Phillip Island, just South of Melbourne on Australias South-East tip, is one of the last old-school circuits on the calendar. It's mercifully free of modernised bits, so asa result its essential character has remained pretty well unchanged for as long as we've seen racing there. One thing we can say about Phillip Island, though, is that it's fast. Really, really fast. Think of Assen before the changes were made and you'd have the right idea. It's got dips and crests, long seeping bends and ultra-technical slow speed sections. It really is just about the perfect circuit.
There is one problem, though. There is a reason why one of the bends is called "Siberia." Yep, there's essentially nothing between the ice packs and horizontal snow of the Antarctic and Phillip Island. Well, except for a few hundred miles of ocean. And Tasmania. But the reality is that the weather at Phillip Island can be distinctly unpredictable. It's frequently windy, often cold and sometimes wet too. Then again, sometimes it's beautifully sunny. You can just never tell.
With the championship already decided and second place almost certain, it would be easy for things to settle down into a routine, with people just riding for position rather than pushing. But happily the average MotoGP rider (is there such a thing?) is made of sterner stuff, and will still ride for the win, even if they could sit in the pit box and watch the race on TV without losing the title. Dani Pedrosa came back to take a stab at riding in an attempt at protecting his second place, Loris Capirossi dragged his battered and bruised body over the Suzuki to carry on his assault on the bottom of the table and the rest of the pack treated the weekend as business as usual.
Free practice was dominatedby Casey Stoner, second to Lorenzo in the first, rainy, session and clearly ahead in the second. Lorenzo, Colin Edwards and Ben Spies all made their presence felt in the top half of the scoreboard, while Rossi carried on in the middle of the field, no doubt suffering from a combination of injuries and the cold. Because it really was cold, and as a result tyres weren't getitng up to heat properly and people were crashing. Including, unfortunately, Loris Capirossi, who damaged a muscle in his groin as the Suzuki spat him off and was ruled out of the rest of the weekend by the circuit doctor. Pedrosa didn't crash but did decide that he was in too muh pain to ride competitively and got back on the plane. Expect to see him fully fit in Estoril.
Of course, practice is important but doesn't count for anything. Qualifying is a different matter, and Casey Stoner put local knowledge, a new-found confidence in the Ducati and a hefty dollop of nothing-to-lose attitude to good use, leading the field almost continually from just five minutes into the session. His only real challengers were Ben Spies, who looked as though he might take pole for a moment, and Jorge Lorenzo who dashed his future team-mate's hopes before getting relegated to second himself. The chequered flag gave us Casey Stoner on pole, two thirds of a second ahead of Lorenzo, with Spies roughly the same distance behind the new champion. Row two was headed by Marco Simoncelli from Colin Edwards and Nicky Hayden, while the third row had Randy de Puniet in front of Rossi and Dovizioso, the latter pair surely bitterly disappointed with their lowly placing.
Race day was cloudy but looked as though it would at least stay dry. Warmup was a bit of a misnomer as track temperature barely made it into the teens, recording a high of just fourteen celsius with the air at a distinctly chilly eleven. Casey Stoner went quickest, from Lorenzo and Rossi, while Nicky hayden parked his Ducati briefly in the gravel as the cold tyres gave him more trouble than he was ready to handle.
By the time we got to the race, temperature had climbed a little, with the track having been warmed by the action of earlier in the day to a vaguely workable twenty nine, despite the air still being just fifteen celsius. That's fifty nine fahrenheit if you prefer. Not exactly toasty warm, and a stark contrast to last week's Malaysian mugginess. Lights out and Stoner got the holeshot but it was Ben Spies who really got the lightning start, running around the outside of Lorenzo to challenge for the lead before coming out very much second in an aggressive tussle for position on the second corner that saw him pushed wide and relegated to sixth. Dovizioso made a great start, climbing to fifth on the first lap, while Rossi went backwards, ending the first lap in ninth place. Up at the front, Stoner opened a yawning second and a half gap over the pursuing Jorge Lorenzo in just one lap. Disaster threatened at every corner as the Australian went hard at it straight away on cold tyres, but he got away with it and indeed made the whole thing look easy.
Three laps in and Dovi's race was over as a mechanical problem with the Honda caused his early retirement froma strong fourth place. Ben Spies, though, had regrouped and was hassling for third, currently held by Marco Simoncelli. Or Nicky Hayden, depending on where in the lap you looked. Because it was a real knife fight. And it was going to get messier as by the end of lap three Valentino Rossi had dispensed with the lower placed riders and was homing in on the back of the group in his remorseless style.
Now if I'm to be completely honest, the front of the race was pretty dull. Casey Stoner didn't put a wheel wrong for the whole race. He set a blistering pace that even Jorge Lorenzo couldn't get close to, and opened a comfortable two and a half second gap over the Yamaha rider. he then kept going, and by the end he was eight and a half seconds clear. Lorenzo had nearly ten seconds of track behind him by the end, because that's where the only real action of the race was taking place. A serious furball featuring Rossi, Spies, Simoncelli and Hayden eventually broke down into two separate but close fights. Rossi and Hayden forced their way past Spies and Simoncelli and fought hard and fast for the rest of the race to decide the last podium place. Three laps from the end it looked as though Hayden had it sewn up after a beautiful pass at Honda corner, but Rossi wouldn't let it go and passed the American back on the final lap. Same corner but rather more forcefully. Then, though it looked as though Ducati power would prevail for a while, Rossi managed to keep sufficient momentum and get the drive out of the last corner to take the drag to the flag by thirty eight thousandths of a second. Four seconds behind, Spies had managed to break Simoncelli after laps of close scrapping, and finished nearly three seconds clear of the Italian, clinching the Rookie of the Year award at the same time. Colin Edwards finally managed a half decent finish, still disappointing for the Texan after the early promise of the weekend but enough to contribute to Yamaha lifting the manufacturer's title.
So now we, and more importantly the riders, have a two week rest. The teams don't really - it's going to take a while to get everything back from Australia to Portugal for the Estoril round so I suspect there'll be precious little resting going on for them. Stoner's win took him past Rossi into third overall and puts him in with a serious shout at second place. Mind you, with fifty points on offer and Pedrosa carrying injury it would still be possible for Rossi to make it a Yamaha one-two as well. Technically, Dovizioso could even make it past Pedrosa if the Spaniard doesn't take any points at all in the next two rounds and the Italian wins them both. If you believe that could happen then I've got some investments that would be right up your street...
See you back in Europe.
Phillip Island MotoGP Results
1. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
2. Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha)
3. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
4. Nicky Hayden (Ducati)
5. Ben Spies (Yamaha)
6. Marco Simoncelli (Honda)
7. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
8. Aleix Espargaro (Ducati)
9. Marco Melandri (Honda)
10. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after sixteen rounds)
1. Jorge Lorenzo 333 (2010 MotoGP World Champion)
2. Dani Pedrosa 228
3. Casey Stoner 205
4. Valentino Rossi 197
5. Andrea Dovizioso 179
6. Ben Spies 163
7. Nicky Hayden 152
8. Marco Simoncelli 102
9. Randy de Puniet 100
10. Marco Melandri 93