The opening round of the FIM Motul Superbike World Championship at Phillip Island maybe a memory but at least the wait for the next round isn’t as drawn out as previous years with round two this weekend at the Chang circuit in north-east Thailand.
The Phillip Island round was exceptional with enthralling and entertaining racing acrossthe board in all categories; national and international. In the world classes the rule changes have been well received and the changes vindicated with the on-track action, combining with the nature of Phillip Island to produce close hard racing in the Superbike and Supersport classes
Defending world champion, Johnny Rea continued his race winning dominance with the two wins. Also, so early in the season, it appears he may have already physched out his team mate and 2013 World Champion Tom Sykes.
One round does not make a season but it was an ominous display by Rea as he took both wins and it would take a brave man to bet against him for being the first rider to win back-to-back titles in the class since his fellow countryman, Carl Fogarty in 1998 and ’99.
An indelible memory from that opening round is “JR” stopping at the back of the circuit after winning both races to clamber over the tyre walls and share the joy with his legion of friends and family from the Island, and also the town of Bright in the Victorian highlands, where he cycles regularly. It was an amazing sight as he posed for selfies and accepted the accolades of so many. A true people’s champion.
“Going to Thailand off the back of an incredible start to the season, with a double win in Australia, just gives me a lot of satisfaction – and motivation as well. Motivation to keep the bike at the front. Friday is the most important day to understand set-up because on Saturday we are already racing. With the new schedule we have a little bit of a different strategy for our race weekends. We were quite lucky in Phillip Island with our pre-event tests so in Thailand we need to make sure we can plan the weekend carefully. Hopefully, come Saturday and Sunday, we can have two good results again.”
This weekend will hopefully answer a few more questions of how the season will unfold as the circuit is less flowing than the Victorian seaside track where engine characteristics and performance will be more prudent than at the Island.
Horsepower at Phillip Island isn’t the be-and and end-all, as a well set up bike with good handling will always come to the fore as demonstrated by the Ten Kate Hondas who had a great package for the conditions.
It was great to see the Hondas of Michael van der Mark and 2006 MotoGP World Champion, Nicky Hayden at the pointy end, but the results from the Island may give false hope to every Honda fan in the universe.
Michael van der Mark had impressive results last year at the Island but with a third and a second in both races this year, and he led the second leg for seven laps, he proved that there is a bit of life left in the old machine.
Michael van der Mark
“I can’t wait to be on track again. Phillip Island was an incredible start to the season, but we know this round will be completely different for us, as there won’t be any test before the race weekend. Last year things didn’t go too well for us but with the data we have now and the improvements made during the winter to our CBR1000RR, things will surely be better for us.”
Ronald Ten Kate explained that they have found more horsepower in the CBR over the winter break. How that translates to an entire season up against the all-new Kawasaki ZX10R, the Yamaha R1 and the rejuvenated Ducati remains to be seen.
As for WSBK rookie, Nicky Hayden, he demonstrated at Phillip Island that he is not just in the class to make up the numbers and once he gets to grips, literally, with the Pirelli tyres he will be fighting for podium positions . He stated at the island that he is not treating this as a “senior’s tour” and after five years on uncompetitive machinery in the MotoGP class, the “Kentucky Kid” proved he still has the speed and, more importantly, the desire to run at the front of the pack. This weekend he is a little behind the rest as he has to learn the track while his major rivals have last year’s debut event under their belts.
“I’m looking forward to the race weekend. I have been to Thailand a couple of times before due to sponsor obligations and I always had a great reception; it is clear that people here are really passionate about the sport and hungry to know more about it. I’ve had a look at the track with some videos and it looks quite nice, I will have a proper look at it on my Fireblade on Friday morning. This is going to be a good learning weekend for me as I will get a better idea of our potential, given the lack of testing before the round.”
The track is 100 metres longer than PI, featuring two long straights but, the twisty bits will be where the overall machine package will be the most crucial and after winter testing the Kwaka will be the pre-race favourite.
The main threat to Rea – besides his ultra competitive team mate – could well be the new Cresent Yamaha team of Sylvain Guintoli and Alex Lowes.
The team surprised many with its performance at the island as Guintoli grabbed a fifth and sixth position on debut for the immaculately prepared bikes (the billet sub frame is an absolute work of art) and he was in the mix in the second race for the majority of the distance.
“My first visit to the Buriram circuit in 2015 was a very good surprise as I loved the track! It has a good variety of corners, stop and go at the start and more flowing to finish, and with the consistent temperatures in Thailand it’s a very hot race so it’s very challenging for the riders. Last year the public came in big numbers, even though it was our very first event there, so there was a great atmosphere and it was one of the noisiest rounds of the year! This year I’m hoping to continue the good work already produced over the winter, and shown at Phillip Island, with the YZF-R1. Chang is a very different layout to PI but we’ll work hard to match the bike to the track and see what we can do for the races.”
Lowes, while putting in competitive lap times, had a hard time on track, crashing a few times over the weekend. A couple of those crashes were not his fault with gearbox problems causing him to crash twice. He could well prove to be a dark horse at Chang as last year he finished third on the Suzuki in the second race – the only time the Suzuki was on the podium last year.
“Chang has good memories for me from last year’s race. It’s a relatively new circuit on the calendar this year, being only the second time WorldSBK are visiting Thailand, and I can’t wait to get started. I don’t really have much to say from Phillip Island so I’m looking to make a proper start to my 2016 campaign at round two. I feel chilled and relaxed this week and really looking forward to it. It will be a tough weekend with the heat and a brand new circuit for the YZF-R1 therefore we already have a lot of work to do from Friday’s first free practice but it’s going to be great. The people are all very welcoming and the support is great in Thailand so I’m sure everyone is as excited as me to get going!”
Guintoli cannot be discounted, the 2014 world champion adapted to the R1’s need for corner speed very quickly, no doubt assisted by his time on 250GP machines and also the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP bike assisting him.
Ducati will always be a threat. At the Island, World #2 Chaz Davies took it to Rea in both races taking the lead on the final lap in both races. In the opening leg, he was overtaken soon after his attempt on the exit of MG corner to kick off his title chase with a second place. In leg two he did pass Rea for the lead on the final lap heading into Honda corner (T4) but crashed out immediately, although he remounted to salvage some points and finish 10th.
“In Phillip Island, we’ve been close to winning both races. Of course crashing out of Race Two wasn’t ideal, but those things happen when you’re going for the top prize and I’ve put it behind me already. I’ve stayed in Asia to train and get myself acquainted with the heat and humidity, so I feel ready. Last year, in Thailand, we struggled with the long straights. The Panigale R has improved a lot since then, but we need to keep pushing the development forward to find a little extra in terms of top speed.”
His teammate Davide Giugliano is the true street brawler of the class and is not scared to get into the mix. His third place finish in leg two at the island may be just the kickstart he needs to have a good year but looking at the kid you can’t help but think that at every corner he is right on the edge. Who knows with the Italian, but maybe he has matured in his race thinking because on his day he is one of the fastest on track and combined with the fact that he is fully fit for the first time in two years at this time of the season, he has a great chance to be up there, but like a few others, it is his first visit to the track. (Remember, that Troy Bayliss was on his bike last year in the Australian’s final appearance in the WSBK category).
“Australia’s results were invigorating. The Panigale R has undoubtedly become more competitive and, thanks to the great job done by the whole team and the increased experience with the package, we managed to start off on the right foot after my long, forced hiatus from races. I’ve never raced in Thailand, where we’ll have an extra variable to consider with the heat but, to this end, Phillip Island offered a valuable test. Physically, I still don’t feel 100 percent but I’m getting closer to an optimal fitness level and I’ll be ready.”
Logically, they will be the lads swapping paint for the major places with a couple of outsiders like Jordi Torres on the Althea BMW the one most likely, if any one else can step up.
As for the Milwaukee BMW they appear to be a few races off the pace. Josh Brookes would be expected to be the better performer than his likeable team mate, Karel Abraham but the pair will also be making their first trip to the complex, and they still have a lot to sort out with the electronic package – a problem that has been haunting the BMW machine since Corser debuted the bike. Brookesy and the team made significant steps forward throughout the Phillip Island weekend however and now have a clear direction to take with the bike.
One rider that cannot be discounted is Leon Camier. The lanky, and always friendly Englishman, on the MV Agusta will give it is all but with limited budget and resources he will have to ride out of his skin, and hope for some troubles to afflict the leading bunch to get the MV on the podium. He has an immense talent and it is a pity in recent years he is not astride the machinery that would complement those talents.
In the first visit to the Thai track last year, Rea won both races by a combined total of over 11 seconds. With that in mind and his brace of wins nearly two weeks ago, this year could well have the same man on the top step for both races. With a race on each day the draining tropical conditions will not have the same effect on riders’ fitness as was seen last year but that wont change JR’s determination to shatter his opponents confidence at the earliest possible time.
In the Supersport category, four-times world champion, Kenan Sofuoglu and his Kawasaki will be extremely fired up to put the disappointment of Phillip Island behind him. The crash was not his fault as his rear tyre, literally, exploded on him when he had a commanding lead negotiating Siberia. (He is extremely fortunate that the tyre explosion happened at a relatively slow corner like Siberia instead of T12, Stoner Corner or the Hayshed).
Another factor to get the Turk on the move will be the fact he has a team mate in Randy Krummenacher that is not afraid to mix it right up and can win which he proved by taking the victory on debut in the class. No doubt, the years of Moto2 intensity bode well for him in 2016.
The new rules in Supersport that has outlawed traction control as well as less engine specs has proven its worth, demonstrated by the race long freight train that fought out the race with the likes of Federico Caricasulo (Honda) and the MV Agusta factory rider Jules Cluzel, who also had a shocking race at Phillip Island, keen to make amends.
It is a travesty that Anthony West has not got a ride for the year as being another rider with plenty of Moto2 experience, he would be at the pointy end at ever race.
Another to look out for is Kyle Smith on the CIA Landlord Insurance Honda . He is a very rapid rider and his win at the final round last year on his final ride for Ten Kate was no fluke. He suffered mechanical failure at Phillip Island while in a strong position and he has the talent to get the Honda in some monumental battles this year.
Also, the new GRT MV Agusta Race Team of Gino Rea and Aussie, Aiden Wagner demonstrated that they have the pace to run at the front. It’s a matter of having the race package to threaten the entire distance.
Phillip Island demonstrated than any one of a dozen riders are capable of running at the front, it just depends on the day and to have the more critical set-up tuned perfectly for the conditions
For this scribe, with the second event of the world championships at the Chang circuit, it appears that it could well be another Kawasaki clean sweep in both classes. Action gets underway in Thailand with Superbike first practice due out on track just after 1400 EDST.
WorldSBK in Asia: Interesting facts and figures ahead of the Motul Thai Round
Some interesting stats and facts about WorldSBK in Asia before Round 2 in Buriram
WorldSBK has a long history of racing in Asia, with more than a tenth of the races in the history of the Championship having taken place in the continent: 70 out of the 696 run to date. Asia also hosted a WorldSBK race weekend in the first season of the Championship in 1988, that beginning cementing its place in the tradition of World Superbike before the continent went on to set the stage for a Round of WorldSBK every subsequent year until 2003. With no Asian race in 2004 or 2010-2012, 2015 took back the honour by hosting a record 6 WorldSBK races between the rounds held in Buriram, Sepang and Losail. That record will be matched once again in 2016.
Although Sugo in Japan holds the record for the amount of WorldSBK races hosted by a single Asian circuit, with the lights having gone out on the grid there a total of 32 times, Buriram is the track with as yet the least experience of WorldSBK having hosted only one round to date. The nearest challenger to Sugo’s record is Losail International Circuit on 14, followed by Sentul in Indonesia, where a quarter the number have been staged (8).
Ducati are the most successful manufacturer in Asia, with 24 victories for the Italian marque compared to 11 for Kawasaki and 10 for Honda. In recent history, the Aprilia RSV4 has proven the bike to beat more often than not in Asia, with 8 wins out of the 12 races staged since 2013 going to the Noale factory.
What of riders in Asia? The most successful hail from the 1990s, with Carl Fogarty taking top honours by virtue of 7 victories in Asia, followed by Doug Polen on 6 wins and Raymond Roche on 4.
Jonathan Rea is starting to catch the legends of the 90’s however, as he currently stands on 3 with two wins at Buriram last year, and one in Sepang.
Asian riders have taken victory 14 times on home soil, all of whom were Japanese, with 13 of those victories gained in the Land of the Rising Sun, the odd one out proving Losail in Qatar and the victory of Yukio Kagayama in Race 2 in 2005.
Last year Jonathan Rea dominated the inaugural Buriram weekend with pole position, a double win and both fastest laps. He left very little to the opposition as in both races he also led every lap. In Buriram this year, the defending Champion will be aiming to equal Troy Corser: the Australian stands only two wins ahead of him with a career total of 33 victories.
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