Four rounds into the World Superbike season and the contours of the 2015 championship are starting to become clear. Some of the things we expected to happen have unfolded much as predicted, but there have also been a fair few surprises. Time to take a quick look at the state of World Superbikes so far.
New technical regulations have been put in place aimed at reducing cost and leveling the playing field somewhat. Their effect so far? Despite the protestations of the Kawasaki and Aprilia riders, all of whom have been complaining of a loss of horsepower, neither top speed nor overall lap times appear to have been affected much. Taking Tom Sykes as perhaps the best example, as he was on the Kawasaki ZX-10R both this year and last, his lap times were half a second slower at Phillip Island, half a second quicker at Assen, the only two tracks at which it is possible to compare. Chaz Davies on the Ducati Panigale was a second quicker at Assen, and eight tenths quicker in race one at Phillip Island, but in race two lapped just as fast in 2015 as he did in 2014. Overall, the Phillip Island track was a little slower in 2015, while conditions at Assen were definitely improved this year over last. The jury is still out on the new rules, but there are definite rumblings audible from the jury room.
Perhaps the biggest effect of the new rules is on the expectations of riders. The Kawasaki is among the most affected of the WSBK bikes by the new rules, with claims that the ZX-10R has between ten and twenty fewer horses than it had in 2014. That has had a bigger impact on Tom Sykes than on his new teammate, Jonathan Rea, Sykes struggling while Rea has come in and cleaned up. Sykes finds himself with a bike that is down on power to what he is used to, a development which is not good for a positive mindset. Rea has come off a bike which he knew to be incapable of winning a championship, and hopped onto one which has been proven capable of doing just that. It's easy to go fast when what you have is better than what you had, and you see opportunity looming.
Rea has been every bit as impressive as his fans had predicted before the season started. Six wins from eight races, and second-place finishes when he isn't on the top step is a positively Marquezian domination of World Superbike. Rea has looked totally in charge, and though challenged hard throughout the first four rounds by Leon Haslam and Chaz Davies, he has nearly always been able to push home his advantage when it counted. It is way to early to be handing out world titles, but with a lead of 50 points over Haslam, the WSBK engraver will be penciling up the plate for the trophy already. If he carries on this way, he could wrap up the title as early as Sepang, at the beginning of August. Rea is too canny to be counting his chickens just yet. Anything can happen in motorcycle racing, and titles only count once you have the trophy in your hands. But Rea will at least so far be pleased to have made his point in the most emphatic way possible.
When Aprilia announced they were switching their attention to MotoGP, and taking their star rider, Marco Melandri, with them, we wondered what would become of them in World Superbikes. With a team only salvaged at the last minute, the Red Devils squad taking over the factory involvement, not much was expected. The signing of Leon Haslam, widely written off after a couple of mediocre years at Pata Honda, and Jordi Torres, a refugee from Moto2 left without a ride in Grand Prix, hardly inspired confidence.
How wrong we were. Haslam has reinvented himself, finding the fire which seemed to be missing during the Honda years. He has an inspired race win in the books at Phillip Island, as well three seconds and a third. Together with Chaz Davies, he is the main obstacle to a Jonathan Rea WSBK title. You can be certain he has no intention of just rolling over.
The other Aprilia signing has also proved to be inspired. Torres is currently fifth in the championship, easily the best rookie, and has threatened the podium consistently. Adapting from Moto2 has not been much of a problem, the chirpy Spaniard a welcome addition to the WSBK paddock. If Torres continues to improve and starts getting on the podium, his success should reignite the passion of Spanish fans for World Superbikes, at the moment sadly lacking. Attendance at Jerez last year was pretty poor. If Torres gets on the box a few times this season, it should help sell a few tickets.
A Spanish podium would be a welcome event. Assen showed just how much a popular and successful local man can help to promote the sport. The main stands at the Dutch circuit were packed to cheer on Michael van der Mark, the reigning World Supersport champion who has stepped up to World Superbikes this year. Their faith was rewarded by two magnificent podiums, fought for and taken by the skin of his teeth. The podiums were also just reward for Van der Mark, who has been downright impressive since making the switch. He has regularly beaten his teammate – that will be the reigning World Superbike champion Sylvain Guintoli – and put the Honda CBR1000RR as close to the front as it is going to get in its current incarnation. We expected Van der Mark to be good, but we certainly didn't expect him to be this good. Pata Honda team boss Ronald ten Kate is already predicting a win for the Dutchman before the end of the year. That seems like an entirely achievable goal.
Over at Ducati, Chaz Davies has been leading a real revival, his job made perhaps a little easier by losing his teammate Davide Giugliano to injury before the season started. Giugliano's absence gave Troy Bayliss a chance to make a much-hoped-for return, but the Australian veteran found that the game has moved on since he stopped racing full time at the end of the 2008 season. Though Bayliss could run at the front at the start of the race, by half way he was starting to fade. It was a bold move to try to come back, but being out of the game for six years is a long time indeed.
Xavi Fores, the next man drafted in to replace Giugliano, fared much better, helped by the fact that he races a Ducati Panigale 1199R in the German IDM championship. A fifth, a sixth, a seventh and an eighth is not bad going against the WSBK regulars, though the gap was sizable. Fores has been angling for a ride in World Superbikes for some time now. This may provide the step up he needs for a shot in 2016.
With or without Giugliano, Chaz Davies has been impressive. Now in his second year with Ducati, the Welshman is a constant threat at the front. A win and five other podiums puts him just seventeen points behind Leon Haslam, and if it hadn't been for an utterly miserable weekend in Thailand, he could be a great deal closer. The rule changes have helped Ducati, not so much in moving them forward as slowing their competitors up. The bike itself is better now too, with a couple of years of development under its belt. Now that Gigi Dall'Igna has done most of the heavy lifting to create a competitive Desmosedici GP15 MotoGP bike, perhaps he will have a little more time to spend on World Superbikes. He already has a WSBK title with Aprilia, another one with Ducati would be a welcome addition.
The World Supersport championship has not turned out the multi-rider battles we have seen in years past, but it still guarantees some great racing. Highlight of the year so far has been a popular home victory by Ratthapark Wilairot in Thailand, during a weekend when everything went perfectly for the Thai rider.
But the real attraction of World Supersport is the revival of a genuine and bitter rivalry between the two favorites for the title. The last two laps at Assen between Jules Cluzel on the MV Agusta 675 and Kenan Sofuoglu on the Kawasaki ZX-6R were classic WSS. No prisoners were taken, nor were any asked for. The two men leaned on each other and ran into each other's lines, especially through the final chicane. Sofuoglu emerged triumphant, after a move that was extremely tough, leaning on Cluzel in the second half of the GT chicane. On any other lap, that may have drawn the ire of Race Direction, but at the final corner on the final lap, riders are given a fraction more leeway. Sofuoglu seized that leeway with both hands.
There was much pointing of fingers and shaking of fists on the cooldown lap, and afterwards, both Cluzel and Sofuoglu were quick to lay the blame at the foot of the other. They both made it perfectly clear they had neither respect nor affection for each other. With both men capable of winning, this has all the makings of a classic rivalry. Just what a flagging series needs, a bit of needle and a very public airing of grievances. So far, the World Superbike site has been quick to seize upon this and give them their head. It certainly makes a change from riders praising each other and thanking their sponsors.
While Cluzel and Sofuoglu look set to settle the title between them, Kyle Smith and PJ Jacobsen have shown themselves to be the jokers in the pack. Both men have grabbed podiums this year, and are just a little short of the pace of the leaders. A small step forward for the pair of them and we have a four-way fight at the front. Then things could get really interesting.
The racing remains excellent in World Superbikes, the races close, and despite Jonathan Rea's near total dominance of the top step of the podium, winning margins have been small. The biggest weakness of the series remains the near monopoly which British riders seem to have upon the podium. So far, only Michael van der Mark has managed to put the Dutch tricolor among the ocean of Union Jacks (and please, no lecturing on whether it is in fact the Union flag, rather than the Union Jack being hoisted). A fit Davide Giugliano should have been capable of adding the Italian tricolor into the mix, but the British dominance remains. That dominance of a single nation is as bad in World Superbikes as it was in MotoGP, when every weekend saw three Spanish winners and an all-Spanish MotoGP podium. The next task for Dorna is to bring in more non-Brits capable of winning. That would add a good dash of spice to 2016.