Maverick Viñales, his factory Yamaha working well at Phillip Island—a racetrack that perfectly suits the M1—came through the MotoGP pack to lead, then pulled away to win from Andrea Iannone (Suzuki) and Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati). This ended Yamaha's success drought of more than a year. In that time, the Suzukis have improved enough to now displace the Yamahas as next-quickest after the (usually) leading Hondas and Ducatis.

Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati) and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) did not start owing to injuries.

Because Marc Márquez is the champion, this is the rump of the season. A lap-six shunt eliminated both Márquez (Repsol Honda) and Johann Zarco (Tech 3 Yamaha), who rammed the tail of the factory RC213V in a pack braking from 180 mph. No rider was injured but Zarco slid a long way, and Márquez's seat was broken badly enough to make it stupid to continue.

Márquez said, “Jack Miller was in front [he had led lap 1 in fast-changing early action], and I was in the slipstream behind Miller at over 300 kph. I braked, even a little bit late, and I just tried to stop more, but then I felt the contact because Zarco was in the slipstream from two bikes.”

So many AMA riders have been “sucked into the chicane” while drafting at Daytona in similar circumstances. With the usual aero drag mostly eliminated by the bike(s) in front, they found themselves in too hot. “It’s a racing incident,” Márquez said. “I already spoke with [Zarco].”

Marc Márquez
This is the moment Marc Márquez realized his race was over. A tailsection-crushing whack from Johann Zarco forced the seven-time world champion’s early retirement.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Meanwhile Viñales, starting from second on the grid but ninth after three laps, had the pace to advance fast. “Luckily, I could push at the beginning,” he said. “When I saw I was three seconds clear I could relax a little bit and save the tires.”

By lap 8, he broke clear at the front, now able to unleash a block of six straight 1-minute, 29-second laps. Yet, in total time for the first five laps, he was a half-second slower than Márquez, who noted (inconsequentially, because he is already champion), “Today, I had the pace to win.

“I led for three laps,” Márquez said, “and then I said, ‘Now, it’s time to be back in the group.’ And I went wide on purpose in turn 4 just to be behind, because I didn’t want to lead the group. And then, yeah, I had the crash.”

Márquez has preferred to conserve rubber for the last five laps, letting others burn up theirs in setting the pace.

Iannone had been fastest throughout the weekend. On Friday, Zarco had said, “Who had the best lap time? Iannone? It means he has good acceleration.” The rear tires of the Yamahas were spinning—Valentino Rossi’s more, that of Viñales less.

After qualifying, Viñales had said, “Iannone is the one with the best pace,” even though the qualifying order was Márquez on pole, then Viñales, Zarco, and Iannone. Rossi, starting seventh, commented that, “Iannone and Márquez have something more than the others.”

In the race, Iannone made position-losing mistakes in turn 4, putting an extra burden on his rubber. “I tried to recover,” he said, “but I felt the tire start to drop more than I expected.”

Andrea Iannone
Andrea Iannone earned his fourth podium of the season. The Suzuki rider was third at COTA, Jerez, and MotorLand Aragón. The Italian is headed to Aprilia in 2019.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

Iannone conserved his tires until the last four laps, when he launched a push on Viñales. Viñales had gained a lead of six seconds but Iannone ate steadily into it. “I closed,” he said, “but on the last lap, I made another mistake at turn 4 so Dovi nearly overtook me.” At the end, Viñales had only 1.5 seconds left of his lead. Enough.

Race fans, distant from the realities of racing, lionize those who appear to embrace risk, roaring their appreciation of men like Garry McCoy as they get ’er sideways, to lay long blackies on the pavement. Go for it, man! Sadly, such displays of friction cost positions.

Reality does not reward such nonsense. Zarco, rolling out to qualify, said, “Two minutes from the start, it began to rain and I had slicks on. I asked myself, ‘What do I do? Do I push or not?’ It was terrible. In fact, I was afraid, since the drops of rain frightened me.”

Rossi: “For qualifying, the conditions were very, very tricky. It rained a little bit and you don’t know how much.”

Márquez: “We are riding at [a lap average of more than 120 mph], and it is scary when you see some drops on your visor.”

Viñales: “On the first sector, it was raining, whereas on the others it was dry, so it was not at all simple.”

Mixed conditions—some areas wet, some apparently dry—on slicks are a gamble that the rider can somehow “see” the grip ahead. “So I say I will not take the risk,” Márquez said, “and we will see if somebody improves [on my time].” No one did.

Andrea Dovizioso
Pleased to finish third: Andrea Dovizioso recorded his best result at Phillip Island since 2011, when he was teamed with Dani Pedrosa on Repsol Hondas.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

After his second place in Thailand, Viñales was sure he at last had a working setup. Rossi felt this had more to do with a new, stiffer-carcass rear Michelin and the track itself. Viñales’ disappointment a week later in Japan when this was proved to be the case was crushing, and Sunday’s win pushed him to the opposite extreme.

Rossi’s measured response was, “This is positive, but we need to continue to work. From my side, I have had a lot of times these types of problems.”

To Rossi, this win does not signal the end of Yamaha’s troubles but rather the suitability of the corner-speed-developed Yamaha for this circuit of long, fast corners, requiring little hard braking or blistering acceleration.

Ducati race boss Gigi Dall’Igna noted, “Phillip Island is a track at which the qualities of our bike count for little. It’s not a track where you exploit the engine [because tall gearing is used], or with a lot of hard braking and acceleration. It’s the most complex track for us.”

Valentino Rossi in the lead
Following a strong start, Valentino Rossi (46) ran second for six of Sunday’s 27 laps. He finished sixth. Álvaro Bautista (obscured) raced Jorge Lorenzo’s factory Ducati to fourth.Andrew Wheeler/automotophoto.com

About his Honda on this track, Márquez said, “Our bike in fast corners is unstable and that is our weak point.”

Then why not just make it stable by cranking in more steering rake and trail? Everything is compromise. Back in the 1990s, Kawasaki Superbikes were always unstable because that’s what it took to achieve quickest steer response.

Quietly but insistently, Dovizioso continues the message he has sent Ducati for years: “In the middle of the corner, we’re struggling. It’s the negative point of our bike.” Stiff enough to excel at braking, the Ducati is too stiff to give maximum mechanical grip. It’s either or…

Márquez needs a bike that can instantly switch from braking to turning, just by letting the waving rear wheel swing outward the instant before dropping it onto the pavement, already slipping, gripping, and turning as braking tapers away. Which set of complex compromises, combined with this rider’s style, gives the quickest lap time that can also keep tires working to the end? Any team with a talented young rider can stumble on a one-lap miracle, but being up front and able to push in the last five laps doesn’t happen by accident.

Rossi’s realism comes from experience while Viñales’ soaring ups and downs are powered by youthful energy and ambition. One of racing’s “men of many colors,” Carlo Pernat, said, “Seeing Rossi with sad eyes is not nice. When you lose the eye of the tiger, it’s hard to remedy the situation.”

Malaysia—like trying to race while wrapped in hot towels—is next. And then the finale at Valencia, after which observers with the budget for such extra hotel nights will see the 2019 bikes with their 2019 riders.