Marc Marquez

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.

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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.”

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.

The MotoGP mid-term report

Who has flown, who has flopped, and who has plenty to do at the halfway mark of the 2017 MotoGP season?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It was never going to be easy for MotoGP 2017 to out-do the season that preceded it; after all, nine different winners, four first-time victors and too many memorable races to list makes 2016 hard to top. But so far, ’17 has upheld its part of the bargain, and as the campaign takes a month-long pause for the mid-season break, it could be argued that this year is even more gripping than last.

With nine races down and nine races to go, we’ve already had five different riders wins Grands Prix, 10 different men stand on the podium, and four riders – Marc Marquez, Maverick Vinales, Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi – separated by just 10 points at the head of the table.

Undoubtedly the biggest winners of 2017 so far? The fans. But with ‘school’ out for the summer break before the Czech Republic Grand Prix signals the resumption of term on August 6, picking winners and losers from the 27 riders to have started a race this season isn’t as clear-cut. Which is where our annual mid-season report card comes in. Release the grades …

Dux of the class
When we ran the rule over the two-wheel field this time last year, Marc Marquez was a runaway winner in this category, going to the summer break with a 48-point lead – nearly two race wins – with nine down and nine to go. While the reigning and three-time MotoGP champ heads our class report so far this year, his lead over second-placed Vinales – just five points – is next to nothing, and he’s led the championship precisely once, after taking his second victory of 2017 last time out in Germany. But dig through the numbers, and it’s hard to argue Marquez isn’t the man of the year so far.

Out of the front-running four we mentioned earlier, the Repsol Honda rider is by far the best qualifier – he has six front-row starts in nine races and an average qualifying position of 2.7 (Vinales is next-best at 5.1), while five podiums sees him equal with teammate Dani Pedrosa for the most on the grid. Two costly DNFs – particularly when he was leading in Argentina – are negatives, but his wins in Austin (for the fifth year in a row) and the Sachsenring (for a remarkable eighth-straight time going back to his time in the feeder classes) show that when he’s on it, Marquez remains the benchmark, particularly as it could be argued that he’s on the worst bike of the top four.

Vinales started his Yamaha tenure like a train but has struggled more recently, averaging a fourth-row start in the last three races before the break, and recording just one podium in the past four races after winning three of the opening five. Dovizioso’s back-to-back wins at Mugello and Catalunya were all class, and he’s made Ducati look more convincing as a front-running bike than anyone since the Casey Stoner era. And Rossi, all of 38 years young, wound back the clock with a brilliant win in very difficult conditions at Assen for his first triumph in over 12 months. But to our mind, Marquez stands alone here.

Bizarrely, Marquez and Vinales haven’t been on the same podium together yet despite being first and second in the championship and separated by such a miniscule margin. You figure that when they meet on track in the final nine races – and they surely will – fireworks will ensue.

Encouragement award
Rossi and Dovizioso have cause to be considered here too for reasons we’ve already mentioned, but it’s impossible to split Tech 3 Yamaha’s duo of crack rookies, Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger.

Zarco has hogged the majority of the headlines, as he should have after leading in Qatar on debut and snagging a sublime pole at Assen, and the two-time Moto2 champion has shown absolutely no hesitation in ruffling the feathers of the MotoGP top-liners, which has to be commended. Folger, while going about his business more subtly, loses little by comparison, and rounded out a strong first half with his best performance of the season at home in Germany, where he made Sachsenring master Marquez sweat for most of the 30-lap distance before the Repsol Honda man (inevitably) stretched away.

Thanks to Zarco and Folger, Tech 3 has arguably been the star team of the season – last year, with experienced pair Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith on board, the French team had scored 107 points at the season recess; this season, its rookie duo have managed 155 to both sit inside the top seven in the standings.

A gold star here must go to Pramac Ducati’s Danilo Petrucci, who managed three front-row starts in a row before the break, and came within inches of a breakthrough first win before being denied at the line by good friend Rossi at Assen. Two podiums already for the Italian has doubled his tally from his first five MotoGP seasons combined.

Could do better
We could say Scott Redding here, who, while admittedly on an inferior machine to teammate Petrucci, has struggled this season and looks set to lose his ride for 2018, We could equally vouch for Redding’s compatriot Sam Lowes, who has endured a wretched run of luck with his Aprilia but hasn’t been particularly quick when the bike has actually worked, and has managed two points – the worst of any full-time rider in the series – so far.

But no, we’ll opt for Jorge Lorenzo, who has found the switch to Ducati to be more problematic than even he would have feared. One podium total (a third at Jerez) looks pretty underwhelming for the three-time champion compared to two wins for teammate Dovizioso, and while both riders have finished eight of the nine races, the Italian has come close to doubling the Spaniard’s points tally (123-65).

Having to re-train his brain to remember he’s not riding a Yamaha after nine seasons was always going to take time for Lorenzo, and he’ll be hoping for fine weather for the rest of the season after his wet-weather demons resurfaced again at Assen, where he laboured to the worst qualifying result of his MotoGP career in 21st, and his worst effort on a Saturday since his 125cc days 14 years ago (Jerez 2003). Things will get surely better for Ducati’s star signing, but they need to, and fast.

Needs a strong second semester
It may seem harsh to have Jack Miller in this spot, but when you come into the final year of a three-year contract with HRC with a MotoGP race win under your belt, expectations were always going to be raised in 2017. The Australian has largely delivered – he has one championship point fewer at the mid-year break this season compared to last after the unexpected Assen success in 2016 – but with all sorts of rumours swirling about his future as the paddock packed up in Germany, he needs more, and he knows it.

“I would have liked to have been inside the top 10 in the standings, but we’ve had a couple of little mistakes here and there that cost us,” Miller said about the season’s first half.

“We’ve shown we’ve really improved this year, and I’m looking forward to making another, let’s say 60 points, in the rest of the season. That’d be nice.”

Reaching the ton for the season – and getting to the end of it in decent physical shape after an injury-ravaged conclusion to 2016 – would be a pass mark for the Aussie before he gets set for his next adventure in ’17.

Extra detention
We’re not picking on Andrea Iannone despite having him in this same category this time last year, but a change of hue from red to blue has done little to change our mind about the maddeningly inconsistent but very rapid Italian. It’s been a tough campaign for Suzuki after losing Vinales and Aleix Espargaro last year, and while Alex Rins’ rookie campaign has barely got started after breaking his left wrist in practice at Austin and missing five races, Iannone has been the blue team’s ever-present, yet has been close to invisible for much of the year.

He’s managed just 28 points in nine races, has failed to finish three times, and has made Q2 just once in the past five races. Former Suzuki legend Kevin Schwantz, speaking to Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport in Germany, let Iannone have it.

“I know by experience that if things are wrong, there is only one thing to do; get out there and work – and try,” the 1993 500cc champion said.

“You have to do more than all the others to try to recover. Iannone is lost, because it seems like he wants the Suzuki to behave like the Ducati. But this bike will never be a Ducati. He should try to take advantage of its strengths.

“Speaking to him, it seems that the bike has no strengths. I don’t understand Italian, but his body language is as bad as it can be.”

What MotoGP testing told us about 2017

A champion will need to dig deep, Qatar might not be a sign of what’s to come, and a rider of the future is ready to win now.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Valencia, Sepang, Phillip Island and Losail – you couldn’t get four more different venues for MotoGP pre-season testing ahead of the 2017 campaign, and while there were some similarities to what happened at that quartet of tracks, we’re set to head into the season-opener in Qatar in less than a fortnight with plenty of unanswered questions about the world’s premier two-wheel road-racing category – which, for us fans, is a good thing.

Can a Yamaha newcomer really upstage his vastly more experienced teammate? Can Ducati take the fight to the rest at every track, not just those that feature straights akin to freeways? Who can topple Honda? And can the other three factories in MotoGP this season – Aprilia, Suzuki and KTM – occasionally muscle in on the trio who have typically been at the front in recent times?

The final three-day test for the off-season wrapped up in Qatar last weekend; here’s what we learned before the lights go out on the 2017 season at the same venue on March 26.

Qatar might not tell us much …
Holding the final test of the off-season at the same venue where the real thing starts less than a fortnight later is practical from a freight and logistics point of view, but perhaps not the best preparation. The Qatar GP is a night event, while testing runs from 4-11pm local time. The baking heat of the desert means track temperatures until the sun goes down bear no relevance to what the riders will experience on race weekend, while the desert dew that settles on the circuit surface after 10pm soon turns the track into an ice rink, with riders electing to stay in the garage rather than inexplicably crashing at a corner that was gripped up a lap earlier. About half the day – at best – is useful for the riders and teams.

It’s not just the conditions at the Qatar test that aren’t representative of what’s to come. The 5.3km Losail circuit features a mammoth 1.1km start-finish straight, where the bikes can nudge 350km/h – which is great news if you’re riding a Ducati. The top seven riders on the timesheet at the end of the test? One Honda, two Yamahas, and four on Ducatis. A sign of what might happen for the first race of the season? Definitely. A pecking order translatable to the other 17 circuits on the calendar? Not so much

… except for the man at the front
Tight and twisty Valencia, the sweeps of Sepang, the high-speed balls-out Phillip Island and the desert dragstrip of Qatar; whatever the weather, track conditions or other variables this off-season, Maverick Vinales has been the benchmark. Coming across from Suzuki to the factory Yamaha squad as Valentino Rossi’s teammate, Vinales could barely have been more impressive through testing, the Spaniard topping the timesheets at all four. From one-lap qualifying simulations to long race-length runs, ‘The Mack’ seems to have everything covered. He’s so confident – and rightly so – that he didn’t even bother playing the usual pre-season game of hosing down expectations, Vinales admitting his pace was “incredible” after night three in Qatar. He later stopped short of assuming outright favouritism for the 2017 crown – “there are many riders who can be the favourite for the championship, at least the ones from Ducati, from Yamaha, from Honda can be the champions” – but after an off-season that couldn’t have gone better, expect Vinales to add to his sole MotoGP success to date (at last year’s British Grand Prix) sooner rather than later.

It’s not easy to know who’s fast
The final day of pre-season testing, especially given the location, is usually a chance for fans (and the other teams) to gauge the race pace of the various bikes and riders over distances closer to the 22-lap/118.4km race length for the opening Grand Prix of the year. The problem this time? Not all of the theoretical front-runners showed their hand.

The list of 11 riders who never completed 10 or more laps in a row on the final day featured reigning world champion Marc Marquez, his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa, Rossi, the Italian’s former teammate and now Ducati top dog Jorge Lorenzo, and Suzuki newcomer Andrea Iannone, all podium finishers from Grands Prix in 2016 who would be expected to be near the front again this season. Of those who did manage a race simulation, Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso (a 14-lap run that averaged 1min 55.666secs) was fastest, but Vinales’ 20-lap run was just 0.035secs slower on average – and featured three ‘slow’ laps where the Spaniard held back to avoid encountering slower traffic.

How do the likes of Marquez, Pedrosa, Rossi and Lorenzo compare to that? We’ll have to wait until next weekend to find out.

The aero war takes a new turn
With winglets banned in MotoGP this season, you knew the teams would come up with some innovative aerodynamic solutions to recapture the downforce the wings of 2016 provided – and Ducati took things to a new extreme on the second day of the test when it unveiled a bulbous front fairing on Dovizioso’s bike that was quickly christened the ‘hammerhead’. Paddock reaction, as you might have guessed, ranged from intrigued to horrified to amused …

Dovizioso said the downforce generated by the new fairing was “not the same, but very close” to the winglets pioneered by Ducati over the past few seasons. Whether it will be raced in Qatar and from then on remains to be seen. Regardless, you can bet fans will be talking about it between now and then.

What’s the form guide?
Vinales is indisputably quick, and justifiably confident. And according to Dovizioso, he’s a clear championship favourite. “I think at this point Vinales is really fast in every condition, which is really bad for us and everybody else,” the Italian said after the second night in Qatar. “Anything can happen during the championship and last year with Marc, it showed the reality. But in this moment, 100 per cent for everything – his talent, he is young and the bike he has.”

Marquez fell three times on the final day, never completed a race simulation run and was just 11th on the overall timesheets, but downplaying the championship chances of a rider who has won three titles in four MotoGP seasons would be foolish. Pedrosa was the more convincing of the factory Honda riders at Losail, but is he really ready to shed the ‘nearly-man’ tag that has come with more than a decade in MotoGP without winning the crown? What about Ducati and Lorenzo? For all the Spaniard’s talent and the team’s ambition, not yet.

Which leaves Rossi, who always races better than he tests and even qualifies. Beating Vinales in Qatar looks a bridge too far, but if the new-for-2017 Yamaha is really as good as the Spaniard has shown so far, expect ‘The Doctor’ to haul himself into the championship fight with a rider 16 years his junior, and perhaps one or two others.

Lessons learned from the Australian MotoGP test

A Spanish rivalry hots up, an Aussie makes big strides, and ‘The Doctor’ is behind the eight ball.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Three down, one to go: three-quarters of MotoGP pre-season testing for 2017 is in the books after last week’s three-day hit-out at Phillip Island, and with only a pre-Qatar blast to come before the season starts at the Losail Circuit in late March, we now have a clearer picture of who’s on song – and who has plenty to ponder in the next five weeks.

As he did in Valencia at the end of 2016 and Malaysia in January, Maverick Vinales set the benchmark time across three days at the Victorian coastal circuit, but assessing testing is rarely as simple as going by what the stopwatch tells you. Several riders made striking progress as the Island test rolled on, while others headed back to Europe knowing they’re not yet on the pace, and – worryingly for some – not exactly knowing why either.

Here’s what we learned after the Australian test, which was (for Phillip Island standards) blessed by unusually stable and sunny weather, not something we often see in October when the MotoGP roadshow returns for the race proper.

1. Vinales is fastest, but Marquez is the front-runner

Vinales has made quite the impression at Yamaha since coming across from Suzuki, and his day three time of 1min 28.549secs (considerably faster than pole position at the Island last October, incidentally) showed how quickly he’s meshed with his new machine. Impressive, sure – but what might have been more ominous for the rest was what Marc Marquez was able to do on the Repsol Honda, particularly on day two when teammate Dani Pedrosa battled illness and didn’t ride a lot. Marquez did a mammoth 107 laps (“my hands are destroyed,” was his rueful comment afterwards), and 44 of those were beneath 90 seconds – a fearsomely consistent pace that put the others in the shade. Replicate that over 27 laps in October’s race here, and he’ll win by a country mile. The reigning and three-time world champion was second on the overall timesheets at the end of the test, but fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow knew better than to read too much into that. “Marc showed his hand a little bit,” the matter-of-fact Brit said, “but he has some (time) in his pocket, trust me.”

2. The niggle between Vinales and Marquez is real

An on-track moment inside the final two hours of the test on Friday suggested that Marquez sees Vinales – not Vinales’ Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi or Ducati defector Jorge Lorenzo – as his main impediment to achieving four MotoGP titles in five years by the end of this season. With Vinales on a long race simulation run, Marquez emerged from the Phillip Island pits and shadowed his Spanish compatriot around the track for a few laps before Vinales pitted to shake him loose.

Coincidence, or not? Was Marquez trying to unsettle Vinales? The champ protested his innocence, as he might. “There was some gap, but I was able to recover this gap. Then I followed him two laps and it was interesting to see a different bike,” Marquez said afterwards. Vinales was a little more expansive. “The track is four kilometres – strange that he was there, where I was,” he mused. “It’s not normal. You are doing your race simulation. Someone pulls out … you cannot stop. After five laps that he was behind, finally I needed to abort the race simulation.” Watch this space with these two.

3. Phillip Island is a particular track

As a racing venue, the Island – with its succession of sweeping corners and stunning scenery – is one of the best on the calendar. As a testing venue that teams can learn from to tweak their bikes to most tracks? Not so much. There’s nowhere quite like the Australian circuit elsewhere across the 17 other Grands Prix venues, and with only two slow corners of note and an abrasive track surface that tortures the tyres (the hottest tyre temperatures all year are recorded through the final two turns of the track, the never-ending left-handers that lead the bikes back onto the start-finish straight), there’s not a lot you can learn in Australia that applies elsewhere. Honda often struggles with traction out of slow-speed corners, so to see three of them in the top five on the timesheets and four inside the top nine was no surprise given Phillip Island’s characteristics. Will that be replicated at the stop-start Losail layout in a month’s time? Doubtful.

4. Miller’s pace is genuine

The fourth of those Hondas inside the top nine was Jack Miller’s Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS entry, and the Australian could barely contain his enthusiasm after a three-day test where he carried the team’s workload by himself with Tito Rabat back in Europe recovering from injuries sustained at Sepang last month.

Miller was clean, didn’t fall once, was inside the top 10 on all three days and completed over 80 laps – more than three Grand Prix distances – on each day. “For the first time in a long time I feel like I’m in charge of the bike and not the other way round,” Miller joked on Friday, and he’s clearly benefitting from the work done behind the scenes with vastly experienced Spanish engineer Ramon Aurin, who teams up with the Aussie for the first time this season. After a solid showing in the Malaysia test, Australia was another step in the right direction for Miller, who is in arguably the best physical shape of his career as he starts a crucial contract year in 2017.

5. Should Rossi fans be concerned?

‘The Doctor’ celebrated his 38th birthday on day two of the test, and the celebratory cake might have been the best things got over three difficult days Down Under. He was under the weather for much of the test away from the bike, and when he was on it, things weren’t a lot better, according to the man himself. Yes, it’s ‘only’ testing, but 12th on the overall timesheets was cause for consternation. “I think the bike has good aspects, especially the engine, but for sure this test was more difficult for me than the one in Sepang, ” Rossi said after the final day. “I’m not very happy, and we need to try to do better.”

What we learned from the Malaysian MotoGP test

An old champion still has what it takes, while a young pretender makes a big statement at Sepang.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

The 2017 MotoGP season kicked off in earnest this week with the first of three pre-season tests taking place at the Sepang circuit in Kuala Lumpur, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix in October this year. That’ll be the penultimate race of the 2017 campaign, but what did this first test tell us about what might happen between now and then?

One thing we know for sure is that Malaysia’s weather, like gravity and Father Time, remains undefeated. Three days of testing in summer means three days of rain, and with the re-surfaced Sepang circuit taking an age to dry in the constant humidity, track time was at a premium, meaning every lap counted.

Here’s five things we learned after three days of the 2017 pre-season, with familiar faces in new places, some surprises towards the top of the timesheets, and one rider in particular who makes us wonder what might have been …

1. The Mack is on full attack
Anyone who thought Maverick Vinales might take a while to play himself in at Yamaha as Valentino Rossi’s teammate after coming across from Suzuki can think again. Yes, it’s pre-season testing and timesheets need to be digested with some caution, but ‘The Mack’ was fastest on the third and final day, quickest of all across the three days, and left KL with a smile on his dial. “At the moment it is difficult to say which aspect of the bike surprised me most,” Vinales said, and when you factor in his comments that Yamaha was more focused on race pace than nailing the optimum lap time, that’s a scary proposition for the rest. Testing pace at Sepang isn’t the be all and end all – Yamaha aced testing there last year only for Honda to win the championship with Marc Marquez, and Honda were the heroes of Malaysia a year earlier before Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo took that year’s crown. But as starts to new jobs go, Vinales could hardly have wished for better.

2. The Maniac is crazy fast
Andrea Iannone’s self-appointed nickname has always been entirely appropriate – Ducati bosses still shake their heads at the memory of the Italian taking himself and teammate Andrea Dovizioso out of podium places on the final lap of last year’s Argentina GP – but has a switch to Suzuki blue done the unthinkable and matured Ianonne without stifling his speed? Second only to Vinales on the overall timesheets, Iannone looked right at home on the GSX-RR, save for a third-day fall that left him further down the timesheets than he should have been. The smooth-handling Suzuki may not have the same straight-line grunt Iannone was accustomed to from Ducati for the past four years, but he’s very quickly found a sweet spot with his new mount.

3. Winglets by any other name
The winglets that characterised the 2016 MotoGP machines were banned at the end of last season, but you just knew the major factories would come up with something to replicate the downforce the unsightly appendages produced last year for this one. Yamaha turned heads on the second day in Malaysia with a series of vanes contained within a second external fairing skin to control air flow. It’s a neat solution to what became an ugly addition to MotoGP bikes last year, and we can expect plenty of other factories to show their aerodynamic hands at the final two tests at Phillip Island and Losail ahead of the March 26 season-opener in Qatar.

4. Stoner is still an enigma
There were several test riders in action for the factory teams in Sepang, but none had the profile of two-time MotoGP world champion Casey Stoner, as the Australian turned laps for Ducati. And turned them quickly too, topping the timesheets after the first day while shaking down Ducati’s 2017 machine for regular riders Dovizioso and high-profile signing Lorenzo, who started slowly but finished the test ninth-fastest overall. “He’s very fast, yes. It’s very good that he don’t race,” grinned old rival Rossi, and for Stoner, being a test rider is the perfect gig – he gets to ride the latest-spec MotoGP machinery, test whether he’s still got it (and he has), and not have to talk to the press afterwards, always a pet hate. Asked in one of his rare media meetings whether he had any plans to race this year, the 31-year-old was blunt. “No,” came the answer, before a more thorough response. “People said I was retiring just because I’d lost my speed, and that wasn’t the truth,” he continued. “I didn’t retire because I wasn’t fast enough. I’m not interested in going back to racing. I see you all for short periods, and we get to enjoy each other’s company, and then I get to go home, so it’s great.” Sigh if you wish he was on the grid with Rossi, Vinales, Marquez, Lorenzo and the rest in ’17 …

5. Bautista, Zarco turn heads
Behind the headlines made by the factory teams and the ‘Aliens’ who hog the limelight came two very noteworthy performances by a category veteran and a MotoGP newbie. Alvaro Bautista was sixth overall and the fastest satellite rider on the Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati, and the 32-year-old, who has previously ridden for Aprilia, Honda and Suzuki in the premier class, trailed only Dovizioso (third) of the Ducati riders on the combined timesheets. At the other end of the MotoGP experience scale, two-time Moto2 champion Johann Zarco got plenty of laps in when the circuit was its wettest on the opening day, and the confidence gleaned from that paid dividends in the dry, the Frenchman ending up as the fastest rookie in 10th overall and a lap time inside the magical 120-second barrier at Sepang (1m 59.772secs).