A quick scan of the results from the Phillip Island season opener for this year’s Motul FIM World Superbike Championship may seem a case of “same old”, as last year’s round winner Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team) once again took the chocolates, but the wins certainly weren’t as easy as they might have looked on paper.
In World Supersport, it was “old” of a different sort as fans were treated to one of the most dynamic and action-packed races at Phillip Island for many years, capped by the ‘oldest’ final podium in the category’s history.
With good weather across all three days, the official crowd figure for the 24-26 February event was 60,101.
New and Old
The 2017 Motul FIM World Superbike Championship season got underway at Phillip Island with the WSBK field boasting a number of new faces, but only one Aussie in the form of Josh Brookes (ERMotorsport Elite Roads Yamaha), who had turned to crowdfunding and a chunk of his own money to get on the grid as a wildcard.
The new faces included Ondrej Jezek (Grillini Racing Kawasaki) and Riccardo Russo (Guandalini Racing Yamaha), both from Superstock 600/1000 competition, as well as former World Supersport rider, Randy Krummenacher (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing), and 2011 Moto2 champion and former MotoGP regular Stefan Bradl, who was joining Nicky Hayden at Red Bull Honda WSBK.
Riders returning after an absence from the series included Eugene Laverty (Milwaukee Aprilia) and Marco Melandri (Aruba.it Ducati), both of whom are past WSBK race winners and championship runners-up (in 2013 and 2011, respectively).
In World Supersport, Kenan Sofuoglu (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) was absent, having broken and dislocated his right thumb in a training accident. While the defending champion did come to Phillip Island for the test session, a handful of laps made it clear he would not be race fit for either the Phillip Island or Buriram rounds. Sofuoglu is hoping to be back in action for the Aragon round in late March.
As in WSBK, there were a number of WSS rookies keen to impress at Phillip Island, including Michael Canducci (Puccetti Racing Junior Team Kawasaki), Davide Pizzoli (Race Department ATK#25 MV Agusta), Kazuki Watanabe (Team Kawasaki Go Eleven), experienced EWC campaigner Lucas Mahias (GRT Yamaha Official WorldSSP) and last season’s wildcard sensation, Niki Tuuli (Kallio Racing Yamaha) from Finland.
Aussie regulars in WSS this season consisted of Aiden Wagner (Gear Team Lorini Honda) and teenager Lachlan Epis (Response RE Racing Kawasaki), while local wildcards were made up of Anthony West (West Racing Yamaha) and Matt Edwards (Euro Twins Brisbane Triumph).
Practice and Qualifying
With the Phillip Island test session for most of the WSBK competitors held only a few days earlier, there was already a barometer of who would perform well in Round 1. Leading that field was Rea, who had topped the pre-season test, but his main rival from 2016, Aruba.it Ducati’s Chaz Davies dominated Free Practice 1 with a 1’30.189 best time.
Free Practice 2 saw Rea start to assert his authority, while Melandri showed he’d lost little of his pace after two seasons away from WSBK with the second best time. Xavi Fores (Barni Racing Ducati) was also on the pace in FP2, as was Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha Official WSBK). Rea’s team mate Tom Sykes, who freely admits Phillip Island isn’t one of his favourite circuits, hovered around fifth and sixth.
Bradl and Hayden were clearly struggling with the new Fireblade. No surprise, really, as the Red Bull Honda team only received their bikes in late January. Playing catch-up was reflected in poor qualifying times, but expect the Hondas to figure at the pointy end by mid-season.
Come Superpole 1 and Leon Camier (MV Agusta Reparto Corse) and Michael van der Mark (Pata Yamaha Official WSBK) qualified through to Superpole 2, while Laverty just missed the cut and Brookes finished sixth, which equated to 16th on the starting grid.
Superpole 2 saw Rea, unsurprisingly, take pole with a 1’29.573 lap, while Sykes impressed to take second on the grid (1’29.605), with Melandri (1’29.734) completing the front row - all three under the lap record. The second row was made up of Davies, Lowes and Lorenzo Savadori (Milwaukee Aprilia).
In World Supersport, the absence of Sofuoglu and last year’s early sensation Randy Krummenacher, allowed others to shine, specifically Patrick ‘PJ’ Jacobsen (MV Agusta Reparto Corse), who topped the timesheets in all three Free Practice sessions, ahead of Jules Cluzel (CIA Landlord Insurance Honda) and Federico Caricasulo (GRT Yamaha Official WorldSSP).
Of the Aussies, Wagner started the FP sessions well (tenth in FP1), then tumbled down the timesheets, while West went in the other direction, improving from 24th to 16th at the end of FP3, despite blowing a second engine and having to borrow the powerplant out of a punter’s R6 just to make the grid. Epis was consistent at the tail end of the field, while Edwards’s weekend ended when he crashed heavily in FP2, injuring himself lightly, but destroying his Daytona 675.
In WSS Superpole 1, Kyle Ryde (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) and rookie Canducci qualified through to Superpole 2, but Jacobsen was the star again, claiming pole with a 1’33.128 lap, ahead of Cluzel (1’33.230) and Caricasulo (1’33.250). Ryde claimed fourth, ahead of Mahias and Alex Baldolini (Race Department ATK#25 MV Agusta) on the second row.
Of the Aussies, Wagner, Epis and West qualified in 20th, 21st and 22nd, respectively.
World Superbike Race 1 – Bicycle Race?
On a sunny Saturday 25 February, the opening WSBK race for 2017 saw Melandri get his nose in front of Rea on the opening lap, but it was a tight contest in the five that followed, with 68 changes of position and less than a second separating the top six riders.
Brookes, who had been hovering around 17th and 18th place in the opening laps, was out on lap six with an overheated engine (later identified as a blown head gasket), while Savadori crashed out of seventh place on the same lap.
At the front, the close fight was evidenced by Melandri, Sykes, Lowes and Rea all in front at various points through the middle part of the 22-lap race; still with less than a second between them. Close behind the leaders, Camier was having his own fight with Fores.
While the tension of the race was high, the pace wasn’t, with Rea later saying it was one of the strangest races he’d been in and comparing it to a bicycle race where no-one seemed willing to strike out and gap the field.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first race was Lowes, who occupied sixth place for the opening laps, then benefitted from the tangles of others – and an improved Yamaha underneath him – to take second place behind Sykes on lap 10, then the lead a lap later.
On lap 15, Melandri’s brilliant return came to an end when he crashed at turn 2 and had to retire. Two laps later, Sykes regained the lead when Lowes and Davies edged past Rea at turn 4.
With two laps to go, Sykes made a small mistake, while Lowes started losing grip and began to fall away, setting up a duel between Rea and Davies to the finish – just like last year at Phillip Island.
The Ducati rider actually passed Rea on the straight to start the final lap, but was overtaken at turn 2 and almost collided with Rea around the turn 12 finale in his efforts to steal the win.
It wasn’t to be, though; Rea took the victory by a mere 0.042 seconds from Davies, with Sykes third and Lowes fourth.
Camier’s efforts in the opening race attracted attention, after the sole MV Agusta rider in the WSBK field started poorly and had to play catch-up. Benefitting from the tight field in the opening laps, Camier was up to sixth by mid-race, and improved one more place in the closing stages.
Laverty’s return to WSBK was reasonable, with an eighth place finish, while van der Mark (ninth) seems to be finding the YZF R1 hard to adapt to after switching from Honda.
The new Hondas, as expected, performed poorly, with Hayden eleventh, well behind rookie Krummenacher, while Bradl finished 15th in his WSBK debut.
In the post-race press conference, Rea said he came into the race somewhat “blind” in terms of set-up, due to temperature changes between testing and race day. Caught out by the fast change of the lights at the start, Rea felt he could have pushed a bit harder, but confirmed it was hard to get away from the pack.
Davies added that it was a race with a bit of carnage, some of which he confessed to being involved in. This was echoed by Sykes, who said the riding was getting messy in parts. But the third-place finisher, who has never won at Phillip Island and only ever scored one other podium in the past, was more bemused by the fact he was leading with three laps to go: “Tom Sykes leading at Phillip Island? Jeeeezus!” the affable Yorkshireman laughed, adding that a podium at Phillip Island was, for him, like a win at other circuits.
World Superbike RACE 1 results
1. Jonathan REA GBR Kawasaki 33’52.290
2. Chaz DAVIES GBR Ducati +0.042
3. Tom SYKES GBR Kawasaki +1.050
4. Alex LOWES GBR Yamaha +1.082
5. Leon CAMIER GBR MV Agusta +3.002
6. Xavi FORES ESP Ducati +3.320
7. Jordi TORRES ESP BMW +8.725
8. Eugene LAVERTY IRE Aprilia +12.135
9. Michael vd MARK NED Yamaha +12.180
10. Randy K’NACHER SWI Kawasaki +12.439
DNF. Josh BROOKES AUS Yamaha
Fastest Lap: REA – 1’31.197 (Lap 3)
World Superbike Race 2 – Back to Front
The modified grid for Race 2 meant that those who finished just off the podium in Race 1 had the most to gain. In this instance, it was Lowes, whose fourth place in Race 1 translated to pole for Race 2. Joining him on the front row of the grid were Camier (fifth in race 1) and Fores (sixth in race 1), while Rea, Davies and Sykes were shuffled back to ninth, eighth and seventh, respectively, behind Torres, Laverty and van der Mark on Row 2 in a grid set-up that everyone is still trying to get their heads around.
When the lights went out for Race 2, Davies bolted from eighth to fourth before the opening corner, but Lowes and Laverty led the field. Sykes struggled, in eighth at the end of the first lap, and unable to do better than sixth for the remainder of the race.
Torres had retired with a mechanical problem on the warm-up lap, followed by Russo who crashed at turn 11 on lap 3.
Fores had fought his way to the lead by the same lap and would hold it briefly from Laverty, but Rea was picking his way through the riders ahead and would pass the Spaniard for the lead on lap 6.
Also working his way to the pointy end was Melandri. Pushed wide by Sykes on the opening lap, the Italian dropped back outside the top ten, but when Rea took the race lead, Melandri was up to fifth and closing in.
In what was a noticably faster contest than Race 1, Davies was also on a charge, determined to reverse the Race 1 result. Taking the lead from Rea on lap 8, Davies held it through the middle part of the 22-lap race, albeit by a small margin, from Lowes, Fores and Melandri.
By mid-race distance, aside from Hayden’s crash on lap 8, positions outside the top five had largely settled, but less than a second covered those at the front.
Melandri, up to second by lap 13, took the lead two laps later, but in catching the frontrunners, he’d exhausted his tyres and despite holding off Davies and Rea for a number of laps, was unable to stop them getting past in the closing stages. This set the stage for yet another Rea versus Davies battle.
As in Race 1, Davies held the advantage coming into the final lap, crossing the line ahead of his nemesis, but couldn’t fend off the Kawasaki all the way to the chequered flag. However, the tighter margin – 0.025 seconds – points to the likelihood of the Ducati beating the Kawasaki in a straight fight at certain circuits this year.
Brookes, who only just made the start after he and his team scrambled to rebuild one engine out of two following Race 1’s damage, had a more solid Race 2. Starting well down, Brookes fought his way into a pack that included Roman Ramos (Team Kawasaki Go Eleven) and Markus Reiterberger (Althea BMW Racing). In the closing laps, he passed both to take 12th, which would be a satisfying result, given the circumstances, before he kicks off his British Superbike campaign.
Racewinner Rea said the pace of the field in the second Phillip Island hitout was much more consistent than the “strange” first race, and praised Melandri, Lowes and Fores for their performances. But, in rating Davies as his most feared rival, Rea added that winning another last lap battle against him means a lot and was really satisfying heading to Round 2 at Thailand.
Although he turned 30 in February, Rea celebrated a “40th” at Phillip Island, with the Race 2 victory being his fortieth in WSBK competition. That puts him in elite company alongside Noriyuki Haga, Carl Fogarty and Troy Bayliss.
Davies, speaking after the race, said he tried to stay out of trouble in the first couple of laps under the new format, and that, looking at the bigger picture, was glad to come away from Phillip Island unscathed and with a sackful of points following crashes in past seasons.
Feeling lucky to get a podium result, Melandri added that he also appreciated his change in circumstances compared to 2016: “Last year I was on the sofa, now I am here on the podium,” the Italian laughed.
World Superbike RACE 2 results
1. Jonathan REA GBR Kawasaki 33’52.785
2. Chaz DAVIES GBR Ducati +0.025
3. Marco MELANDRI ITA Ducati +0.249
4. Alex LOWES GBR Yamaha +0.956
5. Xavi FORES ESP Ducati +2.320
6. Tom SYKES GBR Kawasaki +4.781
7. Michael vd MARK NED Yamaha +7.307
8. Leon CAMIER GBR MV Agusta +9.756
9. Lorenzo SAVADORI ITA Aprilia +11.135
10. Eugene LAVERTY IRE Aprilia +20.123
12. Josh BROOKES AUS Yamaha +25.879
Fastest Lap: MELANDRI – 1’31.178 (Lap 6)
World Supersport Race – Chaos Ball
While close and exciting, the two World Superbike races at Phillip Island were largely drama-free. The same couldn’t be said for the World Supersport race, with numerous crashes, a re-start, retirements and a dramatic final dash to the line that left everyone stunned.
There was controversy even before the riders had completed qualifying. Due to concerns over tyre safety, exacerbated by a blistered tyre that saw Mahias crash heavily in practice, the WSS race distance was shortened from 18 laps to 15.
When the 15-lapper got underway, poleman Jacobsen and Caricasulo battled early, with the Aussies all getting away well, particularly West.
Zulfahmi Khairuddin (Orelac Racing VerdNatura Kawasaki) and Christian Gamarino (Bardahl Evan Bros Honda) came together and ran off the track at turn 10 on the opening lap, followed a lap later by Baldolini at the same corner.
But on lap 3, Robin Mulhauser (CIA Landlord Insurance Honda) collided spectacularly with Gino Rea (Team Kawasaki Go-Eleven) exiting turn 6, destroying his CBR600RR and bringing out the red flag due to debris on the track.
When the race was restarted as a ten-lap sprint, Jacobsen’s weekend went from stellar to cellar when he dropped down through the field, then lowsided out of turn 10 on lap 3. Able to rejoin, albeit in close-to-last place, it was a reflection of how close the entire field was that the American was able to gain positions, including a jump from eleventh to sixth on the last lap.
At the head of the field, Caricasulo, Mahias and Cluzel led a freight train of up to eight riders in the opening couple of laps, with West at the head of a closely-following second train, despite running with around 10 horsepower less than those around him.
Cluzel got the upper hand on lap 2 and despite some chopping and changing, would remain at the front until Baldolini took the lead on lap 8. By this stage, West had joined the front runners, with the top five riders separated by less than a second.
Wagner, meanwhile, was trading positions with the likes of Watanabe and Sheridan Morais (Kallio Racing Yamaha) in a following pack which also included Epis.
The intensity went up a gear on the penultimate lap, when Mahias took the lead and veteran Roberto Rolfo (Team Factory Vamag MV Agusta) moved up to second. Rolfo, whose racing record stretches back more than a decade and includes 250cc race wins (including at Phillip Island), had never won a WSS race in his past four seasons in the category, but the 36-year-old was aiming to change that; he was certainly in the mix, but so were about six others.
The shortened competition was always going to be frantic, but the final swarm was more like a Moto3 race, with less than a second separating the top seven riders on the penultimate lap.
Turn 10 had been pivotal, with the corner claiming Kyle Smith (Gemar Team Lorini Honda), Jacobsen, Pizzoli and Stefan Hill (Profile Racing Triumph) on the restart. On the final lap, it influenced the final result, when Caricasulo slid into Cluzel and catapulted the French rider into the air, ending both riders’ podium aspirations. Their loss proved to be West’s gain, but he had to fend off Ryde and Tuuli to claim third place.
In front of him, Rolfo and Mahias rolled out of turn 12 and onto the finish straight virtually locked together. The pair crossed the line in what appeared to be a dead heat, with Mahias’s aggressive tactics pushing Rolfo onto the grass at high speed.
The timekeepers initially had Mahias as the winner, then Rolfo, then Mahias again. Having to analyse a photo finish, Rolfo was eventually awarded the win by the barest of margins – 0.001 seconds – the closest finish in WSS history. The drama of that close finish was diluted when Mahias was later given a one second time penalty for unsportsmanlike riding.
“Today was special,” Rolfo said. “The Iast lap was a big fight. I tried to go in front, I tried to hold the line into the last corner, but the last metre of the race was a little bit complicated, because I had contact with Lucas.”
After suggesting the tactics of Mahias were a little unsporting, Rolfo went on to say that the WSS championship is very competitive and that’s one of the most attractive elements of the category.
Mahias, painted as the bad guy in the finish line incident, gave his take: “It was a strange race. I am happy, but I would prefer [to have] won the race – for the points and the prizemoney!”
West, who had started from the back row of the grid to take the final podium position, said the weeks leading up to the Phillip Island round had been a disaster, finding it incredulous that he’d even started the race, let alone finished it on what was an underpowered R6.
“It’s been the most crazy weekend, week and weeks leading up to this race,” West said, adding that getting to the Island had been virtually all through public donations, borrowed parts and GoFundMe support.
“The [bike] was on the limiter all the way from Siberia (turn 6) to Lukey Heights (turn 9), so I thought this thing’s going to blow up, for sure.”
Fortunately, the engine held together, and West’s win-it-or-bin-it mentality kept him in touch with the frontrunners right to the finish. The Aussie finished third at last year’s WSS race, too, only missing second due to a late slipstream pass.
“When I saw the chequered flag, I thought ‘SWERVE!’ – no-one’s going to beat me this time!” West said.
The other Aussies in the race, Wagner and Epis, finished in seventh and tenth, respectively. It was Wagner’s best result to date, his previous best being tenth at last year’s Australian round. Epis’s previous best was 15th at last year’s season-ending Qatar round.
World Supersport RACE results
1. Roberto ROLFO ITA MV Agusta 15’56.217
2. Lucas MAHIAS FRA Yamaha +0.001
3. Anthony WEST AUS Yamaha +1.544
4. Kyle RYDE GBR Kawasaki +1.679
5. Niki TUULI FIN Yamaha +1.727
6. Patrick JACOBSEN USA MV Agusta +5.237
7. Aiden WAGNER AUS Honda +5.387
8. Kazuki WATANABE JPN Kawasaki +6.610
9. Nacho CALERO ESP Kawasaki +8.057
10. Lachlan EPIS AUS Kawasaki +8.309
Fastest Lap: JACOBSEN – 1’33.782 (Lap 7)