For the 2018 WorldSBK season, we are changing up our coverage format a little bit from last year, in order to provide more useful content for our racing fans.
First up, we are pleased to have Steve English providing coverage from the World Superbike paddock. Regular Asphalt & Rubber readers will recognize Steve’s name from a number of stories here on A&R, and he is also a regular host of our Paddock Pass Podcast.
With his day job being the voice of WorldSBK on the commentary feed, Steve’s expert insight will provide for us a preview of each WorldSBK round, as well as a debrief at the end of each race weekend, which will highlight the major takeaways from the racing action.
Additionally for our A&R Pro readers, Steve will be providing us with added racing analysis, as well as interviews with the WorldSBK riders, team members, and paddock fixtures, which you won’t want to miss. -JB
With that out of the way, let’s get to the opening round of the 2018 WorldSBK season, which is now in the books and certainly provided us with plenty of excitement and plenty to talk about.
New schedule: The 2018 season will see three free practice sessions on Friday’s, and from the outset we saw the benefit of this schedule. In the past, if a rider crashed or had a technical problem on Friday, it severely hampered their weekend.
Any time lost was magnified because you could easily lose 60 minutes of track time. The new schedule sees three 40-minute sessions to have the same track time available to riders.
A crash on his outlap in FP2 saw Alex Lowes miss the entire session, and while the loss of track time hampered the Englishman, getting out in FP3 allowed him to set a time good enough for entry to Superpole 2.
The schedule will also allow riders to use Friday afternoon for a race simulation whereas in the past this was harder to achieve.
New regulations: Five bikes leading a race and some surprising results would indicate the new rules have had their desired effect. It’ll remain to be seen if that plays out over the course of the season, but Australia showed that Aprilia, Honda, and Yamaha can get to the front of the field.
Kawasaki seemed a little hamstrung during the opening round, and Ducati seemed to have the legs, but Phillip Island is a unique circuit and it won’t be until WorldSBK returns to Europe that a clear picture develops.
Tyred and emotional: In Australia we saw plenty of concern about the Pirelli tires. Issues with the Italian tires forced Race Direction to introduce a mandatory pitstop.
This was met with a mixed reaction. The racing was thrilling, with two flat-out stints of racing on Sunday, but for some riders they felt that their hard work of spending all week making a tire last for 22 laps was wasted.
Pirelli introduced a new tire for Australia to distribute the heat better, and Marco Melandri used it to the desired effect to claim in the lead, in the closing stages of Race 1 and then take the win.
Melandri leads the way: For the first time in five years the Italian leads the standings of WorldSBK and his weekend in Australia was perfect. He managed his tyre on Saturday to take the win and he timed his blast past Rea on the final lap to perfection on Sunday.
It was two contrasting strategies but the reward was a perfect 50 points. It was his first double victory since 2014 and offered a clear indication of what we should expect in 2018.
Unfulfilled potential: While Melandri had a perfect weekend his former teammate, Eugene Laverty, had one that left a sour taste in the mouth.
The Irishman felt fast and confident all weekend, but faded in Race 1. The team commented afterwards that it was for a different reason to last year’s constant issues, and a highside from the lead on Sunday left him nursing some bruises, but more importantly the pain of missing out on a strong results.
Last year Aprilia struggled throughout the campaign, but now Laverty feels he finally has a bike capable of challenging.
All things must end: For the first time in three years, Jonathan Rea is not leading the WorldSBK championship. The Northern Irishman sits third in the standings and behind his teammate Tom Sykes.
The 2013 champion looked as relaxed and confident as anyone could remember all weekend, at what has typically been one of the most challenging rounds of the year for Sykes.
A career best results of second at Phillip Island offered a sign of what to expect from Sykes, and he’ll go to Thailand full of confidence.
For the first time since joining Kawasaki, Rea has had a chink in his armor exposed, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts at Round 2.
Rea is still the title favorite, and it’s easy to read too much into the results of the opening round, but Sykes was brimming with confidence for the first time in a long time.