I have been lucky enough to be able to attend the last three MotoGP events at Phillip Island. This year, the added challenge was that I could claim to have started the journey to the track from New York – arriving home in Melbourne on Saturday afternoon, before completing the journey on the Sunday morning. Anyone who has been to the track spots the irony in the pit-straight banner proudly proclaiming “Melbourne!”. The track is nowhere near! It takes over an hour from my house travelling the flat plains and countryside to get to the Island, before a further fifteen minutes is spent crossing the island to reach the track.
To keep me company (and prevent serious jet lag overcoming me whilst the race went on) I went with a fellow motorcyclist and friend from work who had not been to the event. As a Formula 1 follower, it meant the spectacle of pit stops and their possibility of helping decide the race outcome was nothing new to him. To me, it seemed like the organisers had come up with the best compromise they could have. It gave us a race, reduced the danger to the competitors as much as they could and still fitted in with the global television time slots. Not ideal, but better than sending the 31,000 spectators home without seeing the main event.
One thing about the Phillip Island circuit is that it is vast! As a general admission spectator, only the outside of the 4.5km track is accessible. Devoid of grandstand, corporate or media passes means you are left walking to get from one spot to the other. On foot, it takes a huge amount of time to circumnavigate. As such, picking a spot and staying in that vicinity is realistically your best option. This year, the organisers felt it appropriate to drop the “cloak room” facilities, which meant we were left lugging our motorcycle gear around all day. For once, the weather was kind and it was warm enough to wear no more than T-shirt and shorts. So we had a lot of gear to lug around! Wasn’t happy about that…
So, limited by luggage, we went to Turn one, near the marshals’ bunker. This is an excellent spot to spectate from. You are close to the action and the bikes are very near full speed. If you pick wisely, you will also be able to see Turn 3, watch the bikes through Turn 4 and up to Siberia, meaning you will witness plenty of bravery and overtaking. It is also the position of one of the super-screens so you don’t miss the action when the bikes are travelling around the other postcode on the opposite side of the track. Have I mentioned how vast the circuit is? Sure, photography from here requires a fast auto-focus or a lot of luck, but I can go stand on any street corner and watch motorcycles go by at slow speeds… And after three weeks of holidays lugging my DSLR around, I didn’t even bother to take it this year.
Before giving my commentary on the race, I feel I should divulge my allegiances that normally only the television gets to hear. I have been a Marc Márquez fan since his days on the 125s battling with Pol Espargaró. It was obvious he is a new crowd favourite. Unlike many riders, Rossi still gets the cheers he deserves, but so does the new kid. It is funny that two years ago, Márquez was the villain to most of the crowd, after the appalling crash into Ratthapark Wilairot at the end of free practice. I witnessed that crash and have meant to blog about the circumstances leading up to it. Unfortunately, Marco Simoncelli’s fatal crash happened a week later and that reduced my enthusiasm for blogging about motorcycle racing and partial justification of accidents.
About that race…
Even in such short “sprints” the racing appears to settle down as a pattern is established. Initially, it appeared that Jorge Lorenzo was capable of holding the two Respol Honda riders at bay. The Hondas are stronger under brakes, and would close a little into Turn 4, but by the time they were next at that point on the track, Lorenzo would have clawed back the ground he lost. Just prior to the pit-window, it appeared that the titanic struggle was slowly tipping in Márquez’s favour. The crowd could sense he was closing. Whether the stop watches would agree with us, or whether it was just wishful thinking from the spectators, I do not know – but, that is how it appeared.
Then the pit-stops unfolded. First Dani Pedrosa came through. We watched the super-screen replay of Pedrosa demonstrating how quickly you could stop the Honda, unaware of any dramas surrounding the new point at which the speed-limit took effect. The next lap Lorenzo came in. Some – including myself, were slightly mystified that Márquez stayed out. Wasn’t there only a two lap window in which you could pit? There was a feeling of “they know what they are doing”. Mercifully, we could not hear the track-side announcers over the noise of the bikes. No matter what you think of Gavin Emmett and Nick Harris, they are infinitely better than guys who get to cover one race a year when the MotoGP circus comes to town. Spoken commentary is not a skill that I have, but neither do they…
As Márquez reappeared from the pits, down the infinitely long pit-exit lane we all held our breath in anticipation. We could see it would be close… Lorenzo and Pedrosa closing, Márquez anxiously looking over his shoulder… I was willing him not to turn off the speed limiter early… Don’t spoil what will be an exciting finish! And out he exited. Perfect timing, in what if it were scripted would appear corny, melodramatic and unrealistic. Except it wasn’t! The first corner clash between Lorenzo and Márquez happened less than 100 metres from our vantage point. The way I saw it, neither party was innocent. Lorenzo was clearly wider than normal and Márquez came across further than he needed to. They both looked like they were trying to jockey for position in a bluffing game – in a schoolboy-macho type of way. Neither party was particularly guilty either and that matter should be put to rest.
After the pit-stops, racing resumed with Lorenzo leading Pedrosa and Márquez coming up to speed in third. In this second part of the race, Márquez looked to be clearly faster. He passed Pedrosa under brakes into Turn 4. It did not appear that Pedrosa had conceded the position and we were unaware of any penalty Pedrosa was apparently serving by dropping the position. He pushed on and there was a genuine sense that we were going to watch a classic race unfold. He looked to be catching Lorenzo and we were going to witness an epic battle! And then we weren’t… Márquez was slowing, he was coasting into the pits. No hurry, no excitement. The crowd was notably quiet – voices speculating as to what had just happened. MotoGP went back to its recent worst… Just a high speed procession for a few laps until the end.
As I stated earlier, I am a Márquez fan. But for the record, I think:
- Intentionally or otherwise – he broke the rules.
- He was disqualified for doing so.
- The punishment fit the crime.
Quite simply, the rule he broke was for the safety of everyone: riders, marshals and spectators. Considering the safety of others is a lesson Márquez has yet to learn. It has been two years since the incident with Wilairot, but I cannot see any signs of him maturing in that respect.
In the end I was left with a sense of being robbed of a great race. Had Márquez not got himself disqualified, I think we would have seen one of the races that would have been remembered as a classic to rival Laguna Seca, 2008. But, as a race fan, every dull race makes the next exciting one, one closer.