Phillip Island, just off Melbourne in South East Australia, is a great circuit. It's got fast sweeping corners to test the courage of the bravest, tight technical sections to challenge the most agile and elevation changes to, um, well, there are plenty of hills. There are also seagulls to tesh a bike (or rider's) impact resistance and enough weather variations to justify the suggestion that when Crowded House sang "Four seasons in one day" they were referring to Phillip Island.
Anyhow, there are just three races left in the season, and it's really down to just two riders. Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are the only pair in with a shot at the title. But bizarrely, though Lorenzo could lift the championship with a bit of luck, he could also finish as low as fourth as Pedrosa and the newly healthy Stoner are still in striking distance. It didn't look good for the young Spaniard, though, as not only was he getting pasted by his team-mate on track, but Casey Stoner was back on his devastating pre-illness form as well. Just for good measure, he also had food poisoning or something and was feeling spectacularly under the weather.
Free practice saw Rossi demolishing everyone, with only Stoner able to get even close and Lorenzo languishing behind his arch-rival Dani Pedrosa in fourth. The only consolation for him must have bene that the factory Suzuki team were having an even worse time of it on a circuit generally acknowledged as beinga bogey for them.
Qualifying was a real humdinger, with Rossi and Stoner swapping places in a class of their own. Lorenzo was looking better until Pedrosa knocked him off the front row for the first time this season, by just a thousandth of a second, despite a crash in the session. Stoner finally pipped Rossi to pole to really seal his return at his home circuit. Colin Edwards rode a blinder to take fifth. Alex de Angelis rode to a strong sixth to close off the second row, while Nicky Hayden demonstrated that perhaps Stoner isn't the only person who can ride the Ducati by getting to the front of row three, ahead of Randy de Puniet and Mika Kallio and within a second of the pole time.
It's worth pointing out, by the way, that during practice an qualifying the weather played its usual tricks, with gusty winds, light and heavy rain and sunshine all making an appearance.
By the time we got to the race on Sunday, though, it was considerably warmer than at any other time over the weekend and blessedly dry. It was still cloudy, though, and there was a stiff breeze. Of course, while the track was dry the grass was sodden, so any excursion off the established line (well, off the black bit, anyway) was likely to result in a premature mud bath.
Lights out and it was no surprised to see Dani Pedrosa take the holeshot from Stoner and Rossi. He must have a ten kilo weight advantage at least, and it really helps getting off the line. But the real drama was happening a little further back. Nicky Hayden made a brilliant start while Jorge Lorenzo dozed on the line. Lorenzo, when he did get going, was quick though. Perhaps a little too quick as he still seemed to be accelerating as the rest of the pack slowed. he cannoned into Hayden's Ducati and bounced off. For a while it looked as though he'd be OK as he got clear track and actually passed the American. Then his problems really started as it became apparent that he had no front brakes. And Turn One isn't a place to arrive at that sort of speed. Trying to slow down with the back brake really had only one possible outcome, and after a brief wrestle with the laws of physics, down he went. Straight in front of the hapless Hayden, who had nowhere to go but the grass. Somehow he managed to stay upright and get turned on the asphalt pad put in to stop cars going straight across the grass onto the next part of the track, but his race was well and truly run. Lorenzo fortunately wasn't hurt and was man enough to apologise for his mistake rather than trying to blame anyone else.
Someone else who made a great start was James Toseland, up from twelfth to tenth but just on the back of a five bike scrap for fifth and all over Colin Edwards in ninth who hadn't fared so well. Edwards soon started to carve through the pack, though, while Toseland was rather harshly judged to have jumped the start and suffered a ride through. At least this time he saw the pit boards and took his penalty, though, rejoining ahead of Hayden bu so far behind the pack that there was really nothing he could do other than stay on and take whateve rpoints might be on offer.
Up at the front, despite Pedrosa's lightning start, by the end of the second lap he was in third place, with Stoner leading and Rossi hard on his tail. What followed was a masterclass in very fast, controlled riding by the two fastest guys on the planet. The gap continually see-sawed between them, sometimes down to virtually nothing, sometimes up to almost a second. There were places where the Ducati was clearly faster, others where the Yamaha held sway. But nowhere was there enough of a difference to allow either rider to make a break. And so it stayed for the next twenty six laps. Even a slight error by either rider would gift the race to the other, but that didn't happen. There were some magnificent slides, some heart stopping overtaking lunges and some real showmanship. I suspect that had Rossi not seen "Lorenzo OUT" on his pitboard then perhaps he might have pushed a bit harder for the win. But whether he could have actually got it is another matter entirely. What might put their performance into perspective is this. On the second lap, both Rossi and Stoner were quick enough, on race tyres and a full fuel load, to have qualified on the front row. On the last lap they were still that quick.
And nobody else could get near them.
Pedrosa rode to a respectably quick but lonely third place. Alex de Angelis rode to a similarly lonely fourth, while Colin Edwards finally prevailed over the rest of the midfield to take yet another fifth place. Marco Melandri, Andrea Dovizioso and Randy de Puniet screapped all race long, the factory Honda of Dovizioso finally coming out in front while Mika Kallio and Toni Elias rounded out the top ten. Chris Vermeulen, in his last Suzuki MotoGP ride at Phillip Island, just pipped his team-mate Capirossi to eleventh in a weekend best forgotten by the Rizla team. Vermeulen, by the way, is joining Toseland in going back to SBK, though the likeable young Australian will be riding a factory Kawasaki.
So Casey Stoner took a well earned and deservedly popular victory for the third time on the trot in his home GP. But Valentino Rossi extended his championship lead to an almost unbeatable thirty eight points with just two races to go. Lorenzo has to win next weekend in Malaysia and Rossi has to finish lower than fourth for there even to be a mathematical possibility of the champion not retaining the title. If Stoner carries on the way he is and wins there (and that Ducati is ever so fast on those long straights) then Lorenzo needs to take second and Rossi needs to finish tenth or lower. No, I can't see it either.
Either way, let's see what happens.
Phillip Island MotoGP Results
1. Casey Stoner (Ducati)
2. Valentino Rossi (Yamaha)
3. Dani Pedrosa (Honda)
4. Alex de Angelis (Honda)
5. Colin Edwards (Yamaha)
6. Andrea Dovizioso (Honda)
7. Marco Melandri (Kawasaki)
8. Randy de Puniet (Honda)
9. Mika Kallio (Ducati)
10. Toni Elias (Honda)
MotoGP standings (after fifteen rounds)
1. Valentino Rossi 270
2. Jorge Lorenzo 232
3. Casey Stoner 195
4. Dani Pedrosa 189
5. Andrea Dovizioso 152
6. Colin Edwards 145
7. Alex de Angelis 101
8. Randy de Puniet 101
9. Loris Capirossi 101
10. Marco Melandri 100