Talk about errant timing: a ‘rain bomb’ is now hitting Victoria on the eve of the much-anticipated return of the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix to the magnificent Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit.
The bulk of the precipitation will pass by the start of practice on Friday, but the off-track logistical challenges will be enormous with such a saturated outfield and adjoining paddocks. I’m thinking a music festival-type mud fest… Could be fun to watch!
However, the centre of attraction will be the classic 4.448km piece of tarmac, all cherry ripe to welcome back the world’s best motorcycle racers for the first time since 2019.
A lot has changed in three long years, and one stat from the premier class reflects that: 10 of the riders have never ridden a MotoGP bike around Phillip Island, including Aussie Remy Gardner, Enea Bastianini, Jorge Martin, Brad Binder and Alex Marquez.
Standby for some steep learning curves, but no such familiarisation concerns for the likes of Jack Miller, Marc Marquez, Fabio Quartararo, Johann Zarco, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Vinales who’ll hit the ground running as the battle for championship honours continues.
Intrigue at every level, so let’s look at the riders likely to be battling at the pointy end in MotoGP, as well as those who could spring a Sunday surprise. We’ll also look at the Aussie talent and finish up with some OZ GP fast facts.
Who are the MotoGP favourites?
Jack Miller (Lenovo Ducati): What a second half of the year for Thriller! He’s had a pole position, is back on the winner’s list, is a regular on the podium – and even managed to sneak in a wedding between the Thai and Aussie MotoGP rounds. Quite the body of work, and with his factory Ducati humming he’s capable of winning in front of a partisan home crowd and keeping his faint title hopes alive.
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Fabio Quartararo (Monster Energy Yamaha): The Frenchman has sublime gifts – linguistically with his multi-language portfolio and on the factory Yamaha. The reigning world champion dominated the first half of the season but since then it’s been a jittery affair, with a lowly finish in the last Thai round ramping up the pressure another notch. He’s too good to remain subdued for much longer, and is fast around the Island.
Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda): One of only three Phillip Island MotoGP winners in this weekend’s field, Marquez is on the comeback trail from yet another operation on his troublesome right arm. The Honda has its foibles, too, but we’re talking about one of the all-time greats who’s capable of pyrotechnics that mere mortals just can’t deliver. And he loves circuits with a left-hand bias, so he cannot be discounted.
Francesco Bagnaia (Lenovo Ducati): In 2019, Bagnaia came home with a wet sail to finish fourth at Phillip Island – the best result in his rookie MotoGP campaign. He’s now returned much wiser, faster and on the best bike on the grid, and only two points behind Quartararo in the title race. If that’s not motivation to perform than nothing else is, and a seventh win of the season is well within reach.
Enea Bastianini: In 2019 he finished well back in the Phillip Island Moto2 race, and now he’s in the MotoGP top brass – with a factory Ducati contract in 2023 all locked in. The 24-year-old is not intimidated by anyone and also plays it smart – which is required at Phillip Island where tyre management is a critical part of the equation. Mind you, he’ll still have to qualify well to give himself a chance.
Who are the MotoGP dark horses?
Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing): He’s been around for donkey’s years, and provides a salutary lesson in never giving up hope. With a vastly improved Aprilia in his kit bag, he won his first MotoGP race in 2022, made a goose of himself when he started celebrating a certain second place early in another, but generally has put himself in the mix and stopped the previous crashing rot. He can certainly push for a podium.
Jorge Martin (Pramac Ducati): The Spaniard has had an up and down season, but multiple podiums prove he is one of the leading lights. He’s spent the last week surfing and relaxing in Bali, so he’ll arrive at Phillip Island refreshed and ready to rock – but with the Bali board shorts probably jettisoned for something a little warmer. Martin finished second behind Brad Binder in a classic Moto2 duel at Phillip Island in 2019.
Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM): The amiable South African has a new nickname in 2022: the ‘Sunday Specialist’. And with good reason: he normally travels under the radar in practice and qualifying before parachuting himself into contention on Sunday. That’s why he’s sixth in the title, just behind Miller – his new teammate at KTM in 2023. He’s won three times at Phillip Island in Moto2 and Moto2, so one to watch.
Johann Zarco (Pramac Ducati): Fresh from banging out a beautiful love song at Jack Miller’s wedding (in English…), as well as borrowing Jack’s bike for a pedal on what looked like a dreadfully boring piece of Queensland road, Zarco continues his 2022 campaign which has seen four podiums but the same amount of crashes. His pace is rarely questioned, though, and the Ducati is lightning fast. Don’t bet against him.
Maverick Vinales: Marquez excluded, this man is the fastest MotoGP rider around Phillip Island. He easily won in 2018, and then binned it on the last lap in 2019 while trying to line up Marquez for a late pass. That’s enough solid pedigree for us, and there’s no reason why the factory Aprilia can’t take him to the same heady heights. Even if he doesn’t win, he could take valuable points off the title contenders.
The other Aussie hometown heroes
Remy Gardner (Tech 3 KTM): A bittersweet homecoming for the embattled Gardner, who could be very well making his first and last appearance in the MotoGP ranks at Phillip Island after KTM chose to let him go after just one year in the premier class. It’s been a grind all year, with Moto2 riders who he regularly pushed aside in 2021 now turning the tide on him in 2022. A bitter pill to swallow, but as usual he’ll give it his all.
Joel Kelso (CIP KTM, Moto3): It’s been a while since an Aussie has been a full-timer in the Moto3 category – Jack Miller in 2014 to be precise – so it’s been intriguing to watch Joel Kelso in 2022. It’s also made for some wincing moments, too, with the teenager involved in a few bone-jarring crashes: a mix of self-inflicted and others as collateral damage. At his best Kelso can run with the leaders, and who knows after that?
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Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix fast facts!
- Most wins: Casey Stoner, six
- Second most wins: Valentino Rossi, five
- Third most wins: Marc Marquez and Mick Doohan, three
- First Oz GP winner: Wayne Gardner, 1989
- Most manufacturer MotoGP wins: Honda, 17
- Current Phillip Island MotoGP lap record: Jorge Lorenzo, 1m27.899s at an average speed of 182.1km/h
- Inaugural MotoGP lap record in 1989: Pierfrancesco Chili, 1m35.28s at an average speed of 168.131km/h
- The Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix was held at Sydney Motorsport Park (nee Eastern Creek) from 1991 to 1996. The last one was as doozy, as Alex Criville took out his teammate Doohan on the last lap when a desperate lunge put them both in the kitty litter.
- In 2002, Irishman Jeremy McWilliams scored the last ever pole position for a two-stroke 500cc machine in the premier class before the domination of four-strokes became complete.
- In 2003, Rossi overcame a 10-second penalty to win by 15 seconds.
Other Aussies to finish on a MotoGP podium are Daryl Beattie (1995) and Chris Vermeulen (2006), both riding Suzukis.
- In 1998, a name that most MotoGP pundits will know, current pitlane reporter Simon Crafar, finished second behind Doohan – the day the Aussie champ collected his fifth straight world title. It would be the last time Doohan competed at Phillip Island.
Mark ‘Mav’ Fattore has been hanging around the motorcycle scene longer than he can remember, but still struggles to contain his two-wheel exuberance. He also eats like a bull-at-a-gate, which is why he once swallowed the prong off a plastic fork stuffing down Chinese takeaway during a frenetic magazine deadline. The digital space is a safer haven, and he’ll turn his writing hand to anything.