This weekend sees the 2017 motorcycling season finally fire back into life with the opening rounds of the World Superbike and World Supersport Championships taking place at the thrilling Phillip Island circuit.
And with British riders filling three out of the top four places at the final test at the Australian track, we could be set for a similar season to 2016 where Jonathan Rea, Chaz Davies and Tom Sykes were the class acts of the field.
Rea’s the man to beat
Undoubtedly the man they all have to beat is Rea. The reigning and double world champion is aiming to become the first man in the history of the championship to win three titles in a row and if pre-season is anything to go by, he’ll take some stopping. He ended the last test fastest once more and with the same experienced, crew around him – including former racers Pere Riba and Fabien Foret – the Northern Irishman will want to get his season underway with at least one victory.
Sykes continues to adapt
Team-mate Sykes has openly admitted that he’s finding the new ZX-10R – and the new rules in particular – difficult to adapt to. The 2013 Champion has had to change his riding style to compensate and it’s been more a case of chipping away over the winter months as opposed to challenging for the top spot. Slowly but surely though he’s edged his way closer to the front and fourth overall at the test, albeit half a second adrift of Rea, will have given him a timely boost. He knows work still needs to be done though if he’s to get the better of his garage rival.
Double pronged attack from Ducati
Davies ended the 2016 season as the man on top after a run of victories and will be looking to hit the ground running and push for the title this year from the word go. Early indications look positive and he was only three tenths slower than Rea at the final two-day test.
However, that meant he finished in third place overall and he was upstaged by his team-mate Marco Melandri, the Italian proving his return to racing is with the sole intention of winning. Having been out of the sport for 18 months, the former 250cc World Champion and MotoGP winner is clearly hungry for more success. He was only 0.03s slower than Rea so it will be very interesting to see if he can serve up a repeat performance on race day.
The big surprise from the final test was the pace, or lack of it, from Milwaukee Aprilia’s Eugene Laverty. The Northern Irishman is one of the star additions to the 2017 series but he could only manage 12th fastest in Victoria and, more worryingly, was some 1.3s off the pace of fellow countryman Rea.
He was also four tenths slower than team-mate Lorenzo Savadori and, in his own words, said he’d encountered ‘fundamental problems’ throughout the two days which doesn’t bode well for the opening round.
Come race day, it will be a surprise to see him finish outside the top ten though and his SMR team will be working hard to give him the feeling he needs to get the results his undoubted talent is capable of.
Work to do for Honda
Just as Laverty and Aprilia struggled, so too did the Red Bull Honda pairing of Nicky Hayden and new recruit Stefan Bradl. They ended up 14th and 19th respectively at the end of the test with the new Fireblade a long way off the pace, Bradl’s fastest time being over two seconds slower than Jonathan Rea’s.
Mixed weather conditions on the opening day put them on the back foot and they were further hindered when they went in the wrong direction with set-up on the second and final day. Hayden said later that there was plenty of work to be done with the electronics package and getting the drive out of the corners needed to keep up with the opposition. Curing those problems in a matter of days will be unlikely so expect round one to be more of a damage limitation exercise for the Dutch-based squad.
Supersport opener wide open
The big news in the supporting World Supersport Championship has been the broken right hand suffered by multiple World Champion Kenan Sofuoglu in late January. He arrived in Australia to try and prepare for the opening round but found his hand, especially his thumb, too painful to complete more than a handful of laps at a time. He’s subsequently pulled out of the first two rounds and aims to be back at Aragon at the end of March.
That means round one is wide open and American youngster PJ Jacobsen will be looking to take full advantage of the Turk’s absence. Having switched to MV Agusta for 2017, he was half a second clear of similarly mounted Roberto Rolfo with another pre-season favourite, Jules Cluzel, third for Honda. British hopes again lie with Kyle Smith, Luke Stapleford, Gino Rea and Kyle Ryde, the last-named now Sofuoglu’s team-mate and under the wing of Rea.
Are you looking forward to the World Superbike 2017 championships?
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