Record crowds are expected to hail local hero Casey Stoner at Phillip Island this weekend as he bids for a record sixth straight title in his last home Grand Prix, but injury and Jorge Lorenzo could spoil the Australian's farewell party.
Twice MotoGP champion Stoner's title defence has already been dashed by ankle ligaments damaged during the US Grand Prix in July, and the Honda rider will carry the still-painful injury onto the tricky coastal circuit where typically wet and gusty conditions are certain to prevail.
The circuit's owners have honoured the Australian by naming the hairy turn three "Stoner's corner" and the rider has vowed to attack the track with his trademark aggression.
"We're having a lot more trouble with it (injury) day-to-day, just getting around on it at all"
Two-time MotoGP champion, Casey Stoner
The injury, however, has worsened since his return at the Japan Grand Prix, where he finished a creditable fifth behind his team mate Dani Pedrosa.
"We're having a lot more trouble with it day-to-day, just getting around on it at all," said Stoner, who finished third at Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.
"But I don't think it will affect me any differently on the bike. The biggest moment I'm having at the moment is flexibility on the bike trying to get it working.
"Fortunately on this track there are not too many right hand corners that are so critical, so we should be a little more comfortable riding around here. The main fitness problem I'm having at the moment is endurance."
Despite a career marred by injury and illness, Stoner has enjoyed a long, uninterrupted reign at Phillip Island, and he underlined his mastery of the track on Friday by finishing top of the time-sheets in both rounds of practice.
Stoner posted a time of one minute and 30.374 seconds in a rain-interrupted first session to leave championship leader Jorge Lorenzo in his wake, then returned to record a lap of 1:29.999 in the second session, nearly a second faster than second-fastest Pedrosa.
Yamaha rider Lorenzo leads fellow Spaniard Pedrosa by 23 points in a two-horse race for the championship, and with 25 points up for grabs for a race win, can seal the title Down Under.
But Phillip Island has not been a happy hunting ground for Lorenzo, who endured a nightmare weekend last year when he crashed in morning practice before the race and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on a mangled finger.
Lorenzo talked of a cautious approach to the weekend but cannot afford to be too cautious with the in-form Pedrosa snapping at his heels.
"It's only two races until the end, so more than ever we must be really concentrated and really focused on not making any mistakes," said Lorenzo, runner-up behind Pedrosa at Sepang and at Motegi the week before.
|With two races to go, Lorenzo has comfortable lead over Pedrosa at top of championship [AFP]
"Anyway, we have the opportunity to arrive in Valencia with the possibility to be world champion. We'll try to finish on the podium this time.
"It would be great (to win the title here) and we have to possibility to do it, but we are not going to make ourselves crazy just to do it."
Pedrosa has mounted a withering late charge in the championship, with his triumph at Sepang his fifth victory from six races.
Edging his higher-profile countryman again at Phillip Island would set up a Spanish battle royale back home in the season-ender at Valencia.
"Riding here is always very special," Pedrosa said.
"There are many corners where you can steer the bike with the gas. There are some times when it's really cold, but sometimes it's wonderful to be here with this horsepower, especially into the last corner going onto the main straight and up the hill.
"It would be good (to have a title battle in Valencia), as there are two Spaniards fighting for the championship and the
final round is in Spain. It's been a long time since I've been in this position, fighting until the end."