The 2009 FIM MotoGP World Championship season continues to near its climax at Phillip Island over the weekend of 16th-18th October, as the battle for the title intensifies in Australia.
Jorge Lorenzo narrowed the gap on his Fiat Yamaha team-mate, reigning champion and current standings leader Valentino Rossi with victory at Estoril, where Rossi finished a distant fourth as his championship lead over the Spaniard was cut from 30 to 18 points with three races remaining.
Lorenzo’s win was the tenth for a Yamaha rider this year, leaving the manufacturer one short of its most successful year ever – 2005. Indeed, Lorenzo and Rossi have alternated wins since the Italian won in Brno, and a win for either in Australia would equal the longest-ever sequence of successive victories for Yamaha in the premier class, a feat they achieved in both 2005 and 2008.
In Phillip Island, Rossi will arrive at a circuit that harbours fond memories, and one which he has stated as a personal favourite. In his 12 visits to the track across all classes the reigning world champion has only once failed to finish on the podium, with five consecutive victories from 2001-2005 in the MotoGP class forming the body of a standout record.
Rossi has not won in his last three outings Down Under though, and with main title rival Lorenzo putting together a strong finale to his season, the pressure is intensifying. Two wins and a runner-up spot in his last three races is fine form from Lorenzo, who finished fourth last year at Phillip Island on his MotoGP debut on the track from second on the grid, and has twice tasted victory there the 250cc class.
Casey Stoner’s impressive return to action in Portugal after a three-race absence means there is an added component to an already intriguing equation, with the Ducati Marlboro rider finishing second behind Lorenzo at Estoril. Stoner’s consecutive start-to-finish wins on his home track for the past two years mean that he will provide stern competition for both Yamaha factory riders, and at just three points behind third-placed Dani Pedrosa in the championship standings the Australian has his own immediate goal.
Honda Repsol rider Pedrosa has recovered from his crash and subsequent tenth-placed finish at Indianapolis by finishing third consecutively in Misano and Estoril, and with a DNF blemishing his record at Phillip Island last year after a first-lap crash he will be determined to not only rediscover the kind of ride that brought him a 250cc victory there in 2005, but also hold off the challenge of Stoner in the championship.
Pedrosa’s team-mate Andrea Dovizioso placed seventh at Phillip Island in his rookie season last year. He triumphed at 125cc level in the 2004 race – beating Lorenzo and Stoner – and will hope to continue building on an encouraging second season in the top class, which currently sees him sitting fifth in the championship, some eight points ahead of Colin Edwards.
The American rounds off the top six as it stands in the championship, with a sizeable 37-point lead over nearest competitor Loris Capirossi (Rizla Suzuki). Edwards’ best-ever result at Phillip Island was fourth place in 2004, when he rode a Honda, and the Texan is seeking only his second podium finish of the season on his Monster Yamaha Tech 3 machine.
Following on from Edwards and Capirossi in sixth and seventh spots respectively, Randy de Puniet (LCR Honda), Marco Melandri (Hayate Racing) and Toni Elías (San Carlo Honda Gresini) all complete the current top ten in the MotoGP rankings.
Marco Simoncelli gave himself an outside chance of defending his 250cc world title with his win at Estoril, but Hiroshi Aoyama could clinch the crown from the Italian in Australia depending on where the Metis Gilera rider and his other rivals finish at Phillip Island.
The Italian appeared to be out of what looked like a two-horse race for the World Championship between Aoyama and Álvaro Bautista prior to the bwin.com Grande Prémio de Portugal, but a crash for Bautista in Portugal saw title holder Simoncelli back in with a slim chance as the 250cc championship nears its denouement while a fourth-placed finish for the consistent Aoyama stretched his lead at the top while.
Aoyama’s lead in the championship standings was extended to 26 points over Mapfre Aspar man Bautista, while Simoncelli – whose win brought up the 199th victory for Italian riders in the 250cc class – is now just two points behind the second-placed Spaniard having claimed his fifth win of the year.
The scene is set perfectly for the Australian GP now with Simoncelli and Bautista both holding good records at the circuit. Bautista has finished second in both his 250cc races to date at Phillip Island and won the 125cc in 2006, while his Italian rival won there last year on his way to the title. Aoyama’s DNF last year means the Japanese leader will be keen to maintain the form that has seen him finish outside the top four on just two occasions so far this season, with third in 2006 on a 250cc KTM his best result on the track to date.
Aoyama could end the race for the crown early though if he secures his first-ever win at Phillip Island, but if he manages to do so the Scot Racing rider would need Bautista to finish no higher than 16th, Simoncelli 14th or lower, and Héctor Barberá (Pepe World Team) to fail to come in second. If that scenario does not play out, Aoyama knows he needs 50 points from the remaining three races – including Australia – irrespective of other riders’ results in order to take the world title.
Barberá (Pepe World Team) lies a further 16 points behind Simoncelli in the overall standings and he will be eager to correct a chequered history at Phillip Island, where he did not feature last year due to a back injury, while he suffered a DNF the season before. First place at Misano this year was followed up by a podium in the shape of third spot at Estoril though, so Barberá will feel that the time is right to register a notable result.
And Mattia Pasini also has a less than formidable record at Phillip Island, but will look to his third-place podium finish in 125cc from 2006 for inspiration as he bids to make a strong finish to the season.
Julián Simón’s crash at Estoril has done little to decrease his chances of claiming the 125cc world title with three races remaining, and the Spanish rider is well placed to claim that crown in Australia. A win at Phillip Island for Simón would deliver him the title regardless of where his title rivals finish, but there are various permutations if he does not take top spot.
Simón has a handsome 50.5-point lead over his nearest competitor – and Bancaja Aspar team-mate – Bradley Smith, and he needs to finish in front of the Brit in Australia to be crowned champion. At the same time, Nico Terol also has a part to play. Simón needs to finish on the podium to take the title if his fellow Spaniard wins. If Terol takes second spot, Simón needs seventh, while third for Terol would require a minimum finish of 11th place for Simón to end the title contest in Australia.
If Simón does not manage to clinch the title at Phillip Island, he needs to take 25 points from the remaining three races – including the Australian GP – to secure the accolade, regardless of how well his opponents fare.
Interestingly, none of the riders starting the 125cc race at Phillip Island have won a GP race at the Australian circuit before, with Simón finishing fourth in the 250cc contest last year – his best ever result there.
Rival Smith has never finished in the points at Phillip Island in his three visits to the track, while Terol is yet to place inside the top ten at the circuit after four GP starts there.
Pol Espargaro’s late-season run of rich form has seen him climb the standings with two wins in his last three races having never scored a victory in his previous 48 GP starts. Victories in Indianapolis and Estoril – he was also knocked off at the final corner in Misano when leading – have seen his confidence grow, and he has Terol in his sights with a 23-point deficit to the third-placed championship runner.
The Iveco Australian Grand Prix takes place from Friday 16th to Sunday 18th October, with free practice commencing on Friday afternoon.