The opening round of the 2020 World Superbike Championship and, in particular, the Phillip Island circuit in Australia, didn’t disappoint at the weekend with three simply superb races.
The meeting saw three different race winners and some of the closest finishes in WSB history and whilst a number of riders showed impressive form, the man who sits on top of the early season championship table is, perhaps surprisingly, Alex Lowes.
Lowes hits new heights
Many of us could well have expected a Kawasaki rider to be leading the championship after the opening round of the season but the likelihood is that we would have had that rider down to be Jonathan Rea, not his new team-mate Lowes.
The English rider had been relatively low key during pre-season testing as he adjusted to both the Kawasaki team and the ZX-10RR after four years with Yamaha and eighth in qualifying gave no indication of what lay ahead.
However, he was in contention for all three race wins and, arguably, his race craft was better than anyone’s over the course of the weekend as he put himself in the right positions at the right times.
A first and a second in the two feature races saw him deservedly end the meeting on top of the early season table and although it’s only a start, it’s a more than encouraging one.
He still has plenty of learning to do with the Kawasaki but, having only one career WSB win to his name prior to the season, he’s been given a golden opportunity and it’s one he clearly intends to make the most of.
Rea, meanwhile, had the worst possible start when he crashed in the first race but normal service was resumed on Sunday when he took first in the Superpole race and then second behind Lowes later in the afternoon. He remains the man to beat.
As expected, Yamaha were well to the fore throughout the weekend with their improved top and speed and aerodynamics package being fully utilised by the PATA Yamaha pairing of Toprak Razgatlioglu and Michael van der Mark and Ten Kate Racing’s Loris Baz.
With qualifying being his Achilles heel in 2019, Razgatlioglu got his new season off to a good start when he qualified in fourth place which saw him head off the second row and he put together the perfect race in the season opener as he took his third WSB victory.
It was close though with his winning margin over Lowes being just 0.007s whilst only 0.137s covered the top four, team-mate van der Mark being the unlucky rider to miss out on the podium in fourth.
The Turkish rider took another podium in the Superpole race and could well have left Australia in the title lead had it not been for a technical issue forcing him out towards the end of the final race of the weekend.
He more than showed he’s already adapted to the R1 and although he stole the show from van der Mark, the Dutchman fought for the wins in each race so he’ll head into round two reasonably content with his weekend’s work.
Baz, meanwhile, continues to impress on the privately-run ten Kate machine. Whilst similar in spec to the PATA Yamaha’s, the Dutch team have gone in their own direction with development, something that has always been their strength. A couple of off-track excursions ultimately cost Baz a chance of a podium but he more than signalled his intentions for the season ahead.
Three podiums from his first three races was a pretty good start to Scott Redding’s maiden WSB campaign and, as expected, the reigning British Champion was on the pace all weekend at a circuit he knows extremely well.
Quick in both the wet and dry, Redding could well have won all three races but, instead, had to settle for three third place finishes and admitted afterwards, he needs to get used to the new Pirelli tyres and the different group of riders he’s now battling with.
There was plenty of paint swapping in Phillip Island but with the next round at Qatar, another circuit he knows well from his Grand Prix days, Redding has shown he’s going to be a title contender this year.
His form contrasted greatly to that of team-mate Chaz Davies who never really recovered from a poor performance in qualifying when he could only manage 16th place.
The Welshman was put in the shade this time last year by Alvaro Bautista and although he now has a new team-mate on the opposite side of the Aruba Ducati garage, the outcome was the same as he was left trailing in Redding’s wake.
Phillip Island has never been his best circuit but fifth place in Sunday’s feature race salvaged his weekend and he’ll look to carry this pace and form into the very beginning of round two in a couple of week’s time.
Honda’s full-time return has been rightly well-received although winter testing did leave us feeling slightly under whelmed with neither Leon Haslam nor Alvaro Bautista, especially, setting the world alight.
Over 60% of those tests were held in damp conditions though and in the dry at Phillip Island, both riders put in strong performances and would have left Australia more than encouraged with how they fared against the opposition.
Haslam could, and perhaps, should have left with three top five finishes but an off-track excursion in race two and then a crash in race three meant it was Bautista who scored the most points.
Still getting to grips with the Fireblade after a year on the Ducati Panigale, a crash in practice left the Spaniard in a lowly position on the grid but in the two feature races, he showed good pace to grab a pair of sixths. On both occasions, he was only four seconds off the race win and both riders will only get stronger as the year goes on.
Disappointment for BMW
Like Yamaha, BMW have spent the winter months well with the S1000RR now benefiting from a higher-engine spec giving out better top end speed and an electronics package allowing them to fully utilise the power they have.
Pole position for Tom Sykes would have left them jumping for joy but, unfortunately, they were unable to convert this into results with a poor tyre choice in race one, where Sykes opted to run a different Pirelli tyre to the rest of the field, seeing the Englishman run with the leading pack for the first half of the race but slide all the way back to ninth by the end.
He didn’t improve much on Sunday with sixth in the Superpole race and tenth in the final race of the weekend with the latter a reminder that they still need to improve as he finished over 17 seconds adrift of race winner Lowes.
He fared better than team-mate Eugene Laverty though who, after taking 11th in the opening race, fell in morning warm-up on Sunday sustaining concussion that saw him ruled unfit for racing. Both riders will go again in Qatar.
Best track in the world
The final word from the weekend has to go to the Phillip Island circuit which again served up some of the best racing you’re ever likely to see. We all hope the racing is as close in future rounds as it was in Australia but the rest of the circuits have a lot to live up to as the fact remains that Phillip Island is quite simply the best short circuit in the world. It never fails to deliver.