Photos: World Superbike
NEVERS, France – After comfortably leading the World Superbike championship for much of the season, defending champion Tom Sykes and his Kawasaki have only a precarious 12-point lead with one event (two races) left to go. Aprilia’s Sylvain Guintoli collected a first and second in the penultimate event at Magny-Cours October 5, while Sykes considered himself fortunate to manage some damage limitation with a pair of fourths.
The weather was appalling, as cool temperatures, heavy intermittent rain, mist, and on-track puddles created a nightmare for the racers. In the second race, no fewer than 13 of the 28 entrants crashed out, and only 10 finished on the same lap, unheard of in World Superbike competition.
The Aprilias were totally dominant in the conditions, Guintoli and team-mate Marco Melandri easily out-distancing the rest of the field. Only Pata Honda’s Jonathon Rea was able to run with them in the second race, and he crashed at about half-distance when, he said, his engine braking system kicked out the back wheel as he entered a corner.
Team orders came into play for both Aprilia and Kawasaki. In both races, Melandri got ahead of Guintoli and was comfortably leading, only to be shown an amusing pit board with an angry frowning cartoon face and an arrow pointing down, telling him to let his team-mate by in order to maximize Guintoli’s chances at catching Sykes for the title. He did so very obviously in race one, moving to the side of the track, turning his body in an exaggerated fashion, and waving his French team-mate by.
In the second race he got the same board, but ignored it – he said he hadn’t seen it, which was amusing after the discussions that must have taken place between races. No-one other than perhaps Guintoli (and of course the team manager) begrudged him his win, however; as commentators (both world champions themselves) Troy Corser and Steve Martin said, if Guintoli can’t win his own races he doesn’t deserve to be world champion anyway. And if Melandri hadn’t let Guintoli by, the Italian would have been victor in five of the last six races, with his team-mate behind every time.
Both riders seemed a little embarrassed about the situation, glossing over the obvious move in the first race, Melandri muttering that “I work for Aprilia.”
Kawasaki also worked team orders, with Sykes’ team-mate Loris Baz being instructed to let his team leader by in race one. He ignored the board until the last corner (a nasty right-left chicane) when he grudgingly barely left room for Sykes to get past at the flag. Baz wasn’t a factor in the second race, so his obedience wasn’t tested a second time. He’s leaving Kawasaki and World Superbike at the end of the season, so the team might consider itself lucky that he did let Sykes by.
Sykes, chasing his second consecutive world title, said, “Given the conditions these results are better than I expected … I wanted to fight with Sylvain and win the race but first I needed to finish the race. It could have been a lot worse but it could have been better. We are still in the best position in the championship so we need to go to Qatar and hopefully it lives up to its reputation as a desert!”
Behind the drama up front, Pata Honda had a good day, collecting a pair of thirds. Rea held on behind the Aprilia duo in race one, and although he crashed out of the second race while leading, his team-mate Leon Haslam came good, catching and passing Sykes for the last podium place in the last two laps. It was Haslam’s first podium in two injury-and-problem-filled years with the Honda team and his first since 2012, so he was delighted to be back on the box – particularly since he doesn’t yet have a ride for 2015.
The rest of the top 10 in the championship had a generally miserable day. Davide Giugliano on one of the factory Ducati Panigales crashed out of both races – “I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand why I’m crashing so often and I’m really sorry.” Former WSB champ Corser had his own opinion – “Davide is a very fast rider, but he seems to get too excited. I was talking to his manager between races and he said he wished Davide would just slow down a touch and think more!”
Chaz Davies, the other factory Ducati rider, had a nasty crash in race one, and could only manage a disappointed ninth in race two, citing rear traction problems.
Suzuki’s Alex Lowes and Eugene Laverty also had the weekend from hell, both riders crashing in both races. The final rider in the top 10, Spaniard Toni Elias on the Red Devils Roma Aprilia, crashed in race one and retired with a technical problem in the second.
The title has already been decided, going to Pata Honda’s Michael Van Der Mark, but the race at Magny-Cours was as drama-packed as the main events. Victory eventually went to MV Agusta-mounted Frenchman Jules Cluzel, ecstatic to take the win in front of his home crowd. He only garnered top place after Kenan Sofuoglu pitched his Kawasaki into the gravel while holding a 22-second lead; the Turk was untouchable on track, but adjusted his brake slightly and promptly overdid the front and was out.
The new champion crashed out of third, but managed to restart and scythe back to second, while popular veteran Roberto Rolfi brought his Kawasaki to the final podium spot.
American P.J. Jacobsen continues to impress the WSB paddock, the 21-year-old taking another top 10 spot (eighth this time) in his first attack on the series.
The paddock is going to look different next year, with an unusual number of rides being shuffled in the annual game of musical chairs. First, Jonathon Rea is leaving Pata Honda, almost certainly joining Tom Sykes at Kawasaki after a career spent almost exclusively on Hondas. He’ll be replaced by Van Der Mark, the young Dutchman an obvious choice for the Dutch team after his Supersport title.
At Kawasaki, Rea will be replacing Frenchman Loris Baz, who’s leaving for the Moto GP world, taking the second seat at the Forward Racing Yamaha squad alongside German Stefan Bradl. Another rider heading for Moto GP is Eugene Laverty, who’s leaving the Suzuki squad to grab a customer Honda seat in the Aspar team alongside veteran American Nicky Hayden.
Aprilia is up in the air, trying to decide what level of support – if any – they’ll provide WSB next season with their new Moto GP program coming into play. It seems certain that Guintoli will be leaving whether he wins the title or not, and is tipped to take the second Pata Honda seat. Marco Melandri doesn’t want to help develop a new bike in Moto GP when he’s got an established winner in WSB, so is keen to have the factory continue supporting at least him.
Leon Haslam is out of contract with Pata Honda, and has nothing arranged as yet. A chance might be the new JR Racing BMW squad being organized by double world champion Troy Corser – Haslam still has a good relationship with BMW after two years with the factory team – but word is that Aussie Josh Brookes and Brit Leon Camier are already in the frame there.
The new team is funded out of the Dominican Republic, the name “JR” being team owner Yoselyn Robinson’s tribute to her father Jose Robinson. She plans to fund the team as part of a larger plan to bring World Superbikes to her native Dominican Republic, where an international circuit is reportedly being proposed.
Next and final event, Losail Circuit, Qatar, November 2
World championship standings after 11 of 12 events (22 of 24 races)
- Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 378 points
- Sylvain Guintoli, France, Aprilia Racing Team, 366
- Marco Melandri, Italy, Aprilia Racing Team, 312
- Jonathon Rea, U.K., Pata Honda, 301
- Loris Baz, France, Kawasaki Racing Team, 282
- Chaz Davies, U.K., Ducati Superbike Team, 195
- Leon Haslam, U.K., Pata Honda, 176
- Davide Giugliano, Italy, Ducati Superbike Team, 162
- Eugene Laverty, U.K., Crescent Suzuki,154
- Toni Elias, Spain, Red Devils Roma Aprilia, 151