The fifth round of this year’s World Superbike Championship at the Imola venue saw Alvaro Bautista and Ducati’s stranglehold on the series finally ended.
Melandri Grabs Early World Superbike Initiative
The World Superbike Championship got the 2018 racing season underway at the weekend with the Phillip Island circuit in Australia living up to its billing as one of the best circuits in the world with the second race, especially, being an absolute cracker. And, for the first time since the end of 2014 when Sylvain Guintoli won the title, someone other than Jonathan Rea is leading the way.
That rider is Marco Melandri with the Aruba Ducati rider taking a resounding double to head to round two in Thailand next month with a maximum haul of 50 points. The Italian came into the season almost under the radar having had a relatively quiet off season but that worked in his favour as he upstaged the expected front runners with two superb rides. After a year out of the sport in 2015, the veteran is now back to his best, as seen by his tactically perfect second race win, and the former 250cc World Champion will certainly have designs on the title this year.
Podiums but no wins for Kawasaki
Rea had led the Championship table from the opening round in 2015 until the end of 2017, sweeping all before him on his way to a hat-trick of titles but a combination of tyre issues, illness and perhaps the reduction of 1,000rpm in the ZX-10R meant he wasn’t his usual dominant self at the weekend. Problems with his rear tyre in race one saw him finish an unheard of fifth but he responded in race two to almost win, only missing out on victory to Melandri by 0.021s.
Team-mate Tom Sykes was on top form all weekend and backed up his opening race second with fourth in race two, a slightly sluggish start holding him back in the early stages. Looking the most confident he has done in some time, early indications are that he’ll be a firm title challenger this time around. But with no wins from the weekend – something they haven’t been used to in recent times – Kawasaki will be looking to put that right as soon as possible.
Reason for optimism for Laverty and Aprilia
Nine points from the two races doesn’t read that great for Eugene Laverty and the Milwaukee Aprilia team but that doesn’t tell the true story and their pace over the weekend gives them plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the year ahead.
Laverty was quick in practice and qualified in second for the first race only to suffer most with his Pirelli tyres (see below) but bounced back to comfortably lead the second race. A rare mistake by the Northern Ireland rider saw him crash out, remounting for 15th, but his showing will give both him and the team plenty of encouragement.
Riding the Barni Ducati, Xavi Fores has, arguably, been the best privateer in World Superbikes for the last couple of seasons, finishing ninth overall in 2016 and seventh in 2017 and whilst the Spaniard does receive some support from the Bologna factory, he was one of the riders of the weekend at Phillip Island. Although he’s stood on the podium before – at a wet German round of 2016 – his performance last weekend was a step up as he battled with the full factory-backed riders throughout race two, eventually finishing third, which backed up an already impressive fourth in race one.
At 32, Fores is somewhat of a late developer and whilst it’s too early to tell if the new rules – supposedly giving parity to the smaller, lesser funded teams – have truly worked, the signs were very positive for Fores and the Barni team.
Tyre troubles resurface
Pirelli experienced a number of tyre issues during 2017, with Jonathan Rea’s crash at Donington Park being the most prolific, and the Italian manufacturer again had concerns at Phillip Island. The circuit is notoriously hard on the left hand side of the tyre and after the opening race, they requested a compulsory pit-stop to change tyres take place during both Sunday’s second race and the World Supersport encounter.
A red flag in the latter meant a shortened race took place and there was no need for a tyre change but the second WSB race did see the riders pit during a three lap window – laps 9, 10 or 11 – for a mandatory length of time. It essentially meant we had two short sprint races which created a tremendous spectacle and certainly played its part in the race being a Phillip Island classic. However, Pirelli will be keen to ensure issues with their product don’t become a regular occurrence and topic of discussion.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Triumph, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Keith Amor. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.