Jorge Martin had never completed a lap of Phillip Island on a MotoGP bike in qualifying trim before this year, but he stuck his Pramac on pole all the same on Saturday afternoon.
It was the 24-year-old qualifying specialist’s seventh pole since joining the top category, and on Sunday he’ll be aiming to collect just the second win of his premier-class career.
If he pulls it off, he may find himself to have won a race within a race. He’ll lead a resurgent Marc Márquez away from pole, but behind the leading duo is the championship trio aiming to run completely different races.
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Francesco Bagnaia (P3) is just two points off Fabio Quartararo (P5) and needs to worry only about finishing ahead of him. Quartararo in turn needs to focus on squeezing a few extra points out of this race that he might hope will be enough to defend at the two upcoming tracks likely to play less favourably for his bike.
Aleix Espargaró, meanwhile, is sandwiched neatly between them in fourth on the grid and will be playing a different game entirely. He knows he needs to close his 20-point deficit, and there’s only one way to do it.
“I have nothing to lose,” he said. “I will go 100 per cent attack. I have to risk.”
Jack Miller starts behind them in eighth, and the Aussie has a home crowd to satisfy, while Enea Bastianini, also in title contention, will have to recover from 15th to keep his hopes alive.
There’ll be action wherever you look in Australia’s grand return to the calendar.
EYES FIRMLY ON THE PRIZE
Francesco Bagnaia’s advantage on the straight courtesy of his powerful Ducati meant Q2 started with a long train of bikes following him around for the lap, desperate to pick up his slipstream.
At first it backfired spectacularly, with none of the set getting close to a top time.
The second time around, however, it was down Bagnaia and Márquez, and this time the Italian really was on a flyer — and so too, therefore, was his Spanish follower.
Slipstreaming has long been a sticky subject in MotoGP. Some riders detest it, particularly those who can’t seem to keep concentration with the sound of a trailing bike buzzing in their ears, while others see it as fair game and attempt to spin it as a compliment on the lead rider’s pace.
Francesco Bagnaia wasn’t fussed either way in qualifying, not because he didn’t want to start as high up on the grid as he could but because Márquez doesn’t matter to him.
Only one rider mattered to Bagnaia.
“I was knowing that a lot of riders were behind me, but it doesn’t matter, it’s okay,” he said. “My challenge is between me and Fabio (Quartararo), so I’m happy that I’m in front.”
The Italian qualified third ahead of Aleix Espargaró in fourth and Quartararo in fifth.
And there’s a certain irony that Bagnaia managed to qualify at the head of this title-contending trio despite giving a slipstream to his rivals.
Aleix Espargaró, who’s committed to an all-or-nothing weekend to reduce his 20-point championship deficit, had teammate Maverick Viñales deployed to give him a slipstream but found it ultimately hindered what he believed was a pole-worthy lap.
“I gave him a second, and he was not really quick,” Espargaró said. “I caught him too early in the last corner.
“I closed the throttle because if not, we collide. When I closed the throttle, the bike slid so much and we lost a chance at the pole position.
“I think I was a tenth or even more than a tenth ahead of Martin’s lap, so I think I could’ve fought for the pole, but it is what it is.”
Sometimes there’s such a thing as being too clever.
As for Quartararo, the Frenchman never even thought of lining himself up to pick up a rival’s slipstream, believing the risk to his Yamaha’s delicate balance with tyre temperature was too significant for a possible reward.
“For me it’s important to warm up the front tyre, and if you start to go slow waiting for someone, if someone sees you are behind, they will cut [the throttle],” he said. “So you are losing on the lap 10 seconds and then the front tyre is never ready, especially for us — we are struggling to warm it up in one lap.”
With Bagnaia one row now ahead of his title rivals, the way the slipstream played out could make all the difference in the race.
STRATEGIC RACE EXPECTED AROUND EXTREME PHILLIP ISLAND
The Australian Grand Prix is unlikely to play out as any other race. This is an extreme track, and it’s being tipped to produce a very unusual race.
This is a severe track for tyre wear, so much so that Michelin must bring bespoke asymmetric construction just to cope with the demands, particularly on the left-hand side.
The race runs to 27 laps, but really it’ll be a two-part event. The first 20 or so laps will be the management phase of the race. Riders will have to control their pace as they sus out the wear rate of the tyres on full tanks and consider how to spend the grip available to them.
Then we’ll get to the final seven laps, when any one rider’s race will go one of two ways.
The first is that they’ve managed the rubber well and will be able to break away and make some moves up the grid.
The second is that they run out of grip and sink like a stone.
The final seven laps will be decisive. Just ask Jack Miller circa 2017.
“It’s a long race around here,” he said. “I’m not sure if you guys remember when I led the first seven, eight laps of this grand prix like a dickhead and rode off like an absolute idiot.
“I smoked my tyres, and I can tell you they were the longest 10 laps of my life towards the end of that race.”
Miller finished that race a compromised seventh, having sunk like a stone through the pack after trying to back off to save what was left of his soft rubber.
It’s a template of what not to do if you want a real crack at winning the grand prix.
And with Jorge Martin, Fabio Quartararo and Luca Marini starting ahead of him but never having completed a racing lap in MotoGP around Phillip Island, there’s opportunity for cooler heads to prevail.
“A lot of young guys there haven’t raced here, so I think we should be able to use the experience that we’ve had racing here in terms of the tyres,” Miller said.
Given most riders aren’t even sure which of the three equally performing tyre compounds they want to use on Sunday — front or rear — patience will be the name of the game.
MÁRQUEZ LOOKS INCREASINGLY CLOSE TO FIGHTING FIT
The more Márquez protests that he’s not sufficiently fit to be competitive on a MotoGP bike, the more difficult it’s becoming to believe.
Márquez not only topped FP3 earlier on Saturday to guarantee his passage into Q2, but he was serious pole threat — notwithstanding his use of Bagnaia’s slipstream — and missed out on pipping Martin by just 0.013 seconds.
First there was that sensational save early in Q2. It was classic Márquez in every sense. Not only was it an improbable save of an escaping front end that would have put almost any other rider out of the session, but it was the sort of reactivity we’ve barely seen from the champion since he first broke his arm in 2020.
Indeed it was almost identical to a save made mere races before that fateful breakage at the same corner in 2019.
“The good thing is the arm — everything, all the body — reacted in a good way and was exactly the same movement,” Márquez said, comparing the two incidents. “It’s not the best signal, because it means that we are in the limit, but it was nice for the people.”
The limit he’s referring to is his physical fitness, which is now the only thing holding him back considering how much time he’s spent off the bike in the last 30 months.
He’s been extremely keen to emphasise this as a significant weakness, albeit so far without proving it to be a massive problem. He finished fourth and fifth so far in this comeback and even has a wet-weather pole to his name.
Now here he is again starting on the front row at a track he’s three times stepped onto the podium.
Can he win it a fourth time from there?
“We will see,” he said, playing it typically coy, as is the new Márquez way.
“The pace is not bad. Not the best one but not bad.
“We just become closer and closer to the top guys, so this is important.
“It’s a circuit that I like. The target is to try to fight with the top guys — doesn’t matter how, doesn’t matter which riding style, doesn’t matter the way; just try to be there.”
In what’s expected to be a race for experienced, cerebral riders, there’s a growing belief in the paddock that Márquez will indeed be there.
RIDERS CRITICISE DANGEROUS TRACK AFTER SEVERAL WILDLIFE INCURSIONS
While there’s universal happiness among the travelling tour to have Phillip Island back on the calendar, the circuit is not above criticism, and riders have been vocal this season about things that need to chance before the sport returns in 2022.
One is the sheer quantity of wildlife incursions on the track that have caused several red flags.
Two wallabies came close to obliterating themselves on Friday, and several cool-as-you-like geese triggered red flags as they strolled across the track on Saturday.
One of those interruptions even proved decisive to qualifying for Moto2, coming in the final minute of Q2 with several riders on personal-best lap that they were forced to discontinue.
“For me it is unacceptable,” Aleix Espargaró fumed, particularly about his close call with a wallaby on Friday. “It was very dangerous.
“We asked for them to close a little bit better the track … they need to take more care about the animals.
“For the birds you can’t do anything … the birds can happen; the wallabies cannot happen.”
Raising fences and extending taller fences around the circuit perimeter were raised as potential options, but Jack Miller noted that even that may not solve the problem.
“That [wallaby] definitely didn’t just waltz in. I’d say it burrowed in somewhere,” he said. “At the end of the day if you have a track and such an iconic location like this, you’re always going to have an issue in Australia with wildlife.
“What are we going to do exterminate the whole island? I don’t think so.”
But all riders agreed that the track also needs to be resurfaced given the decade-old tarmac has become bumpier and lacked grip.
Espargaró noted that despite the bikes having become significantly quicker in the last 10 years, the circuit’s 2013 track record was broken by only 0.132 seconds in qualifying.
“All the riders love this track, we love this place,” he said. It‘s very, very high adrenaline to ride here, but without any doubt it’s the most dangerous circuit of the calendar.”
He also said that the track needed some asphalt immediately over the white line in some sections to prevent grass and mud from being kicked onto the racing line when riders went off, as happened earlier in the weekend, causing a red flag.
Miller agreed that the surface needed a renovation, noting that it was getting difficult to go offline.
Again Moto2 suffered worst for the issue, with several enormous crashes stemming from riders straying off the racing line, particularly at turn 1.
Smokiat Chantra suffered a massive crash on Friday and reported back pain on Saturday, putting him in doubt for the race subject to medial review before the warm-up.
“I think she’s been on there for about 10 years now and she’s starting to get pretty used,” Miller said. “As soon as you go off — if you’ve seen anybody go wide at turn 1 or turn 8, they’ve managed to hit the deck. It’s at that point now she’s due for a freshen up.”