Motorsport around the world is in a period of transition. Cost pressures, environmental pressures and increasing pressure to provide entertainment, as much as straight racing, have meant every major format is changing. F1 has gone turbo and played with tyres, Moto GP has introduced the Open class and WSBK introduced a raft of changes for the 2104 season and beyond. These included limited engine numbers, the lack of maintenance contract requirements for suspension and brakes, and a whole new class in the EVO bikes.
The EVO machines (like the Althea Racing Ducati Panigale above) are particularly significant, as they will become standard for all teams from 2015. Essentially another way to lower costs and encourage more manufacturers to compete, EVO machines are, at their most basic, current 2014 Superbikes but with Supersport 1000-class engines. Details include being limited to only six engines per year, as opposed to eight now, as well as being stuck with whatever gearbox rations you choose at the start of the season, but you are allowed race exhausts and clutches, and have more data from the ECU than in current Supersport machines. As with all things, it’s a compromise, but one that allows World Superbike to increase its relevance to the average punter, and get more manufacturers and teams interested.
It seems to have worked. From just 19 entries at the end of last year, 22 qualified for the first grid at Phillip Island, and more will likely be coming. Bimota, for example, may not have qualified for round one due to homologation issues, but they will hopefully compete from Aragon onwards. If this level of interest continues, the Superbike formula should be safe for the next few years, at least.
This is good because Superbikes have always provided some of the most entertaining racing around, and to see it disappear due to lack of manufacturer interest would be sad indeed.
Thankfully, while some incidents over testing earlier in the week marred proceedings, with three riders out before they saw free practice, the rest of the Phillip Island round proved why the punters keep flocking back to the series.
As you will likely have read by now, the highlight of the weekend came from new Suzuki rider Eugene Laverty. Having done well at Phillip Island in the past on Aprilia machinery, his win in race one shouldn’t, perhaps, have come as much of a surprise. But having started fourth and slipped back to fifth, Laverty’s fight back from around five seconds down to clinch the victory was a stunning ride, one that carried extra emotional weight due to it being the first race Suzuki had won in 94 races. In the post-event press conference, the Irishman said he actually promised the team he’d stop the losing streak before it reached 100, but that even he hadn’t expected to end it this early.
Sadly, race two proved less fortunate, with a blown engine coming out of turn 4 forcing him off the circuit one lap away from two-thirds distance and leading organisers to end the event prematurely. However, Laverty had proven that Suzuki was definitely a force for the season, which is cause enough to celebrate.
The rest of the Superbike field enjoyed varied fortunes. Aprilia’s Sylvain Guintoli smashed the previous lap record in quali, but self-confessed overconfidence in race one meant he burned through his tyres too early and ended up third, behind team mate Marco Melandri (pictured), who was looking good up front in race two, as well, before running wide in four and ending up eighth. Guintoli did win race two, though, ahead of Kawasaki pairing Loris Baz and defending champion Tom Sykes.
For Sykes (silhouetted above), the podium was the highlight of a difficult weekend, as he struggled in race one, ending up seventh. Then again, Sykes has never got on well with Phillip Island, so while he seemed unhappy with his results, a podium was definitely better than nothing.
As for Baz, he was lucky to even be upright, let alone fighting for podium places, given he binned the bike three times during testing earlier during that week. However, hard riding meant the giant Frenchman walked away with a good handful of points, having taken fifth in race one.
And Laverty’s team mate, Alex Lowes? He showed promise in both races, but his weekend didn’t end well, crashing out of race one and repeating Melandri’s mistake in turn four a couple of laps later in race two, ending up in 13th.
Team PATA Honda did reasonably well, but not as well as they would have hoped, with Leon Haslam crashing out of race one, and team mate Jonathan Rea only managing sixth in the same encounter. Race two yielded better results, with sixth for Haslam and Rea fifth, but it was hardly a dream result for the pair. Hopefully they can improve at Aragon.
Unusually for the Aussies, we actually had someone to cheer on in the main events, with Frenchman Sylvain Barrier’s bad luck in testing (and resultant broken pelvis) leading to local, Glenn Allerton, getting the call up to the BMW Motorrad Italia squad. Riding the EVO-class S1000 RR, he piloted it to 11th and 15th in races one and two, respectively. While that may not have been the best EVO class finish, (David Salom claimed ninth in race one on his Kawasaki ZX-10R EVO), to score points on an unfamiliar bike that he was selected to ride at short notice was no mean feat.
One of the other major stories of the weekend, Buell’s return to racing under the Hero EBR (Eric Buell Racing) label, didn’t go quite so well, with only Aaron Yates racing due to Geoff May injuring himself in Saturday’s final free practice session. However, with 17th and 20th positions respectively, the Buell showed it could lap consistently, and while definitely underdeveloped, the Phillip Island data will prove invaluable as they head into round two.
As is so often the case at major events, the support categories also proved hugely entertaining. For example, the World Supersport bikes provided great action and drama over the weekend, with several key ‘moments’ altering the look of the finishing field.
Most notable of these was Turkey’s Kenan Sofuoglu crashing out on lap two of the race. This despite dominating all weekend until then. Thankfully escaping unharmed, Sofuoglu must surely have been ruing the missed opportunity.
Normally, a crash like Sofuoglu’s would have left the door open to arch rival Michael van der Mark, but he crashed later on, too.
Sadly for Australia, wildcard entry Billy McConnell also joined the list of crash victims…
…while compatriot and fellow wildcard entry, Bryan Staring, had to retire with mechanical issues. He joined Jack Kennedy and Patrick Johnson in the pits, who also suffered trouble, Kennedy notable for having to deal with a blown engine on the start-finish straight which actually brought the race to a temporary halt.
After the restart, Jules Cluzel made the most of the five remaining laps by pulling away from a five-strong pack on the final lap to win by just two-tenths, securing MV Augusta’s first world championship win since Agostini won at the Nurburgring in 1976!
Australia’s own Superbike/Prostock category also wowed the fans with some incredibly tense moments in both races, notably coming from a trio of Honda riders. In race one, Wayne Maxwell (leading here), Jamie Stauffer and Josh Hook all battled for the lead over the course of the event, when Hook, who had managed to pass his team mates to snatch P1, ran wide at Lukey Heights (turn nine) on the final lap. This left the door open for Maxwell, but he subsequently lost the front end and went spearing off into the gravel.
As a result, Hook cruised to the win, ahead of team mate Stauffer.
Of the other minor placings, Queenslander Michael Jones took third, while Sean Condon (pictured) came in fourth.
Chris Trounson made up the top five on his Honda and showed he was capable of some very hard riding, too, which bodes well for the rest of the year.
Race two proved even more dramatic, with both Maxwell and Hook crashing out at turn 11 on lap one, leaving Hook with a broken collarbone and wrist and Maxwell with a dislocated shoulder. Even with Hook taking out race one, this was hardly the weekend Honda wanted.
The crashes left remaining Honda frontrunner Stauffer to take the win, while Kawasaki took second through to fifth, via Michael Jones in P2…
Sean Condon in P3, Ben Henry (pictured) in P4 and Dustin Goldsmith in P5.
In comparison to the Australian Superbikes, even though the riders went hard, the local Supersport races were relatively tame. Most of the action in both races was up the front, with Callum Spriggs (leading), Daniel Falzon, Aaron Morris and Matt Davies locked in battle all weekend. Come the race one chequer, Falzon on the white and yellow Caterpillar Suzuki showed Spriggs in second why the number one adorns his bike…
…while in race two, despite leading here, he ended up behind Morris (shown in third) but again ahead of Spriggs, who came in third. Morris took third in race one, while Matthew Davies took fourth in the opening encounter.
Davies was actually the most consistent of the top four, placing fourth in both races. Possibly not a mantle he’s happy to wear, given the position, but hopefully his consistency will pay off throughout the rest of the season.
The final two support classes – the MRRDA Juniors and the Historics – were perhaps the most sedate, but no less worthy of coverage.
The Juniors in particular showed some great racing skills and acquitted themselves very well.
One name to watch in particular will be Jacob Whitehouse, who blitzed all three races on his RMU GP8, finishing miles ahead of the competition and showing 80cc is hardly a handicap compared with the 150cc bikes many other racers rode.
The great thing about the Juniors, apart from the racing, though, is the number of girls involved. In a motorsports world still filled with open sexism and misogyny, seeing three girls racing hard with the boys was a gladdening sight. While she may have only finished mid-pack over the weekend, Keegan Pickering, for example, is already the national under-16 girls dirt bike champion.
She was joined by Danielle Foot, who didn’t have the best weekend, but considering she came third in the 2013 Junior four-stroke championship, is hardly a slouch and will no doubt do better in later rounds.
Finally, you had Tayla Street, who showed real pace over the three days of competition, consistently coming in third, just behind her twin brother, Jacob. I’m sure the sibling rivalry must be fun to manage at times!
Ah the historics. Easily the most relaxed category of the weekend, but when you’ve got some classic machinery to protect, it’s a bit pointless to go stupidly hard. Here, the racing really didn’t matter, but race they did.
Among those who pushed it relatively hard all weekend was Laurie Fyffe, who managed a third, a ninth and a fourth over the three races respectively. Given he rode the same 1980 Suzuki Harris as part of the Australian team at the recent AMCN International Island Classic, though, his results were hardly unexpected.
Fyffe was joined at the front of the field by Mark Wilkinson on his Kawasaki, who didn’t compete in the Classic, but clearly wasn’t lacking experience or race pace, with a fourth, a third and a fifth, respectively.
Both, however, were outpaced in all but one of the races by Craig Ditchburn, riding the stunning TZ750 on the right. He failed to finish in race one, but claimed a win in race two and came second to Scott Webster, who also had a great weekend, in race three.
Of course, racing is not just all about the racing. Especially in a series like the World Superbike Championship, where the pit lane is off-limits to most people. Those of us with media access get to see things others normally wouldn’t, like riders warming up and stretching, ably demonstrated here by Ducati’s Davide Giugliano.
Other things just boggle the mind, such as these Italian Pirelli workers helping to shift hundreds of tyres from the six (!) shipping containers the company brought to cover the meet.
There are also surprising oddities, like this Team Honda Racing team transporter. In itself, a transporter at a big event is hardly a major deal. But this transporter was by itself. Not a single other team had hardware like this, either international or national, showing just how much money Honda invests in its local squad.
Wandering around the rest of the paddock, you see how the non-WSBK and WSS teams have to handle their weekends, too. At any other event, these guys would be in the main pit garages, but here they’re relegated to tents.
One thing I love about motorbikes is how relaxed the whole scene is, though. Whether it was road racing on the Isle of Man when I was growing up, or circuit racing here in Australia, nothing is really off-limits. For example, there aren’t many four-wheeled racing teams sponsored by online adult toy shops, are there?
As seen in the previous photo, the open access to these tent garages also means you can get up close to the local bikes, something you can’t do with the internationals. Even us photographers can’t enter the main garages, which are closed off to everyone all weekend from the back, which is where the public can normally peer into them from. We can look into them from the front, but we can’t enter them at all. This makes sense, as they’re packed full of bikes, mechanics and tools, and a blundering photographer can cause thousands of dollars of damage, but it does restrict our photo opportunities somewhat.
No matter, the local bikes on display easily made up for it, allowing us to capture little details you’d normally miss otherwise.
After all was said and done, though, even with all the crashes and all the injuries, Dorna, the organising body behind World Superbikes, can justifiably call the week at Phillip Island testing and racing a success. The EVO bikes proved they could hold their own with the current machines (albeit mostly mid-pack for now), more manufacturers ran than in recent times, records were broken and most importantly, the crowd got to see both great racing and a great show. It’s no wonder they went away happy.