Can we just have every race at Phillip Island? That's certainly what a lot of fans will be thinking after a thrilling opening weekend of WorldSBK action. The tension that has simmered between Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies over the winter came to the fore over the weekend and once again it these two riders fighting it out for wins.
Jonathan Rea had a fight on his hands for both wins in Australia but the reigning WorldSBK champion did enough to continue his domination of Phillip Island. In claiming his fifth win in the last three years at the Australian circuit the Northern Irishman also became just the fourth rider in history to win 40 WorldSBK races.
“It was really nice for me to come on top of both last lap scraps. It’s hard to do that here because the tactics of the races are quite different compared to other races,” said Rea. “You don’t know whether to lead onto the start straight or not. I came out and hugged the right side of the track and it forced Chaz to come on the outside on the left-hand side. I also played around with electronics a little bit during the second race and at the end I went back to full power again so that I came off the last corner a little bit better than I did most of the race.”
Rea and Kawasaki learned their lessons from the opening race of the season to be more comfortable on Sunday. With track temperatures soaring on Saturday the Northern Irishman admitted that the team had been caught out by the conditions.
“Race one was quite silly at some points with how slow the pace was. It was like a bicycle race trying to make sure you were second in the group. In the second race it seemed like we snapped the cord from the group behind a lot earlier this race and there was only four or five of us. In the last laps when I went to the front I tried to put my head down for a couple laps just so that I knew that worst case scenario I’d be second today and maybe not swallowed up by a lot of riders.”
When the worst case scenario you can see for yourself is finishing second it shows just how strong the Kawasaki package was last weekend.
Davies keen to build on progress
The pivotal moment of Chaz Davies' 2016 title challenge came in Australia last year. Crashing while dicing for the lead in Race 2 put Davies in a title fight hole that he was never able to lift himself out of. This year he leaves Australia with a 10 point deficit to Rea but having raced within himself and taken the points on offer there is plenty of reason for optimism back in Bologna.
“We're stronger than we’ve ever been coming out of here before, which was the most important thing,” said Davies. “Of course winning a race would have been nice but I think with sixty thousandths of a second between two seconds and two wins it's been a good weekend and I can’t be disappointed given how I’ve come out of here in the past. I think there’s a lot to look forward and I’m happy to be right there in touch coming out of Phillip Island because it is one of our more difficult tracks. Our main competitor won both of them, but I think we’re in a good place.”
Given Rea's form in Phillip Island Davies will know that Australia was always likely to be a track where the Kawasaki would triumph but there will be plenty of places - not least Aragon and Imola - where the Ducati will be favored. Making the most of your weaker weekends will be key to winning the WorldSBK crown in 2017.
“I think that this year I sort of tempered the risk factor a little bit and just kind of felt it out throughout both races. I just thought that if I feel good I’ll strike, and if not then I’ll try and get the next best position, which was second in both races. Knowing how strong we were from the middle to the end of last season I think that I have to be sensible. Of course I’ll push for the win, like I did today. I was leading up until the last lap. But I won't go for a big move unless everything’s feeling right.”
That maturity could be a key for Davies this year. Last year he clearly felt a need to pounce on Rea at any opportunity but with so much success last year he is now willing to let the season come to him.
The gloves come off for Davies and Rea
It's all heating up nicely between the presumed title favorites. Phillip Island has become Rea's territory in recent years and despite coming up short in both races Davies will leave the island with plenty of hope that this could be his year.
The tension between the pair spilled over on Saturday with Davies interrupting one of Rea's media debrief to offer a rebuttal on the relative straight line performance of both bikes. It was a spiky moment according to those present but one that showed once again how finely poised this season could become.
“It got a little bit heated but it didn't surprise me,” said Rea. “It's his failsafe to talk about his bike being slow. All riders are looking for more power. Chaz’ bike isn’t faster than our bike but it’s very, very even. It’s about the character of the Kawasaki and Ducati – they both make power in different ways. But when you look at Melandri his bike is much faster because he weighs about sixty kilos.
“The journalist put me in the spot saying was I comfortable because I knew I had some extra power because Chaz had just finished his and been complaining about power. I thought it was only fair to put that right because it’s not like in the past where Aprilia used to have its own sort of overtaking lane. It seems like all bikes are pretty much of a muchness with different strengths and weaknesses.
“I think that we’ll go to tracks where we can really benefit with how our bike makes power, and how maybe I’m stronger at one circuit and Tom’s stronger in some circuits. We’ll go to tracks where Ducati have an advantage because how their bike makes power.”
Speaking after narrowly missing out on the win in Race 2 Davies offered his opinion on the merits of both motorcycles.
“I think here there’s a couple of bits where I think that we could improve a bit,” commented Davies. “I think that could improve with just a little bit more horsepower. I’m not saying that we’re too far behind, but it just makes life that little bit easier. Kawasaki have always been a small step ahead of us in that department. It’s not the be-all and end-all if the chassis is working good. I’ve definitely been in a much, much worse position with Ducati, but we need to make life as easy as possible for ourselves. I understand that Kawasaki had taken a step forward over the winter with their new bike. So, just keep working to try to bridge that gap.”
The differences between the bikes in terms of overall lap time have become so insignificant that any marginal difference can be seen as a major drawback for a rider. At Phillip Island the advantage swung to Rea but at Round 2 in Thailand it could be a different story.
New grid, same old story
The opening round also offered the first opportunity to see the new Race 2 grid regulations in use for the first time. The revised system sees the podium finishers from Race 1 relegated to the third row of the grid and with Rea, Davies and Marco Melandri finishing on the podium from ninth, eighth and tenth on the grid the new system had a positive reception.
“I think that Phillip Island will be least affected by that grid because no one is in a panic to get to the front here,” said race winner Rea. “I don’t think Alex Lowes realistically woke up this morning and thought that I can make a break from pole position in Race 2. I think that at a circuit like this if that was going to his strategy the last laps would have been pretty painful for him. So I wasn’t too concerned about starting ninth.
“I’m sure in tracks like Misano or Imola there will be much more urgency to get to the front because you go straight off the line into slow sectors where it gets strung out really quickly. It's at tracks like that where it'll be important to make good starts and we’ve been a little bit weak this weekend on our starts. In both races I didn’t get great starts. So we’re trying to work on that in Thailand in a few practices.”
Davies shared Rea's optimism for the new system. The Welshman has been positive about the changes all winter and having made great starts in both races he'll be confident that he can fight through the pack on Sunday's throughout the campaign.
“It was busy for the first few laps and I tried to just play it calmly,” said the Ducati rider. “I got a blinding start in both races which was really good. I thought that for Race 2 I might pick up a couple of spots but not four of them into the first corner. When Eugene came up the inside at turn two I thought to myself, 'what’s the point in going on the full attack in the first lap here at Phillip Island?' It’s hard enough to get away anyway and you’ll just abuse your tires. So I just sort of sat there and let the race come to me and let things work out around me without making too many big moves.
“It’ll be different in the next races as well because they’re more sort of realistic in terms of overall pace. Phillip Island is a strategy race as much as it is an all-out sort of go for it. You have to keep that in mind. The next races it will be interesting to see how that works out and how the group of us all works out when the saving tires is less important and it’s just about sheer pace.”
While Rea and Davies had plenty of positives to take from the new format the same couldn't be said for Tom Sykes. The Kawasaki rider has been the main voice of opposition to the changes but on Sunday he softened his tune and admitted that he needed to make the most from the new system.
“I was just missing out a little bit in Race 2 and I wasn’t able to turn the bike in the early laps, which cost me. I wasn’t able to attack. I’ve got to look at the two guys next to me on the grid – they finished first and second, so it’s not an excuse, but it definitely caught me out of the beginning of the race. I didn’t get the initial track position and found myself in a little bit of a fight down in ninth position. Without the reverse grid I wouldn’t have had that issue. It's the same for everybody though and it didn’t work for myself today, but in the future it might work for me.”
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