We joked after the 2015 Australian Grand Prix that there were more overtakes and lead changes in the 27 laps than the complete Formula One season. It was probably not correct but after commentating on a race that included 52 overtaking manoeuvres and 13 lead changes it’s not difficult to understand why we may have got a little bit carried away.
True or not it was the perfect illustration that Phillip Island is the most magnificent circuit for Grand Prix motorcycle racing on this planet. After that amazing Grand Prix in Indonesia, where amongst all the action the World Championship lead changed three times, there can be no better venue to stage the next round of the title fight. This will be a very different battle. Phillip Island invites overtaking and there is plenty champing at the bit to get out there and give it a go.
Re-designed for Grand Prix motorcycles by Bob Barnard, this 4.448 km ribbon of tarmac has everything. Fast and slow corners, sweeping bends on the cliffs overlooking surf beaches and undulations that provide riders with the ultimate test.
The very first Grand Prix on an island, far more famous for its amazing penguins waddling up the beach some eight kilometres from the circuit, was the perfect illustration of what lay ahead. In 1989 national hero Wayne Gardner won a fantastic 500cc battle with Wayne Rainey and Christian Sarron. Australia went crazy and I thought the Island was going to sink. Wayne was a national hero becoming the first Australian 500cc World Champion two years earlier. The stage was set for so many more great races and Australian celebrations. Gardner won again in 1990, Five-time World Champion Mick Doohan won once, while Casey Stoner brought Ducati and Honda success six times at his home circuit. Little wonder all three riders have corners named after them.
Valentino Rossi loved the Island. It provided the great Champion with a stage to show every facet of his repertoire. He won eight times including two 250cc wins and clinched his first 500cc world title there in 2001. The Italian borrowed a sheet from his hotel and covered it with an enormous number seven to celebrate the life of his friend Barry Sheene two years later. I’d started my live television commentating career with Barry and Formula One World Champion Alan Jones in Phillip Island in 1989. I said my final farewell to Barry on the Island in 2002 before his premature death early the next year.
All classes have been involved. In 2000 Olivier Jacque kept his nerve to shadow his Tech3 team-mate Shinya Nakano for nearly 25 laps at the final round of the 250cc World Championship. Coming down the final straight with the chequered flag out, the Frenchman pulled out of his slipstream to steal the world title from his team-mate. Back to MotoGP™ and who will ever forget Marco Melandri pulling a one-handed wheelie coming out of that final bend to celebrate victory in 2006?
Yes, Phillip Island is a very long and expensive journey from Europe. Clearing immigration and Customs at Melbourne airport can be a long business. All four seasons of weather in one day is not unusual. A wicked wind can whip in over the Bass Straight all the way from Antarctica.
All this will be forgotten when the lights change on Sunday, as the grid races down the Gardner Straight towards the Doohan right-hander, with the Bass Straight glimmering in the background. There is no better venue in the world for this incredible World Championship battle to continue. Remember last year when just over eight-tenths of one second separated the first seven riders?
Phillip Island is such a special place. It won’t let us down.