Casey Stoner speaks to the media yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
TWO-wheel tearaway Casey Stoner is on the verge of early retirement and also on the cusp of greatness.
After terrorising his opponents in practice and qualifying at Phillip Island, Stoner is poised to farewell the sport with a runaway win in this afternoon's Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
Such a feat while nursing a seriously damaged right ankle would confirm what the statistics of his short MotoGP career never can: that he is one of the best yet.
After just seven years in motorcycle racing's premier category - six of which have been at or near the top - he will race for the final time at the Island before retiring after the last race of the season in two weeks.
A record sixth consecutive victory in his favourite race at his favourite circuit would say more about his ability than his career record, which is still right up there despite its brevity.
Another dominant performance while not fully fit at the Phillip Island circuit - that requires both skill and bravery to master - would complete a case to argue that his standing as an all-time great is more than the sum of his wins. He has scored 37 race victories in MotoGP and captured two world titles, in 2007 and 2011.
As far as Australian motorcycle legend Mick Doohan is concerned, Stoner leaves the sport prematurely as a confirmed great.
''He's without doubt one of the best racers that's ever been,'' declared Doohan, who has five world titles and 54 race wins to back his appraisal.
''He's a great motorcycle racer and I think that goes without saying. He's proven himself. He's a double world champion and there aren't too many of them in the sport.''
Like all but those closest to Stoner, Doohan is surprised that the freakishly talented 27-year-old is quitting with potentially his best years still ahead of him. "I think everybody's surprised, but it's really up to him," Doohan said. ''He's the one who has to sit there and be happy with himself when he hops on a bike.
''He doesn't feel he's enjoying it at the moment, so he's pulled the pin.
''But that doesn't mean in a year or two years' time he won't reconsider.''
Doohan doesn't rule out Stoner emulating formula one car-racing superstar Michael Schumacher, who came out of retirement in 2010 because he missed racing so much after three years away.
''He's still young enough and he's still talented enough to do a Schuey,'' Doohan said. ''A few other riders in the past have taken a year off and come back into superbikes, and they've won that title. But if he were to come back to motorcycle racing, I wouldn't imagine he'd go anywhere else [but MotoGP].''
Stoner has expressed interest in pursuing his boyhood dream of racing V8 Supercars and there is a growing belief in in that sport that he will make the switch as soon as next year.
Doohan thinks the transition to V8 Supercars could help him adjust to life without the adrenalin rush of motorcycle racing at the highest level.
''Casey's talented and he's still young,'' he said. ''It's definitely easier to go from racing bikes to racing cars than it is the other way around. If that's how he feels he's going to sort of adapt to the outside world, then I think that's a good way to go about it.''
NO MAN (AUSTRALIAN) IS AN ISLAND
When the nation's MotoGP riders win at Phillip Island they are certainly not alone in celebrating. Hundreds of thousands have enjoyed the spectacle since the return of top class racing to Phillip Island in 1989 and there's been plenty to cheer about.
1989: The backyard Gardner
Inspired by Wayne Gardner's 1987 500cc world title, the classic Phillip Island track is rebuilt after more than 20 years of disuse for Australia's first round of the world motorcycle championship. The inaugural Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at the Island is won dramatically by Gardner, his emotional win witnessed by a reported crowd of 88,000.
1990: End of an era
Gardner wins again, beating pole-winner and his soon-to-be-successor as Australia's two-wheel superstar Mick Doohan. Following his retirement from motorcycle racing, the superfast downhill main straight is renamed Gardner Straight (where is son Remy is pictured in 2010)
1997: Doohan's downfall
After six years at Sydney's Eastern Creek, the AMGP returns to Phillip Island. Doohan, having already secured his fourth 500cc world title, crashes out of the race at the fearsomely fast first turn. He faced the ignominy of having to get a lift back to the pits with that part of the track subsequently renamed Doohan Corner.
1998: In the Mick of time
Doohan breaks his Island duck, winning his third Australian Motorcycle GP (he also won at Eastern Creek in '92 and '95) on his way to his fifth consecutive world championship.
1999: Farewell lap
Doohan is unable to defend his Phillip Island title as a serious leg injury forces him to quit racing after just the second race of the season. Before the race - won by Japan's Tadayuki Okada - Doohan does a helmet-less lap of the track to farewell the Australian fans.
2001: When in doubt, cheer an Italian
While Australia awaits a new local hero, colourful Italian superstar Valentino Rossi becomes the Australian crowd favourite, winning the first of five straight AMGPs at the Island. In 2002, it's Rossi again as the 500cc world championship renamed MotoGP as Rossi's reign continues on the new 990cc four-stroke monsters.
2006: The new kid
In his debut MotoGP season, Casey Stoner finishes sixth at the Island on his privateer Honda. Few realise he is on the verge of becoming Australia's next world champion.
2007: Taming the beast
Stoner is the surprise signing to the popular Ducati team, taming the beastly Italian bike to win the world title. Despite a spectacular fall in free practice he begins his mastery of the Island, winning four straight on the red rockets. MotoGP engine capacity reduced to 800cc.
2010: Guess who?
It's Stoner again, edging out clear championship winner Jorge Lorenzo.
2011: Home and away wins
Stoner scores a record-equalling fifth consecutive AMGP at Phillip Island in his first season with Honda. His runaway victory on his 26th birthday also clinches his second world title.
2012: A corner of his world
Stoner's farewell appearance at the Island, having announced back in May that he will retire from MotoGP at the end of the season. It's his third race since returning from major surgery to his right ankle, which cost him his title defence and is hampering his hopes of a record sixth straight victory. The fast left-hand third turn is renamed Stoner Corner in his honour. Unpopular 800cc engine capacity limit raised to 1000cc this season.