MOTOGP: Round 15 – Phillip Island, Australia – 18 October

Anyone hoping for a thrilling end to the year’s MotoGP championship and a fight to the finish between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo will have been dismayed by the start of the Australian MotoGP, where a collision between a Yamaha and a Ducati effectively sealed the 2009 title two races before the end of the season.

Lorenzo had been off-colour and off the pace (by his standards) for much of the weekend and was on the second row of the grid for the first time in his MotoGP career. He is also not the best of starters, and found himself swamped off the line by Nicky Hayden (from 7th) on the outside and Mika Kallio (from 9th) on the inside. But as they headed into the first turn, Lorenzo’s late braking caused him to run up unexpectedly fast into the back of the unusually cautious Nicky Hayden and the two collided.

Lorenzo struggled to keep the Yamaha upright, and appeared to have managed to do so before the bike then gave one last judder and threw itself to the ground. Lorenzo was left skidding after the bike into the gravel track, and as the dust settled he lay motionless for a few seconds – more from shock and the emotional realisation that the championship was now gone for another year, than for any physical damage – he sustained only minor grazes to his right hand and to his face from a helmet full of gravel.

Up front, Dani Pedrosa had got off to a more subdued start than usual but enough to take second from Rossi before the first turn, and then a couple of corners later he was past Stoner as well. But it was quickly clear that Pedrosa didn’t have the pace to stay ahead let alone pull away, and next time around Stoner took advantage of a shaky moment for Dani to retake the lead; Rossi swiftly cut his way past the Honda a few corners later, and the two soon pulled away to leave Dani in a very lonely but completely safe third place for the rest of the afternoon.

With Lorenzo gone, Stoner and Rossi were in a league of their own. Rossi was able to match Stoner every lap and stayed close: the Ducati had the raw pace and pulled away down the start/finish straight, but the Yamaha was more agile and closed up under braking, a familiar story from years past. But now Lorenzo was out, Rossi had no need to risk anything to take the race victory and so he was happy to hang back, put the pressure on Stoner in the vague hope of pressuring the Aussie into a mistake, but otherwise settle for second – which is exactly how it played out.

Back through the field, the riders were unusually stretched out with most of them running isolated by the end of the race. The best battle was an early seven-bike battle for 5th which involved Kallio, Colin Edwards, Andrea Dovizioso, Marco Melandri, Randy de Puniet, Toni Elias and James Toseland, but this was eventually decisively won by Edwards by the midpoint of the race and then even this group was stretched out, with only de Puniet and Melandri left in a fierce and entertaining battle for what ended up being 7th place in the latter stages of the race, from which Marco emerged victorious.

Toseland was eliminated from the fight by a drive-thru penalty for a jump start (after coming perilously close to missing the pit board notice and incurring another black flag as happened in July at Laguna Seca). That put him right at the back of the race, save for Nicky Hayden who had managed to rejoin after his first corner collision with Lorenzo that had seem him ride all the way through and around the gravel trap, and then have to nurse damage to the Ducati that had put him well off the pace for the rest of the afternoon.

As the crowds flooded onto the track to celebrate their local hero’s victory, Casey Stoner bounced up to the top step of the podium looking completely fresh and fit, not a hint of the mystery fatigue-inducing illness that has seen him practically carried off the bike at previous races before this three-race sabbatical. It was good to see him back, and to see him locked in battle with Rossi once more, and it bodes well for a titanic three-way title battle in 2010 – or even four-way if Honda can pull something out of the bag for Dani Pedrosa and give him that last extra bit of speed he needs to be a genuine contender himself.

But as for 2009 – Lorenzo’s altercation into the first turn leaves Rossi a convincing 38pts ahead with only two races (and 50pts) still on offer. Rossi’s made errors this year – throwing away the win at Laguna Seca being the most shocking – but it’s hard to see him failing to decisively win the championship from here. The season is, effectively, done – and indeed should be wrapped up, signed and sealed at next week’s race at the F1 circuit of Sepang in Malaysia.

Race result

Pos  Rider             Bike               Time/Gap
 1.  Casey Stoner      Ducati             40m56.651s
 2.  Valentino Rossi   Yamaha            +    1.935s
 3.  Dani Pedrosa      Honda             +   22.618s
 4.  Alex de Angelis   Gresini Honda     +   32.702s
 5.  Colin Edwards     Tech 3 Yamaha     +   35.885s
 6.  Andrea Dovizioso  Honda             +   38.482s
 7.  Marco Melandri    Hayate Kawasaki   +   44.451s
 8.  Randy de Puniet   LCR Honda         +   44.941s
 9.  Mika Kallio       Pramac Ducati     +   54.345s
10.  Toni Elias        Gresini Honda     + 1m01.205s
11.  Chris Vermeulen   Suzuki            + 1m05.417s
12.  Loris Capirossi   Suzuki            + 1m05.950s
13.  Gabor Talmacsi    Scot Honda        + 1m17.951s
14.  James Toseland    Tech 3 Yamaha     + 1m17.985s
15.  Nicky Hayden      Ducati            + 1 lap

Retirements:

     Jorge Lorenzo     Yamaha            0 laps

MotoGP championship standings

Pos Driver           Points
1   Valentino Rossi     270
2   Jorge Lorenzo       232
3   Casey Stoner        195
4   Daniel Pedrosa      189
5   Andrea Dovizioso    152
6   Colin Edwards       145
7   Alex de Angelis     101
8   Randy de Puniet     101
9   Loris Capirossi     101
10  Marco Melandri      100
11  Toni Elias           96
12  Chris Vermeulen      95
13  James Toseland       87
14  Nicky Hayden         82
15  Mika Kallio          58
16  Niccolo Canepa       38
17  Gabor Talmacsi       17
18  Sete Gibernau        12
19  Yuki Takahashi        9
20  Aleix Espargaro       8
        
Pos Constructor Points
1   Yamaha      350
2   Honda       252
3   Ducati      236
4   Suzuki      121
5   Kawasaki    100
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