In what is likely to be a preview of the rest of the decade in MotoGP, three Aliens not named Marquez will begin their assault on the vice-championship this week at Phillip Island. Heading into Round 16 Down Under, a mere three points separate Yamaha ironman Jorge Lorenzo from teammate Valentino Rossi, who sits tied with Repsol Honda mini-Marc Dani Pedrosa. While world champion Marc Marquez’ mom dusts off some space in the family trophy case for the 2014 hardware, there’s plenty of racing left this season.
Late in 2012, while MotoGP legend Casey Stoner was busy winning his sixth consecutive Australian GP here, we suggested it might be fitting to rename the track Stoner Island, an idea widely ignored in Australia but adopted, strangely enough, in San Marino, which renamed its own circuit in memory of the late Marco Simoncelli. Given the fact that Simoncelli missed his chance to win a premier class race, while Stoner’s victory count is somewhere in the 40s, you wouldn’t expect much resistance to the idea from the locals, who have precious little else to brag about. A couple of tennis players from back in the 60’s, maybe. Whatever.
Who, you may be wondering, holds the record for the second-most wins at Phillip Island, presuming Stoner owns the record? I mean, after all, we’re squarely in the midst of trying to generate some excitement over an impending battle for second place in 2014. So, again, who has the second most career wins at Phillip Island? Casey Stoner, that’s who, with his six. Valentino Rossi, with seven, holds the record, with one win having come in the 500cc class in 2001 and two in the 250cc class in 1998 and 1999. OK, so Stoner had the most premier class wins; we’ll give him an asterisk for his trouble.
Now, for $500 and the game, who won the race in 2006, in between Rossi’s four in a row and Stoner’s six? Nicky Hayden? No, dude has only three career wins in the premier class, none of which came in Australia. Dani Pedrosa? No, he was a sullen, aggressive rookie in 2006 and finished 15th that year. Drum roll, please … the winner of the 2006 Australian Grand Prix was … Marco Melandri onboard the Gresini Honda.
More Recent History at Phillip Island
2012 marked the last of Stoner’s six wins at his home crib. That year, Lorenzo struggled to second place, some nine seconds in arrears. Five seconds behind Lorenzo was Cal Crutchlow on the Tech 3 Yamaha, scoring his second career podium in the premier class that day. Pedrosa, pedaling as hard as he could over the second half of the season to catch leader Lorenzo, lost his marbles on Lap 2 and saw his day and his season come to another dismal end. The best race-in-the-race that day saw Andrea Dovizioso win a thrilling run to the flag, punking both Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl and their respective Hondas by a few hundredths of a second.
Last year’s race was a fiasco from start to finish. Over the previous winter, the track owners had invested $3 million resurfacing the circuit, making it the grippiest, fastest circuit on the calendar. And, incidentally, the most rubber-hungry surface on earth. With its host of high-speed bends, the riders were generating enormous amounts of heat in the tires, which were decomposing beneath them as fast as the crews could put them on. Bridgestone, in its infinite wisdom (read: unwillingness to spend the money testing their tires on the new surface), arrived in Australia to a symphony of complaints, ranging from Carmelo Ezpeleta to the kid who drives Jorge Lorenzo’s scooter in the pit area.
By Sunday, Race Direction was issuing Orders of the Day every half hour. The race was shortened from 27 laps to 26, then to 19, then to 19 with a mandatory tire change by the end of Lap 10. The teams set up two bikes for each rider, each equipped with soft tires and half a tank of gas, and the lights went out. As Lap 10 was ending, Lorenzo and Marquez were leading, running shoulder to shoulder. Lorenzo exited into pit lane as Marquez, inexplicably, kept right on going, only to pit at the end of Lap 11.
The combination of a flurry of ad hoc rule changes being translated into three or four different languages with riders’ lives and millions of dollars of machinery hanging in the balance proved too much for Marquez and his team, whose late tire change resulted in a black flag DQ on Lap 15, handing the race to Lorenzo. The win kept the Mallorcan in contention for the title, which he only grudgingly surrendered two weeks later in Valencia. Pedrosa and Rossi made up the rest of the podium, with Rossi pipping Crutchlow and Bautista at the finish for the only satisfying moment of the entire day.
You Heard It Here Last
We have been somewhat derelict in keeping up with the rider changes happening in the second echelon of MotoGP in preparation for the 2015 season. This is due in part to the fact that every single motorcycle publication on earth has published the abundant team press releases, including ourselves. At this point, all but two or three seats have been claimed.
Familiar faces changing livery for 2015 are headlined by Crutchlow and Bradl, as the Brit takes over for Bradl on the #1 LCR Honda and Bradl downshifts to join Forward Racing. Danilo Petrucci goes from the Ioda Racing frying pan to the Pramac Ducati fire, where he will join Yonny Hernandez on the junior Corse team. And Aleix Espargaro gets to realize his dream of riding for a factory team, as he moves from Forward Racing’s Open class machine to the new Suzuki GSX-RR.
At least four new faces will grace the grid next season. The Drive 7 Aspar team is giving Hiro Aoyama the boot in favor of Eugene Laverty, who joins the premier class, alongside teammate Nicky Hayden, after several productive seasons in World Superbike. With Paul Byrd folding up his tent next year, we are spared the sight of two Lavertys on the grid, as brother Michael is “evaluating opportunities” in WSBK and British Superbike, i.e., scrambling to find some kind of ride on road courses rather than dirt ovals.
Up-and-coming Moto2 grad Maverick Vinales brings his game to MotoGP joining Aleix Espargaro on the factory Suzuki. Forward Racing, having ejected Colin Edwards and, in turn, been jilted by the elder Espargaro, will make a go of it with Bradl and Frenchman Loris Baz, all 6’3” of him, who will try to fold himself around the Yamaha powered machine, elbows and knees sticking out all over the place, sure to remind some of us of Super Sic the way he used to look on his Gresini Honda. But without question, the highest profile rookie heading into 2015 will be Jack Miller, the young Australian skipping a grade, moving directly to the premier class from Moto3 on a three year deal with LCR Honda, the first of which is likely to be spent in various hospitals around the globe. Crikey, but that’s a steep learning curve, Mr. Miller.
Fausto Gresini, in his eternal quest for Italian riders for his satellite squad, has abandoned his relationship with Honda in favor of a low budget operation with Aprilia for the next few years, with Bautista somehow retaining his #1 seat with the team, a second rider yet to be named. Scott Redding moves to Marc VDS Racing and their shiny new factory spec Honda, which should elevate the Brit’s game and set up some interesting fights with countryman Crutchlow on the same bike. Hayden, Laverty, Miller and Karel Abraham will be the beneficiaries of an upgrade in the so-called customer Hondas, as the Japanese factory switches out the severely underpowered RCV1000R in favor of what they’re calling the 213V-RS, powered by this year’s fire-breathing RC213V engine in conjunction with a standard ECU and complete with Open class fuel, engine, testing and tire concessions.
Like I said 1400 words ago, there’s still plenty going on in MotoGP. The Marquez Years are upon us, and we must look past young Marc, seeking our pleasure in the profane, the ridiculous and the sublime, all of which are in lavish supply as the 2014 season wends its way to the finish line at Valencia in November.
We’ll have Phillip Island results right here on Sunday evening.