There are races that are thrilling, and there are races that are tense. Saturday's World Superbike race at Misano was the latter. After the two Kawasakis escaped from the pack – a pack where Misano's notorious Turn 1 chicane had wreaked havoc on the grid, as usual – Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea were never separated by more than a few tenths. You could feel that an attack was inevitable, that the status quo could not stand. Something was coming, and that made the race feel excruciatingly tense.
Adding to the tension was the pace dropping at the front. That gave third-place man Michael van der Mark a chance to start catching the leaders again, slashing his deficit by half a second a lap. Behind Van der Mark, Chaz Davies was on a charge, after being pushed wide in the first corner melee and crossing the line in 20th at the end of the first lap. The Aruba.it Ducati rider was reeling in riders hand over fist, passing others at will, and quickly cutting his deficit.
Davies could smell a podium, and at some point, perhaps even a win. As he closed on Van der Mark, the Dutchman felt he had to respond, which in turn put more pressure on the Kawasakis. The last few laps felt like the race was about to explode, that anything could happen.
The fact that it didn't is what made the race tense rather than thrilling. Tom Sykes could never find the right point to make a pass on his teammate, though Rea was feeling the pressure. "At the end I felt like we had a knife to our throat," Rea said, despite the fact he had a small gap over Sykes.
As for Sykes, he never felt he could find the right point to attack Jonathan Rea. "When I tried in the last two laps I wasn’t able to put my nose in a good position," the Yorkshireman said. "We had the potential to win the race but we weren’t able to get the right track position on the last lap. I’m disappointed with myself. We had a chance to maybe pass earlier but then it would have been a different race. Lots to consider for tomorrow and we have to try and improve."
Sykes' failure to make a pass on Rea makes the championship difficult. Instead of cutting Rea's lead to 51 points, Sykes allowed his teammate to extend the gap to 61 points. With eleven races left this season, Sykes no longer has the championship in his own hands. All Rea has to do is finish second to Sykes for the rest of the season and the title is his: he would hand 55 points to Sykes, and still have 6 left in hand.
That seems like a misjudgment on the part of Sykes. One WorldSBK paddock insider pointed out that for Sykes, the time to follow Rea home and cut his losses is in the first few races of the season. Now, with scoring opportunities dwindling, was the time to make bold moves. Sykes has nothing to lose from a last-gasp lunge up the inside of Rea. If he makes it, he wins, and takes back precious points from his teammate. If he doesn't make it, the worst case scenario is that he takes both himself and Rea out. Given the undisguised hatred the two riders have for one another, and the fact that Sykes is due to announce a new contract with Kawasaki in the next few days, he has nothing to lose, and everything to gain by being audacious to the point of recklessness.
That kind of move would also change the narrative of the championship. It is important to establish the impression in the minds of your main rivals that you are willing to take risks to win, and that you are not afraid of them. A small dose of intimidation goes a long way, so Misano Race 1 feels like a lost chance for Sykes.
That is perhaps a little unfair to the Yorkshireman. Sykes rode brilliantly all race, managed his tires, and stuck close to his teammate. After Friday, Rea's race pace looked unbeatable, yet Sykes showed clearly that he too could run that pace, and maybe better. It was merely that Sykes failed to capitalize on what looked like a good opportunity.
Yet Rea deserves credit too. The Ulsterman had considered letting Sykes past, to get a good look at how fast he was. In the end, he decided against it. "Misano being so difficult to pass, I decided just to relax," Rea said after the race. "I made some laps in the middle of the race in high 1m 36s. I was expecting him to come through but when he didn’t I tried to go again."
Though Michael van der Mark had chased the two Kawasakis, even closing the gap, he had been unable to get close enough to do much about them. Taking a podium was reward enough, though, after some early lap scares with the front tire. The Ten Kate Honda rider had seen his teammate Nicky Hayden and Ducati's Davide Giugliano go down in front of him, and had felt the front end closing all the way round the track. He concentrated on running steady lap times, nibbling away at the lead of the Kawasakis, but when Chaz Davies started closing, he had been forced to pick up his pace.
It was enough to hang on to the podium, and give Van der Mark a sense of relief. After several tough weekends struggling, while teammate Hayden went from strength to strength, the Dutchman had to seize the initiative again. He did just that on Saturday.
Chaz Davies was the revelation in race 1, after having a decidedly mediocre start on Friday. The Aruba.it Ducati rider found the consistency of pace he had been missing, and that gave him the best pace on the grid. It was only unfortunate for him that he needed to use it to battle his way forward, rather than try to win the race from the front.
The basic problem for Davies was a poor Superpole. The Welshman qualified down in ninth, after a gamble on a softer front tire hadn't worked out. That left him within reach of the chaos caused by Xavi Fores, as the Spaniard ran in hot and knocked Lorenzo Savadori off, and pushed Davies and Leon Camier wide. Both Davies and Camier made up for their misfortunes, the Ducati and MV Agusta making strong charges to regain a lot of ground.
Davies was phlegmatic after the race. "That’s the risk when you qualify in ninth," he told us. "Those things happen and it’s more of a reflection on a bad qualifying. We shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place." But he was extremely encouraged by his pace. "It was really good. At one point I was about eleven seconds behind the Kawasakis and I closed that up to around five seconds. I got five seconds over the race and that gives me a lot of confidence."
The great thing about the current World Superbike schedule is that they all have a chance to try again on Sunday. Davies' strong showing may sway some in favor of the Ducati rider, but it is hard to look past Jonathan Rea doing the double. If Tom Sykes still has aspirations for the title – and it is clear that he does – then he will have to push Rea harder and attack earlier on Sunday.
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