World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea left none of his rivals - nor motorcycle racing fans keeping an eye on the first round of thirteen at Phillip Island in Australia - in doubt as to his candidature for a record third title on the spin. The Kawasaki Racing Team rider clinched both races around the spectacular course in the southeast of the country and after two gripping encounters when several competitors were in firm contention for the chequered flag.
The recently-turned thirty year old ‘hit 40’ for career race wins and the northern Irishman was perhaps the favourite of a close bunch that involved teammate Tom Sykes (third on Saturday), Chaz Davies, Leon Camier and Pata Yamaha’s Alex Lowes. The winning margin for Rea on both days might have been fractions of a second – after typically captivating tussles around the speedy and scenic Phillip Island trajectory – but the Kawasaki man came to Australia in hot form after winter tests and with a record of three wins from four at the venue. Now five in six and unbeaten in two years at ‘PI’ Rea had made the strongest first statement that he is chasing history in World Superbike this year.
“Phillip Island was really rewarding and to win two last lap battles here means a lot because it is a such a hard track to lead from the front on,” said Rea who now has 25 wins on the ZX-10RR and is one of just four athletes to top the 40 mark in WorldSBK. “Whilst that 40th career victory means a lot it is more important to put a good score on the board for round one.”
“When I went through to clean air in the lead with three or four to go I was worried that the other riders may be learning too much about the bike. I had to be sure just to change the lines up a little bit but on the last lap, from Siberia corner onwards, I just put my head down and completed a very good back section. I covered my line into the MG hairpin and got myself tucked in as well as I could on the front straight. There was not only one area where we found some pace in the winter tests; we generally just polished the bike. Nothing magic happened but I feel good about this bike. The way things have changed a little bit have suited me. I can ride less on the limit and we have more tyre left to fight with at the end of races, compared to last year.”
While Tom Sykes will be pleased with a top three on Saturday and less happy about his run to sixth on Sunday it was the extra competitive edge from Yamaha’s Lowes that was one of the surprising elements of the weekend. The 27 year old is negotiating his second year in blue and the outfit have clearly benefitted from that set-up and development term with the new R1 in 2016. Lowes was right in the hunt, and although he missed out on a maiden podium appearance the scorecard and potential gave Yamaha great cause for encouragement.
“At one stage there were too many guys in the front group and everyone was a bit close - I did not feel very comfortable with that so I tried to push on a bit and stretch it out,” Lowes said, commenting on his surging first outing. “It worked out quite well for me. The lads in the team and all at Yamaha have done a great job with the bike. Unfortunately I made a bit of mistake near the end and it dropped me back from the first three, I was able to pull them back in the last three laps but fourth place is still good. It is easy after the race to say that I could have done a bit better but my goal was top five in the races here, and then build during the year to close the gap. But we were in the race for the podium, and I just enjoyed being able to fight with the guys.”
WorldSBK has gripped from the ‘off’. Rea heads to the heat of Chang with 50 points to sing about and a familiar perch at the top of the standings but now becomes prey to the (growing) pack of pursuers. Chapter two cannot come quick enough.