LOSAIL Circuit, Qatar – In a classic come-from-behind season, England-dwelling French rider Sylvain Guintoli won the 2014 World Superbike title for the Italian Aprilia team in the last race of the season. It is Guintoli’s first world title, and the third WSBK title for Aprilia after wins by Max Biaggi in 2010 and 2012.
It was also Guintoli’s first double victory in World Superbike, plus he set the fastest lap of the races while looking extremely comfortable – a superb title victory after coming in to the weekend 12 points down on Kawasaki’s Tom Sykes and knowing all he could do was chase the wins.
A bitterly-disappointed Sykes lost his bid to repeat his 2013 title by only six points after taking two third places. He was furious with his team-mate Loris Baz, who finished second in the first race after ignoring a pit-board instruction to let Sykes through, as he’d done in one race at the last meeting. However, Baz is leaving Kawasaki and World Superbike for 2015, and obviously had his own point to make.
Sykes was gracious to Guintoli in defeat, warmly congratulating him on track and in parc fermé and complimenting him in the press conference. He was considerably less gracious about Baz after Race 1 (when Baz refused to move over) saying, ““That just shows how immature and disrespectful he is. That was a team order, a fairly pivotal one.” Still, a lot of observers believe you should win your titles on the track, not in the pits … it’s an argument that’ll never be settled.
The other podium position went to Jonathon Rea, who rode the wheels off his Pata Honda all weekend and secured third place in the championship ahead of Guintoli’s team-mate Marco Melandri. Considering he’d won three of the last four races before coming to Qatar, Melandri had a pretty lackluster run to an eighth and a fourth.
Nothing’s been announced officially, but it’s widely believed that Rea will be leaving Honda to join Sykes – the guy he knocked back to third in the second race – at Kawasaki in 2015. That could be an entertaining team combination.
Behind the leading trio in each race, it was gunfight at the O.K. Corral time, as the Ducatis of Chaz Davies and pole-sitter Davide Giugliano, and the Aprilias of Toni Elias (having his best ride of the year), and Marco Melandri sliced and diced themselves in a terrific confrontation for the first off-podium spots. In Race 1 Rea was part of the mix, grabbing fourth with Giugliano, Elias, Davies and Melandri following.
In race 2 Melandri led Davies and Elias to the flag with Loris Baz joining in during the last laps to push Giugliano back to eighth. Baz had to fight his way up from the back of the grid after getting the first corner of the race all wrong and running way off without crashing. He took Leon Haslam with him as well, the Brit having another disappointing weekend, making it back up to 10th after carding 11th in the first race.
Up front, Guintoli was in another world from the rest. He looked calm and collected all weekend (despite sharing his hotel room with his wife and four kids!) and was fast from start to finish. He loves the Losail circuit; he’s been scary-fast there in the past on Moto GP, Supersport, and world endurance machinery. It’s a fast, flowing track, which really suits his ultra-smooth style.
He never put a wheel wrong, going so smoothly he didn’t look quick; by contrast, behind him Baz, Rea, and Sykes all looked like they were having to try far too hard, their bikes bucking and twitching around the circuit.
In parc fermé after the second race, Guintoli’s English wife (shepherding all four kids) said through tears of emotion, “You earned it!”, a sentiment shared by commentator Steve Martin, himself a former WSBK ace and world endurance champion. Martin reminded everyone that at the half-way point in the season, Sykes and Kawasaki had a 44-point lead in the series, so for Aprilia and Guintoli (certainly also helped by Melandri’s victories) to chip that lead away and grab the crown was an impressive feat.
Whether Aprilia will be back in 2015 to defend its title is up in the air at the moment, as the small Noale company is planning to jump into the expensive cauldron of Moto GP. They’re keen to retain Melandri, who is definitely not keen on developing a new bike in another class and wants to stay in WSB, so what’s happening there is still a mystery.
On the other side of the Aprilia pits, by all accounts Guintoli has already signed with Pata Honda to join the new Supersport champ Michael Van Der Mark – which also leaves Leon Haslam out of a ride for 2015.
The 2015 calendar has yet to be released, as additional circuits look likely to be added to the schedule. A race in Thailand seems 99% likely, one in Chile less so, and both South Africa and Russia (both cancelled this year for various reasons) are eager to rejoin the mix. As many as 15 events, up from 12 this season, seems likely. But however it falls out, the usual February season opener at the Philip Island circuit in Australia is almost certain.
The WSS race was led start to finish by Pata Honda’s Michael Van Der Mark in his final appearance in the class before jumping into the Superbikes in 2015. Van Der Mark has had an amazing season on his way to clinching the title; after crashing out of the first race in Australia, he’s finished either first or second in every contest.
He didn’t have things his own way in Qatar, however, as he was pushed hard by – big surprise to everybody here – Thai Honda rider Rathapark Wilairot, who ended up 10th in the title chase with a season-best finish of eighth prior to this weekend. The two of them squeezed away from the take-no-prisoners group of Jules Cluzel (France, MV), newcomer Lucas Mahias (France, Yamaha), hard-riding Scot Kev Coghlan (Yamaha, same team as Mahias), and Van Der Mark’s team-mate Lorenzo Zanetti (Italy, Honda). They were joined later in the race by veteran Robbie Rolfo on the top Kawasaki, this sixth being Rolfo’s best finish of the year.
Cluzel managed to hang onto third, assuring him second in the championship chase over countryman Fabian Marino. Cluzel will be staying with MV for 2015, and with Van Der Mark leaving has to be one of the favourites for next year’s crown.
Final World Superbike standings after 24 races (12 events)
- Sylvain Guintoli, France, Factory Aprilia Racing, 416 points
- Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing, 410
- Jonathon Rea, U.K., Pata Honda, 334
- Marco Melandri, Italy, Factory Aprilia Racing, 333
- Loris Baz, France, Kawasaki Racing, 311
- Chaz Davies, U.K., Ducati Superbike Team, 215
- Leon Haslam, U.K., Pata Honda, 187
- Davide Giugliano, Italy, Ducati Superbike Team,181
- Toni Elias, Spain, Red Devils Roma Aprilia, 171
- Eugene Laverty, U.K., Voltcom Crescent Suzuki, 161
Final World Supersport standings after 11 races
- Michael Van Der Mark, Netherlands, Pata Honda, 230 points
- Jules Cluzel, France, MV Agusta Reparto Corse, 148
- Florian Marino, France, Kawasaki Intermoto PonyExpress, 125
- Lorenzo Zanetti, Italy, Pata Honda, 112
- Kevin Coghlan, U.K., DMC Panavto-Yamaha, 109