Who wins the MotoGP crown, and why?

It’s Marquez vs Dovizioso for the biggest prize in two-wheel motorsport – here’s five things you need to know before their final-round showdown in Valencia.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

After nearly eight months, 17 Grands Prix, 399 racing laps, five race-winners and 10 different riders on the podium, the 2017 MotoGP season comes down to this – 30 laps in Valencia on Sunday to decide who will wear the crown as the king of two-wheel motorsport. Some 32 riders have taken to the grid for some or all of the 2017 campaign, but Valencia is all about just two.

For Marc Marquez, being in contention at the pointy end of the season is nothing new. In a whirlwind four MotoGP seasons before this one, the Repsol Honda man has won three titles, and leads this year’s championship by 21 points coming into Valencia.

Marquez knows what it’s like to be atop the table coming into the last race; in 2013, he led Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo by 13 points heading to Valencia, a third place as Lorenzo won the race seeing him win the crown by four points. Marquez has done it the easier way too; his 2014 title came in Japan with three races to go after he’d won the opening 10 Grands Prix of the season, while last season, he also secured the title at Motegi with three races remaining.

For Andrea Dovizioso, 2017 has been a breakout campaign for a rider who had managed just two premier-class victories in nine seasons before this one. Like Marquez, the Ducati rider has taken six victories so far in 2017, and no matter what happens in Valencia, he’ll top his previous-best championship finish of third, which he earned riding for Marquez’s current team back in 2011. It’s been 13 years since Dovizioso could call himself a world champion, which came when he won the 125cc title for Honda in 2004.

What are the mathematical implications of this weekend? What must Dovizioso do to pip Marquez at the post? Who’s hot and who isn’t? And what role could teammates Dani Pedrosa (Marquez) and Lorenzo (Dovizioso) play, let alone the likes of factory Yamaha pair Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales, among others? Here’s what to watch for, and why.

The maths

To say Marquez is in the box seat is an understatement. With a 21-point advantage over Dovizioso, the Spaniard need only finish 11th or better to win the title no matter what the Italian does. In 17 races so far this year, Marquez has finished 14 of them (he crashed in Argentina and France, and had an engine failure in Great Britain), and 11 of those finishes have been podiums. Sixth in Italy has been his worst result.

Dovizioso has been more dependable (he’s finished 16 times in 17 races, equal with Johann Zarco for the most finishes this year), and the one DNF wasn’t even his fault, taken out mid-race by Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro in Argentina in round two. ‘Dovi’ has finished on the podium eight times, but picked a bad time for his worst result of the year last month at Phillip Island, when he finished just 13th as Marquez won the race to see an 11-point championship deficit balloon to 33.

The Valencia records

For all of his dominance elsewhere, Marquez has a surprisingly modest MotoGP record at Valencia, winning just once (2014) in four attempts. But before Ducati fans get too excited, it’s worth pointing out that Marquez made the podium on the other three visits – third in 2013, and second in 2015 and again last year.

Valencia is also home to perhaps Marquez’s most mesmerising world championship performance; in his final Moto2 race before graduating to the top flight in 2012, he was sent to the back of the grid for a practice infringement and started 33rd – and won anyway, his first lap that day one that still has seasoned onlookers shaking their heads in astonishment …

By contrast, Dovizioso has been super-consistent – he’s finished in the top 10 for nine consecutive years at Valencia – but has just one podium (third in 2011) on his CV. But that was the Dovizioso of old – who knows what this year’s re-booted version could achieve?

The recent form

Marquez has led the standings after eight races this season, Dovizioso two. More recently, over a snapshot of the past five races, it’s Marquez 108 points, Dovizioso 78. Included in that quintet of Grands Prix are three wins for Marquez (San Marino, Aragon and Australia), and two for Dovizioso (Japan and last time out in Malaysia, both of which came in wet conditions). In fact, the front-running duo have been so dominant that the last rider other than Marquez or Dovizioso to win a race this year was Rossi, way back in round eight at Assen in June. Since then, it really has been a two-horse race. Expect Dovizioso and Ducati to be doing a rain dance this week …

The teammates

What could Pedrosa or Lorenzo do to influence the title race? Lorenzo’s role in particular came under the microscope in Malaysia, when he led for much of the race before making a mistake at the final corner with five laps to go, Dovizioso steaming through to take the win. Afterwards, Lorenzo claimed he didn’t see a dashboard instruction from Ducati to let his teammate by to take the extra five world championship points that come with a victory, but added “I already knew, I didn’t need anyone to tell me what to do in this situation”.

What brings Lorenzo into play here is that the Mallorcan has been the dominant force at Valencia in recent times, winning three of the past four races there to go with his other triumph at the tight Spanish track in 2010. He secured the 2015 title – the only one not won by Marquez since the Honda rider came into MotoGP – with victory from pole. Rain, hail or shine, Lorenzo shapes as a factor at Valencia, which could help his teammate.

Pedrosa also has success to draw upon at Valencia, but not recently; the last of his three wins there came in 2012, while last year, he crashed out on lap seven after qualifying a lowly eighth.

If either teammate is figure prominently in Valencia, it’s likely to be Lorenzo – and especially if it rains.

The sideshows

While it’s all about the top two in Valencia, there’s several other storylines worth keeping an eye on.

With 197 points in 16 of the 17 races (he missed Misano with a broken leg), 2017 is already guaranteed to be Rossi’s lowest-scoring season in five years since he’s been back at Yamaha. Worse could be yet to come – should Pedrosa outscore him by 13 points in the final race, ‘The Doctor’ would fall to fifth in the championship, his worst finish on a Yamaha in 12 seasons. The Italian hasn’t won at Valencia in 13 years, and has just one podium (second in 2014) in his past six starts.

For his old Yamaha teammate Lorenzo, 2017 shapes as the first season in his 10 MotoGP campaigns that he hasn’t won a race; second last time out in Malaysia was the best of his three podiums so far in red.

And for Aussie fans, keep an eye on Jack Miller, whose goals coming into the season were to stay healthy after an injury-ravaged 2016, and to finish inside the top 10 overall. He very nearly managed the former before a broken right leg saw him miss the round in Japan, but he’s bounced back since with strong top-10 runs at home in Australia and in Malaysia a fortnight ago. As for the latter: Miller sits 12th on 73 points coming into Valencia, two points behind Ducati’s Alvaro Bautista, and just 11 behind Yamaha’s Jonas Folger in 10th, with the German set to miss the season finale with illness.

Fifth – and topping his season-best to date of sixth at Assen and in Misano – would do it for Miller, depending on what Bautista can manage.

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What happened at the Mexican Grand Prix?

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen ran rings around the rest as the F1 roadshow hit Mexico City, while Lewis Hamilton’s worst race of the year secured his fourth world title.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton: qualified 3rd, finished 9th, won world championship. Valtteri Bottas: qualified 4th, finished 2nd.

Given Hamilton came to Mexico needing only a fifth place in the final three races of the year to secure the title, few were surprised when the Briton joined Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel as a four-time world champion – but plenty were surprised as to how he achieved it. From third on the grid, Hamilton tried to take advantage of the contact between Vettel and Verstappen in the opening two corners, but came off second-best when his right rear tyre was punctured by Vettel’s front wing in a move he felt may have been intentional. A pit stop sent Hamilton to the unusual position of the back of the pack, and his Mercedes, so often at the other end of the field, strangely struggled to work its way back through to the points, finally getting back into the top 10 when he passed Massa’s Williams on lap 57. From there, it was all about bringing the car home and keeping an eye on Vettel, who needed to finish in the top two to take the title fight to Brazil in a fortnight’s time. The German couldn’t, and a third title in four seasons was Hamilton’s. “It was a horrible way to do it, to be honest,” he admitted after his worst result of the season, a ninth-place finish seeing him become the first driver since James Hunt in 1976 to secure the crown in a race where he was lapped. Only Michael Schumacher (seven world championships) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five) have won more than the Hamilton-Vettel-Prost triumvirate.

On the other side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas’ second was his best result in five races, and one that went by almost unnoticed given Hamilton’s dramas, Vettel’s own comeback drive and Verstappen sailing on serenely out front. One story to watch now Mercedes has won both the drivers’ and teams’ titles for a fourth straight year; Bottas is now just 15 points behind Vettel for second in the drivers’ standings, which will surely be Mercedes’ focus for the final two Grands Prix.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo: qualified 7th, did not finish. Max Verstappen: qualified 2nd, finished 1st.

On any other day, Verstappen’s drive to his second race win of the year and third for his career would have hogged 95 per cent of the headlines, but Hamilton’s fourth world title took some of the spotlight away from the young Dutchman. It arguably shouldn’t have, as Verstappen was in a class of his own from Saturday onwards in Mexico, even when Vettel edged him by 0.086secs to steal pole position. The long run to the first corner at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez always shaped as a chance for Verstappen to muscle past Vettel, and the pair briefly touched before Verstappen entered Turn 3 ahead, and that was that. Despite being told several times by his team that he didn’t need to push as hard as he was, Verstappen set fastest laps for fun in the early stages, and such was his dominance that he finished 54 seconds clear of Raikkonen’s third-placed Ferrari. For the ease of his victory, Verstappen admitted to some nerves when he saw one Renault-powered car after another out of the race with reliability problems, his mind undoubtedly drifting back to earlier in the year when he retired from multiple races through no fault of his own. “I had my bad luck at the beginning of the year so I am very happy that this time nothing happened to me,” he said. Speaking of luck, teammate Ricciardo’s ran out after he encouragingly topped the timesheets after Friday practice, giving a glimpse of the Red Bull pace Verstappen would show from then on. The Australian’s qualifying was a disaster, admitting he was “confused, annoyed, helpless” after finding no grip and starting seventh, and the team elected to take a 20-place grid penalty for a new engine on race day to give him a fighting chance of a good result. Ricciardo roared through to seventh from 16th on the grid in just six laps, but meekly returned to the pits with a turbo problem, retiring from a strong position for the second time in a week after his DNF in Austin. It was the first time Ricciardo has retired from consecutive races since his days at Toro Rosso in 2013. “The weekend turned to crap,” he lamented.

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel: qualified 1st, finished 4th. Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 5th, finished 3rd.

With the championship mathematically possible but realistically improbable, Vettel drove like a man with nothing to lose in qualifying on Saturday, securing his first pole in five races with a lap that stunned Verstappen, who looked unbackable for top spot. But from the perfect place to start the race, the German’s Sunday unravelled after the contact with Verstappen and Hamilton in the clumsy opening exchanges, and he had to pit after one lap for a new front wing. He made better progress through the field than Hamilton did, but couldn’t get close enough to Raikkonen for Ferrari to flip its drivers for the sake of his championship chances. Vettel was understandably flat after the race, but praised the way Hamilton was able to join him as a four-time world champion. “Overall he was the better man and did the better job, simple as that,” he said. Raikkonen did what Raikkonen does, which is qualify nowhere near Vettel (he was three-quarters of a second slower), race consistently in a superior car after a poor start where he got elbowed back down the field, and take advantage of Ricciardo’s absence from the top six and Hamilton and Vettel being compromised to finish third, his sixth podium of the year.

Force India
Sergio Perez: qualified 10th, finished 7th. Esteban Ocon: qualified 6th, finished 5th.

Force India secured fourth place in the constructors’ standings for a second consecutive year with another solid haul of points in Mexico, but it was Ocon, rather than home hero Perez, who flew the flag for the team on race day. The Frenchman, who admitted before the event that he’d received death threats from Mexican fans via social media after his various run-ins with Perez this year, out-qualified Ricciardo to slot into sixth, and took third early on after the first-lap mess ahead of him, with a maiden podium looking a chance. The recovering Ferrari duo of Raikkonen and Vettel demoted him to fifth, which equalled his best F1 result and saw him draw to within nine points of his teammate in the drivers’ standings. Seventh for Perez, who pitted on lap 51 to fit ultrasoft tyres for a late charge to the flag, meant the Mexican has never beaten a teammate at home, and while he harried the Williams of Stroll in the final laps, the Canadian was able to keep him at bay. An appearance on the podium after the official ceremonies had finished to thank his home fans for their passionate support over the weekend was a moment Perez will surely never forget.

Williams
Felipe Massa: qualified 11th, finished 11th. Lance Stroll: qualified 12th, finished 6th.

Stroll’s last two races as an 18-year-old in Japan and Austin produced no points and plenty of pain, so race day in Mexico – on his 19th birthday – made for a welcome change, taking his second-best result of the year behind his podium finish in Azerbaijan back in June. It was a result that owed itself to consistent pace and a smattering of luck, as he was able to pit under virtual safety car conditions on lap 32 when Hartley’s Toro Rosso caught fire and ground to a halt, fitting supersoft tyres and going to the end despite plenty of pressure from Perez’s Force India. Massa’s chances of joining the birthday boy in the points came unstuck when a slow puncture saw him have to pit on lap three, and Stroll has now jumped the veteran Brazilian in the standings (40 points to 36). With Interlagos coming up next, will the out-of-contract Massa know his F1 future before his home race? On the more immediate horizon, eight points for Stroll saw Williams take a 23-point lead over Toro Rosso for fifth in the constructors’ standings with two races remaining.

McLaren
Fernando Alonso: qualified 14th, finished 10th. Stoffel Vandoorne: qualified 15th, finished 12th.

Mexico was Alonso at his feisty best after the Spaniard and teammate Vandoorne – again – were consigned to the back of the grid because of engine replacement penalties. Both Alonso and Vandoorne were more than 30km/h slower – that’s no misprint – than the Mercedes-powered cars down Mexico’s mammoth start-finish straight, and Alonso feared he wouldn’t be able to do much starting so far back despite calling his chassis “the best in Mexico” after qualifying. He was wrong, a fighting drive to 10th featuring a wheel-to-wheel dice with the recovering Hamilton late that evoked memories of the good old days when Alonso was competing for something more meaningful than a single point. Twelfth for Vandoorne made it three races in a row for the Belgian without points after his back-to-back seventh places in Singapore and Malaysia.

Toro Rosso
Pierre Gasly: qualified 20th, finished 13th. Brendon Hartley: qualified 13th, did not finish.

That Gasly was still running at the chequered flag was something of a surprise, the young Frenchman struggling with one engine gremlin after another in practice and qualifying, so much so that he’d managed all of 12 timed laps before the race at a track he’d never driven at before. On the other side of the garage, Hartley had engine issues on Friday, made Q2 on Saturday before a puff of engine smoke saw him have to park up, took an engine penalty for the race, and then blew up again just before half-distance. “I’m not the happiest man today, but I’m still smiling because I’ve made progress compared to last week in Austin,” the New Zealander said. With Daniil Kvyat officially out of the mix at STR, it appears the unlikely pairing of Gasly and Hartley will be the team’s drivers for 2018 after they were confirmed for Brazil and Abu Dhabi to round out this season.

Haas
Romain Grosjean: qualified 19th, finished 15th. Kevin Magnussen: qualified 18th, finished 8th.

Nobody at Haas would have dreamed of points after qualifying, where the American team’s cars were slowest of all in what Grosjean called “a slap in the face” after being beaten by Sauber. So for Magnussen to finish eighth, especially after he laboured with a stomach bug on Friday, was something akin to a miracle, even after he gained through the pain of others after the various incidents on the first lap. “That was like a victory, it was incredible,” the Dane said. “It was a perfect race. It couldn’t have gone better.” Grosjean may well have joined his teammate in the points, but came off second-best in a clash with Alonso at the first corner on lap 10 that both damaged his car and saw him slapped with a five-second time penalty for exceeding track limits. Two laps down, the Frenchman was the final driver classified.

Renault
Nico Hulkenberg: qualified 8th, did not finish. Carlos Sainz: qualified 9th, did not finish.

A miserable Sunday in Mexico for Renault, with Hulkenberg not seeing the flag for the fourth time in five races because of a mid-race retirement with an energy recovery system issue, and Sainz pulling into the pits with less than 10 laps to go after reporting his car was pulling sideways on the straights. After both cars made the top 10 in qualifying, it was a disappointing end to a weekend where Toro Rosso, five points ahead in the constructors’ championship for sixth but looking increasingly vulnerable, looked there for the passing.

Sauber
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 16th, did not finish. Pascal Wehrlein: qualified 17th, finished 14th.

Ericsson looked odds-on to snare his first points for the season when he ran convincingly inside the top 10 in the early stages, but had a brake-by-wire failure 14 laps from the end and returned to the pits with flames licking at the back of his gearbox for a seventh retirement in 18 races. Teammate Wehrlein was a chance to get a Sauber into Q2 for the first time since Azerbaijan 10 races ago before being edged by Vandoorne and Ericsson late in the first part of qualifying, but had a rougher race, finishing two laps down and ahead only of Grosjean’s heavily-damaged Haas.

Miller Time: Wanting more in Malaysia

Jack Miller writes about a race at Sepang that was equally good and bad, and the one box that can still be ticked with one MotoGP race left this season.  

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

Two top-10 finishes in a week? Normally I’d be pretty happy with that – actually, very happy with that. But as I started to cool down after Malaysia (or try to anyway, the humidity here isn’t the easiest for that), I was a bit disappointed in a way. Eighth is good, especially in a race like that when it’s wet and it’s so easy to make a mistake and end up with a zero. But there were definitely a few ‘what if?’ moments that I kept thinking about.

The start was one. I was 11th on the grid, but it’s such a long run to Turn 1 at Sepang that you can make up a heap of places if you get it right. I got off the line well and went tight down the inside and held my line, and was probably up to around fourth or so. Looking good. But then we got to Turn 2, there were people everywhere and a bit of contact, and people were coming inside of me, outside … I had to sit up a bit which didn’t help, and the next thing you know I’m 10th at the end of the first lap. The first lap was like being pinballed around – I was just too slow and couldn’t find the grip. Has some contact with Maverick (Vinales), and a few others actually – I was a bit of a roadblock.

And that’s how it felt for the whole race, until maybe five or six laps from the end – I knew I could be faster but just had no grip. When I was on the left-hand side of the tyre especially – even staying upright felt like a challenge. The tyre finally started to come good for me after that, and my best lap with five laps to go was the sixth-fastest of the race, so it shows that pace that was there – maybe I needed them to wear faster for me or something. By then though I was too far back and while I was able to get (Alvaro) Bautista and Scott (Redding) to get to eighth, I was too far back from Vale (Valentino Rossi) to seriously give him a challenge for seventh, and that was that.

Malaysia probably has the most changeable weather of anywhere we go, even Phillip Island, so I was hoping the weather would hold for the race. We had good dry-weather pace, and I was pretty quick in the morning warm-up. But then half an hour before we started, it bucketed down and threw everything up in the air. Some guys went backwards, other guys like Danilo (Petrucci) came from the very back after his bike broke down on the way to the grid and somehow finished sixth, right behind Dani (Pedrosa) who was on pole! It was a strange one alright. I go pretty good in the wet as you know, but I wanted it to be dry as our pace was strong, very strong actually. What was possible in a normal dry race? Top six, definitely. Maybe a bit more than that, if I’m being greedy. So happy with eighth, but a bit frustrated.

At the start of the year, I set myself a goal to try and finish in the top 10 in the championship, and that was looking good until the races after Assen, where I only scored three points from Sachsenring to Silverstone. Missing Japan after breaking my leg didn’t help either, I suppose. But the last two races mean I’ve scored 17 in a week, and I’m now only 11 points off Jonas Folger in 10th, and he’s not riding at the last race in Valencia. I 100 per cent wrote a top-10 off before Australia, but it could be back on again. I’d need my best result of the year to do it, fifth or better in Valencia, but it’s a chance. For that to even be a topic with one race left, that makes me really happy. It’s within reach, and while it’ll take a really solid effort from me and the team in Valencia, I believe we can do it.

The break between here and Valencia is pretty important for me, considering I’ve done these last two races while getting used to the plate and screws in my right leg and clearly not being 100 per cent. I can now get back to Andorra and launch into some physio this week, which I’m going to need after how physical Sepang was. It’s a week more into my recovery than Phillip Island was, but the Island was easier in some ways as the track goes left and the corners are mostly fast and long corners. Sepang goes right, there’s heaps of stop-start stuff where you’re standing the bike up, so definitely harder on the right leg. If I can get some better range of motion for Valencia, I should be a lot better.

It’s been a pretty full-on couple of weeks and the team is in a good mood to celebrate because Franco (Morbidelli) won the Moto2 championship today, so I reckon it’s time to stop talking and go for a beer with those guys, and then get back to Europe tomorrow. One more to go and one more thing I’m after for this year – I’ll speak to you from there.

Cheers, Jack

What happened at the United States Grand Prix?

Max Verstappen’s podium that wasn’t was the big talking point after Lewis Hamilton continued on his winning ways in Austin.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton: qualified 1st, finished 1st. Valtteri Bottas: qualified 3rd, finished 5th.

Mercedes won its 11th Grand Prix of the season – and fifth out of six races since F1’s mid-season break – to annex the constructors’ championship for a fourth year running, and could very well seal the drivers’ championship next weekend in Mexico after Hamilton continued his love affair with the Circuit of the Americas. Of the six races held at Austin, the Briton has now won five of them, and while he made a tardy getaway to be beaten by Vettel’s Ferrari into the first corner, Hamilton was untroubled after reclaiming the lead on lap six, and will take a 66-point lead to Mexico City with a maximum of 75 points left in the season. Also for the statistically minded, Hamilton’s pole position on Saturday was his 117th front-row start, breaking the record set by Michael Schumacher. Hamilton’s form since F1’s summer sojourn contrasts sharply with that of teammate Bottas, who, having re-signed for 2018, has dropped well off the pace. The Finn finished 34 seconds behind his teammate after making a late pit stop for tyres when Raikkonen and then Verstappen demoted him from the podium places, but in a six-race run where Hamilton has won five times, Bottas has managed just two podium finishes in what is undoubtedly the fastest car in the field. “A tough day for me,” he lamented.

Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo: qualified 4th, did not finish. Max Verstappen: qualified 6th, finished 4th.

It had almost been the perfect week for Verstappen, who signed a contract extension until 2020 in the lead-up to the race in Austin. Notice we said ‘almost’; after being beaten in qualifying by teammate Ricciardo and then taking an engine penalty that demoted him to the back, Verstappen was electrifying in the early stages of the race, passing 10 cars in the first 10 laps to give himself a chance of a podium finish. An audacious and opportunistic pass of Raikkonen’s Ferrari with four corners left on the final lap saw him cross the line in third place, but as he was preparing to head out onto the podium, the race stewards deemed he’d left the track and gained an advantage with his move, the subsequent five-second time penalty demoting him to fourth. Former Red Bull racer Mark Webber, commentating on British TV, called it a “shit decision”, while team boss Christian Horner found the verdict “unbelievably harsh”. Verstappen’s take? “We had a really great race, but with those stupid decisions you really kill the sport,” he fumed. Ricciardo’s Sunday was, initially at least, quite action-packed as he diced furiously with Bottas for third in the early stages, but that all came to nought when an engine failure saw the Australian sidelined on lap 14, snapping his run of three straight podiums. Ricciardo spent more time talking about his future in the wake of Red Bull hitching its wagon long-term to Verstappen – the 28-year-old comes out of contract at the end of the 2018 season – than he needed to spend analysing a race that ended all too quickly. He’s also likely to take a grid penalty for Mexico in seven days’ time.

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel: qualified 2nd, finished 2nd. Kimi Raikkonen: qualified 5th, finished 3rd.

The Prancing Horse has a pulse, but only a faint one after Vettel again couldn’t hang with Hamilton despite a jack-rabbit start that briefly raised hopes that Mercedes could be challenged at COTA. After being overtaken by Hamilton, Vettel got aggressive with his first pit stop and tried the undercut in an attempt to thwart the Briton, but he ended up needing to pass Bottas and a compliant Raikkonen to get back to where he started and minimise his points deficit to the driver would could join him as a four-time world champion as soon as next weekend. “At the start it was looking good, but quickly we realised we couldn’t do the same pace as Lewis,” he said after finishing over 10 seconds adrift. Raikkonen, who turned 38 in the week leading into the race, robustly defended his driving before a wheel was turned in Austin, despite having scored 12 fewer points in 16 races than at the same stage of last season. Sunday – eventually – saw him grab a fifth podium for the season with one of his stronger drives for the year, but the gap to his teammate ballooned to over 100 points – and is a big reason why Mercedes wrapped up the teams’ title with three races to go.

Force India
Sergio Perez: qualified 10th, finished 8th. Esteban Ocon: qualified 7th, finished 6th.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Perez, behind teammate Ocon in the middle part of the race, was immediately on the team radio telling Force India brass that “I am a lot faster” in an attempt to get the team to move the Frenchman aside. The team didn’t, figuring the points earned for sixth and seventh would be the same no matter which pink car crossed the line first, but the decision came back to bite them when Sainz muscled his Renault ahead of Perez and narrowly missed out on passing Ocon as the laps wound down. Ocon’s qualifying effort was all the more meritorious given he was struggling with the onset of a migraine, and the 21-year-old set a record by finishing the opening 26 races of his F1 career, beating former Manor driver Max Chilton’s mark. Perez, who was apoplectic when Magnussen blocked him in qualifying, at least has the next race at home in Mexico to look forward to.

Williams
Felipe Massa: qualified 11th, finished 9th. Lance Stroll: qualified 17th, finished 11th.

While Massa’s future remains cloudy, with Williams testing Robert Kubica and Paul Di Resta in what amounts to a shootout for his seat before Austin, the veteran Brazilian is making the most of the present, using a long first stint on a contra tyre strategy on Sunday to vault into the points. Stroll narrowly missed out on joining him, a three-place grid penalty for dangerously impeding Grosjean in qualifying on Saturday proving costly.

McLaren
Fernando Alonso: qualified 9th, did not finish. Stoffel Vandoorne: qualified 13th, finished 12th.

It’s been a season where good news has been in short supply at McLaren, but there were plenty of smiles at the pre-event press conference when Alonso announced an extension of his contract with the team. The Spaniard produced an extraordinary lap in qualifying to work his way into the top 10 shootout despite his car being 20km/h slower than the Mercedes-powered runners down COTA’s lengthy back straight, but the long faces returned on Sunday when he had to park with – you guessed it – an engine failure on lap 24. “I cannot believe it,” he sighed after his 10th retirement of the year, the most for one driver since Raikkonen in 2002. Vandoorne was on a hiding to nothing when he took yet more engine penalties and started from the back, and try as he might, the top 10 remained just out of reach. “It was a shame to get so close to the points, but we were always going to struggle starting so far back,” he said.

Toro Rosso
Daniil Kvyat: qualified 12th, finished 10th. Brendon Hartley: qualified 18th, finished 13th.

It was all-out, all-change at Toro Rosso for Austin, with the Suzuka line-up of Sainz (off to Renault to replace Jolyon Palmer) and Gasly (who stayed in Japan to contest the Super Formula season finale) replaced by Kvyat and Hartley. For the Russian, it was welcome reprieve after being benched for Gasly in Malaysia and Japan, while for 27-year-old sportscar ace Hartley, Austin was an opportunity he must have thought would never come, the New Zealander cast aside from Red Bull’s driver pool seven years ago. The Kvyat/Hartley pairing represented the first time in 23 years that a team changed both drivers between consecutive rounds of the championship. Kvyat, who admitted before the race that he was desperately seeking some clarity about his F1 future, scored his first points since Spain in round five with 10th, while Hartley’s debut was compromised by engine penalties that saw him start at the back. The Kiwi kept his nose clean, raced to 13th, and looked forward to being able to reflect on what had been a whirlwind week. “It won’t be until I go to bed tonight and put my eyes at rest that I’ll start to process everything,” he said.

Haas
Romain Grosjean: qualified 14th, finished 14th. Kevin Magnussen: qualified 20th, finished 16th.

The ‘home’ team in Austin left for Mexico without any points after a weekend of incidents for both cars, including one on track in practice between Magnussen and Grosjean that left the Frenchman fuming. Grosjean, wearing a Nicky Hayden-inspired helmet design in a nice nod to the late American MotoGP champion, struggled mightily with tyre wear late in the race as his outside chance of a points result faded, while Magnussen, who admitted fault in a qualifying incident with Perez that saw him demoted three places on the grid, had contact with both Saubers, Wehrlein on the first lap which necessitated an early pit stop, and Ericsson later on when the Swede had just been lapped by Vettel.

Renault
Nico Hulkenberg: qualified 15th, did not finish. Carlos Sainz: qualified 8th, finished 7th.

Hulkenberg must wonder why he even bothers travelling to Austin; the German’s lap three retirement after suffering an oil pressure problem was his fourth straight non-finish at COTA, and came after he’d taken a 20-place grid penalty for changing engine components. Sainz, on the other hand, couldn’t have had a more impressive start to life at his new team after coming across from Toro Rosso; after out-qualifying Hulkenberg on Saturday (something former teammate Palmer didn’t manage in 16 attempts), the Spaniard raced strongly to seventh on Sunday, and was the final car not lapped by race-winner Hamilton. Sainz’s six points saw his new team draw within five points of his old one for sixth in the constructors’ standings.

Sauber
Marcus Ericsson: qualified 16th, finished 15th. Pascal Wehrlein: qualified 19th, did not finish.

Beneath the radar, Ericsson had one of his stronger Saturdays of the year in Austin, out-qualifying a Williams and a Toro Rosso and beating teammate Wehrlein by four-tenths of a second in what is clearly the slowest car in the field. The race didn’t go as well, the Swede given a five-second time penalty for the incident with Magnussen. Wehrlein, who turned 23 in the lead-up to the race, was out of it after five laps, the damage from his own coming-together with Magnussen too much to continue.

Miller learns a lesson, but leaves a mark

Stunning early-race pace shows how far Jack Miller has come – and how far he has left to go.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Three weeks after snapping his right leg in a training accident, one week after he was in too much pain to even throw his leg over a motorcycle, and one day after he’d qualified a career-best fifth on the grid, Jack Miller surged to the lead at the first corner of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, scything past none other than three-time world champion Marc Marquez to send the Phillip Island crowd into delirium.

Which posed one problem. What to do next?

Miller has led a world championship Grand Prix before – he memorably won the Dutch TT at Assen last year in weather better suited for boats than a Honda capable of nudging 350km/h – but this was something entirely different. Leading a race on merit in bone-dry conditions at home? With a plate and eight screws in his leg? This wasn’t in the script. And while he faded to seventh place in a race won by Marquez after 27 frantic laps of the Phillip Island circuit on Sunday, Miller felt finishing just five seconds from the victory was his most convincing MotoGP performance yet – and one that taught him a valuable lesson.

The Townsville 22-year-old stormed away from the rest of the pack at such a fearsome pace on Sunday that he led for the opening five laps, keeping vastly more experienced riders on superior bikes in his wheeltracks. But then the realisation that he’d need to preserve his Michelin tyres for later in the race if he was to snatch a shock home podium dawned on him, and Miller admitted afterwards that the thrill of leading his home Grand Prix might have clouded his thinking.

“I was thinking ‘is this really happening?’,” he said. “Being in the lead felt like forever for me.

“I got a decent start, and then Marc ran wide and opened the door for me, so I pushed through. I thought there was no better place to be on the first lap than first, especially into (Turn 4) with all of the others behind me. I had a really good opening couple of laps and was able to pull a gap on the other guys. But I might have got a bit carried away.”

By the time Miller “took the brain out of neutral”, he knew that his best chance of earning a second MotoGP podium finish had become a long shot as the rest of the pack started to gnaw at his advantage.

“On the third lap, I buttoned off a little bit – whoever was behind me, I just wanted them to come through because I wanted a marker, someone to set the pace so I wasn’t out there spinning the tyre off its head and destroying it,” he said.

“Once I got a few laps in behind Marc, and understood what he was doing on his tyre, I started trying to do that, but it was probably too little too late. I’ve learned what I need to do for next year.”

MotoGP riders, by their very nature, are rarely satisfied, Miller admitting to being mildly annoyed on Saturday after equalling his career-best qualifying effort of fifth, given fourth-placed Andrea Iannone (Suzuki) was just two-hundredths of a second faster. But just seven days after being forced to watch the Japanese Grand Prix on TV from his mum’s couch in Townsville and barely being able to walk without a limp, seventh place – and those early laps – gave Miller cause for pause.

“The cocky, confident person inside me was saying ‘you’ll be right’, but the real me was thinking ‘this isn’t going to be easy’,” he said of his expectations for his home race so soon after surgery.

“To come back here and, let alone ride, but be as competitive as we were, wasn’t what I expected. I haven’t had that many strong dry races – we’ve been there or thereabouts, but never for the whole race. Today was just a really good run and I felt really comfortable. Maybe I need to break my leg more often …”

Marquez puts one hand on the title

A Phillip Island win and a disaster for ‘Dovi’ has Spaniard on the brink of a fourth MotoGP title.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

For the past five years in MotoGP, Marc Marquez has been the Phillip Island benchmark. But for much of those past five years, the Honda rider has routinely left Australia disappointed, just one win on his CV scant reward for his searing pace around one of the world’s most daunting race tracks.

Sunday at the Island changed all that, the Spaniard converting his fourth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix into a hard-fought victory – and with it, putting himself in the box seat to win his fourth MotoGP world championship in his first five years in the category next weekend in Malaysia.

Marquez came to Australia with a slender 11-point championship lead after being beaten by Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso in a frantic head-to-head fight at last week’s Japanese Grand Prix, but the Honda rider’s sixth win of 2017, combined with Dovizioso finishing a season-worst 13th, saw Marquez extend his championship lead to 33 points with a maximum of 50 remaining in the final two races of the season at Sepang and Valencia. Game, set, and almost match.

Marquez’s victory, after he’d topped the timesheets in all but one on-track session in every weather condition imaginable over three days at Phillip Island, didn’t come easily. The Spaniard was ambushed into the first corner by the typically fast-starting Australian Jack Miller, and was embroiled in a frantic eight-bike fight for the podium places that raged until the final five laps, when he was finally able to break away.

Marquez crossed the line 1.7 seconds ahead of Valentino Rossi (Yamaha), the six-time Phillip Island winner surging through the field from seventh on the grid. Rossi’s teammate Maverick Vinales stole the final podium position on the line from dynamic French rookie Johann Zarco, Vinales edging his Yamaha stablemate by 0.016 seconds.

Miller, racing just three weeks after fracturing his right tibia in a training accident near his European home base of Andorra, unexpectedly led for the opening five laps before fading to seventh, finishing just five seconds from the victory after qualifying an equal career-best fifth on Saturday.

Marquez, whose exuberant post-race celebrations went up a notch when he realised where Dovizioso had finished by stealing a look at a trackside big screen on his way back to the pits, knew that he’d gone a long way to becoming a four-time MotoGP world champion by the age of 24.

“‘Dovi’ was struggling a little bit this weekend, and I was feeling really good,” he said.

“In the race, I was just waiting, waiting, and then I push hard for three or four laps. The bike was amazing.”

Like Australian Casey Stoner before him, whose retirement in 2012 opened the door for the baby-faced Marquez to join the crack Repsol Honda squad, the sweeping curves of the seaside Phillip Island layout mesh perfectly with the Spaniard’s all-action style; unlike Stoner, who won six straight times at home from 2007-12, Marquez has rarely been able to make his dominance count on race day.

Disqualified while running at the front on his Australian MotoGP debut in 2013, Marquez crashed out while leading in Australia in 2014 and again last year, his win in 2015 a rare reward for his mastery of one of the world’s toughest tracks. Sunday’s victory, which came after he dropped to fourth place 10 laps from home, was even more crucial given Dovizioso’s Island misery continued.

The 31-year-old Italian has enjoyed the best season of his career in 2017, winning five Grands Prix to emerge as an unlikely title contender, and twice having the measure of Marquez in last-lap battles in Austria and Japan. But Dovizioso never figured at the front on Sunday, a heavy crash in final practice before qualifying on Saturday denting his confidence and seeing him qualify just 11th.

Running wide at the blindingly quick Doohan Corner at Turn 1 on the second lap dropped Dovizioso to 20th, and while he made his way back through the midfield, he relinquished places to fellow Ducati rider Scott Redding and Marquez’s teammate Dani Pedrosa on the final lap to score just three world championship points. In 10 MotoGP appearances at the Island, Dovizioso has managed just one podium finish, a third place in 2011.

While seventh for Miller wasn’t his best result of the season – the Townsville tyro finished sixth in wet races at the Dutch TT and in San Marino – it was by far his most convincing performance of the year, the 22-year-old featuring in the top 10 on the timesheets in every on-track session, and scoring nine world championship points to surpass his 2016 season total of 57 with two races remaining.

Miller Time: Now that was fun …

Jack Miller writes about leading his home Grand Prix and learning a valuable lesson after his dramatic comeback at Phillip Island.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

Well, I definitely didn’t expect that. I mean, how could you? When I woke up at Phillip Island on Sunday morning, it did make me think that this time three Sundays ago, I was basically coming out of surgery after breaking my leg. At that stage, riding anything seemed a bit far-fetched, and here I was about to go into my home Grand Prix fifth on the grid, and feeling way better than I expected to. I’d been quick in the wet and the dry, I’d been in the top 10 in every session, and I was pretty optimistic that the adrenaline of racing again – and racing at home – would carry me through 27 laps at the Island without needing a painkiller.

And then the start happened.

I generally start pretty well anyway, but to be first into Turn 1 after Marc (Marquez) opened the door for me, that absolutely wasn’t in my plans. Heaps of people afterwards asked me if I’d heard the crowd go up because I’d taken the lead, or wondering if I’d been pushed along by the crowd – not at all. I was a bit bloody surprised to be in the lead, and I definitely had a ‘is this really happening?’ moment as I came towards Turn 4 on the first lap. All my family and heaps of mates were at Turn 4 all weekend, and I’m guessing they were all as shocked as I was. Turn 4 here on the first lap can be a pretty hairy place to be if you’re in the middle of the pack, so to be up front, and not expecting to be, that worked out pretty well.

You saw what happened after that. I definitely went for too much in the first few laps, led almost five of them before Vale (Valentino Rossi) and Maverick (Vinales) came past me on the straight so fast that they almost pulled the stickers off my bike, and then settled into that front group of eight that was setting a pretty ferocious pace. I knew even then that I’d probably taken too much out of the tyres with the excitement of being in the lead, and that I’d probably pay for that later in the race. So to finish seventh after leading, in one way, was a bit of a shame. But I learned a big lesson, and did that while finishing five seconds off the win, and three and a bit seconds from the podium. Three weeks after breaking my leg? I’d have signed up for that with a body that wasn’t injured, let alone one that was.

Someone asked me afterwards whether it felt like I was only in the lead for a second or two and then the pack came past me, but it was the opposite – it felt like forever. Being in the lead and not really knowing what pace I should set or how hard I should be pushing was actually pretty difficult, so I buttoned off a bit after three laps and hoped that someone would come through so I could see the pace they were running. I didn’t know how hard I should have been pushing. If I’d kept going the way I was, I’d have spun the tyre off its head and definitely not made the finish. So I learned something today.

With three laps to go I decided to have another little dig and close the gap to ‘Crutch’ (Cal Crutchlow), but I just started spinning too much, and that the caused the tyre to go down to the base rubber. On the last lap I threw it into Turn 2, I was maybe half a second behind ‘Crutch’, I flicked the bike over quite aggressively and she nearly came around on me. The tyre was finished on the left side. Done. But when you consider that I haven’t had that many strong dry races – we’ve been there or thereabouts, but never for a whole race – today was just a really good run.

I was so into it that I realised that during the race, I hadn’t noticed my leg a lot. Adrenaline is better than any painkiller you could take, for sure. My leg didn’t really give me any grief, and I didn’t really notice it up until I went to do a burnout in front of my fans at Turn 4 – when I straightened my leg out, it was a bit stiff. But on the bike, it was fine.

The whole weekend was just really strong from start to finish. I was a bit worried on Saturday when it was cold and rainy, because I just couldn’t get warm all of a sudden. I just felt really cold all day, and wondered if I was starting to get sick or something. I spent a week at my parents’ place in Townsville because I missed Japan, so coming to the Island from there … the week home in a t-shirt might have softened me up! I had an early night Saturday night, literally grabbed some takeaway and slept. Felt heaps better on Sunday, and as much as I don’t mind riding in the rain, I was pretty happy when the sun came out for the race. That circuit in sunny weather, it’s something else.

Sunday was obviously good, but Saturday, to do that lap in qualifying in the 1:28s, that was pretty awesome. Fifth on the grid was way more than I’d expected coming in. I mean, how can you expect anything much when three weeks ago to the day you’re coming out of an anaesthetic in hospital after having eight screws and a plate put into your leg? The good thing was that I was actually bit shitty with how the end of qualifying went, because me, Marc, Dani (Pedrosa) and Pol (Espargaro) were all waiting around for a tow and none of us managed to get any benefit out of it. Nobody really wanted to go; I gave Marc a slipstream and he didn’t return the favour – that was pretty nice of him … But fifth, same as the best I’ve done in MotoGP that I did at the Island last year, was really good. Shame to get so close to (Andrea) Iannone and miss a best MotoGP qualifying by two-hundredths, but maybe that was a sign that I’m getting better, that it went well and I still wanted more …

It’s definitely been a whirlwind of a week, but a really good one as well. Sepang next weekend will definitely be two things – a lot hotter and a lot quieter for me! A lot more people wanted to see me and talk to me this week, and while you’d get exhausted or maybe a bit distracted if it was like that every week, it’s your home race – and not everyone gets one of those. It’s a privilege to have one, and to have one at a track that every one of us riders loves (and we’re not just saying that to be nice like we sometimes do!), that’s a bonus.

Thanks to everyone that came out, and I hope we put on a good show for you. I know I enjoyed it …

Cheers, Jack