Saturday Summary at Phillip Island: Of Unstoppable Stoner, Honda’s Magic Gearbox, & A Dark Horse

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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.

Lorenzo has a plan, however. At the press conference, the Factory Yamaha man told the media his plan was to latch onto the back of Stoner from the start and try to match his pace for the first couple of laps. That should be enough to break Pedrosa, and manage a gap all the way home. Even that plan could be difficult, though. “Casey is really on another planet here,” Lorenzo said of the Australian’s pace. Stoner is at least a tenth quicker in every sector, two tenths faster in some. Hanging on to his slipstream is more of a challenge than it seems.

That would leave the championship as a straight fight between Lorenzo and Pedrosa, an attractive prospect for the crowds. The chances of anything other than a Stoner win at the Island seem vanishingly remote, the Australian in a class entirely of his own. His name will already have been penciled in on the trophy; it would almost be worth the risk to go ahead and carve it.

While Pedrosa will get no help from his teammate in the championship fight – giving team orders to Casey Stoner would leave Shuhei Nakamoto looking rather too much like King Canute – assistance could come from an unexpected direction. The real dark horse at Phillip Island is Andrea Dovizioso, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha man capable of matching Pedrosa’s pace, and possibly a little quicker than Lorenzo.

Dovizioso told reporters that he too had not been given any team orders by Yamaha, or instructed not to get ahead of Lorenzo. Given that Dovizioso is leaving Yamaha to go to the factory Ducati team in 2013, the Italian is unlikely to be sympathetic towards obeying Yamaha team orders, especially as a podium would earn him a healthy bonus from his team manager.

It is likely to be the Hondas that dominate, though. Even Stefan Bradl of the LCR team has been quick at the Island. The secret, according to Cal Crutchlow, is Honda’s seamless gearbox, the 650,000 euro unit which allows gear changes to be done much more quickly and without upsetting the bike. “Coming out, we can’t change gear with any spin, so if our bike is spinning we have to keep delaying and rolling the throttle,” Crutchlow told reporters.

Phillip Island consists of many fast corners where gear is being changed while leaned over. This is where the Honda is gaining the time: unlike the Yamaha, the Honda men can shift gear without upsetting the rear, smoothing the acceleration and making it easier to keep the power on through the fast, flowing corners.

Crutchlow also said that the Honda gearbox was helping with downshifts as well. “At [Honda Corner], you have to go back four gears. We have to use the clutch, with their seamless shift they don’t,” Crutchlow said. When Honda debuted their seamless shift – or rather, when the press first became aware of Honda’s seamless shift – the factory Honda riders said that downshifts were where the new gearbox suffered.

The stability they gained on upshifts while leaned over was lost in part by more difficult downshifts. That, however, was over 18 months ago, and since then, nobody has asked the Honda men many questions about the gearbox. It is likely that this is one area where Honda has focused their efforts on improving, with obvious success.

The system is likely managed mainly through electronics. A slight glitch in the engine braking system caused Casey Stoner to be flicked from his bike during qualifying, braking on a hard tire going into the hairpin. Fortunately for him – and for the massed crowds of Australian fans heading for the Island to see Stoner for the last time – Stoner came away unhurt, the only damage some bruising to his hip. His damaged ankle was fine: on his second flying lap after returning to the pits from his crash, Stoner was back into the 1’29s.

Honda’s gearbox could well be a major contributing factor to Honda’s opposition to a spec-ECU. If HRC have had to spend a lot of time writing software to deal with the special circumstances created by a seamless shift gearbox, then they would be loath to give up that advantage. There is more to the electronics package than just fuel economy and throttle response, the ECU and its software also have a massive role to play in engine braking, getting the bikes smoothly and without drama into the corners – see the Moto2 bikes for an example of a machine without sophisticated engine braking strategies.

Regardless of whether Honda has an advantage or not – and Casey Stoner vehemently denies that they have, consistently pointing out that the switch to the new tire construction has caused massive problems with chatter for all of the Honda riders – there will be no stopping Casey Stoner on Sunday. Stoner came back early from injury with just a single goal in mind: to win at Phillip Island, his favorite racetrack. It is hard to see how anyone will be able to stop him from achieving that target.

Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.