packed house – over 77,000 people crowded into the circuit, a highly respectable number for a flyaway round – cheering on local heroes, there was confusion over the rules, and there were a lot of new faces on the podium.
There was also a much better balance of nationalities on the podium: where in previous races, the Spanish national anthem has been played three times on a Sunday, at Sepang, it was only heard once. Most of all, though, the Moto2 and MotoGP races ran in the wet would be determined by the timing of the red flags, with Race Direction’s decisions on safety also having an outcome on the results of the races, and in the case of MotoGP, possibly implications for the championship.
After two days of miserable weather at Aragon, race day dawned dry, sunny, though still a little cool. Paddock regulars who had spent the last two days scurrying from pits to hospitality, seeking shelter from the rain, poured out into the paddock to catch the warmth of the sun, which they had just about given up on previously.
The blue skies brought out some great racing, at least in Moto3 and Moto2, as well as some fantastic displays of riding in MotoGP, though the excitement in the premier class was to be found in the battle for the final spot on the podium rather than in the fight for victory. But there were also a few signs of improvement in the near future.
That was a chaotic weekend. Two-and-a-half days lost to rain, then a bizarre series of hold-ups and incidents on the start of the MotoGP grid that ended up eventually going a long way to deciding the championship. Fortunately for the series, the MotoGP race was preceded by two scintillating support races, and then the MotoGP race itself saw two very popular podiums.
To start with the biggest issue, the start and then the restart of the MotoGP race. There was a lot of confusion and head-scratching over what was going on – the riders had never seen the flashing amber lights on the starting panels, for one – but when the dust settled, it looked like everything had been run almost by the numbers, despite the protests from Dani Pedrosa’s camp.
The sequence of events seems to have been this: After the first warm up lap, the riders lined up on the grid ready to go, but after the starting lights had been shown, Karel Abraham had a clutch problem and put his hand up to indicate that his bike was not working. Once that had happened, Race Direction had no option but to call off the start. They ran this by the book: flashing yellow lights were displayed next to the red lights, and yellow flags were waved. There was as short of an interval as possible, before the bikes set off for the second warm-up lap, and race distance was reduced by a single lap.
Indianapolis is not given to great racing – a lack of use on the infield road course means that the track is usually fairly dirty once you get off line – and Sunday was no real exception. The MotoGP and Moto2 races were tactically brilliant and masterful displays of crushing the opposition, but neither was particularly entertaining to watch. Fortunately, nobody had told the Moto3 riders about the lack of great racing, and the youngsters got the day off to a fantastic start, with the race decided in the last sector of the track.
Laguna Seca has a habit of throwing the Championship a curveball. The epic race between Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi in 2008 was a prime example, a turning point in the Championship when Rossi halted what looked like the inexorable rise of Casey Stoner. Last year, too, Laguna proved to be key moment in the Championship, when Stoner stopped Jorge Lorenzo’s resurgence with one of the bravest passes in racing for a long time, through the ultra-fast Turn 1. With Laguna Seca the last race going into the summer break, winning or losing at the US GP can have a dramatic effect on the momentum of the Championship.
Whether the same will be said of Laguna Seca in 2012 will only be clear at the end of the season. But it has all the signs of being a significant moment, for more than just the five points Casey Stoner clawed back from Jorge Lorenzo. The race, if not thrilling, was at least tense: there was little between the two men for most of the race, Stoner shadowing Lorenzo closely, snapping at his heels but not quite able to attempt a pass. The turning point came on lap 18. As the leading pair plunged down the Corkscrew, Lorenzo’s sliding rear tire almost threw him out of the saddle. “I closed my eyes during the highside,” the Yamaha man said afterwards, “and I was happy to still be in the seat when I opened them again.”