THE final Phillip Island Grand Prix for Casey Stoner was always going to be interesting, with anticipation building from the time the Australian announced his forthcoming retirement months earlier.
While Aussies were hoping he’d defend the title he won for the second time in 2011, that wasn’t to be due to injury suffered as he tried to remain competitive at the Indianapolis round of the series.
Stoner returned to the MotoGP circus a few weeks and a few races before the Australian round, in time to be very much at the pointy end of the field for his home race. And while he started the race weekend still in pain and still unable to even walk without a limp, Stoner went out from the start of free practice and set blistering lap times.
Looking through some side-on images I shot during practice I realised Stoner’s wheels weren’t inline, despite being hundreds of metres out of Siberia Corner: a careful analysis of the riders showed no-one else was doing that.
In qualifying Stoner just picked up where he’d left off in practice, setting close to lap-record pace early in the session and putting the other riders on notice that he was fast, very fast, and keen to make it six in a row in the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island.
There was a brief heart-stopping moment or two when he crashed early in qualifying at the slow Turn Four, a spectacular low-speed highside – an odd crash which looked worse than it was.
Stoner was back on his second bike within a few minutes, and dropped his time with minutes of being back out there. Stoner seemed able to defy physics as he reeled off numerous 1:29m laps, doing so while other racers weren’t getting below 1:30.
The slow-motion shots of him crossed-up, the tyres skipping across the bumpy Phillip Island bitumen really showed off his skills in keeping his machine under control despite riding it on the edge of traction and control at speeds over 330km/h.
There was talk of Stoner getting into a 1:28s, which is amazing.
He did a 1:29 during Friday practice on hard tyres and a cool circuit, and Darryl Beattie said Stoner had told him he had more speed in him. Under 10 minutes of qualifying to go and no-one else was under 1:30. With eight minutes to go he went faster. His qualifying time of 1:29.623 was a blistering lap time on a bircuit due to be resurfaced in December. His Pole position in 2011 was 1:29.975. Light drizzle with a few minutes to go in qualifying killed the session.
Until Stoner started his Reign as King of Phillip Island, Valentino Rossi was the man to beat. Rossi, at odds with the Ducati, was two seconds slower than Stoner and back in eighth.
The crowds watching all this action were records, too: over 29,000 on the Friday and 40,000 attended Saturday’s qualifying, which are both record attendences for their respective days.
Jorge Lorenzo took second spot on the grid and admitted he didn’t think he’d win, basically saying “Casey’s unbeatable, we hope to be close”. This from the 2010 and 2012 title winner.
The race had the result the fans had come for and the title was decided, but it wasn’t really a great race – Stoner was too good at the front, taking the lead early and reeling off fast laps to win easily. Lorenzo, more concerned about the title than the race took a very content second spot after the only man who could prevent him from winner the championship, Dani Pedrosa, crashed out early in Turn Four. The excitement was for third spot, which turned into a tussle eventually won by another crowd favourite, Cal Crutchlow. The Briton is one to watch.
Why have Australians been so dominant at Phillip Island? Way back in 1989, Wayne Gardner Won the first World Championship 500cc Australian Grand Prix, starting a pattern of Australian winners of their home race – Gardner backed it up in 1990 and when the race returned to Phillip Island after a six year absence it was Mick Doohan doing the winning.
Gardner, Doohan and now Stoner have corners named after each of them, such has been their form over the years.
But I don’t believe it’s any sort of home ground advantage – if anything, the pressure of the local media and patriotic crowd could lead to mistakes. I think it’s more to do with the Australians’ ability to control a sliding bike.
All three of the Australian winners – and other winners such as Valentino Rossi – have been comfortable riding a sliding bike.
This year I’ve watched Stoner as he bounced across the bumps of a track in need of resurfacing, but unlike other riders he’s able to ride around the problems and still set blistering times – although his fastest lap was actually set in 2008, which was also when the circuit’s fastest lap was set, by Nicky Hayden – who also happens to be a rider happy to have a bike squirming around underneath him.
Phillip Island was designed and build in the 1950s, at a time of low horsepower bikes and cars, a time when flowing bends were built so brakes weren’t over-stressed and competitive racing was a matter of slipstreaming and skill, not late braking, point-and-squirt riding. When the track was rebuilt for the World Championship, the only major change to the track design was to make Turn Four much shorter, so it should be no surprise it’s now the slowest corner on the track (there was no run off at the exit of the corner on the old layout).
So Phillip Island’s track design is basically the oldest on the calendar – sure, Assen is an older circuit, but it was shortened and heavily modified a few years ago. About the only thing left that’s traditional there is the race is on a Saturday.
Stoner praises Phillip Island as a place where the big bikes can really be wound up. It rewards someone who will get on the throttle early, who is willing to make the bike spin up its rear tyre, who has the balls to really use the horsepower available.