2012 Phillip Island MotoGP Saturday Round Up - Unstoppable Stoner, Honda's Magic Gearbox, And A Dark Horse
Two championships could be settled at Phillip Island on Sunday. Marc Marquez looks certain to wrap up the 2012 Moto2 title in Australia, as the Catalunya Caixa rider needs just 2 points to put the title out of reach of Pol Espargaro. Marquez' chances of wrapping up the Moto2 title with a win look slim, though. Pol Espargaro has been in a class of his own at Phillip Island, his love for the circuit showing through in the way he has been riding. The only man to get near to Espargaro all weekend has been Scott Redding, Phillip Island one place where Redding's size is less of a handicap. With few places where hard acceleration from low speed is required, Redding can rely on his natural speed to get around the track. Despite still being the youngest rider ever to win a Grand Prix - a title he is likely to hold in perpetuity, since the minimum age went up to 16 - Redding is still winless in Moto2. If he can follow the pace of Espargaro, Phillip Island could well provide him with a real shot at his first win.
The MotoGP title may not be settled in Australia, though. Jorge Lorenzo leads Dani Pedrosa by 23 points, and just needs to finish ahead of the Honda man to wrap up the championship at Phillip Island. The odds of that happening looked much better on Saturday, Lorenzo taking 2nd spot in both the morning's free practice and qualifying in the afternoon, finishing ahead of Pedrosa in both sessions. But Lorenzo's may yet have to leave the box of championship t-shirts in the flight cases, as a closer look at the race pace between Lorenzo and Pedrosa gives the advantage to the Honda man. Lorenzo is lapping consistently in the high 1'30s and low 1'31s, but Pedrosa has been reeling off strings of high 1'30s in race trim.
2012 Phillip Island MotoGP Friday Round Up: Confidence, Control, The Half A Second Between The Rider's Ears, And A Minimum Wage
When Casey Stoner was asked on Thursday about the key to his speed through Turn 3 - now renamed Stoner Corner in his honor - he refused to answer, saying only that he might tell everyone after he had retired. To anyone watching Stoner scorch around that corner and the rest of the track, the secret was plain to see: the Australian is completely in his element, totally comfortable and confident in every move he makes at the circuit. Stoner left thick black lines round most of the left handers at the circuit, including daubing them all over the inside of the kerbs at Turn 3. It was a display of mastery that left even the injured Ben Spies in awe, watching at home on the computer. "I gotta say without a doubt Casey Stoner does stuff even GP racers watch and scratch their head at!" Spies posted on his Twitter page. Stoner ended nine tenths of a second up on second-place man Dani Pedrosa, the only man to dip into the 1'29s (just, his fastest lap being 1'29.999), and the only man bar Pedrosa to hit the 1'30s.
Confidence. That's Stoner's secret. And it's the secret of another Australian, a rider almost surprised to find himself at the front of the Moto2 class, Ant West having bagged the 3rd fastest time on the first day of his home Grand Prix. The podium at Sepang had kicked him into gear, West admitted, pointing out the importance of confidence to results. "I must have woke myself up!" West joked. "This class is all about having good confidence, because from 1st to 20th, everyone's fast. I just feel confident, and it makes everything so much easier. Today I feel good, and the bike's working really well." West's success was more than just an overnight transformation, West insisted. Things had slowly been improving since the QMMF team switched from the Moriwaki to the Speed Up chassis, West now able to close the gap the front. "We've been building up the last few races getting better and better, and I'm happy today. It just seem to be going well, even went out the first part of this session on old tires and still had quite a decent time."
This weekend's Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island is going to be a very Australian affair, more so than most other years. For one obvious reason: this is the last chance to see Casey Stoner race a Grand Prix motorcycle at the iconic venue before he hangs up his helmet and retires from MotoGP. Record crowds are expected, and local media coverage is expanded as everyone gathers to say goodbye to the latest in a long and honorable line of Australian Grand Prix champions who have left an indelible mark on motorcycle racing.
The weekend started off with Stoner's name being added to those of Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, in a ceremony to rename Turn 3 Stoner Corner. Gardner's name has been given to the front straight, Doohan's to Turn 1, and Stoner's name follows after the Southern Loop. It is a fitting tribute to the man who has started from pole four times in a row, won here five times in a row and achieved some remarkable feats in MotoGP.
The only man to have won on a Ducati MotoGP machine since 2007, when Loris Capirossi won a flag-to-flag race in difficult conditions at Motegi. The only rider to have regained the premier class title after three seasons. Tied with Mike Hailwood for 4th in the all-time list of premier class winners, with 37 MotoGP victories. Tied with contemporaries Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa for 8th in the standings for victories in all classes, the three leading riders in the championship having 44 wins each, though the two Spaniards have vastly fewer wins in the top class.
Ever since Jorge Lorenzo's #3 engine went up in smoke at Assen after the Factory Yamaha man was skittled by Alvaro Bautista in the first corner, MotoGP followers have been asking themselves whether Jorge Lorenzo will make it to the end of the season with the remainder of his allocation, or whether he will have to take a 7th engine and start from pit lane at some point. As each race goes by, the questions have become more urgent: will this be the race where Lorenzo finally runs out of engines, and hands Dani Pedrosa the advantage in the championship fight?
So how is Jorge Lorenzo doing with his engines? Is he, as many suspect, in imminent danger of losing an engine, and with it potentially his second World Championship? What strategies have his pit crew been using to manage with one engine prematurely withdrawn? And will those strategies be enough to see him through to the race at Valencia?
The Grand Prix Circus came to Sepang with three titles in the balance. Only one of them got wrapped up on Sunday, though, tropical rainstorms throwing a spanner into the works of the other two, but generating some fascinating racing. The fans had one fantastic dry race, one fantastic wet race, and a processional MotoGP race that looked much the same as it would have had it been dry. There was a packed house - over 77,000 people crowded into the circuit, a highly respectable number for a flyaway round - cheering on local heroes, there was confusion over the rules, and there were a lot of new faces on the podium. There was also a much better balance of nationalities on the podium: where in previous races, the Spanish national anthem has been played three times on a Sunday, at Sepang, it was only heard once. Most of all, though, the Moto2 and MotoGP races ran in the wet would be determined by the timing of the red flags, with Race Direction's decisions on safety also having an outcome on the results of the races, and in the case of MotoGP, possibly implications for the championship.
After Maverick Viñales' shock decision to quit his team, it got a lot easier for Sandro Cortese to wrap up the Moto3 title at Sepang, needing only to keep a watchful eye on Luis Salom during the race and not finish behind him. Salom had made Cortese's task even easier a week previously, by launching an ill-considered dive up the inside of Jonas Folger at the start of the last lap at Motegi, incurring a penalty which dropped him five grid positions at the start. Cortese started from the front row, while Salom had his work cut out, starting from way back in 10th. Cortese could more or less cruise home at Sepang and secure the title.
2012 Sepang MotoGP Saturday Round Up: MotoGP's Future In The East, Honda's Chatter, And The Chances Of Rain
This year's Malaysian round of the MotoGP series has offered a glimpse of the future, for those with an interest in seeing it. While the series is locked in a series of arguments over the future of the technical regulations, the massive economic problems in its key television markets, and the Spanish domination of the sport in all classes, Sepang pointed the way forward, and that way is definitely east.
It starts with the crowds. Where crowd numbers have been falling almost everywhere at the European rounds, Sepang is seeing record attendances this weekend. Grandstand tickets are selling out fast, and despite the rain, fans are turning up in large numbers. How much those numbers are being inflated by Australians flocking to the circuits they can fly to affordably to see Casey Stoner ride the last few races of his career is uncertain, but that they should be packing the grandstands in Malaysia seems unlikely. There are also plenty of local fans, coming to see riders from the region threaten the top of the timesheets for the first time in history, and not just make up the numbers at the rear.
2012 Sepang MotoGP Friday Round Up: The Vinales Affair: Ambition, Greed, Incompetence, And A Breath Of Fresh Air
It was a strange day in Malaysia. Part of the strangeness was down to the weather. The familiar pattern of disrupted sessions as the rain fell, but not hard enough to allow the MotoGP riders, in particular, to spend much time on the track in the afternoon. There was a twist, however, a particularly Malaysian one at Sepang: the heavy shower which passed over the track at the start of the afternoon session for MotoGP left part of the circuit soaking, with water a couple of centimeters deep at turns 1 and 2, while the rest of the circuit quickly dried out almost completely. It at least added a little novelty to the disruption, along with the frustration of another wasted practice.
The real strangeness came at the start of the day, however. It took about 10 minutes for observers to notice that Maverick Viñales had not gone out on track and there was suspiciously little activity in the Avintia Blusens garage. Once they noticed, low-level pandemonium broke out: within seconds, a throng of Spanish journalists crowded out of the media center and hastened on their way into the paddock, to find anyone and everyone and learn what they could.
As they drifted back in, and as TV pictures started to appear showing an empty Blusens garage, Viñales walking through the paddock accompanied by his father and the Dorna media officer, and team managers Raul Romero and Ricard Jové gathered in discussions, it was clear that there was something very wrong. When it was revealed what that was - that Viñales had decided to quit the team with immediate effect - it sent a shock wave through the paddock. Riders quitting teams with races left in the championship is unusual; to do it while that rider is second in the title chance and still in with a shot at the championship is unheard of.
The Sepang round of MotoGP could see all three championships clinched this weekend, with Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez and Sandro Cortese all closing in on their respective world championships. The job is easiest for Cortese, all the German has to do to become the inaugural Moto3 champion is finish one place behind Maverick Vinales and the title is his. After getting a little too excited at Motegi, Cortese will doubtless be heading to Sepang in a much calmer frame of mind.
Marquez also faces a relatively manageable task, but unlike Cortese, he does not have his fate entirely in his own hands. If Pol Espargaro wins at Sepang, then the earliest Marquez could be crowned champion would be at Phillip Island. If Espargaro does not win, the Marquez is in with a very good chance: should Espargaro finish the race in third or worse, then Marquez only has to finish directly behind him; if Espargaro finishes second, then Marquez has to win. On current form, it would be hard to bet against Marquez, but Sepang was the circuit where the Spaniard was badly injured last year, suffering damage to his eyes which limited his vision and threatened to end his career. It will be interesting to see whether the memory has spooked Marquez, but judging by his performance this year, that seems faintly ridiculous.
2012 Motegi Post-Race Round Up: A Dominant Honda, Unnecessary Fuel Limits, Going Last To First, And Moto3 Maturity
"I don't think it will be between only Dani and me," Jorge Lorenzo had said on Saturday night at Motegi. After qualifying, there was a sizable group of fast men, including Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Dovizioso and Ben Spies, who all looked quick enough to keep pace with Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. It turns out he was wrong: once the lights went out, the contest was between the two main title contenders as it has been all season, especially once Casey Stoner dropped out of contention after the massive ankle injury he sustained at Indianapolis.
Qualifying had been deceptive: Jorge Lorenzo took a brilliant pole, and had looked his usual fast and smooth self. Pedrosa had had a bumpy ride - literally, chatter mysteriously appearing early on during QP and taking a long time to get under control, leaving Pedrosa to start from 2nd. The race was similarly deceptive: Lorenzo led, stalked by Pedrosa, and the hearts of race fans beat faster in anticipation of a repeat of Brno. That would not come to be. Once Pedrosa motored by Lorenzo, he was gone, managing the gap all the way to the end.
It was an impressive display and a fantastic achievement, given the Repsol Honda man still had chatter with his RC213V. But HRC are slowly getting a grip on that situation, and are opening the gap over Yamaha once again. Jorge Lorenzo was clear that Pedrosa's advantage lay in acceleration, something which the Yamaha has traditionally suffered with, though the problem has been less this year. "There was too much difference on the straight," Lorenzo said. "I could not recover everything in the corners."
Another Brno. That is the hope of every MotoGP fan around the world after qualifying sessions like the one at Motegi on Saturday. The breathtaking battle in the Czech Republic, which saw Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo on each others' tails all race long and the result settled in almost the final corner, was the natural outcome of two equally-matched men on very different but equally-matched machines. There was nothing to choose between the two during qualifying at Brno, and there was nothing to choose between them during the race.
Motegi is shaping up to be similar. Both Lorenzo and Pedrosa have very similar pace, and both have the consistency, the talent and the desire to push to the end. Jorge Lorenzo may have taken pole - the 50th of his career and one of his finest, with a blistering lap in near-perfect condition to destroy the existing pole record - but Pedrosa's race pace is fractionally faster than that of the polesitter. Where Lorenzo's near-robotic consistency has him lapping in the low 1'46.1s, Pedrosa is posting high 1'46.0s. The two men are separated by hundredths of a second only, and appear to have the measure of each other.