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.
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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.