Just when you thought you’d seen it all this year, the weather steps in and throws a spanner into the works and, perhaps inconsequentially, gives us one of the best races of the year and, more importantly, a brilliant result.
If there have been rumblings of discontent about the Saturday Sprint races, then maybe they have been partially put to rest as the race mechanisms were in place to enable a change of the Main race to Saturday when Sunday’s weather threatened – accurately as it turned out – to be just too dangerous, with high winds forecast. To have missed out on a Philip Island race would have been a travesty as it is always the scene of brilliant racing and a favourite track of all the riders.
It’s not hard to see why: fast and flowing, it is spectacular and requires balls the size of melons. Some circuits we armchair jockeys look at and go, ‘I might be able to do that,’ even if it is patently a load of rubbish, but Philip Island makes you draw a sharp intake of breath even from the comfort of your soap box.
Normally, one rider making off into the distance at the beginning of the race is cause to concentrate on what’s happening behind and such was Martin’s dominance that is exactly what we were doing, but at the back of our minds was the fact that he had started on the soft rear tyre and his pace was such that it was almost inevitable that his pace would drop off a cliff before too long.
That he remained in front until the last lap was incredible and even though we knew it was a gamble, for him to drop from first to fifth in a few corners was heart-breaking. But, if we can be selfish, what a race it gave us as Binder, Bagnaia, DiGiannantonio and Zarco fought tooth and nail for lap after lap, never more than a few metres between them. That is the definition of trust in your fellow competitor, to know that they are going to do the same thing as you at the same speed and at the same time, corner after corner, lap after lap and that you have to do something out of that window and on the edge in order to pass. Mind-blowing.
To see Zarco finally win a MotoGP race was fantastic; he must be one of those riders whom everyone wanted to see win and to get that monkey off his back has to be a relief, as long as it opens the door to more. His move to LCR Honda in 2024 might seem like a big-money ‘last-move-of-a-career’ but we have to hope that it coincides with an upturn in fortunes for Honda to at least give him the machinery with which to challenge again.
But what an insidious position to be in during the race: your teammate, who is fighting for the championship is leading but slowing rapidly. Do you protect his lead as much as you can, which will be virtually impossible as he is going so slowly, or do you overtake and take the win – your first, don’t forget – and prevent your teammate’s nearest challenger from winning and stealing even more points? Of course, it was a no-brainer for Zarco: he had no choice and seized the opportunity with both hands and I couldn’t be happier for him. As I suspect, will the vast majority of the paddock.
And let’s not forget DiGianantonio: he’s been getting better and better in the past few races, culminating in his best-ever result with third place in Australia. And he doesn’t have a contract for next year! If he’s not snapped up soon, it will be one of the grossest injustices but he’s young: he can afford to take a test rôle for 2024 in lieu of a place on the grid in 2025, when most seats will be up for grabs.
But what a see-saw period in the championship: Bagnaia initially leading the championship comfortably; Martin clawing back and taking the top spot for all of 24 hours; Bagnaia winning the next day as Martin crashes out; Martin leading by a country mile in Australia but Bagnaia leaving with a 27-point lead. I’ve always said I don’t care who wins, as long as we have good races and a close season, and that still stands true, but I’m also a fan of the underdog and I’d love to see Martin take the title at season’s end, but I also can’t deny that Bagnaia deserves it as well. Such conflict!
Back to Zarco. It was heartening to see all the riders on the slow-down lap coming alongside Zarco and warmly congratulating him – one of the best things about MotoGP. If Zarco was a championship threat, maybe there would have been one or two riders who wouldn’t be that pleased with his success but I would like to think that that wouldn’t be the case. In parc fermé, Zarco’s celebrations were slightly disappointingly low-key, when you would expect them to be infectious and over-the-top.
His comments afterwards were revealing; “You try to keep the hope (of a win) always there, but then you’re wondering, why don’t I have these moments the other riders have? At the last corner, I had this feeling, okay, I know I’ll have good drive but then you open the throttle and you feel you don’t have any power and you’re scared you’ll get passed on the line. Over the finish line, there was no explosion of emotion. It was more of a calm feeling, ahh, it’s done. Winning in Philip Island gives you a really nice feeling, because everyone loves the track, so you feel you are part of the big guys if you win here…”
It’s interesting to look at the different approaches of Bagnaia and Martin throughout the weekend. Bagnaia spent a lot of time on Friday on the medium rear tyre and so knew what it could do and wasn’t fazed when he failed to make it through to Q2 automatically because he knew that on the medium tyre, he had the pace to run at the front, not to mention the longevity of the tyre. Of course, that could have all meant nothing if he got caught up in a start accident by not being at the front but it was a gamble worth taking.
Martin gambled on using the grip from the soft rear to build a gap at the start and manage tyre wear after that to maintain the gap, something he is good at thanks to his smooth style. He so very nearly pulled it off, leading for all but eight corners of the whole race. Unfortunately, they were the wrong eight corners!
Many critics called his gamble stupid but there is such a fine line between hero and twit. One race lap less – and the win – and Martin would have been hailed a hero. Remember Brad Binder in Austria in 2021, gambling on staying out on a wet race track on slick tyres while everyone else changed bikes? Another half a lap and Bagnaia would have sliced past Binder as if he was standing still: as it was, Binder was hailed a hero for winning against the odds. It could so easily have been different, as Martin knows all too well.
“I was really convinced the soft tyre was the one,” he said. “I took the risk and it didn’t work by half a lap… I rode really smooth, trying to be super-clean on the tyres, but finally, it didn’t work.”
It was a brave attempt, a gamble such as Martin is likely to take, being the hunter and not the hunted in the championship. Will it be enough to deliver the title? Only time will tell and, luckily, we don’t have long to wait for the final acts.