The sun was bright, the wind was gusty and the rain was intermittent. It was a classic springtime day on Phillip Island when the MotoGP bikes rolled out of their garages for the first time in three seasons to get first practice underway.
The home crowd, mercifully dry but surely ankle-deep in mud that had overtaken the fields surrounding the rural circuit, were treated to a morning of Aussies doing strongly, teasing a potentially sensational Sunday.
But by the afternoon moods had tempered a little as the competitive picture changed again. Jack Miller in particular struggled, dropping from second to 13th — and, crucially, outside of Q2 qualifying — by the time the day drew to a close.
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His teammate, Francesco Bagnaia, also struggled as the factory Ducati team struggled to find the right set-up for the unique demands of this circuit.
But there was hope of a sort. The two fastest bikes were both satellite Ducati machines, with Johann Zarco controlling both sessions. And the factory teams has rarely been the quickest out of the blocks, excelling instead over the course of the full weekend.
Will it be the same again around the demanding, gusty and unpredictable Phillip Island, or will Saturday see another shift in momentum?
WHERE DID ALL THE DUCATI PACE GO?
Having sizzled near the top of the time sheet on Friday morning — he would’ve been outright fastest had he not encountered traffic on his final flyer — Jack Miller slumped to 13th in the combined times at the end of FP2, giving himself a mountain of work to do on Saturday if he wants direct Q2 qualification.
Most of Miller’s time was lost in the final split, where he’d been fastest during FP1.
Things were better for Francesco Bagnaia, who at least is provisionally through to Q2 as it stands, but he was a lukewarm eighth.
Miller said the issue was principally one of set-up, which is a unique challenge around this fast track.
“Not the most ideal first day, but I’ve had worse, that’s for certain.
“This arvo I had a little issue with the rear. The thing kept squatting, and around here, especially with the wind that was blowing, I just couldn‘t get the front loaded in a lot of these fast corners.
“I just wasn’t able to really push or put a lap together.”
It was a problem particularly out of the last corner, where keeping the front down is always a key challenge.
“You’ve got to try to set the bike almost completely differently to any other track around because there are so many corners that you‘re entering without loading it with the brakes,” he said.
“We‘ve got some ideas of what we need to change for tomorrow, but it’s just one of those things with Phillip Island.”
There’s clearly performance to be found in the Desmosedici, with Zarco topping both sessions for Pramac and being backed up by Marco Bezzecchi for VR46 in the afternoon, the Italian coming fresh off his maiden pole in Thailand two weeks ago.
But whereas they improved by a second and 1.6 seconds respectively, Miller found only 0.4s between sessions. Bagnaia’s 1.2-second improvement was down to an average morning session rather than a spectacular afternoon.
The factory Ducati riders were the only ones to use the soft front and rear for their qualifying simulations, with the vast majority of the field used the medium-soft combination for their final stints, including the two leading satellite riders.
Whatever the reason for the lack of performance, the concern for Miller in particular is that FP3 conditions tomorrow morning will be cold at a circuit around which maintaining tyre temperature for a hot lap is already a serious challenge, potentially scuppering his final chance to move into the top 10 on the combined time sheet and qualify directly for the pole shootout.
He was optimistic that he could make the difference on Saturday morning.
“I feel good,” Miller said, “I have no issue with what we can do with the bike. I’ve got a decent plan for tomorrow.
“Just hoping the weather stays decent enough for us in the morning to try to have another time attack.
“But around Phillip Island, we’re 0.5 off and we’re 13th. It’s the way it goes. But we’ll be right. We’ll get it sorted for tomorrow.”
NEW YEAR, SAME OLD BIKES IN THE TOP 10
Zarco was the undoubted leader of the day, but despite the Ducati one-two result, most of the rest of the manufacturer logos occupying the top 10 were very familiar to racegoers at Phillip Island.
It’s been more than a decade since a bike other than a Yamaha or a Honda has won the Australian Grand Prix, and despite a fairly ordinary season for Honda in particular, both bikes, along with Aprilia, were well represented on the top half of the time sheet.
Pol Espargaró was just 0.05 seconds off the pace and ahead of Fabio Quartararo, who was less than 0.1 seconds further back.
The Aprilia riders followed, with Maverick Viñales split from Aleix Espargaró by Marc Márquez, the three-time Australian Grand Prix winner.
Honda has won six of the last nine races at Phillip Island, half via Márquez, but wasn’t anticipating a strong showing given it was using practice to experiment with updates aimed at 2023. It was spotted running Ducati-style ‘stegosaurus’ aero in FP1, though it reverted to a more conventional package for FP2.
“The 2022 Honda is a Honda that makes me a bit confused, because sometimes I will expect we will struggle a lot and then for some reason we go better,” Márquez said ahead of practice. “Theoretically here we will be struggling a bit [here], but in another part it’s one of my favourite tracks, so we will see.”
Yamaha has always pegged this circuit as having the potential to pay big points given its emphasis on corner speed rather than horsepower, playing to the M1’s strengths and hiding some of its weaknesses. But considering how hard Quartararo appeared to be pushing, particularly early in FP2, he may still be mildly concerned to see two Ducati bikes still ahead.
Finally, Aprilia anticipates a good showing given the dearth of big braking zones at this circuit. It’s been one of the RS-GP’s few major weaknesses this season, so the high average speed here will play to the bike’s preferences.
Will these old Phillip Island favourites be able to keep up the pace for qualifying? If they can, it might just take a bit of the win from Bagnaia’s sales just as he seemed to be lining up knockout punch.
ENEA BASTIANINI TAKES NEW SPEED RECORD
After a three-year absence, MotoGP was tipped to break the top-speed record at Phillip Island this weekend, particularly given the rate of aerodynamic development — though riders have been generally reluctant to use the ride-height device here given how fast so many of the corners are.
Aleix Espargaró said the wind was too strong and exit speed from most corners too fast to contemplate its use but hinted that some may try during the calmer conditions of Saturday, though he said he’d be surprised if anyone decided to deploy it in qualifying or the race.
The increased aero load has had the effect of increasing exit speed through the last corner, and combined with a tailwind growing in force through the morning, Marc Márquez was quick to take top spot with a speed of 349.5 kilometres per hour, which was fractionally beaten by Enea Bastianini before the chequered flag.
The previous record had been held by Andrea Dovizioso at 348 kilometres per hour.
The all-time speed record is held by Jorge Martin, who was clocked at 363.6 kilometres per hour at Mugello this year, where the front straight is longer by almost 300 metres or around 33 per cent.
As for the overall times, Zarco’s fastest time of the day, 1:29.475, was around 0.6 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the corresponding session in 2019 in the tricky conditions.
JOEL KELSO ON TRACK FOR Q2 AS JUNIOR ROOKIES STRUGGLE WITH CONDITIONS
Aussie junior Joel Kelso cut his first laps of Phillip Island on a championship bike for the first time and was immediately on the pace around the demanding circuit, rotating through top spot during FP1 before finishing fourth.
He slipped down the order to 12th in second practice at around a second off the pace, but with the top 14 going through to Q2 in the lightweight class, he’s provisionally safe for direct qualification, particularly given how chilly it’s forecast to be when the field takes to the track again on Saturday morning for FP3.
But while Moto3 has managed to avoid the worst of the windy conditions prevalent on Friday, Moto2 found itself right in the thick of them for FP1, and the gusts combined with the high-speed track to generate carnage.
Gusts of almost 50 kilometres per hour were registered blowing in the morning, and they were at their worst as the Moto2 bikes rolled out for the first time of the day.
Within five minutes the session was red flagged as four riders went down and a fifth came perilously close to joining them.
Zonta van den Goorbergh, Pedro Acosta, Alessandro Zaccone and Manuel Gonzalez all came off the bike exiting the Southern Loop on the way to Stoner Corner, enough to kick mud onto the track and force a red flag for circuit cleaning.
Celestino Vietti almost went down immediately afterwards as he cruised over the hill on his way back to the pits, with wind appearing to blow him over the inside kerbs exiting Lukey Heights on the way down to MG.
Vietti was the only one among them who’s ever been to the Island before, but only on Moto3 machinery in 2018 and 2019.
Jeremy Alcoba and Sean Dylan Kelly subsequently went down late in the session at turn 1 and turn 10 respectively, with the gusts refusing to abate. Neither had raced in Australia before.
And Zaccone went down again in FP2, totalling his bike in a rapid lowside.
Wind, cold tyres and a chilly track are always a danger at Phillip Island, and it’s always lurking to catch out those who don’t expect it.
ANIMALS ON TRACK
It wasn’t just the riders who were excited to get on track this weekend for the first time in three years. The animals of Phillip Island were up and about for MotoGP’s return too.
As the engines fires up on Friday morning, so too did the wallabies rise. They must’ve been Espargaró fans, because Pol and then Aleix had frighteningly close calls with a pair of wallabies during Friday practice.
Thankfully riders and animals were unharmed.
But they weren’t the only ones keen to get on track.
Heavy rain over previous days had driven the earthworms — and the earthworms in this part of the country are among the largest in the world — out of the saturated soil and onto the tarmac in search for solid ground.
Discovered first thing on Friday morning, they were swept back into the grass before action got underway.
SESSION TIMES — SATURDAY AND SUNDAY
Moto3 third practice: 9am (AEDT)
MotoGP third practice: 9:55am
Moto2 third practice: 10:55am
Moto3 qualifying: 12:35pm
MotoGP fourth practice: 1:30pm
MotoGP qualifying: 2:10pm
Moto2 qualifying: 3:10pm
Sunday — live from the paddock at 8:45am
Moto3 warm-up: 9am
Moto2 warm-up: 9:20am
MotoGP warm-up: 9:40am
Moto3 race: 11am
Moto2 race: 12:20pm
MotoGP race: 2pm