Them: How far can you go to watch a MotoGP race?
Nope, you haven’t landed on a meme page. It’s just that I can’t find a more apt explanation to justify my visit to the Phillip Island Circuit, where I got to witness this year’s Australian Grand Prix from close quarters. A childhood dream realised, you bet!
Two decades ago, if you had told me – a 13-year-old schoolkid – that I would get to watch a MotoGP race live one day, I would have probably looked at you as someone who’s totally off their rocker. Honestly, the most I could wish for back then was perhaps a bigger flat-screen television set to watch the races. That was it.
Now, having been to a couple of MotoGP races already – including the recently concluded Indian Grand Prix – I do find all of this quite surreal. So, you can only imagine how thrilling it would have been for me to receive the ‘Access Granted’ email from MotoGP’s accreditation centre for this year’s Phillip Island round!
Go Down Under
I landed in Sydney a week prior to the race weekend, and then flew down to Melbourne for the race. Now getting to Melbourne is easy, of course, but the Phillip Island Circuit is a good 150km from the city centre. And more often than not it’s not a very cheap affair either. Whether it’s transport or stay, it can get eye-wateringly expensive for a newbie. For example, the bus ride to Phillip Island would roughly cost around AUS $100 or so (₹5,300 approx.) while the cheapest stay near the circuit will set you back by $250-300 (₹13,000-15,000). That said, getting a stay near the circuit is next to impossible as there aren’t many hotels around, and most of the stays are AirBnBs or holiday homes, which get booked out six months or even one year in advance. There’s other option, you can stay in a camp or caravan, although you might end up freezing yourself by morning. As a result of all this, I stayed in a town called Frankston – about 30km outside of Melbourne – where hotels were relatively cheap at $170-200, and for my transport, I booked a cool Mazda 3 rental, which cost me around $220 for two days.
On Friday night, I got to know that there was a change in the schedule due to ‘inclement’ weather forecast for Sunday. As a result, the main race would now take place on Saturday while the sprint was pushed to Sunday. Spoiler alert, the latter never took place!
The Mecca of Speed
I drove down to Phillip Island on Saturday with great anticipation. However, forget about racing for a minute, even the journey to the circuit was an occasion as the picturesque backroads leading to the venue made for a blissful experience. But, of course, the real icing on the cake was the circuit.
Phillip Island is, arguably, the greatest racetrack on the MotoGP calendar – at least for as long as I have been watching that has been the case. Not only is it situated in the middle of a heavenly setting, it’s also a got a stellar track layout. In the sense, it’s one of the last old school tracks – less technical, short straights, and it’s got fluid and flowing corners. It’s also a track where a rider's skills matter more than the motorcycle, which is why it has produced some amazing races over the years. The 2015, 2017, and last year’s race are all proof. And if memory serves you right, you’ll also know that this is a circuit that can give you a heavy dose of nostalgia – that Valentino Rossi win in 2003 astride Repsol Honda after a 10s penalty, Marco Melandri’s legendary drift to a dominant win in 2006, and then, of course, you have the Casey Stoner era, during which the Australian absolutely creamed everyone by winning every single race in front of his home crowd from 2007 to 2012. In fact, watching Stoner pelt his Ducati – and later Honda – at Turn 3 is one of the most vivid memories that I have of the circuit. I remember he would gain two- to three-tenths over rivals in that corner alone. It was like watching magic. No wonder the corner is now named after him.
My favourite corners at the circuit are Siberia and Lukey Heights. And that’s exactly where I headed after entering the racetrack. Suffice it to say, the whole experience of watching MotoGP bikes fly-by from there was simply otherworldly. The view of the Bass Strait – the water channel separating Australia and Tasmania – in the backdrop with the fastest and loudest motorcycles on the planet zipping just a few metres away, well, that sight was unforgettable.
As for the race, it was yet another Phillip Island classic. While Jorge Martin led the race for virtually 95% of the time, his decision to opt for a soft rear tyre instead of a medium resulted in him paying dearly in the closing laps. He lost not just one but four positions in the final lap as Johann Zarco, Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Di Giannantonia and Brad Binder literally walked past him. What’s more, some history was also made that day since the race marked Zarco’s first-ever MotoGP win.
For me, what stood out more than the racing – which was a proper thriller, without doubt – was the atmosphere at the track. Everybody was so chilled out, there were caravans all over the island with people camping leisurely, and there were hordes of passionate fans who braved the wet and wild weather to cheer for their MotoGP heroes. It felt more like a MotoGP-themed festival.
On Sunday, the sprint race had to be called off, thanks to bad weather. And by bad, I mean pouring rain with winds gusting at 50-70km/h! By the time, the announcement came, though, I was already on my way to the track. However, instead of turning back, I decided to explore the island instead. And, trust me, it was a blessing in disguise because, goodness gracious, Phillip Island has even more astounding things to offer than just motorcycle racing. In fact, by the end of the day, I had forgotten that I had come there for a MotoGP race. Now... that is a bit anticlimactic, isn’t it?
Photo Credits: Red Bull Content Pool