Month: October 2018

What happened at the Mexican Grand Prix?

Max Verstappen takes his fifth career win in dominant style, while fourth place for Lewis Hamilton wrapped up the Briton’s fifth world title.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

The build-up
Season 2018 has been one, from its mid-point at least, of metronomic predictability; Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton on top, Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel falling away from the front, and Red Bull Racing in a league of one, unable to mix it with the top two teams on raw pace, but comfortably faster than everyone else. Which made practice at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico all the more baffling, with Max Verstappen just ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, eye-catching performances coming from the likes of Renault and Toro Rosso, and Mercedes and Ferrari looking all at sea.

Why? The altitude of Mexico City (2225 metres above sea level, three times higher than Interlagos in Brazil, the next-highest track) played a part, as the reduced air density decreased the amount of oxygen in the air, which meant less engine power was available than normal. For Mercedes and Ferrari, their renowned ‘qualy modes’, where both teams are able to turn up the power delivery from their engines for one mega qualifying lap, didn’t have the same effect, while for Red Bull, the benefits of its sweet-handling chassis wouldn’t be negated by its usual lack of punch in a straight line. The tyres also played a part on a hot and slippery track surface, Mercedes in particular struggling to keep any life in the Pirelli hypersoft rubber, the ideal tyre for one stopwatch-chasing lap on Saturday.

If practice painted a surprising picture, qualifying was even more of a shock when the Red Bull on pole was Ricciardo rather than Verstappen; the Dutchman has comfortably had the Australian’s measure on Saturdays this year, and looked in the box seat for pole when he led the timesheets after the opening laps in Q3 from Vettel and Hamilton, Ricciardo a quarter of a second behind. But on his final lap, Ricciardo found nearly three-tenths of a second, and when Verstappen and the rest couldn’t improve, a third career pole – and his first not at Monaco – was his.

Months of frustration – and some unexpected jubilation – poured out in Ricciardo’s reaction afterwards.

“Max led the way through the practices, I knew there was a bit more in it and I just squeezed it out at the very end,” he said.

“I’m holding a lot in. I let a bit out once I heard I got pole, but I’ve got to save some energy for tomorrow. We’ve got to finish the job tomorrow, but to confirm our pace in qualifying is really good.”

Verstappen was second, 0.026secs adrift, and less than impressed after his practice pace didn’t translate into becoming the youngest pole-sitter in the history of the sport. “The whole qualifying was crap,” he said after Red Bull took its first front-row lockout since the US GP of 2013, therefore its first in the V6 turbo hybrid era.

Hamilton was third and, crucially, ahead of Vettel in fourth as he looked to cement the world championship in Mexico; with a 70-point lead with two races remaining, the Mercedes man only needed to be ahead by 50 points after the Mexican GP to head to the next race in Brazil as a five-time world champion. The Brit didn’t expect to be able to match Ricciardo and Verstappen in the race, but wasn’t about to play it safe at the start and the lengthy 890-metre run into the first corner, either. “Everyone’s going to be barrelling into Turn 1 to gain places,” he said. “It’s a very, very fine line. If you go easy, you can get hit. If you go too aggressive, you can get hit. You’ve got to race it like normal.”

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and Vettel’s fellow Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen were fifth and sixth on the grid and never featured in the fight for pole, while Renault and Sauber each placed two cars in Q3, Nico Hulkenberg (seventh) two-tenths ahead of Renault partner Carlos Sainz, and Charles Leclerc a similar margin ahead of Sauber teammate Marcus Ericsson in ninth and 10th.

Elsewhere, Brendon Hartley’s promising practice pace didn’t translate to qualifying when he was just 14th for Toro Rosso, while teammate Pierre Gasly was at the back after yet another engine penalty for the Honda-powered squad.

Renault’s threat to fourth in the constructors’ championship, Haas, had a miserable run in qualifying, Romain Grosjean starting way back in 18th, and Kevin Magnussen only marginally better in 16th. For Grosjean, staring at a race ban for penalty points on his licence after clattering into Leclerc a week earlier in Austin, Mexico was a “shit situation”. “When you are on a fast lap you do your best, and when you are on a slow lap you always watch twice more in the mirrors and make sure you don’t block anyone,” he said, admitting he would be cautious in the race.

Caution would be the last thing Ricciardo and Verstappen would be considering when the lights went out for 71 laps on Sunday, with both drivers spying a chance at a rare race win. Hamilton had his title to think about, Vettel had nothing to lose … it promised to be an explosive start.

The race in exactly 69 words*
Verstappen nailed the start and got to turn one first, and was largely untroubled from there as he won by 17 seconds from Vettel, who was comfortably ahead of teammate Raikkonen in third. It was Verstappen’s second consecutive win in Mexico. Fourth for Hamilton was enough for the Mercedes driver to win the world title, while pole-sitter Ricciardo’s wretched luck continued, retiring from second place with 10 laps left.
(* 2018 is the 69th season of Formula One)

Ricciardo recap
The Australian didn’t even get a chance to defend his hard-earned pole into the first corner, getting a tardy getaway off the line and being immediately swamped by Verstappen, while Hamilton sailed between the Red Bulls to demote Ricciardo to third before the cars even hit the brakes. Ricciardo was always on his back foot from there, and with Verstappen careering away and Hamilton, at least initially, looking to have his measure, Ricciardo’s focus was more on Vettel behind him as the Ferrari driver desperately attempted to claw onto the back of his title rival.

Encountering lapped traffic in the slow stadium section of the track on lap 33 didn’t help Ricciardo’s cause, Ferrari’s 10-15km/h speed advantage on the straight seeing Vettel sail by for third, but second place still looked achievable for Ricciardo when Vettel pitted five laps later, and even more so when he forced Hamilton into a mistake at the first corner on lap 47 to slot in behind Verstappen, albeit a long way behind.

Ricciardo tried to make his second set of tyres last to the end of the 71-lap race, employing a one-stop strategy where most of the other front-runners pitted twice, and seemingly had Vettel covered before a tell-tale puff of smoke came from the back of his car on lap 61, which ground to a halt with hydraulics failure at the first corner on the next lap. He’s now retired from eight races this season, more than any other driver.

“I don’t think ‘frustration’ is the word anymore,” Ricciardo said. “Everything feels hopeless. I haven’t had a clean race or weekend in so long. I’m not superstitious or any of this bullshit, but … the car’s cursed. I don’t have any more words.”

What the result means
It was high-fives all round for the two biggest winners in what became a bizarre Mexican GP, with the altitude, tyre wear and performance spread throughout the field seeing most of the drivers tip-toe home, not looking to endanger their fragile cars in one of the more taxing races of the year.

Winner number one was, of course, Hamilton; while he only needed to finish seventh or better to confirm his fifth world title, the Briton battled tyre blistering and intermittent pace throughout, but was under little pressure of falling out of the top six with the performance gap between the top three teams and the rest of the field.

With five world titles, he now equals the great Juan Manuel Fangio as the second-most successful driver in the sport’s history; only Michael Schumacher (seven) sits ahead of him. After Will Smith came onto the team radio to congratulate him on his slow-down lap, Hamilton was more interested in talking about his title than one of his least convincing races this year.

“It’s a very strange feeling right now,” he admitted. “It was a horrible race. To complete this, when Fangio had done it with Mercedes, is an incredible feeling and very surreal at the moment.”

Hamilton’s achievement was momentous and overshadowed Verstappen’s drive to a degree, as it did last year when the Dutchman won the race and Hamilton took the title at the same Grand Prix. But for one lap on Saturday afternoon, Verstappen was in a class of one in Mexico, and a man on mission to record his second win this year, and fifth of his career.

While Ricciardo’s retirement in the sister Red Bull raised alarm bells, Verstappen asking his team repeatedly what he needed to do to preserve his car to ensure it saw the flag first, he needn’t have been concerned.

“I didn’t sleep very well last night,” Verstappen admitted after the race, kicking himself after losing out on a pole position that looked nailed-on after practice.

“I was very determined to win, and we’ve done that. We had the right tyres and the car was working very well.”

For historical purposes …
Verstappen’s second win this season made it four victories for Red Bull in 2018; you have to go back to 2010 for the last time three different teams won at least four races in the same season. For the record, the 2018 scorecard stands at Mercedes nine (all Hamilton), Ferrari six (five to Vettel and one to Raikkonen), and two each for Red Bull pilots Ricciardo and Verstappen.

The number to know
5 to 4:
Verstappen now leads Ricciardo in race wins since they became teammates at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

Under-the-radar winner(s)
Vettel’s dream of ending Ferrari’s 11-year drivers’ title drought is over, but the German was gracious in defeat, and forthright about what Ferrari – and any other team – need to do to unseat the team that has won every drivers’ title since F1 entered the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014.

“They did a superb job all year,” he said of Hamilton and Mercedes. “We need to stand there, accept that and send congratulations.

“It is an absolutely horrible moment (to lose the title), you put a lot of work in. I did pay attention in maths so I knew the numbers.

“Three times in my life I have had that disappointment when you realise you can’t win the world championship, and those are not happy days. We had some chances, we used some and did not use some. In the end, we were not good enough.”

Largely overlooked in the statistical post-race avalanche was that Ferrari’s double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen, allied to the 22 points scored by Hamilton and a lapped Bottas in fifth, means the constructors’ championship is still alive with two races left, Mercedes leading it by 55 points with a maximum of 86 available in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

On that very subject, sixth place for Hulkenberg meant Renault added eight points to its tally, stretching its lead over Haas to 30 points for fourth in the teams’ race. Hulkenberg’s teammate Sainz was a mid-race retirement, but Haas were nowhere to capitalise, Magnussen and Grosjean finishing at the very back in 15th and 16th, the final two cars classified.

Two other drivers left Mexico happy; McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, who ended a 14-race run without points by finishing eighth, and Gasly, who guided his Toro Rosso from last on the grid to 10th, seeing off French rival Esteban Ocon in a fight that got feisty more than once as they scrapped over the final point on offer.

Those who lost out
The massive crowd at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez groaned when Sergio Perez’s Force India retired on lap 40 with brake failure; starting 13th, the Mexican had used his renowned tyre-preserving style claw his way into the points, only for his car to let him down. It was a bad day all round for the Spanish-speaking drivers, Sainz and Perez joined on the sidelines by Fernando Alonso, whose McLaren inadvertently ran over a piece of Ocon’s front wing in the hectic opening corners after the Force India driver was hit by Sainz’s Renault.

And Ricciardo. No further explanation needed.

What’s next?
With the title fight over, Hamilton will have plenty of time for a celebration or three before the penultimate race of the season at Interlagos in Brazil in a fortnight’s time.

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Different, but same: Miller secures seventh at home

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Different year, different approach, same result; that was Jack Miller’s assessment of his seventh-place finish in Sunday’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, which came 12 months after he finished in the same position at Phillip Island after dramatically leading for the opening four laps of the race.

Starting from sixth on the grid on Sunday, Miller made his customary jack-rabbit getaway when the lights went out to start the 27-lap race, storming past world champion Marc Marquez (Honda) into turn four on the opening lap to take the lead. Mindful of how his race pace faded after trying to break away from the front early last year, the Australian elected to pace himself on his Ducati, looking to preserve the life of his tyres for a late-race charge towards the podium. But it was a charge that never came.

Miller dropped back to fourth on the second lap of the race, prepared to bide his time in a front-running freight train of 2018-spec Honda, Yamaha and Ducati machines as he punched above his weight on his year-old bike. It was a planned strategy after “spinning the tyre off its head” a year ago, but he finished five seconds from the podium finishers and 6.7secs adrift of Spain’s Maverick Vinales, who broke Yamaha’s 25-race winless streak with his maiden Phillip Island victory.

“I didn’t lead as long as last year, but that was planned,” Miller said.

“I didn’t expect to be leading that early, but the opportunity arose and I put myself there, but really I was trying to save the tyre. For the first three-quarters of the race, the bike was really slow off the corners, and I was actually happy with that. I had a really dull (engine) map, the softest map known to man, and tried to preserve the tyre as much as I could. But it wasn’t enough, and I didn’t have anything to push with in the last laps.”

Miller looked set to pounce in the closing stages as Alex Rins (Suzuki) battled with Vinales’ teammate Valentino Rossi for fifth place, but ran out of laps to achieve his best premier-class finish at his home race.

“To have Rossi and Rins, the factory Yamaha and the factory Suzuki, right in front of me, that’s a good result,” he said.

“I expected a little bit more. It’s still seventh position like last year, so I’m not too happy, but on a bike that wasn’t in the top 10 here last year, I’ll take it.”

Miller was a constant presence near the sharp end of the timesheets throughout the Phillip Island weekend at a track where Ducati traditionally struggles. Andrea Dovizioso’s third place on Sunday was just the second rostrum result for the Italian manufacturer in Australia since Casey Stoner won his home Grand Prix four times in succession from 2007-10, leaving Miller in an optimistic frame of mind before next Sunday’s penultimate race of the season at Sepang in Malaysia, which features two lengthy straights and numerous hard braking zones that play more to his bike’s strengths than the swoops and sweeps of Phillip Island.

“It’s nice to get back into the top 10 after my crash in Japan, which was my fault,” Miller said.

“It’s some momentum to take to Malaysia, a track where we’ve been in testing. I’m looking forward to comparing where we were in testing to now on the Ducati, because I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Top gun: Vinales ends Yamaha’s lengthy drought

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

It took Maverick Vinales four attempts to win the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, but the Spaniard has finally become Phillip Island’s top gun – and snapped Yamaha’s most barren run in the MotoGP world championship in the process.

The 23-year-old Vinales, teammate to seven-time premier class world champion Valentino Rossi, has endured a difficult season at Yamaha’s signature squad, both riders unable to cope with the metronomic speed and consistency of Honda’s Marc Marquez, who annexed his fifth MotoGP title in last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. But with Marquez out of the picture after an early incident in Sunday’s 27-lap race, it was time for his fellow Spaniard to shine.

Vinales took Yamaha’s first race win for 25 Grands Prix when he passed the chequered flag 1.543 seconds ahead of pre-race favourite Andrea Iannone (Suzuki), while Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso rounded out the podium in third.

Australia’s Jack Miller matched his Phillip Island-best result of last year with another seventh place after dramatically taking the lead on the opening lap, the 23-year-old Ducati rider finishing 6.7secs behind Vinales.

Vinales, who won three of the first five races of last year before fading in the championship as Yamaha struggled to cope with Dovizioso’s surging Ducati and Marquez’s brilliance, was overcome with emotion after his fifth MotoGP victory, and his third podium in succession at Phillip Island after back-to-back third-place finishes in 2016 and 2017.

“When I crossed the line, there were tears on my face,” he said.

“It feels amazing. It has been such a difficult year for me, I could not realise that I win. The bike was perfect today, and I just pushed my best.

“Winning in Australia, a place I love to be …. I don’t know tonight if I will catch my flight.”

Marquez, starting from pole for the fifth straight year in Australia, was demoted to second by Miller at turn four on the opening lap of the race, the Australian scything through under brakes to repeat his early surge at the Island a year ago, when he led for the first four laps.

The Spaniard regrouped and looked to have the race pace to add to his victories in Australia in 2015 and 2017 before a terrifying crash with Yamaha rider Johann Zarco on lap six, the Frenchman misjudging his braking point into the fearsome 270km/h Doohan Corner, clattering into the back of Marquez’s Honda at over 280km/h.

Zarco skittled through the gravel trap after being pitched from his bike, which broke the seat and suspension on Marquez’s machine and forced the world champion into the pits and an early retirement.

The non-finish continued Marquez’s hot-cold relationship with Australia, where he’s never finished the race the week after he’s been crowned champion in Japan a week earlier. He crashed out of the lead at Phillip Island in 2014 and 2016, and while Sunday’s non-finish wasn’t of his own doing, he was counting his lucky stars that both he and Zarco escaped with little more than bruised pride.

“It was one more time in Phillip Island with zero points, but this time it was not my mistake,” Marquez said.

“I feel very lucky … it was a racing incident. The most important thing is that both riders are OK.”

Vinales, who had a slow start from second on the grid and dropped to 10th on lap one, gradually clawed his way back into contention, and passed Dovizioso for the lead on lap seven and quickly broke away, his lead peaking at four seconds with five laps remaining.

Iannone, who Marquez felt was the pre-race favourite after showing fearsome long-run pace in the four practice sessions across Friday and Saturday, briefly threatened late, but Vinales steadied to banish Yamaha’s historically barren run.

Miller Time: Nearly, but not quite

Jack Miller writes about his second successive seventh place at his home GP, and a Phillip Island weekend that was close to being much more memorable.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

Same result after a different approach this time … to be honest, not the way I was hoping my home GP at Phillip Island would work out. I was patient, didn’t overcook the tyres like last year, but I ran out of grip again. So, still seventh position. I’m not too happy, but on a bike that wasn’t in the top 10 here last year, I’ll take it.

I didn’t expect to be leading as early as I did when I passed Marc (Marquez) on the first lap, but the opportunity arose, so I put myself there. I was really just trying to save the tyre. For the first three-quarters of the race, the bike was really slow off the corners, and I was actually happy with that. I had a really dull (engine) map and tried to preserve the tyre as much as I could, but it wasn’t enough. I was on the softest map known to man, I think. So, happy enough with the result, but especially because of how conservative I was in the early laps, I expected a little bit more. But it was still a good weekend for me.

There’s nothing like racing at home for me. OK, there’s a lot of commitments and people pulling you this way and that way, but I remember what it was like when I was struggling to make a name for myself, the early 125cc days and when things weren’t going all that well when you were happy that some people even knew who you were … This is so much better. Some people get distracted by the crowds and family being here, the media and all of that, but I’m fine with it. Yes, it adds some pressure but I put plenty of pressure on myself each weekend anyway, so it’s not that much of a change. It’s mostly positive energy so I’ll take it. I always just hope that people have a good time and that the weather doesn’t ruin it for the fans, which is always a massive factor down here. The crowds were big this year too, I was told more than any year since Casey (Stoner) had his last race here in 2012, so that was awesome to see.

I’ve had good results at the Island in the past of course, and last year when I led the first four laps (and to be honest, had no idea how to play the race once I got up the front) was one of the best moments of my career. It’s such an awesome circuit and it can be a challenge with the wind and whatnot, but that’s the same for all us riders. I just feel comfortable here and it’s such a challenge that you’re locked in for every lap.

I was right up there from the first practice, although some of you would have seen my old mate Cal (Crutchlow) wasn’t all that happy with me after FP1 when I was second by about three-hundredths of a second to Maverick (Vinales). He and I were at a barbeque on Thursday night before the race and he decided he was putting a bet on me to lead FP1, I think I was paying $26 or something … I’d have been annoyed too!

It sucked for Cal to have his accident on Friday where he fractured his ankle, and it sounds like he might be in Melbourne for a while recovering as he has some more treatment to come after his surgery. Hs wife Lucy is down here now too. Cal and I are good mates as everyone knows so it was a shame he wasn’t racing on Sunday with us, and he’s handy around the Island as well. Cal being Cal, he was on the phone Saturday morning giving me tips on how I could race with the guys up the front … As soon as he stopped being the opposition, he was on my side. He seems to be in good spirits and you know him, he’ll do everything he can to get back on the bike as soon as possible. Whether that’s this year … it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of healing he needs to do first.

I went into the race still thinking a podium was achievable after qualifying … another second-row start here, but that qualifying was a scary one when it started spitting with rain just as it started. I’m not going to lie, it was heart-in-mouth stuff. There was a lot of mist, more mist than rain, sticking to your visor, so you didn’t really know how wet it was which is actually worse than it being full wet. At least you know what to expect when it’s properly wet. You were going into the darkness, you just didn’t know. So to bring it home in sixth position, with how the conditions were, I was happy to be in one piece. My elbow got a bit of a workout keeping me upright once or twice …

The other thing about this weekend? Who I rode for. I was a bit flat on Sunday after the Japan race when I arrived at the Island because I still thinking about a chance to ride something different that didn’t quite happen. When we were in Japan, Jorge (Lorenzo) pulled out with injury and was ruled out for the Island as well, so it looked like I may have an opportunity to have a ride of the factory bike alongside ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) at my home GP. Before the race at Motegi, that was the plan we’d decided on with Ducati. But then it all went pear-shaped on Sunday in Japan for me; I crashed out of the race, and when ‘Dovi’ fell off and didn’t score any points, Ducati were more keen to me to stay on my usual bike for Australia so we could try to keep the lead in the independent teams’ championship with Alma Pramac Racing, because the manufacturers’ championship for Ducati was more or less out of reach after no points in Japan.

They put (Alvaro) Bautista on Jorge’s bike for the Island instead, so it probably wasn’t much of a surprise that I was a bit disappointed after Motegi when the plans changed and I’d ended up on my bum in the gravel and stuffed my own race. I got over it quickly enough, but you had to wonder what it would have been like. Aussies on red factory Ducatis tend to go alright at Phillip Island, don’t they …

Anyway, there’s no point looking backwards. It’s onwards and upwards, looking forward to getting my hands on the factory bike starting at Valencia in the last test of the year. But first comes Malaysia and next weekend. I’ll speak to you from there.

Cheers, Jack

High-five for Marquez after mastering Island mist

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Unbeatable at Phillip Island? The coastal circuit’s capricious microclimate, which chose the very moment qualifying started for the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix on Saturday to sprinkle intermittent rain onto one of the fastest and most challenging tracks in all of motorsport. And Marc Marquez, who took his fifth pole position in a row at the Island after finding the right mix of bravery and skill to assert himself when it mattered most.

Honda rider Marquez, who won his fifth MotoGP world title last weekend when he was victorious in the Japanese Grand Prix, made light of his relatively pedestrian practice pace to deliver a lap of 1min 29.199secs with six minutes remaining in Saturday afternoon’s 15-minute qualifying session, the Spaniard beating compatriot Maverick Vinales (Yamaha) by three-tenths of a second to take his 51st MotoGP pole position.

Frenchman Johann Zarco (Yamaha) rounded out the front row, while Australia’s Jack Miller pushed his Ducati to the very edge of its limits in “scary” conditions, nearly crashing at the final corner on his final lap of the session as the rain intensified to qualify sixth.

Marquez came into qualifying after setting just the sixth-fastest time in the opening three practice sessions, and after a scrappy opening day of practice on Friday when he fell at the treacherous downhill Turn 10 and ran off at Turn 6 as he attempted to find the limits of a skittish Honda. But he took control of qualifying after Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the early running, making the most of a lap on the limit where the drizzle briefly abated to take his sixth pole of 2018, and third in succession after topping qualifying in Thailand and Japan.

“On one lap it completely stopped raining and I give everything on that lap,” the 25-year-old said.

“We are nearly all the lap 200(km/h), and when you see small drops of rain on your visor, you don’t know where is the limit.”

Miller was comfortably the fastest of the eight Ducati bikes in the 24-bike field, out-qualifying the likes of Valentino Rossi (Yamaha, seventh) and fellow Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso (ninth), who sits second behind Marquez in the championship standings.

The Australian, who typically revels in the type of half-wet, half-dry conditions seen at the Island on Saturday, attempted to reprise his shock pole in similar weather in Argentina earlier this year, but barely hung onto his GP17 machine as it thundered through the final corner at over 270km/h on his last lap, lifting his right leg skywards to regain his balance.

“As I went in there at full angle, it was a little bit slicker than I expected and I had to hold (the bike) up with my elbow,” Miller said.

“It was scary out there, heart-in-mouth stuff. There was a lot of mist, more mist than rain, sticking to your visor, so you didn’t really know how wet it was. You were going into the darkness. So to bring it home in sixth position, with how the conditions were, I’m just happy to be in one piece.”

Marquez, who rode in a pair of Mick Doohan-replica boots on Saturday in a nod to his fellow five-time MotoGP world champion, has a curious record at Phillip Island. Despite his qualifying dominance, Marquez has converted just two of those five pole positions into victories, winning in Australia in 2015 and again last year. He crashed from the lead in 2014 and again in 2016, races that both came one weekend after he’d won that year’s championship in Japan, as he did at the Motegi circuit last weekend.

“I won in 2014 in Motegi and I arrive here and I felt I could do everything, and I crash during the race,” he said.

“In 2016, I start to feel different, and then again I crash in the race. It’s something I need to control myself because it is a circuit that I love, but I feel more relaxed.”

As the sun finally broke through late on Saturday afternoon, Miller was similarly at ease with his prediction that he’d be in the fight for the podium earlier this week, and confident he could snap a barren run for Ducati at a fast, flowing circuit that doesn’t play to his bike’s strengths.

A rocket-ship on lengthy straights, of which Phillip island has none, the Ducati tends to perform best at tracks with hard braking and tighter-radius corners than the majority of those found on Phillip Island’s 12-turn layout. Since Casey Stoner won his fourth Australian Grand Prix in a row for Ducati in 2010, just one Ducati rider (Iannone in 2015) has finished inside the top three in Australia, but Miller feels well placed to aim for the rostrum after finishing two of the four practice sessions this weekend inside the top three.

After leading for the opening four laps last year before fading to seventh place, he’s expecting more of himself 12 months on.

“I don’t think it’ll be a crazy-fast race from the get-go, it’ll wind up with five or six laps to go,” Miller said.

“I think a podium (finish) is definitely within touching distance, so I’m looking to take my experience from last year and hopefully turn it into a better result this year.”

Harder, better, faster, stronger: Miller’s four-part plan

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

The scars on Jack Miller’s shoulders from countless collarbone surgeries show that he’s hard enough, the flashes of speed he’s shown throughout his four-year MotoGP career demonstrate that he’s fast enough. But learning to ride smarter is the next step in Miller’s evolution from front-running interloper to bona fide championship contender, and the Australian is getting a high-speed education in race craft every time he’s near the front of a MotoGP race.

The 23-year-old from Townsville, who starts his fourth Australian Grand Prix in motorcycle racing’s premier class on Sunday, was in rare air this time a year ago at Phillip Island, qualifying an equal career-best fifth on a second-string Honda before storming into the lead of the race for the first four laps, leaving the likes of world champion Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi in his wake. It didn’t last – Miller battled wearing tyres and faded to seventh place – but as he sees it now, it was the race that first alerted him to how much he still has to learn, a theme that has carried over to 2018 and his maiden season riding for Ducati.

“Last year at the Island was more a controlled race than a flat-out sprint, but I didn’t realise it at the time,” Miller admits.

“The guys behind me were riding smart while I was going all-out. It wasn’t the right way to do that race. Me and the team never contemplated what I’d do if I got out the front, it was never discussed because we didn’t expect to be there. I was making it up as I went along.”

Last year’s Island cameo was a surprise sidebar to the main event, the championship showdown between Marquez and Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso that went the way of the Spaniard. Twelve months on, a year of fighting at the front more regularly for Miller has given him all the information he needs on how to capitalise on being in the podium fight. Making what he’s learned pay dividends is still, as he puts it, “a work in progress”.

Having never qualified better than fifth in three years before 2018, Miller showed the step he’d made as a rider with a brilliant early-season pole position in Argentina, where he finished fourth. He was second on the grid to Ducati’s Jorge Lorenzo at the San Marino Grand Prix in September, and just last weekend, lined up third after a stunning qualifying lap in Japan.

His results in those latter two races? Eighteenth at Misano after crashing out three laps in and remounting, and finishing his race in the gravel trap after 11 laps last Sunday at Motegi, his decision to race with the soft-compound Michelin tyres backfiring after he lost grip rapidly as he tried to keep the pace.

Before 2018, any strong Miller race was seen through a lens of over-achievement, largely because of the second-tier machinery he was riding. Now, on a stronger bike, riding the Ducati GP17 used by Dovizioso to harry Marquez all the way for the 2017 title, he’s finding himself at the sharp end of races more often. Finding the right mix of red mist and grey matter is something he’s still working on.

“I’ve run up the front in Moto3 and other championships but this is different, these are the best guys in the world,” he says.

“I’ve been up with Marquez, Dovizioso, Lorenzo, Rossi, Maverick (Vinales), Cal (Crutchlow) and those guys. There’s a lot of experience I’ve taken from those guys who have done it more than me, fought for much bigger things than me.

“When you’re actually in the front pack instead of watching it from behind, it is different and there’s a lot for me to learn.

“The riding is a lot more controlled than what it looks from the outside because of the way the tyres work. I’ve made some mistakes doing that and have cost myself plenty of points. You just can’t ride the whole race at 100 per cent, flat out every lap. You might be able to take it physically, but you can spin the tyre off its head like that. If you do that, you end up like I was in Thailand when I was 10th. I was right near the front for a lot of the race, but ran out of grip near the end and basically went backwards.”

Miller sits in 13th place in the standings with 74 points heading into the 16th race of the 18-round campaign on Sunday, but it’s a tally that many, Miller included, feel should be higher. A top-10 championship result and more than 100 points, surpassing his career-best haul of 82 last year, were pre-season goals. While the former seems fanciful given 10th-placed Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone has 113 points with three races remaining, Miller would have already scored 101 points even if he’d finished in the same positions that he’d started races, even without making progress up the order. “There’s probably 40 points I’ve given away so far,” he concedes.

Gaining smarts to align with his natural speed is the next step for Miller, who has made big changes to his life off the track in the past 18 months as he morphs from Moto3 tearaway to a rider Ducati expects to be able to develop its GP19 machine next season. Part of that evolution has been a renewed commitment to training away from the track, with friend and former teammate Crutchlow showing him the way.

Nine years older than Miller at 32, Crutchlow has a base in the Isle of Man and counts professional cyclist Mark Cavendish as one of his closest friends. The hard-as-nails Brit took Miller under his wing in the Australian’s maiden MotoGP season in 2015, showing him the off-track commitment required to become a regular front-runner.

Crutchlow, the 2016 Phillip Island race-winner who’ll miss Sunday’s race after fracturing his right ankle in a practice crash on Friday, is an avid cyclist who doesn’t give a second thought to a six-hour bike ride. Miller grins when he remembers their early training days. “I’d go home exhausted to sleep after we’d been out for three hours, and he’d stay out there and knock off another three …”

While eyebrows the length of the pit lane were raised after Miller defied the form guide by qualifying second at Misano last month, Crutchlow wasn’t the least bit surprised – and hinted at bigger things for the Australian if he can align his speed to a more professional, intelligent approach.

“Within three years I think Jack can win the world title, if he’s clever enough and does the right thing,” Crutchlow said.

“He’s talented enough on a motorcycle. I don’t think there’s anybody in the championship as talented as him. He knows how to ride a bike, he’s not stupid.

“You have to really look, but he’s on a very good, neutral bike that does everything now. That’s one of the keys, to have a bike that’s easy to ride.”

Miller admits Crutchlow’s comments caught him off-guard, but gave him an insight into how he’s perceived by his peers.

“Cal’s been a real mentor for me, he’s always been there for me to answer questions or to give some advice,” Miller says.

“He’s shown me the best way to do things. He didn’t have to, so he’s been really valuable for me.

“He’s always said he has a lot of belief in me and my working style. I think that’s half the reason he helps me out the way he does, we have a similar style of working.

“He made the big call at Misano, that I could be world champion if I put my head down and kept learning. It definitely got my attention. Let’s hope he’s right …”.

Left, right: can Marquez march to another Aussie win?

Marc Marquez is fast everywhere, but has a special affinity with Phillip Island, like every other anti-clockwise track …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was a bit of light-hearted fun at the end of the pre-event press conference at this year’s Austrian Grand Prix, where a number of MotoGP riders were handed a sheet of paper and a marker to draw their ideal track. Jorge Lorenzo’s was simple, Valentino Rossi’s more elaborate, Andrea Dovizioso’s a mixture of both. Marc Marquez? The Spaniard drew an oval, added a directional arrow, and wrote five words: ‘Left corners and very slippery’. Those in attendance laughed, but as Marquez’s records show, the joke is on everyone else.

The 25-year-old Spaniard has done plenty of winning in the premier class since joining MotoGP in 2013; his victory last time out in Japan secured a fifth world title in his first six seasons, the victory his 43rd in that span. They’re astonishing stats in themselves, but crunch the numbers a little further and you discover where he really makes his rivals pay. Because for Marquez, with his flat-track dirt-bike racing background, it’s right to go left.

Phillip Island, home of this Sunday’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, is one of just five of the 19 circuits featured on the 2018 calendar that goes ‘left’, in that it has more left-hand corners than right-handers. And when a circuit runs anti-clockwise, time seems to be up on the chances of Marquez’s rivals, none of whom have been able to hold a candle to him.

Before the race in Aragon this year (a left-hand track, where Marquez won), cycleworld.com analysed his stats at all tracks, which make for scary reading for his rivals at the ‘left’ ones. Before Aragon, Marquez had won 39 per cent of his MotoGP starts, and 25 per cent of those on clockwise, right-handed circuits – a formidable set of numbers by themselves. On left-hand tracks, that goes up to 71 per cent – and pole position 84 per cent of the time.

Remarkably, Marquez has never been beaten in MotoGP in the USA between the Circuit of the Americas, Indianapolis and Laguna Seca; all left-hand tracks, where he’s a perfect 10-for-10. At the Sachsenring in Germany, the undulating, twisty track that features 10 lefts and just three rights, he’s taken pole and won in all six visits on MotoGP machinery, and won for the three years before that in the Moto2 and 125cc classes. At Aragon (10 lefts, 7 rights), he’s won four times in six years, crashing out the other two times. And at the season finale in Valencia (nine lefts, five rights), he’s been on the podium every year, won in 2014, and secured his 2013 and 2017 titles at the compact Spanish circuit.

How that does that shape his chances for Australia and Phillip Island, where seven of the 12 corners are left-handed? He won both no-holds-barred Australian GP classics in 2015 and 2017, crashed from the lead in 2014 and 2016, and was disqualified while leading in 2013 after being black-flagged for not changing tyres at half-distance of a race where pit stops on safety grounds were mandatory. He’s been on pole at the Island each of the past four years, set the fastest lap of the race twice, and has the circuit record lap of 1min 28.108secs in 2013.

All of which is why, with a fifth MotoGP championship in his pocket before he gets to Australia, he has to be considered the favourite for a track he holds in special esteem.

“It’s one of my favourite circuits, I’m always fast there and I’m enjoying a lot, it’s an incredible track,” Marquez says.

“It’s difficult because it’s very physical, with many hard and fast changes in direction, but I enjoy it a lot every year.”

When those changes of direction are more lefts than rights, it’s easy to see why …

This story was originally published on motogp.com.au and has been reproduced with permission.