Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix

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 …”

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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

Marquez flies as Miller defies the pain barrier

Saturday was a good day for Marc Marquez – and an even better one for Australian Jack Miller.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER

Statistically, Marc Marquez can’t win the MotoGP world championship this weekend, but psychologically, the Australian Grand Prix always shaped as a decisive moment in his late-season tussle for the title with Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso.

Phillip Island suits the mercurial Spaniard’s gravity-defying style arguably more than any other stop in the 18-race world championship, and the Repsol Honda rider underlined his Down Under dominance with a fourth consecutive pole position at the picturesque seaside circuit on Saturday.

Marquez, who arrived in Australia with a tenuous 11-point championship lead over Dovizioso, made his searing practice pace count when it came to setting the grid for Sunday’s 27-lap race, firing in a last-gasp lap of 1min 28.386secs in qualifying to snare his seventh pole position in 16 races this season.

The three-time world champion finished three-tenths of a second ahead of compatriot Maverick Vinales (Yamaha), while dynamic French rookie Johann Zarco (Yamaha) rounded out the front row of the grid.

Marquez’s joy after qualifying was in stark contrast to Dovizioso’s dark mood at Ducati, the Italian never regaining his momentum after a massive crash at Turn 10 in the final practice session that left him unhurt, but with his bike in pieces.

The 31-year-old, who brilliantly beat Marquez in a last-lap showdown last weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix to take his fifth win of the season, could manage just 11th on the grid, his worst qualifying performance since round four of the season in Spain five months ago.

If Marquez was the biggest winner at Phillip Island on Saturday, Jack Miller wasn’t far behind him. The 22-year-old Australian, returning to the track just three weeks after breaking his right leg in a training accident near his European base in Andorra, defied the pain barrier to qualify an equal career-best fifth, matching his performance at Phillip Island a year ago.

Miller, who missed last Sunday’s race in Japan in an optimistic bid to be fitter for the challenge posed by the daunting 4.4-kilometre Phillip Island layout, made the top 12 shootout for pole position for just the fourth time this year, and had designs on a front-row starting spot when he trailed only Marquez and Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone after the opening laps of qualifying.

Late improvements by Vinales and Zarco bumped him to the second row, and the Honda rider finished an agonising two-hundredths of a second behind Iannone for what would have been a career-best fourth, a position he admitted was unthinkable when he snapped his right tibia while out training with several other riders, good friend Vinales one of them.

“Fifth on the grid is more than expected, considering three weeks ago to the day I was coming around after an anaesthetic,” he beamed afterwards.

“I couldn’t ask for more. I always want a challenge, especially when I come home to the Island, but this (result) is exceeding any expectations I had.”

That Marquez made the Island his own once again shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the Spaniard has taken the baton from the rider he replaced at the Repsol Honda squad, Australian Casey Stoner, as the modern-day master of one of the most revered circuits in the sport.

In five MotoGP visits to the Island, Marquez has been on pole four times, won the race in 2015, and crashed out while enjoying commanding leads in 2014 and again last year, when he had already wrapped up his third world title a week earlier in Japan.

By contrast, Dovizioso’s stats in Australia make for short and not particularly inspiring reading; he has just one podium (2011) here in nine premier-class outings. Sunday shapes as Marquez’s time to shine, no matter what Phillip Island’s capricious microclimate serves up late on Sunday afternoon.

Miller, who won the Dutch TT at Assen last year in a deluge for his sole visit to a MotoGP podium, could be excused for hoping the Island’s trademark weather makes an appearance on Sunday, but given his physical condition, he’s hopeful of a dry race – and optimistic he can continue the form that has seen him inside the top 10 in every practice and qualifying session this weekend.

“When I’m on the bike and the adrenaline starts flowing, my leg is alright, so I’m hoping over the race distance that it won’t be too much of a problem,” he said.

“Sitting fifth on the grid, I want to get out with a decent start and tag along with that front group, and try to stay there as long as possible to see how the race develops. A top-five (finish) would be lovely, but anywhere inside the top eight I’d be happy with.”

‘He will arrive’: How good is Jack Miller?

Vastly experienced MotoGP engineer Ramon Aurin says Jack Miller has what it takes to make it to the top of MotoGP. 

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER

How good is Jack Miller really? Is he just another Aussie racing hopeful scratching around in the middle of the MotoGP pack for a few years before fading into obscurity? Or is there a genuine chance the Townsville tyro could join such two-wheel luminaries as Gardner, Doohan and Stoner as riders who’ve emerged from Down Under to stand atop the world? One MotoGP insider thinks he knows the answer.

As chief engineer to Miller at Honda’s Marc VDS MotoGP team, Ramon Aurin has brought a sense of calm and a wealth of experience into the 22-year-old’s garage this season. The bespectacled 52-year-old has worked side-by-side with a veritable who’s who of MotoGP race-winners and world champions including Alex Criville, Loris Capirossi, Max Biaggi, Troy Bayliss, Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden, to name but a few, and joined forces with Miller this year after five seasons alongside perennial MotoGP front-runner Dani Pedrosa. In short, Aurin knows talent – genuine top-line talent – when he sees it.

Riders spend more time with their chief race engineers than anyone else at a race weekend, the engineer providing the technical bridge between rider and bike in the ever-elusive search for the missing tenths of a second that separate the stars from also-rans. And while Aurin’s time with Miller will end at the conclusion of the 2017 season as the Australian moves from Honda to the Pramac Ducati team, the Spaniard has seen enough be able to predict Miller’s future with some certainty.

So how good is Jack Miller really? Aurin is in no doubt.

“In my opinion, I think he will arrive (at the top),” Aurin says emphatically, his stilted English accentuated by his right index finger prodding a nearby table to emphasise his point.

“How long this takes, I don’t know. One year? Two years? It’s not easy to say. But he will arrive. First, he’s super-young still, and will still be young for some years. And he’s fast. He has the speed to get there. The experience? Not yet. The technique? In some areas, no. But he has speed that you cannot teach, so I think Jack can arrive, and be one of the best riders in MotoGP when he does.”

With Miller a factory-contracted rider for Honda Racing Corporation, and because of Aurin’s decade of experience with Honda’s top flight Repsol-backed team that fields Pedrosa alongside reigning MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez, the veteran engineer has access to the telemetry of all three riders to see what Miller is doing right, and wrong. And he says the numbers paint a revealing picture.

“We have the data from Dani, from Marc, and we know where Jack loses time compared to them,” Aurin explains.

“Some riders will lose out to the top riders in braking, acceleration, corner speed … everywhere, basically. The top riders are just a little bit better in everything. But with Jack, it’s easier to see. His acceleration is good, and his braking points, it’s like Marc, as good as Marc, and Marc is a three-times MotoGP champion.

“It’s all corner speed for Jack at the moment, and he’s missing maybe a little bit of confidence in the front tyre to carry the corner speed that the data says he maybe can. But this is experience, and that is why I think he has another step to make. It’s one he can do. It’s not like he’s reached the limit of his potential; he’s nowhere close to this.”

Marquez exploded onto the MotoGP scene in 2013, winning six races and the title as a 20-year-old. The Honda rider’s assault on the record books has barely abated since, winning the championship in 2014 and again last year, and leading this year’s title chase heading into the third-last round at Phillip Island. Aurin laughs when he suggests all rookies before Marquez – and those, like Miller, who have come onto the scene since – are now unfairly judged because of the mercurial Spaniard’s achievements. The career path of Marquez’s chief rival for the 2017 title, 31-year-old Ducati rider Dovizioso, makes for a more realistic blueprint, he argues.

“It’s hard to compare anyone to Marc, because Marc isn’t like other riders, like any rider in history,” Aurin says.

“Every other rider who has come to MotoGP since him, everyone expects them to be rookies and achieve what Marc achieved, or be judged against what Marc achieved. Marc is not normal. But if you look at ‘Dovi’, what he has achieved, and it was constant progression over eight years, 10 years. That is more normal. Now, he wins races, he fight for the championship. Nobody can place a question-mark against him.

“For me, this is like Jack’s first year in MotoGP. He’s so young still, still only 22. In 2015 he was on the Open (second-tier) Honda which was not really a MotoGP bike, and then last year he was always injured, or coming back from an injury. Last year, it was hard for him to learn. Maybe in Moto3 you can ride when you are not fit or carry some injuries, but in MotoGP, if you are even two per cent off physically, you are one second behind, and then you are 15th and nowhere.

“Every rider here is an amazing rider. It’s not only the riders at the front, and then the ones at the back are not so good. The talent, the depth, from first to 20th or the back, is very, very high. But Jack has time and the potential that maybe not every rider has.”

That potential, should it be realised, won’t come with Aurin as Miller’s right-hand man. Next season, with Miller riding the Ducati GP17 that has propelled Dovizioso to within touching distance of the world title – and alongside Pramac’s incumbent rider Danilo Petrucci, who has taken four podium finishes this season in the strongest campaign of his six-year MotoGP career – will reveal the length of the strides Miller has made.

“I think the Ducati will fit him better next year than the Honda,” Petrucci says of Miller.

“With Jack, he has a lot of time because it’s his third year in MotoGP, but he’s very young. But he showed in Moto3 before MotoGP that he’s very strong and has no fear of nothing, so I think the Ducati for him will be the best solution.

“Experience is really important in MotoGP, and he’s getting it. I think he will be faster on the Ducati. Hopefully not faster than me …”

Aurin, who admits he’ll still take a keen interest in Miller’s progression when he becomes a rival, says the signs are good.

“As an engineer he’s easy to work with because he doesn’t think he knows all of the answers, he always wants to learn,” Aurin says.

“He always ask questions and he wants to try your suggestions. Make a suggestion to him about set-up, and he’ll be open to it and he will try. Some riders, maybe they ask for advice and maybe they still go their own way. But Jack knows he is young and doesn’t have the experience of the older riders, the more experienced riders. He’s going about it the right way.”

5 things to watch at the Australian MotoGP

A tense title fight will take centre-stage at Phillip Island, but there’s storylines to follow wherever you look as MotoGP roars onto our shores.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Andrea Dovizioso’s last-lap pass of Marc Marquez to win the Japanese Motorcycle Grand Prix last Sunday at Motegi was, by itself, something special – so special that it’s already in the conversation for best final lap of all-time. But it wasn’t just the Ducati man’s defeat of Honda’s reigning and three-time world champion that gave Australian two-wheel fans something to shout about; the points ‘Dovi’ picked up for downing the modern-day master of MotoGP means Marquez’s lead atop the riders’ standings now sits at just 11 points with three races left.

The next of those races? This weekend at Phillip Island, a special track at any time, but one that’s elevated to an even higher stratosphere when there’s a genuine world title fight on the line.

The Australian GP won’t decide who wins the 2017 world title – the points table is too tight for that – but it will go a long way towards deciding who’ll become world champion as the series moves on to Malaysia before its final stop at Valencia in Spain on November 12.

Can ‘Dovi’ do it again? What does Marquez have left in reserve? Who else can muscle in at the front at this most particular of tracks? And what role will local hopeful Jack Miller, just three weeks after breaking his leg, play at his home GP, one held on a circuit where he’s typically shone?

Here’s our top five storylines to watch ahead of the action at the Island, which kicks off with two free practice sessions on Friday October 20.

1. And then there were two …

That Marquez and Dovizioso come to Australia separated by just the afore-mentioned 11 points is testament to the adage that there’s more than one way to win a title.

Marquez’s approach is one we know well; since 2013, when he won the crown in his rookie year, he’s been routinely on the ragged edge, taking risks few others would contemplate, and coming up with all manner of ways to save what would be certain crashes for others by using his elbows, knees or both.

The Dovizioso of 2017? An entirely different animal. The Italian has always been known as the last of the late brakers, and his pass of Marquez that won him the race in Japan – downhill into the 90-Degree Corner in the pouring rain with tyres that were shot to bits – was something few could have pulled off. But there’s a more aggressive approach to his riding in head-to-head battles this season, and winning bare-knuckle last-lap brawls with Marquez in Japan as well as Austria back in August is something that would have been hard to contemplate before this season.

Like his main rival, Marquez also has five wins in 2017, but his one-lap pace – he has six poles to Dovizioso’s zero – and 10 podiums in 15 races proves means he has a combination of speed and consistency that sets him apart. In the past nine races, Silverstone – when the Spaniard suffered a rarer than rare Honda engine failure – is the only time has hasn’t been on the rostrum. By contrast, Dovizioso has just one DNF (back in round two in Argentina) on his stats sheet, and has finished eighth or better in every race since.

The other wildcard for this weekend is the Island itself, and upon examination of their records in Australia, this round shapes as one where Dovizioso will be relatively content if he doesn’t haemorrhage too many points to Marquez. The Italian’s stats in Australia make for short and not particularly inspiring reading; he has just one podium (2011) here in nine premier-class outings, and admitted last year that Phillip Island was “not one of my favourite circuits because of its characteristics”.

On the other hand, Marquez has visited Australia four times on MotoGP machinery, and should have arguably won all four. In 2013, he was disqualified for failing to pit within the mandatory 10-lap limit to change bikes and tyres imposed on the field for safety reasons after a calamitous miscalculation by his team, while the following year, he was leading comfortably but fell victim to the plummeting track temperatures and crashed after starting from pole. In 2015, he careered away to win from pole, while pole last year ended in pain again when he crashed – again from the lead – at Turn 4 on lap 10. When it comes to pace Down Under, Marquez is indisputably on top.

2. But wait, there’s another two

Between them, Marquez and Dovizioso have won the last seven races of the 2017 season – which makes it somewhat surprising that two other riders step onto the Island this week with their championship chances still alive.

Maverick Vinales must be shaking his head at how his season has unravelled; after five races, the Yamaha new boy had won three Grands Prix to have a handy 17-point championship advantage after Le Mans. He’s not won a race since, has visited the podium just three times, and comes to Australia after a nightmare weekend in Japan, where he had his worst qualifying (14th) and second-worst race result (ninth) of the season.

The Spaniard sits 41 points behind compatriot Marquez, and is hanging on by his fingernails. His record in Australia is good – Vinales finished third on his second premier-class start at the Island last year – but he needs to step up and hope Marquez and Dovizioso stumble if he’s to play much of a part in the riders’ standings after Malaysia.

The other rider in mathematical contention with three races left? Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, but with a 74-point deficit to the top with a maximum of 75 available, it’s time for the diminutive Spaniard to turn his attentions realistically to next year, even if this year is still numerically alive.

3. The odd man out

The fifth of the five riders who broke clear at the top of the standings earlier in the season who we haven’t mentioned? Valentino Rossi, who was officially eliminated from title contention when he crashed out in Japan last weekend. More realistically, ‘The Doctor’s’ chances of the coveted 10th world championship that has eluded him since 2009 were over the moment he broke his right leg in a training accident ahead of Misano, and while he stunned the paddock with a front-row start and fifth-place finish on his return at Aragon after missing just one race, the tricky conditions at Motegi, allied to the Yamaha’s chronic lack of rear grip in colder conditions, proved a bridge too far.

Australia has been one of Rossi’s happier hunting grounds – he’s won here in the premier class six times, most recently and memorably in 2014 – and while the 38-year-old can now turn his attentions to being fully fit for the start of next season, he’ll want to overhaul the two-point deficit to Pedrosa in the standings for fourth place before Valencia is over. Fifth overall – where Rossi sits in the riders’ race with three Grands Prix left – would be his worst Yamaha campaign in 12 seasons.

4. Jack back on

Break your leg in a training accident, miss a race and then get back on the horse – that’s the model Rossi followed for Aragon, and one Miller will emulate this weekend as he rides at home after missing Motegi. The Australian insists he would have ridden this weekend no matter where the race was being held, but the fact it was at Phillip Island would have given him plenty of enthusiasm to attack his rehab over the past fortnight.

This season shapes to be the best of Miller’s three-year MotoGP tenure to date – two more points will see him overhaul last year’s 57-point tally – and his record at home is good, winning at the Island in Moto3 in 2014, and qualifying a premier-class best fifth here a year ago with what might have been his best single lap of the entire year under immense pressure.

The spotlight of riding at home can cause some to wilt, but ‘Jackass’ clearly thrives on the energy of his home fans and the masses of family who sit trackside clad in orange Miller merchandise (keep an eye peeled for Jack to acknowledge them as he rides through Turn 4 at the start of every on-track session).

In his third-last race for the Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS team before heading to Pramac Ducati for 2018, a home top-10 finish is absolutely in play, compromised preparation or not.

5. Don’t discount the defending champ

It’s been a season of few ups and plenty of downs for Miller’s good mate Cal Crutchlow in 2017, the LCR Honda rider enduring his worst campaign in three years. Other than fourth at Silverstone in August, the British rider has just four points to show from Austria to Motegi last weekend, where he managed to crash twice en route to a second-straight DNF.

It sounds like the beginning of an unwanted trend, but don’t expect that to continue at the Island, a circuit where Crutchlow generally thrives. The 2016 Australian race-winner has two of his 13 career podiums in Australia, has qualified on the front two rows for five successive years, and has to be considered a serious threat this weekend despite sitting ninth overall in the standings. A top-three finish would be a surprise, but only a mild one.

Miller Time: I’m ready for the Island

Jack Miller writes about missing Motegi, how he broke his leg, and why he’s right to ride for his home GP next weekend.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Hi everyone,

How long has it been since I watched MotoGP on TV during the day? So long I can’t even remember. It kind of sucks to be watching and not riding, but sitting at home at my parents’ place in Townsville while the race was going on in Japan was just weird. And on a day like that with the weather up there – made me even more frustrated, because I usually go pretty well in those conditions. But there is good news around the corner – Phillip Island is next week, and I’ll be right for it.

The leg is pretty good. Almost 100 per cent, I’d say. I’ve been out on the pushbike three times now since I’ve been home and had some decent-sized rides, so I’m pretty happy with how it’s coming along. I’ve been doing a fair bit of physio to get the swelling out, and the cycling has been good because it’s low impact and working on motion to get the leg back working properly again. I’ve got to get used to carrying some metal around in me for a while, because there’s a plate and eight screws down the side of my right tibia, and they’ll be in there until next Christmas, not the one coming up – they’ll be in there a full year, until the end of 2018. I asked about getting it all out sooner, or as soon as possible, and they advised me not to. So they’ll do a full season with me next year.

The weird thing is, especially when you think what I do for a job, breaking my leg the way I did was such a nothing accident. I was out with Maverick (Vinales), (Alex) Rins and (Fabio) Quartararo doing some trails riding in Andorra and I put my right foot down because the front wheel washed out, like it’s done a million times before, on a grassed slope. As I did that, it jarred my leg and gave me a massive hematoma above the knee, and then below the knee, the tibia just split. I guess when I threw my leg out to save the front, the leg was loose and the muscles weren’t tight, and the bone just cracked. I’ve done way worse before plenty of times, and not even felt a thing. We were the furthest point away from where we started riding that day, so I had to ride back with a broken leg and roll down the hills. It didn’t even hurt, but looking above the top of my knee, I just thought it might be dislocated. So much for that.

I’m not sure what I physically have to do when I get to Phillip Island to be formally passed to race next weekend – I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it – but I’ve got no dramas whatever I have to do. I’ve made massive progress over the last week, and I could go out running right now if I needed to. It’s not just that it’s Australia that I’m ready to get back racing next weekend – wouldn’t matter where it was, I’d be right to ride. A bonus that I get to come back for my home race, of course, but it’s not like I’m only coming back because it’s the Island. I’ll be ready.

The race at Motegi, even though I hated watching it on the couch, was pretty interesting with another last-lap fight between ‘Dovi’ (Andrea Dovizioso) and Marc (Marquez), and with ‘Dovi’ winning the fight again like he did in Austria. It was an incredible finish again, and you have to hand it to ‘Dovi’, he’s definitely riding smart. His tyres were shot, you could see how hard it was for him to get the bike stopped in the downhill 90-degree corner with it aquaplaning, and you knew Marc was going to have a go in the last corner, even though he was so close to that white line in the inside, and anything could have happened there. But good TV for sure, even though I would have preferred to be not be watching the TV …

It’s all about the week ahead now, and getting to the Island in a few days. The pressure and attention and all of that can get to some people with their home race, but this week coming up is my favourite one of the year. I can’t wait to be back down there at the Island – the track is one thing, but the fans, the people, all the faces you know … the atmosphere is my favourite and I miss it every year, and it always seems to go too fast when you’re there. But I love that race so much, so can’t wait to get down there and have a crack at it again. Someone told me the weather was pretty good there on Sunday, which means next Sunday it’ll probably be 11 degrees and pissing down. Hopefully not! But I can’t wait to get back – and I’ll see a fair few of you down there, by the sounds of things.

Cheers, Jack