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Island Insider: Martin’s Championship lead for 23 hours, 59 minutes

Friday, 20 October 2023

Jorge Martin sat comfortably inside the top four in both Phillip Island practice sessions on Friday, but it’s what he does when there are 25 points up for grabs that will show how much he’s progressed from last year, or not.

For his entire career on the world championship stage, Jorge Martin had one goal in mind – to be number one in MotoGP™. When he got there, it didn’t even last 24 hours. How he bounces back from that disappointment at this weekend’s MotoGP™ Guru by Gryfyn Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix will make for compelling viewing.

Martin finished Friday afternoon’s all-important practice session at Phillip Island in fourth place, paving the way for a direct Q2 entry on Saturday as he bids for back-to-back pole positions in Australia following his searing 1min 27.767sec qualifying lap on Saturday last year, the fastest in the Island’s history.


Martin was in electrifying form at Phillip Island on Friday, setting a time of 1min 29.039secs in opening practice that was more than seven-tenths of a second faster than anyone else could manage and finishing just 0.279secs ahead of pace-setter Brad Binder (KTM) in the afternoon session. But after last weekend’s own goal in Indonesia, what he does before Saturday’s 27-lap Grand Prix, to be blunt, doesn’t mean much.

Last Saturday in Lombok, Martin took the lead in the MotoGP™ world championship for the first time when he won the Sprint race at the Indonesian Grand Prix, his sixth victory in seven starts in a little over a month in San Marino, India, Japan and then Mandalika. With title rival Pecco Bagnaia buried in the pack in 13th after a troublesome qualifying and Martin in the lead at the first corner of Sunday’s Grand Prix after an incredible start from sixth place, a massive title advantage coming to Australia looked to be Martin’s to lose. And lose it he did.

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Martin’s barely-believable lap 13 crash in Indonesia when cruising with a three-second lead – and Bagnaia’s subsequent win – was worth more than the 30-point swing in the standings in the reigning world champion’s favour. When the Prima Pramac Ducati man binned it at 3.21 pm local time – exactly one minute shy of 24 hours after he’d taken the series lead by winning the Sprint at 3.22 pm the day earlier – the commentary about the ‘old Martin’ – the one who would regularly star in qualifying and then squander race results with self-inflicted errors – reawakened. From his first nine MotoGP™ poles, Martin managed just one win. Last year’s five P1 Saturday showings resulted in a single podium finish. Were the old cracks starting to reappear?

The pre-event press conference at any Grand Prix weekend is always notable for what the riders say, but perhaps more so for what they don’t – and the insight their body language reveals about their psyche. Thursday at Phillip Island was no different, and a defiant Martin knew what was coming ahead of his 50th MotoGP™ start.

“I think we don’t have to change anything, as we work we are competitive every weekend. Almost fighting for the win, always. We just have to do the same,” Martin said, matter-of-factly and with his trademark rapid-fire delivery.

“It was not easy after the race, I was thinking a lot. But then I’m lucky that we had this race straight away to start thinking about this weekend.”

Rehearsed or not, it was a familiar mantra. Last Sunday in Indonesia, Martin went out of his way to repeatedly shrug off his blunder, every doubling-down of his “shit happens” mantra an insight into how much he was hurting as he attempted to pass it off as nothing. “It was just statistics,” he said, trying to shrug it off. “It’s been 14 races without a mistake …”.

There are mistakes, and there’s Mistakes, capital M, though. Martin had Bagnaia on the ropes, and he knew it. No less of an authority as Marc Marquez – no stranger to winning world titles – said in Indonesia that he felt Bagnaia was “suffering what it is to defend a title”. It took a Martin howler – and Bagnaia winning a dry-weather Grand Prix from further back on the grid for any rider since 2006 – for the factory Ducati man to arrive in Australia with an 18-point lead, his largest in four rounds.

A deficit of that magnitude – when there are still 185 points available across five Sprints and five Grands Prix in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Qatar and Valencia – means little for Martin, at least statistically. But psychologically? We’re about to find out if Indonesia was a return to the bad old days or a blip in an otherwise sensational late-season surge towards glory.

For Martin, this weekend – at a track where no Ducati rider, let’s not forget, has won since 2010 – will tell us plenty. He’s shown that he’s fast enough and good enough to win a premier-class title, but that’s not all it takes. Indonesia may well go down as the place he lost a world championship title, but Australia could be the first stop in when he saved it.