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.”