It's early in the 2017 WorldSBK season but already plenty of people are crowning Jonathan Rea as a three time champion. To anyone thinking that with 22 races remaining that the championship has been sewn up, it would be wise not to count any chickens just yet.
Rea has most certainly been the class of the field so far in Australia and Thailand but they are two tracks that the Kawasaki rider had been heavily favored to win at. Phillip Island is a wide open race to open the year but Rea has traditionally been a force at the Australian circuit. Likewise in three years of visiting Thailand he has won five races. There's a lot that can be taken from the opening three rounds of the year but it will take a couple of European rounds before a clear picture truly emerges.
Rea makes some history
After becoming the first rider since Neil Hodgson to win the opening four races of a season Jonathan Rea said it was the “best season start I've ever had, it's really incredible.” Incredible would be an apt word for Rea's display at the Chang International Circuit with the Northern Irishman claiming pole position and two wins.
The foundations of his Saturday success came from Superpole. With no qualifying tires available to the field, after some were damaged in transit, Rea took an unexpected pole position but from that point onwards he had only one thought in his mind; convert pole and open a gap. That gap would eventually extend to over six seconds after one of the most consistent races in memory. The world champion was metronomic throughout the race and apart from the final tour, which ended with a victory wheelie, he spent the entire race in the 1:33s.
“I feel like I'm riding the best I ever have,” said Rea after the weekend. “This is the best I have felt with the bike and I feel very comfortable with my Kawasaki. We changed the balance in the winter but we used the same base setting here as on Phillip Island and I have a good feeling with it. We need to improve a few things for the upcoming races though because we have some weak areas where we have to improve a little but in general the bike is the best it has been. I feel like I am riding with less risk than last year.
“The engine braking has been a big improvement compared to last year and Davide Gentile, my data engineer, has been working his magic with that I've been really impressed. Going into Race 2 though I was so nervous about the ninth place start to be honest because this track is so hard to pass.”
Having claimed the win on Saturday Rea had to make his way through the pack on Sunday from ninth on the grid. Despite his worries he made light work of it and was second at the end of the first lap and leading when the red flag came out. Having converted pole position in the restarted race Rea opened a gap to his pursuers.
“Before the red flag I had a lot of traffic in the first laps and had to make up a lot of positions,” said Rea after Race 2. “It was frustrating to have to restart but from pole position I was less stressed for it. I'm looking forward to the next round at Aragon because the last time I won there was in 2015 and Chaz is always strong there. He will be my toughest opponent over the full season and you just have to remember what he achieved in the second half of last season.”
With Davies salvaging a top six finish following a crash on Sunday Rea has opened a 30 point lead over the Welshman in the standings.
Don't discount Davies
Recency bias can be a very dangerous thing in motorcycle racing. It's very easy to remember what has happened in the last couple of races and discount what we know to be true on the basis of a much larger sample size. Chaz Davies and Ducati are a case in the point following the Thai round of the championship.
A crash at the start of the second race left Davies with a mountain to climb and while he was able to take advantage of the red flag it was a difficult race for the Ducati rider.
“After the crash, we replaced a few parts, including the damaged throttle grip,” said Davies after the race. “Unfortunately, the calibration with the electronics did not fit. I've already noticed this after a few corners and I knew that the race was going to be difficult. I think that normally I still could have gone to the podium but when I turned the gas, nothing happened at first and then everything came. The second place was damage limitation. I think that with my usual bike a podium would have been possible.”
When asked about the crash Davies admitted that he had been caught out by Marco Melandri braking earlier than expected into Turn 3. The hairpin is one of the most interesting corners at the Chang International Circuit with a variety of lines available to riders and it appeared that the Ducati teammates had taken different approaches to the corner.
“I crashed when I was behind Marco because he braked harder than I expected into the hairpin. I had try and avoid him on the outside and my rear wheel locked a bit more than usual. I was kind of Supermoto riding for a moment to make sure that I didn't hit Marco and I just had no grip. I had two options at the time: either try go through the turn and risk a highside; or like I did and try and ride it out and hope to make the corner. The second was the better option than a highside but unfortunately I crashed. I've always felt on the limit at Buriram but that had nothing to do with the crash; it happened because Marco braked earlier than I expected.”
Davies has fallen 30 points adrift of Rea but having claimed ten points on Sunday it could be argued that with Rea in such fantastic form in Thailand that Davies only dropped ten points from what could have been expected. To see so many write him out of championship contention on the basis of this one crash and the ten points lost with 11 rounds remaining certainly strikes of recency bias.
“The championship is long in WorldSBK. If I remember how many points I won in the second half of 2016, we have now collected very important points. In 2015, I lost more points to Johnny in the opening two rounds also. Of course, we need to win but the season is in its still very early stages.”
Davies has been dominant in Aragon in the past and with five victories at the Spanish circuit he will start as the pre-race favorite.
Melandri and Sykes duke it out
When Marco Melandri was confirmed as returning to WorldSBK the news was met with a mixture of skepticism and excitement in almost equal measure. After two rounds of the season his decision to return to the series can already be qualified as a success. The Italian was not at his best in Thailand but still came away with two solid results despite coming off second best to Tom Sykes in both races.
“It was very important to me to make a good start this year,” said the former 250GP champion. “What I have always said is that a good rider can only show his potential when he has a good bike and a good team. This bike gives me confidence and the team is following me. I'm still missing something, because two years is a long time away, but I can ride how I want. Now we have to improve a little bit more.
“Physically it's really tough here because normally on the straights you have some time to rest but the heat here means you struggle to breathe because the motorcycle is so hot underneath you. You lose all your energy in the muscles and because I was also I having problems with the braking all weekend it was easy for Tom to overtake me on the last lap. Tom has no respect for the old people because in both races he made the same pass!”
Having come off the better in their exchange Sykes joked that “I reckon Marco wont be buying me any coffees any time soon! To be honest we struggled all weekend a little bit, and I’ve been working hard in the winter to try to overcome some limitations. I've had to change the way I ride a little bit but the progress is showing because on the last lap I did my fastest lap of the race. It was hot and greasy conditions here which normally works against us so it's clear that we are trying to improve and to get second position so overall is not a bad weekend. It's great for a Kawasaki to get a 1-2 so we’ll move on and try to build this momentum.”
Sykes did well to get to the front as quickly as he did in the race. Starting from seventh on the grid, courtesy of a last corner move on Melandri to take a Race 1 podium, the former champion was fourth by the red flag and then had a consistent race when it resumed. It was important for Sykes to get quickly to the front given that he struggled to do so in Australia. Melandri, who started on pole in Race 2, was sure that the Kawasaki rider would be one to keep an eye but the Italian felt that the track also helped.
“On a track like Buriram it was clear to me that Rea, Davies or Sykes would be in the lead after two laps even with starting from the third row. But on tracks such as Imola it could be very different and even dangerous because it can be so hard to overtake. Perhaps it is good for the show but here everything was the same after one lap.”
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