All eyes on the Island

Five things to watch as the MotoGP world championship explodes into life in Australia this weekend.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The one downside to this weekend’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island? That we don’t have a live championship fight on Aussie shores, after Marc Marquez took advantage of a rare double DNF for Yamaha teammates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo to seal his third MotoGP world title at Motegi in Japan last Sunday. That’s one way of looking at it; another is that with the tension of a title fight released, the Island should be a no-holds-barred affair between the best riders in the world on one of the world’s great racetracks. Everyone wins.

Who can forget last year’s epic MotoGP race at the Island that featured 52 overtakes between the top four of Marquez, Lorenzo, Andrea Iannone and Rossi and 13 changes of the lead? Australia 2015 is regarded by many of the sport’s insiders as one of the best races in world championship history, and there’s no reason to suggest that this year’s spectacle will be any different, if (and that’s a big if) Phillip Island’s notoriously fickle weather plays nice for a change.

What are the main talking points ahead of round 16 of the world championship this weekend? These.

1. Marquez will be unleashed

Eugene Laverty’s fall in the early stages of last weekend’s race at Motegi brought Marquez’s season into sharper focus; it meant the Repsol Honda man became the only rider to have finished every race this season, his championship owing as much to consistency as the speed that has become his calling card.

It’s a development that you would have thought unlikely after 2015, where the Spaniard’s title defence evaporated in a cloud of dust as he repeatedly tried and failed to wrestle his Honda into the podium places, crashing out of six races. Marquez learned his lessons, scaled his all-out style back a little bit, and reaped the ultimate reward. Not that he’s forgotten who he is or what he does, mind you. One comment in the post-championship euphoria in Japan last Sunday was revealing: “Now we can just enjoy it and go into the last three races with maybe a more ‘Marc Marquez’ style,” he said. That style plus Phillip Island and no championship pressure? Sounds like a recipe for an explosive performance to us.

2. Miller’s mind on home

Jack Miller has had this weekend circled for months; the proud Aussie loves his home Grand Prix at any time, but coming to the Island as a premier-class Grand Prix winner after his success at the Dutch TT earlier this year will be something special. Miller has been battered and bruised for most of 2016 – the one time he was relatively injury-free was before the Austrian GP, and he duly had a massive off in Sunday morning warm-up that left him with back, hand and wrist injuries and meant he missed four the next five races. Four falls across the Motegi weekend and an early bath last Sunday wasn’t the ideal preparation for his home race, but he couldn’t be more up for it. “The pressure of a home GP can do funny things to people, but I love it,” he says. “I mean, you’re in your own country, there’ll be more support than you get all year anywhere, you love the track – that all sounds pretty good to me.” He has good form at the Island too, winning the Moto3 race two years ago and finishing in the points and as the leading Open-class runner 12 months ago. He – and we – are expecting a big performance.

3. Best of frenemies

The tenuous Rossi/Lorenzo ‘partnership’ at Yamaha was always going to fray the longer the season went after Lorenzo announced he’d be leaving for Ducati in 2017 back in April; their press conference spat in Misano after Rossi made a strong passing move stick on his teammate early in that Grand Prix revealed the tension behind the scenes that has lingered since last year’s tense title run-in, which was sparked by the race here in Australia and exploded with the Marquez-Rossi on-track shenanigans a week later in Malaysia. With three races left as teammates and no title to chase, the inter-team rivalry could heat up significantly at a circuit where both riders have achieved success; Rossi has won the premier-class race in Australia five times and as recently as two years ago, while Lorenzo won the chaotic tyre lottery of a race in 2013, and was pipped at the post by Marquez 12 months ago.

4. Mack attack

Maverick Vinales loves the Island, and you can see why; the Suzuki rider put in one of the performances of last season when he finished just six seconds behind the all-out brawl at the front of the race in sixth place on a bike that had no business being in the same postcode. The Spaniard was fastest of all in February’s pre-season Island test, and comes to Australia fresh off his third career podium last weekend at Motegi, when he muscled past teammate Aleix Espargaro late in the race to snatch a rostrum spot.”When I come here, it’s like an extra motivation because I like the track, and as much as that, I understand how to go fast at this track, so I always feel very confident,” he told us back in February, and with a win in Moto2 back in 2014 to go with last year’s stellar performance, it’s easy to see why. Of the three races remaining in 2016 in Australia, Malaysia and Valencia, this is the one that represents Vinales’ best chance of a final Suzuki podium before moving on to Yamaha next year.

5. Wildlife winners

Iannone’s charge to the podium here last year was all the more meritorious given the Italian’s Ducati did most of the race with a seagull-sized hole in its front fairing, courtesy of ‘Crazy Joe’ cannoning into a slow-to-move seabird at the bottom of Lukey Heights in the early stages. Iannone took a heavy tumble in practice at Misano back in round 13 and hasn’t been able to race since with a back injury, meaning Avintia Ducati rider Hector Barbera will deputise for him at the Island this weekend – and the local seagulls can breathe a sigh of relief.

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