Race report: Qatar World Superbike

Sure, Jonny Rea looks fast and all, but is he good enough to survive the street?

Photo: Kawasaki

LOSAIL INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, Doha, Qatar – The championship was already decided, but
Jonathan Rea was still in a record-setting mood at the final 2017 World Superbike race.

He collected two more wins for a total of 16 on the season – his and Kawasaki’s first at the mid-Eastern circuit –set a new record for points scored in a season (breaking Colin Edwards’ record from 2002), and joined series greats Carl Fogarty and Troy Bayliss with having scored 16 career double victories. Not a bad way to end his season.

All he could say after the second race was, “The points tally is nice but the championship is the main thing. To win 16 races in a season, more than 50 per cent of the races, is not normal. That’s the biggest thing I take away. This year, like I keep saying, I have no words. It has been feeling normal to be here on the podium and that is kind of scary. Right now is my time, so I really am enjoying the moment!”

The season finale wasn’t so great for his team-mate Tom Sykes, who did so much over the past seasons to bring Kawasaki to its present dominance. Tied for second place with Ducati’s Chaz Davies coming into the weekend, he could only manage a sixth in race one, then crashed unhurt, but deeply disappointed, out of race two. Davies, meanwhile, grabbed two seconds behind Rea, giving him third in the series for the year.

Sykes was mystified after the first race, saying that even though they’d changed nothing the bike was nearly unrideable: “The bike was all over the place; the front and rear chattering. I could not turn.” Fatalistically after his second-race crash, he could only add, “The bike felt much better … I was just in a fast turn, clipped the white line and fell. People are running up and over kerbs here but I go and touch a white line and lose the front. It has been one of those things.”

Davies had a very close call in the second race, too. Leading after five laps, he lost the rear end in a big way; the bike went lock to lock and pitched him high in the air. He hung onto the bars, crashed back down onto the bike hard enough to break the windscreen, and somehow managed to keep upright. Rea got past at the point and was never headed again. “I probably made the best start of my career,” said the Welsh rider, “then got my head down while keeping an eye on Sykes’ position. I nearly crashed at turn 5, it felt like a rodeo but we hung on to it. Once I saw Sykes was out, I just tried to control the gap as second place was the best we could do today.”

On the cool-off lap he was busy gesticulating to his buddy Leon Camier, showing him the damage to the windscreen and pointing at his chest!

The Yamaha riders, Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark, had an up and down weekend — literally. Both crashed out of Saturday’s contest – Lowes twice – but recovered nicely to collect third and fourth on Sunday. That gave them fifth and sixth in the championship, and with the Yamaha improving by leaps and bounds in the last half of the season they’ll likely be fighting with the Kawasakis and Ducatis in 2018.

Fourth in the series, Ducati’s Marco Melandri had a pretty humdrum weekend for him, with only a fourth and a sixth. He shrugged after the second race, saying that he couldn’t find edge grip and that the bike was moving around a lot. It’s true; “moving around” is a polite description of the terrifying wobbles he was fighting on the 300+ km/h front straight every lap.

Spaniard Xavi Fores, fighting for his ride with the Barni Ducati squad, had a good weekend that in any fair world would let him keep his ride for next year. In the first race, he was the fastest Ducati aside from Davies and was in podium contention until something failed on the bike, while on Sunday he was fifth, ahead of factory guy Melandri.

Next up in the championship is Leon Camier, the lanky Brit struggling at Qatar with its long straights; the MV Agusta is well down on power compared to the other factory bikes. A couple of ninths were about all he could hope for, and he rode well to get them. He’s off to the Ten Kate factory Honda squad next year.

Jordi Torres, who’s ridden well on the Althea BMW this year, had a good seventh on Saturday but crashed out Sunday in a huge accident that fortunately left him uninjured. He’ll be replacing Camier at MV Agusta next year as BMW scales back its investment in the series.

The final top 10 spot goes to Eugene Laverty on one of the Milwaukee-sponsored Aprilias. The team, like Yamaha, has made great progress over the season but it was too little, too late to give Laverty or his hard-riding young team-mate Lorenzo Savadori a chance at doing better. They were well in the mix at Qatar, however, Laverty collecting a fourth and a seventh, while Savadori got a fifth but suffered a technical DNF on Sunday.

Other particularly noteworthy rides at Qatar were by Sylvain Guintoli and Jake Gagné. Guintoli is keen to get back into the WSBK paddock and has shown very well filling in on the Pucetti Kawasaki team, this weekend with a pair of eighth places. Gagné, also filling in but with the Ten Kate Honda team, has been very impressive in his three outings, scoring points on the still-undeveloped Honda. The young American apparently has a good change of keeping the ride for next season, and has certainly earned the chance.

Next season sees a major technical rules change, with engine rpm limits being introduced. These may be fiddled during the season in an attempt to give struggling teams a better chance of running with the big dogs up front. It’ll be interesting to see if it makes any difference to the current Kawasaki steamroller, with the Ducatis panting close behind.

World Supersport

Lucas Mahias of France won his first world title with an excellent ride to a close victory – only 0.02 sec – over fellow Frenchman Jules Cluzel. It was a tight and occasionally dramatic battle between the two, with Mahias’ Yamaha team-mate Federico Caricasulo, Kawasaki super-sub Anthony West, Finn Niki Tulli, and American P.J. Jacobsen also joining in one of the best battles up front all season in the WSS paddock.

In the event, Jacobsen’s MV Agusta let him down again – not the first time this year, and the American is rumoured to be moving to the Honda team currently employing Jules Cluzel next year. Cluzel still expects to be on a Honda, but on a new team being formed, supposedly with some big money backing from India.

The ride of the day, and perhaps of the season, however, had to be that of out-going champion Kenan Sofuoglu. After breaking his hip in three places only five weeks ago, the five-time Turkish champion returned with a slight chance of catching Mahias, and in the end actually finished on the podium after languishing barely in the top 10 for the first half of the race. He did it without painkillers, too, which left other tough guys like Jonny Rea shaking their heads. His third place kept him second place in the series, ahead of Cluzel, South African Sheridan Morais, and Caricasulo.

World Superbike standings after 26 of 26 races (13 of 13 events)
1. Jonathan Rea, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 556 points (new world champion)
2. Chaz Davies, U.K., Aruba.it Racing Ducati, 403
2. Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 373
4. Marco Melandri, Italy, Aruba.it Racing Ducati, 327
5. Alex Lowes, U.K., Pata Yamaha, 242
6. Michael van der Mark, Netherlands, Pata Yamaha, 223
7. Xavi Fores, Spain, Barni Ducati, 196
8. Leon Camier, U.K., MV Agusta, 168
9. Jordi Torres, Spain, Althea BMW, 158
10. Eugene Laverty, U.K., Milwaukee Aprilia, 157

Next race, Philip Island, Australia, February 26 2018.

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