Valentino Rossi is predicting another tough battle as he looks to extend a four-year unbeaten run at Phillip Island in this weekend's fifteenth round of the MotoGP World Championship. Rossi, who already sealed the title in Malaysia two rounds ago, has enjoyed some of his most famous successes at this unique circuit and has contributed to some incredibly close racing - his final lap pass on Sete Gibernau last year still remembered fondly by locals as the riders were greeted to the island by typically brisk spring temperatures this week. With Marco Melandri and Nicky Hayden both hitting form and an intense six-rider struggle for second place in the championship taking place behind him, the Italian is expecting more of the same this Sunday.
"This is like a magic circuit for me, I have had some great, great battles here in the past," reflected Rossi. "Two years ago I managed to escape from Capirossi but last year was a hard fight with Gibernau until the last lap, also in 2001 it was a great fight with Biaggi. Also Hayden and Melandri will be strong. I have many rivals who can do well here so we will see this weekend. Phillip Island is a great track, maybe my absolute favourite, and I have some wonderful memories, especially winning the 500cc championship for the first time in 2001 and also for Yamaha last year, which was probably the best title of them all."
One man who doesn't expect to be challenging Rossi for victory, but who nevertheless has high hopes for the weekend, is local favourite Chris Vermeulen. The 23-year-old is scheduled to make his MotoGP debut as a replacement for his injured compatriot Troy Bayliss having recently finished as runner-up in his rookie season in the World Superbike Championship. Bayliss, who was replaced by Shane Byrne for the past two rounds, is recovering from a wrist injury and is currently fighting to be fit for the remaining races at Istanbul and Valencia, giving Vermeulen his first true taste of the Grand Prix paddock.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to ride in MotoGP, especially here in Australia," said Vermeulen. "I had a test scheduled for the end of last season but had to miss that because of an injury, so I'm really happy that this chance has come round again - I've made no secret of the fact that MotoGP is where I want to go with my career. Phillip Island is one of the best circuits in the world; it's fast and flowing and that really suits my riding style. You get a great view of the ocean coming down the start-finish straight but maybe I won't get the chance to appreciate that so much on a factory Honda machine at something like 320kph!"
Vermeulen will be backed by an expected crowd of around 50,000 fans, who will also have plenty to shout about during the 250cc race, with Casey Stoner chasing current World Champion Dani Pedrosa for the title and coming into his home race on the back of two consecutive victories. Stoner celebrates his 20th birthday on Sunday and will be hoping for a special present from the podium dignitaries as he aims to close down a 26-point deficit to the Spaniard. "At the moment I'm still taking it race by race but my target is to take the championship down to the final round," said Stoner. "Whatever happens in Valencia, I'll be satisfied that I have done everything I can. This weekend is obviously very big for me but I'm definitely not racing to finish second."
Thomas Lüthi gave his weekend a jump-start by joining MotoGP stars Max Biaggi and Toni Elías on a visit to the Phillip Island Wildlife Park, home to a herd of kangaroos and a host of other local animals. Lüthi will be hoping the visit can help him bounce back from his first non-podium in four rounds at Qatar, which left him trailing Mika Kallio by two points in the 125cc World Championship ahead of what promises to be another nail-biting weekend for the minor category. "I had a bad race here last year, in fact after my poor season I think it was the lowest point of my career," said Lüthi, who like Kallio has yet to score a single career point at Phillip Island. "But look how far I have come since then! I am confident going into the race because I have had a chance to rest the shoulder injury I sustained in Japan last month."
Source ORNA COMMUNICATIONS