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.
World Superbikes set for lift-off
This weekend sees the 2018 season fire into life and, once more, it’s the World Superbike Championship that gets everything underway with the traditional season opener again taking place at the iconic Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in Australia. With a number of rule changes in place, organisers will be hoping for parity between the factories and teams and a more-closely contested series this time around.
Can anyone beat Rea
After three successive championships, the question on everyone’s lips is who can beat Jonathan Rea on his Kawasaki ZX-10RR? Since joining the Kawasaki Racing Team in 2015, it’s been a match made in heaven for the Northern Irishman and he’s left his rivals firmly training in his wake, none more so than in 2017 when he won by a whopping 153 points.
His domination and mastery week in week out has resulted in a lot of scratching of heads from his contemporaries who have repeatedly tried to get the better of him but to no avail. Rule changes are intended to bring the pack closer and make it a more level playing field but it’s hard to look past the recently turned 31-year old as the 2018 champion.
Sykes to up the ante
There are other riders out on the grid who are hungry for more, wanting to beat the rider with the number one plate, none more so than the rider in the same garage – Tom Sykes. Since 2012, the British rider has never finished outside of the top three in the World Championship standings, a remarkable run of results, and it was he that restored Kawasaki to the top of the tree in 2013.
Since Rea joined the team though, he’s been overshadowed and that’s something he wants to address in the season ahead. Sykes has taken a number of knocks in recent times, picking up a number of niggling injuries but now back to full fitness, he’s desperate to try to win back the no.1 plate.
Davies and Melandri return for Ducati
As well as Sykes, Rea’s biggest challenger in recent seasons has been Chaz Davies and the Welshman lines up for the fifth successive season on the Aruba.it Racing Ducati. The former World Supersport Champion has helped turn the Panigale R into a race winning machine and only season long consistency has stood in his way in the past.
That was again evident in 2017 but if he can get back to the form of 2016, when he won seven out of the final eight races, he certainly has the pace and determination to end up on top.
His team-mate will again be Marco Melandri who made a welcome return to racing in 2017 after almost 18 months out of the sport. With a full year under his belt, the rustiness has gone and he’ll be hopeful of challenging for the wins from the start.
Yamaha and Aprilia look to provide greater competition
Much was expected of both Yamaha and Aprilia in 2017 and whilst the Japanese manufacturer and riders Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark were very consistent, podiums were rare rather than frequent. Continuing to develop the YZF-R1 throughout 2017, both Lowes and van der Mark have enjoyed positive winter tests and will be quietly confident of being closer to both Kawasaki and Ducati with the new rules now in place.
The same applies to the Milwaukee Aprilia team of Eugene Laverty and Lorenzo Savadori, especially for the former. Northern Irishman Laverty will have been disappointed by his results last year but having finished runner-up to Sykes in 2013, he know what it takes to win races and if the Italian Aprilia RSV4 has improved, expect him to be back amongst the podium finishers.
Better year ahead for Honda?
2017 was a year to forget for Honda and their new Fireblade machine but winter testing has indicating there’ll be making a much better fist of things this time around. New signing for 2018, Leon Camier has been fast from the minute he jumped on the machine to firmly suggest the bike’s nowhere near as bad as it looked last year. The 31-year old has impressed everyone throughout the pre-season tests and although the last couple of seasons have seen him up against it on the MV Agusta, his riding skills have clearly been enhanced.
With eight seasons of World Superbikes behind him, Camier will certainly have some work to do in order to get the Honda a regular podium fighter but as he gets more and more comfortable with the CRB1000RR Fireblade, he could well become a welcome returnee to the front group.
This year’s entry list includes seven new riders who will start on the grid although the biggest of those names, Loris Baz, is no stranger to Superbikes, having impressed greatly for Kawasaki in both 2013 and 2014. The Frenchman returns to the Championship to defend the colours of the Gulf Althea BMW Racing Team, having taken over the rider vacated by Jordi Torres, the Spaniard now with MV Agusta.
North American Jake Gagne will race fulltime in the top category with Red Bull Honda having had selected outings at the back end of 2017 whilst Gabriele Ruiu (Grillini Racing Team), Toprak Razgtlioglu (Kawasaki Pucetti Racing) and PJ Jacobsen (TripleM Honda WorldSuperbike Team) will all be making their debut in the premier class, the latter having impressed greatly in the World Supersport Championship.
Colombian Yonny Hernandez (Team Perdercini Racing) will also land in the Championship next season with the experienced Italian rider Roberto Rolfo (Grillini Racing Team), who has already competed in WSB in the past, also back in the WSB fold.
New rules to create closer racing?
After much discussion and deliberation, a set of new rules were finally agreed for 2018 with three main updates added to the equation – a rev limit, concessions and approved engine parts.
The balancing system using air restrictors has been replaced with a rev limiting system. The rev limit can be altered at various points throughout the season thus affecting power and applies to each individual manufacturer. The rev limits have been implemented to provide more parity throughout the championship in order to balance performance of riders.
A concession points system will be introduced to restrict engine development of the fastest machines. At certain stages in the season teams that have achieved fewer concession points will be allowed to introduce updated concession parts. As a secondary benefit, the private teams will get access to cost capped engine parts to help them reach performance levels similar to the factory supported teams.
Finally, price caps and approval process have been applied to several key frame, suspension and engine parts. These are called approved parts. This process ensures access and availability to all parts for all teams along with controlled pricing. Aiming to bring machinery up to a similar level of that of the factory teams by making the parts readily available to smaller teams, it will once again mean the riders can use their talents to shine through.
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.