It’s funny. There’s been so much change in World Superbikes heading into 2017. Less necessary homologated parts. Red Bull being a true title sponsor for Honda. The return of Marco Melandri. Milwaukee backing Aprillia. Another GP World Champion heading over in Stefan Bradl. And despite all of this, at the end of it all, Jonathan Rea takes ANOTHER Philip Island double, and puts himself in the 40 win club; alongside Noriyuki Haga, Troy Bayliss and Carl Fogarty. Pretty special company by any measure.
Watching both races, Philip Island just seems to have this ridiculous nature of being an incredible equaliser. I’m sure someone out there smarter than me can figure out why, but no circuit on the calendar here, or in GP seems to have this knack of bringing the field so close together. In Race 1, at one point, the Top 14 was covered by three seconds. Unheard of for Worlds, and something more out of Moto3. I’m skeptical that this is truly the state of play in the field, and I think Thailand next weekend will be more of the representative track for Worlds in 2017, but this was a treat to behold. No-one could break off at the front, especially in Race 1, where Tom Sykes, Jonathan Rea, and Marco Melandri all took turns trying to break the pack. But the draft still yanked everyone back into play.
Both races had near carbon copy final laps too, with it all coming down to a familiar fight – Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies. And James Whitham on commentary summed it up better than I could; it seemed that Rea just had that extra level of confidence in everything he did, and for me, I think his tactical nouse was top tier. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a bit harder to pass at PI then people think, and I think Rea knew he had to lead going into that final lap so he could play blocker, and in Race 1 in particular, his personal best lap, was the final one, sticking his bike in places where it would have been impossible for Davies to pass. Just incredible stuff, both race finishes measured to perfection.
My rider of the weekend… And I say this through gritted teeth given my #BikeLive family, was Alex Lowes. Ginters was quick to point out on the broadcast that he had a podium finish when he was still employed by them, but he was also 10+ seconds back from a sniff at the win. Both times round, Lowes was confident, ballsy, and had race winning level speed. As mentioned earlier, I hope this wasn’t a PI-only fluke, but that was the best weekend I’ve ever seen out of Lowes in Worlds, and hope it’s a sign of more to come from him and Yamaha, who look as good as they have since their return to SBK in 2016.
Marco Melandri was also very impressive out there on his first weekend back in two years. Very fast in both races, out-qualified teammate Davies, and was at the front in both races, including starting from 10th in Race 2 due to an unfortunate clash with Lowes in Race 1. But 10th to 3rd in Race 2 was super-impressive and I fear Melandri may be a greater thorn in Davies’ side than many of us realised.
Mentions also have to be given to Jordi “Spanish Elvis” Torres for his 7th in Race 1 (Especially given we thought BMW would drop like a stone this season). Leon Camier for continuing to do the Lords’ work with two Top 10 finishes, and a fantastic 5th in Race 1 for MV Augsta (Seriously boys, back the truck up at his house with money), and Xavi Fores for showing Top 5 level speed all weekend on the customer Ducati. Awesome stuff.
The reverse grid rule for Race 2? I don’t think this was as bad as many were making out to begin with. The sport needed to do something to make Race 2 more appealing, especially with splitting the two races across the weekend. Carbon copies of Race 2 were common as all hell last season, given there were SIX double winners last season, out of 13 rounds on the calendar. This will work well enough the more competitive the field is. Xavi Fores leading a good chunk of Race 2 made it interesting, especially with strong riders like Camier and Lowes on the front row.
The cream will still rise to the top (Rea, Davies and Melandri all finishing on the podium), but they’ve got to ride out of their skin to make it work, like Rea did. He was 4th by Lap 3 for crying out loud. Tom Sykes was a little exposed though as he couldn’t pass as aggressively and got caught napping in 6th. That alone can open the door for other riders and I look forward to seeing if it pays off in the long run.
Speaking of disappointments, if you listed to our #BikeLive season preview, Gregory Haines did a brilliant job of explaining that Ten Kate’s Honda team had their backs against the wall from the start because they were late in getting their new Fireblade’s. By the time Red Bull Honda were SBK ready, they had next to no testing time. And it showed. Bradl with two 15th place finishes, Hayden with a crash in there as well, and generally speaking, looking like the weakest of the Factory backed teams. A shame, because the livery is stunning and after the big deal of getting two former World Champion riders, this year could already be a write off for Honda.
Milwaukee Aprillia were questionably bad as well. Eugene Laverty is a quality rider and the fact they couldn’t get into Superpole 2 and two lower Top 10 results from a unit that was aiming for Top 5’s isn’t great.
Oh, and we have to mention that incredible Supersport race, with Robbie Rolfo, beating Lucas Mahias by one THOUSANDTH of a second in what was essentially a 10-lap bar fight of a Supersport race, both men beating the crap out of each other. Also, big missed opportunity for title rivals Jules Cluzel and PJ Jacobsen – The former being obliterated at the hairpin, the latter only finishing 6th on his MV Agusta debut. Shoutout to Kyle Ride for continuing to look really good out there. Probably the most exciting British talent on two wheels at the moment.
Overall, a superb weekend of bike racing, and a damn good sign that World Superbikes is back to kick some arse. Hope the rest of the season can continue in the same vein.
For even more coverage of Philip Island, as well as talk on MotoGP Testing and the announcement plus discussion of the British Talent Cup, check out Episode #2 of #BikeLive with me and Louis Suddaby from 12pm GMT right here on Soundcloud and where all good Podcasts are available! Catch you tomorrow!