2019 WSBK Round Two
The Phillip Island WSBK season opener was a cracker, and Thailand might shake the established World Superbike pecking order up some more.
This weekend marks World Superbike’s fifth trip to Thailand, where tropical heat, rapturous fans and stellar racing are on the menu this weekend, with yet another triple treat as three WorldSBK races take place around the 4.554 km track.
At least one man will land in Buriram, the ‘City of Happiness’, with a grin on his face. Álvaro Bautista’s hat-trick of triumphs Down Under raised as many new questions as it answered. The Spaniard was incredibly ruthless in Race 1 and Race 2, winning both full-length races by double figure gaps – as well as emerging victorious from a bruising Tissot Superpole Race battle with Jonathan Rea.
“Australia was a dream weekend and I couldn’t have asked for a better start in World Superbike. In Thailand I got a good result last season in MotoGP, so I’m feeling confident but Buriram is a track that has different characteristics to Phillip Island because there are more mixed sectors. For sure our rivals will be tough to beat, so we have to remain focussed and work really hard during the weekend. Anyway we will go to Thailand with the same mentality, I know the right feeling with the bike now so I will try and find it there as well. The Panigale V4 R is still a completely new bike, and the potential is high but we’ve got a lot of work to do to get it to 100%. I don’t know if Buriram is a Ducati track or not, we’ll just have to see what happens.”
No one expected such sheer domination, with the Ducati rider only really showing his hand once the lights went out. So, all bets are off in Buriram, a venue Bautista is nonetheless much less acquainted with than Phillip Island having only raced there once before. Can Bautista re-create that debut magic in Thailand?
After such a scorching performance, the Spaniard will have a target on his back – and Rea himself taking aim. These are uncharted waters for the reigning world champion, who was in damage limitation mode throughout the entire weekend in Australia. From that perspective, it was a fantastic round for Rea, with three runner-up spots keeping him only 13 points below the new championship leader (in 2018 he sat 19 behind after Round 1).
But rest assured that the Northern Irishman will not be satisfied with remaining best of the rest for another round. Chang International Circuit is a happy hunting ground for the 31-year-old – his results there since 2015 read 1st-1st, 1st-2nd, 1st-1st, 1st-4th – and Rea will be out to make a statement of his own. There is perhaps no one more capable of rising to the challenge than the Champion.
“Thailand is a great venue and one that always welcomes a lot of fans, especially Kawasaki support. The circuit is one of two halves; the first being fast stop-and-go sections and then the flowing final sectors, which play to the strength of the Ninja ZX-10RR setup. Friday will be important to nail that setup and understand our level. I’m excited to start. We have enjoyed some great success there in the past, so the goal is to build on our results from Phillip Island. I’ve spent a few days in Bangkok already with Kawasaki Thailand, visiting their factory and taking part in the Kawasaki Day, so the atmosphere is building nicely.”
Australia was a mixed bag for the other men in green and red. Leon Haslam showed anything but complacency in a phenomenal Race 2 duel with Rea, yet a tumble in the opening race left him with a bittersweet taste leaving Victoria. Haslam’s adaptation to the ZX-10RR has been nearly flawless and the Englishman will be eager to prove it again in Buriram, where he picked up two second-place finishes in 2015.
Chaz Davies meanwhile made significant gains in the last of the opening races, making it to seventh after a tough week on the timing sheets. The Welshman knows not to put too much weight in any Australian results – he no-scored in his 2011, WorldSSP title-winning campaign, then missed out both races in 2012 due to a broken wrist and has often struggled since. His season starts anew in Thailand, the scene of his penultimate win in WorldSBK.
“The next race is Thailand, where I think we’ve probably got a bigger bank of information now so that’s something to work on. As for me, from a comfort point of view and understanding the bike, I’m going into Thailand knowing it much better than what I did when I turned up at Phillip Island, which is positive. We had a win and a third place last year which were good results so it shows we’ve got pace there, it’s just a matter of getting the bike in the ballpark. I’m looking forward to Thailand and I think that we can do a lot better than what we did in Australia as long as we can put the information to good use.”
And what about Yamaha? At Phillip Island, four YZF-R1s lined up on the grid. Three finished inside the top six in every race; all four inside the top eight. The key to success is consistency and both Pata Yamaha and top independent team GRT Yamaha seem to have it in spades.
The latter can even boast the leading Yamaha in the championship standings, as Marco Melandri sits level with Alex Lowes and one point clear of Michael van der Mark. All three have scored podiums at Chang International Circuit in the past two seasons and are ready to tussle again – with rookie Sandro Cortese closing the gap after a hugely impressive WorldSBK debut.
Marco Melandri – GRT Yamaha Supported WorldSBK
“I’m really happy to head back to Thailand. It’s a track I like a lot, even if it’s not the most technical circuit on the calendar. On paper it’s possibly not the best track for us, as there are two long straights and we still miss a little in this area, but I think the high temperatures we are expecting this weekend could play in our favour. I’m feeling good and confident after the opening round in Australia and my feeling is getting better day by day with both the bike and the team, so let’s get started and see what happens. It will also be interesting how things go with no prior testing at the Chang International Circuit, to see if everyone is as fast as they were at Phillip Island. I’m excited to get the weekend started.”
BMW Motorrad meanwhile roll into South East Asia after an eye-catching return to WorldSBK. Sunday struggles in Australia for Tom Sykes might have slightly dampened the mood but the new S1000 RR’s potential – aided by the 2013 World Champion’s world-class talents – was on display all weekend. Controlling an already solid package, don’t be surprised if the swift Yorkshireman or Markus Reiterberger have saved some tricks up the sleeves of their white leathers.
Marc Bongers, BMW Motorrad Motorsport Director
“We have taken a lot of positive things from Australia, but we have also clearly seen in the races where we are still behind and which areas we need to focus on in terms of further development. Due to the short time between the two race weekends the fact that the equipment has not returned to the team headquarters between Australia and Thailand, we will only bring certain technical updates. These are aimed primarily at the reliability for the upcoming battle with the heat. We look forward to the next event where the atmosphere is always great, and we will be able to gather more important experience there on the way forward.”
Lessons will have also been learned inside the Moriwaki Althea Honda Team after an intriguing week on the Island. Leon Camier and Ryuichi Kiyonari started testing on the Monday without a reference point and finished Sunday inside the points, the former even breaking into the top 10. Further steps forward should be taken under the Thai sun.
“Before heading to Buriram, we took part in a Honda event in Bangkok and were able to enjoy the great support of our fans, a real boost for us as we prepare for the next, challenging round. The Buriram track is actually a simple one, with just a few hard braking points and some tight turns but, at the same time, that makes it hard because every tenth can make a big difference. I remember that times were very close last year, so if you don’t get everything perfect you can find yourself struggling to make a good lap at this track. The temperature also makes things tough of course. Air temperatures of close to 40 degrees and a track temperature in the mid-fifties make it very challenging for us riders, both physically and mentally.”
The Destination of Speed awaits from 15th-17th March, as the second round of the MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship gets underway!
World Superbike Standings following Round 1, 2019
- Alvaro Bautista Ducati 62
- Jonathan Rea Kawasaki 49
- Marco Melandri Yamaha 30
- Alex Lowes Yamaha 30
- Michael van der Mark Yamaha 29
- Leon Haslam Kawasaki 24
- Sandro Cortese Yamaha 19
- Chaz Davies Ducati 15
- Tom Sykes BMW 12
- Eugene Laverty Ducati 12
- Toprak Razgatlioglu Kawasaki 10
- Michael Ruben Rinaldi Ducati 9
- Leandro Mercado Kawasaki 7
- Jordi Torres Kawasaki 7
- Markus Reiterberger BMW 7
- Leon Camier Honda 6
- Ryuichi Kiyonari Honda 1
The FIM Supersport World Championship moves on with great pace into one of the most atmospheric rounds on the calendar – the Pirelli Thai Round.
In 2019, it is Randy Krummenacher who leads the way on his Yamaha YZF R6. The Swiss rider has a fantastic record at the Chang International Circuit, scoring points in every year he has raced there. Starting with fourth in 2016, he returned to WorldSSP last season and won onboard the same Yamaha he competes with now.
Should he win the WorldSSP race on Sunday, he will become the first Swiss rider in the history of the WorldSSP and WorldSBK paddocks to achieve back-to-back wins. Records hang in the balance for Krummenacher.
Jules Cluzel has a mixed record at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram. The Frenchman has secured one win in 2016 but apart from that, has retired from all three other races in Thailand Cluzel has had two pole positions at the circuit and a fastest lap, so he could be a threat come race day, especially having led for 31 laps over the course of the four seasons in Thailand. The 30-year-old is scheduled to start his 71st WorldSSP race on Sunday.
Federico Caricasulo is a WorldSSP winner at the Chang International Circuit, after a phenomenal battle in 2017 with local hero, Decha Kraisart. On the podium last year with a second place, the Italian hopes to return to the podium for a third consecutive season in Thailand. Having been robbed of battling his championship-leading teammate at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, Caricasulo will almost certainly want to take the battle to him around the 4.554km track. Can Caricasulo capture and overcome Krummenacher and Cluzel this time?
Hector Barbera made a solid start to his 2019 WorldSSP season, with a fourth place at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. However, the Spaniard knew that circuit well and now comes to a track which he has never competed at – one of just two circuits that he will experience for the first time with the WorldSSP championship. Barbera will hope to carry on his trend of improving race results in every WorldSSP race, and in doing so, achieve his first World Supersport podium. Is he a contender in Buriram?
Austrian Thomas Gradinger started his season with a fifth position in Australia, a better start than last year. Gradinger was 11th at the Chang International Circuit in 2018 so will look to improve on that this weekend. Gradinger is looking to become the first Austrian rider ever to finish five consecutive WorldSSP races inside the top five and, the first Austrian rider ever to mount the podium in a WorldSSP race.
Completing the top six is Japanese rider, Hikari Okubo, who had his joint best result of his WorldSSP career in Australia. With his only other sixth place coming at the Chang International Circuit in 2017, the Thai circuit looks sure to be a venue where Okubo will seek to achieve his best World Supersport finish to date. The last Japanese WorldSSP podium came in 2007 with Katsuaki Fujiwara at Silverstone (3rd). Will Thailand see the end of this long wait?
Other riders to keep an eye on include the 2017 WorldSSP Champion, Lucas Mahias, who achieved pole position and second place last season. Corentin Perolari will seek to continue his good start, whilst Peter Sebestyen, teammate Jules Danilo and Loris Cresson will all fight it out for the remaining top ten positions.
WorldSSP Standings after Round 1
- Randy Krummenacher 25
- Jules Cluzel 20
- Federico Caricasulo 16
- Hector Barbera 13
- Thomas Gradinger 11
- Hikari Okubo 10
- Corentin Perolari 9
- Peter Sebestyen 8
- Jules Danilo 7
- Loris Cresson 6
- Tom Toparis 5
- Lucas Mahias 4
- Jaimie Van Sikkelerus 3
- Glenn Van Straalen 2
- Ayrton Badovini 1