It’s always fun when the Superbikes roll into town. As with any top-level series, you obviously get the glitz and glamour, but unlike so many top flight championships, you get relatability as well. Sure, the bikes may be heavily modified, but at heart, they’re still based on showroom speedsters. More closely this year, too, thanks to last year’s ‘Evo’ rules become standard on all machines. And this is one of the key reasons the crowds keep flocking to the series – to see their heroes race on bikes that they can relate to. Well, that and the amazing racing and general fun of a great day out.
Phillip Island is always a bit special even within World Superbike circles, though. One of the spiritual homes of motorbike racing worldwide, it’s also hosted the opening World Superbike Championship round since 2009 and also gives riders their final chance to test their machines prior to season start. The fact so many Australian champions have dominated two-wheeled racing over the years means its corners and main straight also bear some decidedly bike-related names, like Doohan Corner, Stoner Corner and Gardner Straight, which certainly adds to the ‘spiritual home’ feel.
Let’s not forget it’s a consistent rider favourite, too. Thanks to it fast, flowing layout and many overtaking opportunities, it’s always had a special place in many riders’ hearts.
Sadly, this year it also left a deep impression on some riders’ bodies, with Davide Giugliano, David Salom and Jamie Stauffer especially suffering serious crashes that put them out for Sunday (and in Giuliano’s case, the whole weekend, given he crashed during pre-season testing). Aussie Matt Walters also took a tumble in turn one during Superpole 1 but walked away. Thankfully, Giugliano looks as if he’ll make a full recovery, and while Salom’s multiple cartwheels through the gravel on the outside of 12 looked very nasty indeed, with serious neck compression every time he hit the ground, he’s already back riding. Hopefully we’ll get good news on Stauffer soon, too.
The main reason for this barrage of crashes came down to Australia’s renowned summer heat. While this year has seen many people wondering where summer went, quali on Saturday gave us typically Aussie summer ambient temperatures in the mid-30s (low 90s for all our US readers) and unprecedented track temperatures of around 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit). As a result, many people’s tyres simply melted.
That didn’t stop the top guys from nailing some pretty decent times, though. Jonathan Rea’s 1:31.212 in Superpole 2 was only a few tenths off Chaz Davies’ 1:30.949 Superbike lap record, and the other top four riders all managed laps within the 1:32 bracket.
Sadly, Troy Bayliss didn’t make it into Superpole 2, but then, it had been seven years since he last raced at Phillip Island. And for a 45-year-old, making a one-off comeback to replace the injured Davide Giugliano, a 1:32.201 is hardly slow. It put Bayliss above several riders vastly younger than him, including Aussie wildcard compatriot Jed Metcher, and showed that in his case, age has most certainly not wearied him.
Indeed, Bayliss’ comeback was probably the biggest story of the weekend, which is quite something considering we had excellent racing and those aforementioned serious crashes. The fact he didn’t make memorable top-ten finishes in both races came down more to set-up issues and resultant tyre wear than anything else.
Bayliss’ participation in the main game did prevent him from competing in his namesake event, though: the Baylisstic Scramble. This new (and frankly great) addition to the sideshows turned what had been a previously a temporary motocross course at the top of Lukey Heights into a temporary mini flat track, and the crowds loved it. Using a team format, with four senior riders and one junior, both age groups battled it out within each other’s brackets until points decided the winner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with Bayliss only able to do one race on the track his company designed (which he won easily, by the way), Team Crump, led by three-time World Speedway Champion, Jason Crump, took the win, but only just, beating Team Caslick, captained by Paul Caslick, by six points – 158 to 152. Team Vermeulen took third with 129 points. Sadly, with both Bayliss senior and junior out (Oli took a tumble on Saturday and needed hospital scans on his arm), Team Bayliss came home last, even with Troy Corser (pictured) taking Bayliss’ place.
Even so, Bayliss seemed pretty happy, “It’s been a great week at the Island. I’ve managed to spend good time on the flat track – a few times on Thursday and Friday before and after my WSBK requirements, and I raced the Saturday morning session and came away with a win!”
And frankly, who wouldn’t be happy if you got to participate in great racing with such amazing company. After all, it’s not often you get to see four world champions (Vermeulen, Crump, Corser and Muggeridge) racing against each other at a side event!
Other support events provided great entertainment also. In the Australian Moto3/125cc Grand Prix races, Olly Simpson raced away from the field on his KTM (the only one in the entire field) and showed just why he’s a Red Bull Rookies Cup athlete …
… but within the rest of the pack, you had some ding-dong battles, such as this one between Tom Bramich and Ted Collins, that proved why these lower categories are such great preparation for the higher classes.
The other local championship battles, Australian Superbike and Australian Supersport, both followed a similar pattern, with dominance up front and some fun position swaps further down the field. However, Australian Superbike Race 1 on Saturday was marred by two crashes that caused red flags – one for Paul Simonson and the second, mentioned earlier, for Honda top gun Jamie Stauffer, who went off at nine only a lap after the restart. This caused the race to be rescheduled for early Sunday morning.
Keeping Honda dominance alive, one of Stauffer’s team mates, Josh Hook, went on to take the win in the rescheduled race, while other Honda Australia rider Troy Herfoss took Race 2.
Meanwhile, in Australian Supersport, Michael Blair opened a huge gap on his rivals in each race, leaving only the remaining podium positions to be fought over. In the end, Callum Spriggs from Queensland took second for the weekend, while Ryan Taylor came in third.
Moving up to World Supersport, its single race showed MV Augusta bikes really are well suited to the Island, with Frenchman Jules Cluzel heading off team mate Lorenzo Zanetti to take his second win in two years, and both leaving daylight to the rest. Cluzel’s victory also makes him the third man in ten years to do the double at the Island, joining Sebastien Charpantier and Kenan Sofuoglu in an elite group.
On a side note, I do have to say I find it weird seeing AMG badging on motorbikes, but that’s what happens when car companies start buying up bike manufacturers, I guess. All about the cross-promotion!
Among the other WSS competitors, past champion Sofuoglu probably had the most eventful Sunday, battling up front early, only to run off the circuit at turn one on lap six and slip to the back, before showing his class by fighting his way back to sixth before the race’s end.
Returning to the main game, I thought it might be nice to show you a little of what goes on before a race as well as the action itself.
Those who have attended World Superbike races at Phillip Island will know how this all works, of course, but for those who haven’t had the chance, there’s a break here between the final lead-up support race and the first Superbike race, during which those who have purchased ‘Pit Walk’ passes can have a gander at the team garages and chat with riders sat at autograph tables.
I did find it funny that while the riders were obviously popular, the biggest crowds seemed to be around the garages warming up their race machines. Everyone stood around, recording videos on their phones of the bikes revving up. Can’t say I blame them.
With David Salom out for the Sunday, I thought it a nice touch that the team put his repaired bike on display outside the pits, too, so at least fans could take a look.
With the pit walk out of the way, teams made their way onto the grid for the race itself. Obviously fans will be intimately familiar with this part of prep, but it’s little things that catch your eye at times like this.
Like the fact laptops are now more prominent on the grid than any mechanical tool the teams carry out with them.
Or that some riders are so focused on their pre-vis that they completely miss the grid girl eyeing them off.
It’s fascinating to see the difference in mental prep, too. Some riders keep their helmets on after the initial warm-up lap, hiding their feelings…
… while others like Jonathan Rea sit pensive with the helmets off, showing their worried faces to the world. Clearly Rea had little to fear, given his successful weekend, but his face really did tell its own story.
In amongst all the prep, TV interviews still had to occur, and no rider was interviewed as long as Troy Bayliss, for obvious reasons. The fact he was still so fast after a seven year ‘retirement’ shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given his dirt bike racing in the interim; but technically he was still a wildcard, and one long out of circuit competition, so the results were a pleasant reminder that some champions never lose their speed.
With less than five minutes to go, the grid cleared and riders went out on their final warm-up lap before race start.
Of course, everybody knows the results by now, but both races provided the typically great racing Superbikes are famous for, and amazingly, UK riders took out the top three in each race.
Rea led for all laps bar one of Race 1, when Haslam snatched P1 briefly, and successfully held off both Davies and Haslam all the way to the line to win by just 0.039 seconds.
For a man who, along with former team mate Haslam, had suffered a long period of frustration with the never-quite-there Honda outfit, it must have been sweet. Especially given his nearest rival was his old team mate.
Speaking of Haslam, as you’ll have read, he took out race two in possibly the closest finish you’ll see all year, holding back until the second half before attacking and finally out-dragging Rea to win by 0.010 seconds. “All the hard work, all the broken bones, all the operations over the past few years – it makes it all up for it just this one victory,” he said afterwards.
While Rea tasted success on his Kawasaki, team mate Tom Sykes could only manage sixth in Race 1, but at least got fourth in Race 2 and demonstrated that while Phillip Island may still not be his circuit, he is definitely getting better at it.
Joining Sykes in the ‘definitely better than last year’ category was Honda, with reigning world champion, Sylvain Guintoli picking up a seventh and fifth for the weekend and Michael van der Mark taking home fifth in the only race he finished. In fact, van der Mark’s four place prior to his crash in Race 2 proved Honda is definitely on the up this year.
One team that did not enjoy the weekend was Voltcom Suzuki. Despite having a bike that should have enabled it to gain top five finishes (at worst), troubles throughout the weekend ensured Lowes ended up ninth in Race 1 and a DNF in Race 2, while team mate and former MotoGP rider, Randy De Puniet, scored only a 17th and 7th respectively, prompting team manager Paul Denning to brand the weekend “a disaster”.
Jed Metcher, the other Aussie in the field, also didn’t have the best time of it, with a 17th in Race 1 and retirement ending his second race early. No doubt the weekend provided valuable experience, though.
Last year’s perennial backmarkers, EBR Racing, also suffered, with only Larry Pegram completing both races, and in 18th and 17th spots respectively at that. However, again, the bike showed more pace than before and with a completely changed team structure, should see better results than last year. Nicolas Canepa’s experienced hands should also help guide the team, even if he didn’t manage to finish a race at PI.
Overall, though, while some teams suffered disappointment and some riders suffered major injuries, the first round of the World Superbike Championship showed that it continues to be a fantastic series. Thrilling finishes, great battles and, as stated, even more relatability from this year onwards, means hopefully people continue to flock to the races.