PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA, OCT 26 - Repsol Honda's Casey Stoner didn't have any expectations when he rolled out onto his favorite track for the last time. Everyone else is expecting the 27-year-old Australian to win Sunday's Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island for a record sixth time in a row before retiring from racing, though he doesn't see it that way. Every track, every day is different, he said, but he couldn't deny that today, and this weekend, was special.
On a day of howling, bone-chilling winds, and occasional rain, Stoner turned a best lap time of 1:29.999 that was .885 of a second faster than the best of his teammate Dani Pedrosa, with Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo third and more than a second back. No one else is in the hunt, as has been the case for much of the year.
Was he surprised to be so far out in front, he was asked?
"To be honest, yeah," he said. "You know, I saw everybody out there going on new softs and I was expecting them to really close the gap considerably, or if not get in front of me, because there's a huge difference between a new tire and an old one, but I was still considerably faster than them with more or less race distance on the soft tire. So if we put on a soft we could've gone again a big step faster. But it was very positive for us to actually improve on the harder tire."
Stoner was able to perform at a high level because the right ankle that he'd fractured at the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix wasn't giving him problems. He said he moves less compared to the two previous tracks in his comeback tour, Motegi and Sepang, with only two corners that "are giving me some hell. The rest of it we seem a lot more comfortable than we were in the last two races. So I'm pretty happy, because going into this weekend my ankle's in a lot worse condition than when we started in Japan and it's nice to take a bit of weight off it, really."
Not only was Stoner shockingly faster than the others, but he did it on the hard rear Bridgestone, while others flailed around on the softs to try to match his time.
"You know, every track we go to, we never really know what we're going to do," Stoner said. "We don't know what the track condition's going to be like. We never have expectations. But to get into the 29s on the first day I'm pretty happy with. But I'm mainly happy that we did that with the hard tire - nobody else was running the hard tire - and we did something everybody else didn't and found a bit of extra pace over everybody, so that's good and positive. Because by the time everybody else has to switch to the hard tire they might be on the back foot a little bit. We sort of jumped to the hard early trying to find our direction there and so far it seems to be not too bad."
Having spent so much time on the harder option rear gives Stoner a head start in preparing his race setup. And it also gives him extra soft tires to go after a stunning time in Saturday qualifying. He said the hard was the race tire of choice.
"Almost sure, to be honest. A medium compound tire around here is really going to cop a huge beating. Even last year the conditions weren't superwarm, but we were still on the harder tire. Even the soft fronts, well, medium front is struggling a little bit around this circuit, so I think everybody's going to be having some issues, because everybody so far has been complaining about the soft dropping off very quickly and I think that's only going to get worse with more rubber and actually putting more weight on the right.
"The chatter, we've still got it. It was worse this afternoon than it was this morning. The extra grip and a little bit more rubber on the track, we started having some issues on the left and right. But even this morning we still had chatter on the right, the two small corners, MG and Honda. So it's something where we're learning to deal with, but on this circuit because it goes left we should have less issues than we do at any other circuit on the right."