We are racing at last. The first round of World Superbikes at Phillip Island means we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The long, dark winter is over, and motorcycles are circulating in earnest once again.
What to make of the first weekend of World Superbikes in the new format? Those who worried that spreading the racing over two days would hurt attendance and ruin the series have not seen their fears realized. Attendance at Phillip Island was around 75% of the MotoGP attendance there, really strong figures for the track.
Some caveats apply, of course: firstly, the Phillip Island MotoGP round is one of the most poorly attended on the calendar, though last year numbers improved. Secondly, the combination of Australian Superbikes with World Superbikes meant there was a full program of racing, and plenty for fans to see. The real test of the new format will come at tracks like Donington and Jerez, where attendance has been dismal. If they can get more people through the gate there, the Saturday-Sunday format will be more of a success.
Though the question of the race weekend format is yet to be settled, there can be no argument over the massive upgrade for the series presentation. Slick new graphics, much better camera work, better direction, more onboard cameras, the new TV coverage has lot to commend it, and is a sign that Dorna is taking the series seriously. The upgrades were badly needed, graphics and TV direction felt staid and old-fashioned in recent years. The new look made WSBK feel like a modern series, and added some sparkle.
A new commentary team helped matters along. Steve English provided good in-depth knowledge and analysis as a counterpoint to Greg Haines' excited play-by-play coverage. It added some much-needed depth to the world feed, making it a much more balanced affair. Perhaps I could be accused of bias – I am honored to count Steve as a friend, and we work together on the Paddock Pass Podcast – but on the other hand, as his friend, I was much more worried he would would not do well. He passed his first test with flying colors.
King of the hill
As for the racing? That has never really been a problem for World Superbikes. The two WSBK races turned into the usual multi-rider battles, tense and exciting from start to finish. Despite the excitement, there was an air of inevitability to the winner, Jonathan Rea looking totally in control throughout. Rea was happy to let others lead, then pounce in the final laps. There was almost a Rossi-esque feel to his racing: sitting behind his rivals to put some pressure on them, secure in the knowledge that he could win when push came to shove.
Rea's insinuations at the team launch, that the new Kawasaki ZX-10R had been built around Tom Sykes rather than him, turned out to be nothing more than mind games. Sykes rode the same race as ever: pushing hard early, but losing pace in the second half of the race, and losing out to his teammate. It is a little early to be calling the championship for Jonathan Rea, but it is clear he is the man to beat. He will now be the bookies hot favorite to repeat.
Behind Rea, the Ducatis looked very strong, Chaz Davies trying two desperate lunges, one in each race, in an attempt to deprive Rea of victory. In race 1, Davies took the classic Phillip Island line, round the outside at Lukey Heights to dive inside at MG, but Rea parried simply, taking the better line through MG and using the drive of the Kawasaki to repass Davies at the next corner. In race 2, Davies tried at Honda corner, but he tried just a little too hard, losing the front of the Panigale R and sliding gently out. He remounted to take tenth, but it was clear just how hard Davies was trying from the start.
Jonathan Rea seemed less than impressed with Davies' attempted pass. The TV coverage showed the podium riders all taking as they waited to go out and receive their trophies, and the hand signals seemed to indicate Michael van der Mark, Davide Giugliano and Rea all discussing Davies' crash. Rea's use of a finger to the side of the head was not a sign of great appreciation, I venture.
Aruba.it Ducati teammate Davide Giugliano had two very solid races, with a fourth on Saturday and a third on Sunday. Though the Italian still put in a few slightly questionable moves, he rode more cleanly and precisely than usual. The serious crashes from last year may have been big enough to curb the excesses of Giugliano's style, something which was really needed. Dialing it back from 101% to 99% is the difference between winning or binning and regular podiums. The Italian may have found a way to be in the latter camp at last.
Hope for Honda
The Hondas, too, were impressive. I spoke to team boss Ronald ten Kate recently, and he said they were much better prepared at the start of the 2016 season than they had been at the start of 2015. They were carrying off where they left off, and Michael van der Mark's double podium was a sure measure of their success. The young Dutchman rode two fantastic races, his sheer commitment a joy to behold. The extra corner speed he was having to carry to stay at the front was clearly visible, his sweeping lines much wider than the rest. Phillip Island is a track Van der Mark loves, and his affection was reciprocated with a double podium. It bodes very well indeed for the races at Assen in early April.
Nicky Hayden's debut in World Superbikes was solid, the American just deprived of a podium by Davide Giugliano in race 2. Hayden is adapting quickly to the WSBK paddock, but still has some work to do. Some of the work is getting used to the Pirelli tires, Hayden suffering badly in race 1, and losing a lot of places in the final third of the race. It is a common problem with the WSBK Pirellis, quality control meaning that tire life and behavior can vary drastically. Like Van der Mark, Hayden must be optimistic about his home race. The American is at least back in sight of the winner again, after a long period in the wilderness aboard the Open class Hondas.
Yamaha and BMW show promise
The return of Yamaha to World Superbike can be deemed a success, both Sylvain Guintoli and Alex Lowes showing very strong pace, and finishing within a few seconds of the winner. The Yamaha YZF-R1 still has some development to do, but it looked like a strong all-round package. A win must surely be on the cards soon.
Of the two riders, Guintoli looked like he played a better hand. Lowes seemed to struggle a little, trying to adapt his riding style to the bike, and occasionally getting it wrong. Guintoli, meanwhile, was steady, taking what he could get without taking too many risks. Paul Denning and the Crescent team must have reason for optimism.
BMW's renewed efforts in WSBK also went well, with a couple of strong debut performances. Josh Brookes' switch to WSBK with the Milwaukee SMR team went well, the reigning BSB champion grabbing a pair of top ten slots. The BMW S1000RR still needs a lot of work on the electronics, but Brookes rode a couple of decent races to make his WSBK debut. Fellow rookie, the German rider Markus Reiterberger, also made a really strong debut. The IDM champion was running in strong positions in both races, a blown tire causing him to crash out in the final corner of the final lap of race 1, and grabbing eighth in race 2.
Reiterberger wasn't the only rookie to make a good first impression. The Italian Lorenzo Savadori, fresh from Superstock 1000, had a couple of solid races with the IODA Racing team. IODA, who have switched from MotoGP this year, were the weakest team in the premier class, so much of Savadori's performance must go to him, rather than the team. Just how much support IODA will get from Aprilia remains to be seen, however. So far, the Noale factory has put all of its money, time and effort into its MotoGP program, leaving WSBK as the redheaded stepchild.
Leon Camier had an outstanding seventh place finish in race 1 on the MV Agusta, the bike still underpowered and in need of development. Camier is a rider who is often overlooked, and he finds himself fighting an uphill battle once again in 2016. Just how much effort MV Agusta is willing to put into its World Superbike campaign is a question mark, but Camier has given them reason to consider upping their investment.
The strange case of Phillip Island
Of course, the trouble with Phillip Island is that it is such a special track. The layout of the circuit rewards bravery and commitment – or, as it is more commonly called there, Michael van der Mark – and hides bike weakness. The Chang circuit in Thailand is a touch more conventional, and should give us a better perspective on the balance of power in WSBK. Drawing conclusions from Phillip Island is always hard, but there is one truth which is indisputable. Reigning world champion Jonathan Rea remains World Superbikes' apex predator, and is showing no signs of relinquishing his spot at the top of the food chain. But at least there are others willing to challenge him.
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