There’s barely going to be standing room on Phillip Island this weekend.
Advance ticket sales suggest that the crowd will be at least double last year’s and possibly even bigger than the event record, achieved at the very first Australian GP in 1989 when the nation was in the grip of Wayne Gardner fever.
Aussie fans will be turning out in force to say goodbye to Casey Stoner, their first premier-class champ to whom they’ve had the chance to say a proper farewell. Both Gardner and Mick Doohan made hurried exits from bike racing, due to injury. Gardner announced his retirement a few months after missing the 1992 Australian GP due to a broken leg suffered at Suzuka. Doohan announced his retirement not long after missing Phillip Island in 1999 due to injuries sustained at Jerez.
Gardner famously won the first two Australian GPs, in 1990 beating the up-and-coming Doohan who later accused his compatriot of running him off the track at 190mph, an accusation Gardner vehemently denies. The pair never got on because they are such different characters. Gardner channelled all of his emotion into racing, while Doohan channelled all his emotion out of racing. Gardner wanted to win at home more than anything in the world, Doohan insisted his home GP was just another race.
Stoner is much more like Doohan, his childhood hero. He says it’s the track that really makes his home race so special. And he’s not wrong. Phillip Island is to bike racing what Led Zeppelin are to rock and roll: fast, wild, visceral, full noise.
Already Stoner has won as many Australian GPs as Gardner and Doohan put together. His is an extraordinary record – five consecutive victories at Phillip Island, four on the Ducati, one on the Honda. If he can make that a straight six on Sunday he will retire a happy man.
It’s not going to be easy though – two problems stand in his way.
Firstly, the right ankle he mashed up at Indianapolis is far from fixed. The ankle sustained complex bone and soft tissue damage which has hampered him at the last two races, though Sunday’s rain-lashed Sepang race – which he finished in third place – made things less physical and therefore less difficult.
Secondly, his Honda continues to chatter like hell. The mismatch between his RC213V and Bridgestone’s 2012 slicks has already cost him the world title; now he’s worried it might spoil his chances of a fairytale and final Island win.
“It’s frustrating that my last few races are going to be grinding it out on tyres that aren’t a joy to ride,” says Stoner. “When I first tested this bike at the end of last year it was probably the best bike I’ve ever ridden, but now it’s one of the worst and most difficult bikes I’ve had to ride, and it’s all because of [the 2012] tyres. It’s very frustrating to finish my career riding with these issues.”
But at least these two clouds have silver linings.
Phillip Island is an anti-clockwise circuit and Stoner’s chatter problems are less troublesome in left-handers. The chatter is so critical that the differences between the right and left sides of the RCV make all the difference, as HRC vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto explains.
“Machine weight is slightly different on the left and right, so the centre of gravity isn’t exactly over the centre of the machine,” says Nakamoto. “Also, chassis stiffness is different on left and right because the frame body and swingarm are different because the drive chain is on the left, and so on.”
Stoner’s right ankle will also have an easier time this weekend, because Phillip Island goes left and because it’s a fast, flowing circuit.
“I’m hoping Phillip Island will be quite a lot better,” he adds. “The two tight corners on the track [Honda hairpin and MG] are rights so it’s not ideal, but most of the corners are left-handers. The problem is that my ankle won’t move, it won’t flex when I’m trying to pick up the bike out of corners, so it’s pushing against what I’m trying to do. It makes life hell out of slow corners, but the faster corners aren’t so bad because I don’t need to pick up the bike so quickly to get on the gas.”
Whatever happens, it’s going to be a thrill watching one of GP racing’s all-time greatest talents going for broke for the final time at one of GP racing’s all-time greatest race tracks. If you’re in Australia you’ve probably already bought your tickets, if you’re in Europe it’s going to be worth getting up in the dark to watch.