Rider Insight: Australian Grand Prix

by Freddie Spencer on 25th October 2017

Freddie Spencer looks back on the Australian MotoGP

Phillip Island is one of my favourite circuits. I remember the first time I went there was the beginning of 1989, before the first Australian Grand Prix when we were doing some testing, and I was amazed by the circuit’s beauty. You feel like you’re at the bottom of the world.

With the beautiful views of the ocean, I thought a couple of things. One is, if that it does get windy it certainly will make things tricky as it’s a high-speed circuit, which is exactly what we had this past weekend with the change of weather.

The other thing that I loved about it about was the penguin parade, which is when the penguins come in from the ocean at the end of the day. Back in those days you could go and watch these little penguins that come in and walk right by and it’s an amazing thing. I remember it so well and it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.

The circuit itself is a place where I really look forward to watching races, because it's high-speed, and high-speed circuits really are challenging for the rider. They’re certainly challenging for the crew when trying to get the bike set up and they show up some weaknesses and characteristics of the bike, as we saw this weekend with the Ducatis.

It’s a race track that a lot of riders love. In fact most riders today would say that it’s one of their favourites because of the incredibly different challenges and the beautiful part of the world that it’s in.

In practice, we saw as we’ve seen so many times in these last few years, the change of weather. It’s a time of year in Australia when that transition from spring into the summer months begins, being below the equator, and you have really temperamental weather. On a track like that, it's a challenge anyway. Being at high speed, wet conditions put a lot of emphasis on the riders’ ability to be precise as well as their ability to get the bike set up.

With the modern electronics, as we’ve talked about before, the bikes are certainly easier to ride. You can adapt to the changed conditions with electronic mapping, which affects the horsepower and where it comes in at a certain RPM, affecting wheelspin as well. Of course back in my day, before electronics it was all up to the rider and what they felt in their hands, and their ability to anticipate the lean angle – they would feel the bike when the power came in.

Back with two-strokes, that certainly was a challenge because of the unpredictability of the way the power would come in the power band. The riders would put up with that challenge and have that challenge on Friday and it was interesting because we suspected that we would see Andrea Dovizioso up there. Mid-corner direction change is where the Ducati has been struggling and so the weather conditions, if it would’ve stayed a bit iffy or if it had been raining, I think that would’ve been better for Dovi than it was in the race.

Qualifying rundown

The rider up top in qualifying was Marc Márquez and by the time Saturday afternoon rolled around, conditions were pretty good, and it really wasn’t a problem. You could see that the Yamahas seemed to be a little better this weekend in wet conditions; in the dry conditions, they weren't too sure.

Maverick Viñales put in a good qualifying run to get second behind Márquez, and Valentino Rossi came through the first qualifying session to end up in the top seven in Q2. It was another good run for the KTMs, which have really come along and made a more rounded package. Since they went to the big bang engine at the beginning of the year they certainly seemed to have worked through some of the chassis issues – the bike is performing much better. Pol Espargaró was up there and Bradley Smith was too, which is great to see.

After qualifying, it looked like it was going to be Márquez with the upper hand going into the weekend. The beginning of the race certainly showed that.

Who would've thought you would see Dovi, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo out of the top 10? They were battling for 11th, 12th and 13th place. In fact, Jorge was a little further back. Dovi did make that mistake early into the race, going into Turn 1 where he ran wide and dropped all the way back to 20th position, but you certainly thought he would've been up there, closer to the front.

Wrapping-up the championship

Ducati struggled, and that could be the championship. Marc rode a great race, but to me, the interesting part about it was what happened towards the end, when you had Andrea Iannone and Johann Zarco battling for podium positions. Like Valentino said afterwards, “it was like we were watching a Moto2 race,” because of the aggression level and the fact that they weren’t intimidated to run with Valentino and to challenge for it. We know Zarco’s aggression affected the championship a little bit earlier in the season, we talked about that, but he’s maintained and stayed there and he just rode a great race.

Iannone, when he went around Viñales, made an aggressive pass around the outside, which almost took Maverick out and dropped him back, but it was really great to see him come back. He didn’t get discouraged when he came back and almost caught Rossi, who finished second. Viñales could’ve maybe finished better than third but he got tangled up with three or four laps to go.

The interesting thing, which made me smile, was watching Valentino. Because with Zarco and Iannone being so aggressive, you wondered if Rossi was going to push back – and he did. He said afterwards that he was being as “stupid as they were.” He said a bit more than that, but I think he was having fun. Like he said, “if you want to be in the game, that’s how it’s played now. Or, stay at home.”

There’s no doubt that it makes it interesting, and to see those guys battling like that wheel to wheel reminded me of my flat-tracking days. When I was a kid, that’s how it was for Friday night racing. You’d just get in there and battle and nudge people around, except these guys are doing it at 150mph, so you’ve got to trust the guy you’re racing against.

It put on a great show for everyone but as far as the championship goes, it looks like Marc has it pretty much under control with 33 points and two races to go. So this weekend at Sepang is going to be a critical one for Dovi. Basically, the only chance he has is if Marc has an issue of some kind because Marc can wrap it up this weekend if he finishes, even if Dovi finishes up there in the top three.

Anticipating the slide

It’s the characteristics of the Ducati that Jorge has been talking about struggling with, and it was evident even when Valentino was there. The question is, what effect would Valentino have had on the Ducati’s mid-corner direction change?

Running these bikes into the corners, they’re drifting the front and rear wheel constantly, even if it’s so slight turning in. Mid-corner, the bike has to make a direction change through the left and right-hand corners. If the bike will not turn at maximum lean angle, the only choice the driver has is to slow down and wait for the front of the motorcycle to turn back. That way, you have this move under acceleration where it drops and picks the bike up and you begin to accelerate. If before that the bike won’t turn, the rider has to wait, and that’s where the Ducati has been struggling for a long time.

Casey Stoner, what he was good at, which is exactly what Marc is good at, was using the rear of the motorcycle, manipulating it, to help rotate it – rotating the chassis of the bike around. Marc does it so well entering the corner, and Casey could do it mid-corner and you need to have a really good feel to anticipate that. That’s what it is: the rider’s ability to be able to anticipate the slide, to be able to control, making the bike lose grip and gather it back. And that’s the trick, to be able to recover from that adjustment and the bike’s direction change.

On a high-speed circuit like Phillip Island, when you’re over on the side of the tyre for so long at such high speed in those big corners and you’re trying to control the bike’s movement, once it settles in, the Ducati won’t seem to turn back mid-corner and again the rider has to slow the bike down to wait for it to turn. It also depends on the time and distance you’ve covered. If it’s been going on a little too long, you don’t have a choice – corners don’t go on forever – and you have to get that bike into position to be able to accelerate.

I’m looking forward to this weekend at Sepang. It’s certainly going to be interesting and hopefully, we will have another great race like we had at Phillip Island. I hope you’ll be watching the Malaysian Grand Prix too.


Related: How Márquez checked out in Australia

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