LOSAIL CIRCUIT, Qatar, October 30, 2016 – Kawasaki has to be worried about the 2017 World Superbike Championship. Yes, 2016 saw them take first and second in riders’ competition, with Jonathon Rea and Tom Sykes, following Rea’s win in 2015, and also grab both the manufacturer and team trophies.
But. Ever since the summer break, the Ducatis have been basically unbeatable, or at least one Ducati. Lead rider Chaz Davies of Wales took seven of the last eight races – in fact, every dry race since the teams got back in action. A smiling Davies has merely said the team “found a few things” during the break – a nearly-unbeatable Panigale against what will be a new and untried Kawasaki next year has to be worrying.
Still, the racing has been good in spite of the fact that the Kawasakis and Davies’ Ducati have basically controlled the podium for most of the year. Excellent racing farther back and the promise of new and improved bikes for 2017 (particularly from Honda, for Nicky Hayden and Stefan Bradl) will hopefully keep interest up and competition closer.
At the season-ending races in Losail, it was business as usual – in both races (all three, actually, more on that in a minute) Davies grabbed an early lead and disappeared into the distance, leaving Kawasaki team-mates Jonathon Rea and Tom Sykes to squabble over second, although Yamaha’s Sylvain Guintoli threw a spanner in the works by grabbing third in Saturday’s contest. That was Yamaha’s first podium in their first year back in the series; Guintoli unfortunately won’t be back in 2017 but was delighted to score for the team after missing much of the season with injury. Behind them the competition was wicked, with a mad scramble for positions on both days.
The racing was enlivened by the last-minute addition of Brit Leon Haslam. Formerly a WSBK regular, Haslam was back racing in the U.K. this year on a Kawasaki, where he barely missed out on the title to multi-time champ Shane Byrne. On a strange bike (Pedercini Kawasaki) and missing the first practice session due to various problems, Haslam ran in the top 10 both days, finally carding an 11th and a fifth – very impressive indeed in his first race in the series this year.
Also impressive was Honda’s Nicky Hayden, fifth and seventh on the weekend. The seventh was particularly impressive, as he had to start from pit lane due to a necessary engine swap that exceeded the rules allocation for the season. He was clawing his way back up when a red flag due to an oil spill halted matters, giving him a restart in mid-pack and allowing him to start the “second race” closer to the sharp end. No doubt it was particularly gratifying to beat his team-mate Michael van der Mark, who’s departing the ten Kate Honda team for Yamaha in 2017.
After the red flag in the second race, Davies had to start over again, but once again got the hole-shot and took off for the shortened 10-lap final. This time, however, Rea was determined to go out with a victory, and after disposing of team-mate Tom Sykes set off in pursuit of the Ducati. He closed to within a second or so, but on the last lap realized he couldn’t safely try a pass, so radically slowed and let Sykes by again for second, giving Sykes second in the championship. The two aren’t known to be great friends, but they embraced closely after the race and Sykes went out of his way to thank Rea in the post-race interviews.
The title had already been decided in favour of Turk Kenan Sofuoglu – his fifth World Supersport championship – but you’d never have known it from the close racing. Britain’s Kyle Smith eked out a win over Sofuoglu by less than 1/100th of a second after a ballsy last-lap last-corner pass. Smith had led much of the race but the last couple of laps with Sofuoglu were as tight racing as you’d ever want to see. It was Honda’s eighth successive win at the Qatar event, and Smith’s second consecutive victory there.
Third went to MV Agusta’s Jules Cluzel a couple of seconds back, with American P.J. Jacobsen fourth on his Honda and Sofuoglu’s Kawasaki team-mate Randy Krummenacher fifth.
Final World Superbike Standings after 13 of 13 events (26 of 26 races)
- Jonathon Rea, U.K., Kawasaki Racing, 498 points
- Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing, 447
- Chaz Davies, U.K., Aruba Ducati, 445
- Michael van der Mark, Netherlands, Ten Kate Honda, 267
- Nicky Hayden, U.S.A., Ten Kate Honda, 248
- Jordi Torres, Spain, Althea BMW, 216
- Davide Giugliano, Italy, Aruba Ducati, 197
- Leon Camier, U.K., MV Agusta, 168
- Lorenzo Savadori, IODA Racing Aprilia, 150
- Xavier Fores, Spain, Barni Racing Ducati, 151