Photo: Yamaha Racing
CHANG INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, Buriram, Thailand – It was more of the same at the front of the second World Superbike race of the season, but the racing was excellent throughout the field and competitors for the front are making progress.
Extremely hot and humid weather – 37 Celsius air temperature, more than 50 Celsius on the track – made traction slippery, leading to a lot of crashes and near-misses in both the Superbike and Supersport races.
On the other hand, as far as results were concerned, it was same old, same old. Jonathon Rea took his factory Kawasaki ZX-10 to comfortable wins in both races (albeit at lap record speeds, so he wasn’t hanging around), while team-mate Tom Sykes collected a third and a second.
Rea (who also doubled in Australia two weeks ago) was understandably thrilled with his weekend: “This is my best-ever start to the season, I’m feeling good with the bike. I was so nervous about the ninth place start to be honest (due to the new-for-2017 inverted start rule) because this track is so hard to pass.”
Sykes, on the other hand, was moderately pleased but not delighted with his own performance; after all, getting whacked by your team-mate four races in a row can’t be fun. “We struggled all weekend a little bit, I’ve been working hard over the winter to try and overcome some limitations. I just had to change the way I ride and it shows, because on the last lap I did my fastest lap of the race. I am slowly getting there and consistency has pretty much been there. We keep closing the gap but we need to try and close it a bit faster.”
Ducati was the other manufacturer to take podium spots, Chaz Davies second on Saturday and Melandri third on Sunday. The Italian, back racing after a year, was beaten into third and then second by Tom Sykes passing him in the last corner on the last lap in both races. He quipped, “There’s no respect for us old guys,” but added, “To be back on the podium is huge – I was struggling with the front brake for the first few laps. I knew Sykes was going to pass, because the lever was touching my hand when I was braking.”
Davies crashed early in the second race, misjudging his team-mate’s speed into T-3, running wide to miss him and slowly tipping over. He restarted dead last, but was fortunate when a red flag stopped the race after Lorenzo Savatori’s Aprilia grenaded and oiled the last corner. He said, “Finishing sixth is a salvage after the crash, but we could have been close to the podium at the restart. Unfortunately, we had some issues with the throttle after some parts were changed for safety. Still, we have many more points than after two rounds last year, and now we’ll go to more favourable tracks. The championship is long.”
Rea, Davies, and Sykes lead the championship after the first two races, but other teams are feeling encouraged by their start to the season. The Yamaha squad, sponsored by Italian snack giant Pata, are doing particularly well. Brit Alex Lowes collected a sixth and a fourth to put himself fourth in the title chase so far, and is pleased with his results to date. “The two flyaway races have gone well for me overall, and it has been a solid start of the season. I feel confident for Aragon. There is still a lot I can improve in myself and there are things the team can improve on the bike, so we can go away for a couple of days rest and then start working toward the next race.”
His team-mate Michael van der Mark beat him home in the first race, but a technical problem sidelined him in the second. He was disappointed but philosophical: “It was a shame because yesterday was really good. I had a feeling that today would be the same, or even better, for both Alex and myself, but that is racing.”
Aprilia had a bad day, Savadori crashing when his engine oiled the rear tire, and Eugene Laverty fell but got going again while trying to hold off a small mob for fifth place. The bikes are looking quick, but unusually for Aprilia seem a little down on horsepower.
The Honda squad had another roughish weekend, still trying to come to grips with the new Fireblade. In the first race Nicky Hayden and Stefan Bradl managed ninth and 10th, while on Sunday Bradl crashed out and Hayden had obviously found something, dicing in the group for fifth and eventually coming in seventh. Hayden sounded more optimistic than he has so far this year, saying, “The bike worked much better after the red flag and I was actually able to do my best lap-times of the weekend—I found myself in that group fighting for fifth place but then Leon’s bike started blowing some smoke and all I did was try to stay out of trouble—the team found something to help with the rear wheel chatter—hopefully we’ll be able to get up there as soon as possible.”
Jordi Torres (BMW) rode an excellent race to fifth, just holding off the charging Davies, while Xavi Fores (Ducati), Roman Romas (Kawasaki), and Markus Reiterberger (BMW) rounded out the top 10.
The 600 cc Supersport race was something of a gong show, and after the first two races of the year the happiest rider in the paddock has to be defending champion Kenan Sofuoglu, who’s missed both races while recuperating from a wrist operation. His top rivals have been busy tripping all over each other for the first two races, leaving the five-time WSS champ a relatively easy challenge to climb back into contention once he’s back on track at the next race.
Jules Cluzel, on a Honda this year after a swap from MV, crashed out in Australia, then had an engine failure while in a fairly comfortable lead in Thailand. P.J. Jacobsen, on an MV after swapping from Honda, only managed a lacklustre sixth in Aus, then had an engine failure in Thailand. Two of the other top possibles were both disqualified in Thailand after ignoring repeated signals to do a pit ride-through for penalties; that led to a zero for Brits Gino Rea and Kyle Smith.
The podium spots all went to Yamahas: young Italian Federico Caricasulo grabbed his first WSS victory after a hard-fought battle with local wild-card and crowd favourite Decha Kraisart. Third went to Finn Nikki Tulli on a year-old Yamaha run by former Moto GP and Moto 2 racer Mika Kallio; Tulli was a sensation on an ultra-low budget entry late in 2016, and so far this year has more than proven his worth with a fifth in Aus and third in Thailand.
The Thai result was particularly spectacular, as on the first corner after the start he was forced off the track, had a huge high-side that he somehow caught without being collected by the field, then fought back to the podium from nearly dead last. The kid’s got a new bike waiting for him at the next round, and the regulars have to be worried.
The top five were rounded out by another local wild-card, Thitipong Warokorn (Kawasaki), and Brit Kyle Ryde (Kawasaki).
World Championship Point Standings after 4 of 26 races (13 events)
- Jonathon Rea, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 100 points
- Chaz Davies, U.K., Aruba.it Ducati, 70
- Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 62
- Alex Lowes, U.K., Pata Yamaha, 49
- Marco Melandri, Italy, Aruba.it Ducati, 45
- Xavier Fores, Spain, Barni Ducati, 34
- Jordi Torres, Spain, Althea BMW, 29
- TIE, Michael Van Der Mark, Netherlands, Pata Yamaha / Leon Camier, U.K., MV Agusta, 27
- Nicky Hayden, U.S.A., Red Bull Honda, 21
Next event April 2, Aragon, Spain.