Sunday’s 27-lap Australian Grand Prix, undoubtedly one of the most popular races on the calendar, could well see local hero Casey Stoner clinch his second world title, having won his first in 2007 with Ducati.
The Australian Honda rider won here last year from pole position, and has an enviable record at his home circuit. He currently has 300 points to the 260 of reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo (Yamaha), thus needing to leave for Malaysia with a 50-point advantage over the Spaniard to secure the championship with two rounds to go. They alone remain in contention for the title after a hard-fought season to date.
Although the flowing 4,448-kilometre circuit plays to Casey’s strengths, the region’s capricious climate - coupled with the circuit’s location - means this race could turn out to be the most unpredictable of the year, with heavy rain expected to fall throughout the weekend.
Speaking ahead of the race, 2006 world champion Nicky Hayden, riding for PUMA’s partner team Ducati, best summarized Phillip Island’s unpredictable weather. “We can get rain, wind, cold and sun, all in the course of one race weekend,” said the American, whose 2008 lap record still stands.
“Phillip Island is definitely one of the highlights of the year, because everything about it is so special. It’s fast, flowing and really fun to ride,” said Nicky, who starts his 150th grand prix this weekend, of the circuit situated, literally, on the Bass Strait coastline and as such blessed with breathtaking scenery and beautiful ocean views.
With its 12 corners (7L/5R) and a 900m straight, Phillip Island, which attracts fans from across Australia, offers a mixed challenge, with its wide run-off areas not only harking back to a bygone age – the circuit was first used back in 1956 – but encouraging riders to push to the absolute limit. Thus the racing here is invariably fast, furious and spectacular, with the scenic backdrop providing a superb TV spectacle.
Nicky’s team-mate, the legendary Valentino Rossi, is recovering from a hand injury incurred in an accident during the last round in Japan. Despite the incident - which caused his first lap retirement after Lorenzo crashed into him - the nine-time champion is in positive mood.
“We worked well on the bike’s balance and setup in Motegi, and in the end, from that point of view, we had one of the most positive weekends of the season. Phillip Island is another track where the Ducati has always gone well, as have I, so we hope to be able to work as well as we did in Japan. As far as my hand is concerned, the swelling is reduced, and we still have a couple of days before the race,” said the rider of the bike bearing the hallowed Number 46.
Sunday’s race starts at 16:00 local time (07:00), with Saturday’s qualifying hour kicking off at 14:55 (05:55CET).