Closer than ever, the crusade for the crown arrives at one of the most breathtaking venues in the world: Phillip Island
In the aftermath of the duel of the decade at the Twin Ring Motegi between Championship leader Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) and title rival Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) – which the Italian won – the dust must settle quickly in order to be kicked up once more as MotoGP heads for the Michelin® Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island. A few hours south of Melbourne, the skyscrapers and bright lights seem a distant memory as the bridge to the Island comes into view, beckoning to those who are on their way to one of the most spectacular Grand Prix circuits in the world. There is no other track on Earth quite like this one.
As the paddock arrives in 2017, it’s Marquez ahead and by just 11 points. The reigning Champion will go into the race as the favourite to tame the 12 undulating, iconic corners of the Island, taking into account both his record in 2017 and his speed at the track. Marquez has in fact only finished one premier class race in Australia – the scintillating Island Battle in 2015, which he won. In 2016 he crashed out of the lead once already Champion, in 2014 he did the same, and he has been on pole for the last three years at the track. It was also the stage of one of his most memorable Moto2 performances in 2011: starting from the back due to a penalty, Marquez picked his way through the field to the podium. With eight podiums now in the last nine races this season in MotoGP – missing out only once due to a technical fault at Silverstone – Marquez’ speed will be hard to match. He has a target on his back as the points leader already, and this weekend it gets bigger.
But Ducati, too, can win at Phillip Island. Casey Stoner took the Borgo Panigale factory onto the top step from 2007 to 2010, and the mythical marque were also on the podium in 2015. But when it comes to Andrea Dovizioso on the GP17, what do the statistics seem to matter? The Italian has rewritten history already this season, and Motegi gave no sign that he is about to stop. He has been on the podium before at the Island, and he just took his fifth victory of the year. Moreover, he did it beating Marquez on the last lap, at the last corner, in some of the most torrential conditions ever raced – that marking the first time in the premier class that Marquez has lost out on victory when going into the final lap in the lead. As a credential, that’s hard to beat. Dovizioso said before the Japanese GP that he’ll fight to the end. On Sunday, he showed he meant it.
And yet the winning hand at the Island may not prove a pair. Maverick Viñales (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) is fast – very fast – at Phillip Island, and was sixth as a rookie before getting on the podium last year. He’s won at the track in Moto2 – as a rookie – and faces a 41 point deficit to the top. It sounds a lot, but anything can happen. His teammate Valentino Rossi could be another to watch at the top, as the ‘Doctor’ looks to put the Japanese GP behind him. Rossi has won at the Island six times in the premier class – from 2001 to 2005, and again in 2014 – and has nothing to lose.The only other names on the grid to have graced the top step in Australia are Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) and Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team).
Crutchlow took a stunning win last year and will want to hit the ground running in 2017 after crashing out at Motegi, and Lorenzo won in 2013 as well as having taken victory in the lower classes at the venue. He will want to strike back after sixth in Japan despite leading initially, as will compatriot Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda Team), who will be another planning to get back in the mix at the front after both men made it onto the podium at Aragon and then suffered more difficult Motegi. Pedrosa has a pole and podiums at Phillip Island, too.
Beyond last year’s winner Crutchlow, there is a lot at stake for Independent Teams. Johann Zarco (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) is now 41 points clear of teammate Jonas Folger in the standings and must finish in the top six at the Island to take the Rookie of the Year title, and Folger will not be racing as he continues to recover from a virus. He will be replaced by Australian Broc Parkes, former MotoGP rider and current YART EWC rider – who will be joining Jack Miller (EG 0,0 Marc VDS) to fly the flag at home. Miller must be passed fit following his broken leg, but is expected to be back in action at his home race. Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) is on Zarco’s trail for the top Independent Team honours, too, now only 14 points behind the Frenchman after his stunning podium last time out. Then there’s Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini), who wants more after P7 in Japan despite having had top three pace for much of the weekend.
Japan also saw the best results of the season so far for both Hamamatsu factory riders Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins at Team Suzuki Ecstar. Iannone eventually got the better of his rookie teammate to take fourth, but Rins completed the top five for his best ever result as he now gets into gear following trouble with injury. And Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, who had both riders in Q2 at Motegi, keep pushing forward – with more points taken in the race.
The points, the gap and the maths began to take over mid-season as we looked ahead to try and predict the final countdown, but the statistics aren’t writing the script in 2017. Barreling headlong through one of the most spectacular seasons in history, Marquez and Dovizioso are penning that rarest of classics – a blockbuster with critical acclaim. To follow Motegi, the next act will have to be something special. Luckily enough, the stage is Phillip Island.
MotoGP World Championship Classification
1 – Marc Márquez (SPA – Honda) 244 points
2 – Andrea Dovizioso (ITA – Ducati) 233 points
3 – Maverick Viñales (SPA – Yamaha) 203 points
4 – Dani Pedrosa (SPA – Honda) 170 points
5 – Valentino Rossi (ITA – Yamaha) 168 points