Stoner gives island faithful royal send-off
CASEY Stoner's coronation as the king of Phillip Island could hardly have gone better, from the "royal procession" that was the one-sided race, to his tumultuous crowning by the rhapsodic crowd after a victory that broke records and hearts.
Stoner overcame a late whirlwind of emotions and the constant pressure of expectation to win his sixth consecutive Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix yesterday.
In his farewell appearance in front of an Australian crowd before he retires from MotoGP racing in 13 days, the fresh-faced 27-year-old led all but the first lap on his Honda to score another runaway victory at his favourite track.
Fitting farewell: Casey Stoner, who claimed victory at Phillip Island yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Just like the previous five wins, Stoner was supreme and unstoppable, racing away to a big lead that he held to the end of the 27-lap, 120-kilometre race.
By his own admission he is not a man given to displays of emotion, but Stoner was overwhelmed by the reception of the huge crowd after the race, with thousands pouring onto the main straight to cheer him up on the podium.
"That was something very special and unique," he said. "It was just unreal. It's fantastic and I can't ask for a better way to end my career in Australia.
"Today was something else with the crowd. I knew I had a lot of pressure on me and I felt it the whole way through the race. I couldn't get it out of my head, did not want to make a mistake, didn't want to do anything wrong, so I always kept a lot in reserve to make sure I didn't push past any limits."
Stoner's win capped a mini-Australia Day at Phillip Island, following podium-placing performances by compatriots in the main support races.
Adelaide teenager Arthur Sissis was third in the Moto3 race — his first appearance on the podium in his rookie season — and Queensland veteran Ant West grabbed a heart-stopping second in the Moto2 event.
"It was fantastic to see so many people out there and especially as the Australian riders gave them so much to cheer about today," Stoner said.
"I'm sure they were all pumped up before the MotoGP race and then finally we gave them something extra to cheer about, and it was just an amazing day."
That it was. Under a clear sky in cool but windless conditions, the track was filled with the biggest race-day crowd since the Australian GP returned to Phillip Island from a six-year sojourn at Sydney's Eastern Creek, with Stoner's farewell attracting an attendance estimated at 53,100. Combined with the estimated Friday and Saturday crowds, a three-day record of 122,465 was claimed.
Although well short of the all-time Sunday record of around 88,000 at the first Phillip Island motorcycle GP in 1989, yesterday's attendance was big enough to cause traffic problems. Motorists reported the trip from Melbourne to the track was taking up to four hours.
The heavy traffic caused Premier Ted Baillieu to arrive late, although still well before the 4pm start of the big race. Baillieu declined an offer from Andrew Fox, the boss of track owner Linfox Property, to use the company's helicopter for the trip.
Racegoers were in festival mode by the time the big race began, hoping to see "King Casey" crowned. On the eve of his departure from MotoGP racing, he didn't disappoint.
The only time he was headed was after a slow start that dropped him back from pole position to third briefly behind world title rivals Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa.
Stoner was into second at the start of lap two and about to pass new leader Pedrosa, his Honda teammate, when the Spaniard lost the front end of his bike and slid off.
Pedrosa's elimination handed Yamaha's Lorenzo his second world title in three years, but the newly crowned champion was never a threat to Stoner, who streaked to a win by more than nine seconds without any sign of his seriously injured right ankle giving him trouble.
"Casey was in another world," Lorenzo said in obvious awe.
Like the fans, Lorenzo admitted that Stoner's impending retirement would leave a big hole in the sport. "I have a lot of respect for Casey because he is probably the most talented rider I have ever seen. We will miss him a lot," he said.
Even Stoner, while emphasising he would have no second thoughts about quitting, admitted that he would crave the competition with his main rivals.
"The actual racing is something I'm going to miss," he said. "I have so much respect for Dani and Jorge — I've been racing them my whole career — and we've been challenging each other and fighting with each other for many years, so there'll definitely be something missing inside sometimes."
Typically, Stoner wasn't willing to reveal just how emotional he had found the experience of winning his last race in Australia in front of such a large and adoring crowd.
"I'm not a very emotional person, so I'm not really going to talk about emotions and how it is," he said.
"But I think it says enough seeing the people out there on the pit straight and the reception we got for winning. I've had so much support over the years racing at home here, but this year was just so much more than all the years previous that it was quite something to take in. It's fantastic and I can't ask for a better way to end my career in Australia."
There was also an interesting symmetry about what was perhaps the most auspicious day of Stoner's short but spectacularly successful MotoGP career, which has gained him two world championships (2007, 2011) and 38 premier-class race victories (fourth on the all-time list). This race was 27 laps, his racing number is 27 and this month Stoner turned 27.