The first of thirteen epic weekends in the 2017 FIM WorldSBK Championship could not take place at a more thrilling place for motorcycle racing. The rapid, revered and awe-inspiring sweeps and turns of Phillip Island in Australia will again provide a captivating stage for the two-legged series that will involve a novel reversed grid system for the second Saturday dash this year.
Front and centre of a pack that will see thoroughbred challenges from the likes of Honda, Yamaha, Aprilia, MV and Ducati are reigning champions Kawasaki Racing Team and double No.1 Jonathan Rea backed up by 2016 runner-up Tom Sykes. Rea clasped World Superbike in 2015 for what was a first emphatic year in ‘green’ and then tightened his grip in 2016 despite strong pickings from Ducati’s Chaz Davies. The Isle of Man resident missed the podium only three times from twenty-six outings last season to once again rule the production-based championship.
Rea travelled to Australia and a ‘home from home’ for the final pre-season test at the same circuit this week. A period of several days pause and waiting will precede the eagerly anticipated weekend and an appointment where the Brit has won three of the last four races in 2015 and ’16.
“For me Phillip Island is a little bit different because my wife is from there and I consider it almost like a second home,” the 30 year old said. “As a circuit it is nice to ride and one of the fastest on the calendar where you don't have many slow corners: T1 is fourth gear, T3 is fifth gear…really fun corners. You come onto the start straight in fourth gear, which is incredible. It is a nice time of the year there and everyone is always excited for the first round. It’s definitely one of my favourites.”
“The start of the season means that it has that special aura about it,” he continues. “It’s a unique track. For the last two years I have won the first race and gone on to take the championship but because it requires a different set-up and technique to be fast there it doesn't always set the trend for the year. For me it is just fun. It is a man’s track because of the speed.”
Read our Q+A with Jonathan here.
Rea has faced continual enquiry on his chances of going three-in-a-row and becoming the first athlete in World Superbike history to set the record. “It is a question I’ve had a lot and I’m not thinking of it as three in a row and I don't think you can,” he admitted. “It’s 2017 so it’s almost like we have reset to zero. I really enjoyed winning last year and made the most of it at home: I started winter training quite early and testing went smoothly. The bike has improved and step-by-step I have become stronger as well. Everyone will be starting from zero and that’s super-exciting. I understand how to win a championship and what are our strengths and our weaknesses. We will work on a step-by-step philosophy with Kawasaki and hopefully by the end of the year we are fighting for it at least.”
2013 world champion and ’17 runner-up, Tom Sykes, should be one of Rea’s closest and hardest obstacles this term and knows plenty about his rival as well as the potent Ninja ZX-10RR. The 31 year old Englishman is also a ‘PI’ fan.
“Fantastic: I love the place…even if my results have not been great there. I hope we can change that this year!” he enthused at the team’s official launch in Barcelona several weeks ago. “It’s a long flight to get there and gives you plenty of time to reflect on what is coming up. The track itself is beautiful and I really enjoy the layout. I’m hoping we have done our homework in winter testing to arrive there strong.”
Sykes could not consistently usurp Rea in 2016 and has turned to the drawing board to make changes both to the race set-up and his own approach.
“It’s a ball-ache basically,” he confessed. “It is going against what I believe and my style but many things have changed and I have to take a step back. It is more a change in riding style than a racing style and it has taken some getting used to. We’ve done some good work in preparation. In the past when the bike was ‘more racing’ I was able to brake later and stop faster as well as turn and exit faster whereas now I have to think more in advance, do things earlier and go easier into the corner: more flowing is the way to describe it. We need to fight with Jonathan because together with the ZX-10RR and the changes in the rules mean they have great harmony and we need to react to this.”
Chief among the select of racers all likely to cause frantic scenes for podium glory will be athletes like Pata Yamaha’s Alex Lowes. The 26 year old was busy in 2016 in his first term for Yamaha trying to develop the R1, recovery from some niggly injuries, win the Suzuka 8 Hour and also make substitute MotoGP appearances. Now he heads a refined effort by the Japanese and second version of the Yamaha (one of the most delectable bikes on the grid) to hopefully transition from top ten runner to champagne connoisseur.
“The previous two winters I’ve had some injuries that have held me back quite a lot but now I’m fully fit, healthy and testing and training have gone well,” he said at the official Yamaha teams launch in Italy three weeks ago. “Everyone always says they are looking forward to the year but I am in the best place I have ever been and I cannot start soon enough.”
“We didn't start where we expected to be and I tried to make the difference a couple of times and picked up a few injuries…then it is difficult to find some momentum,” he says of last year. “The last two months of the season were really good and gave me confidence going into tests. Sometimes in racing you tend to learn more when you have a bad year. 2016 was a hard season but I learned a lot and did Suzuka and MotoGP; as a rider it allowed me to make a step so in those terms it was successful.”
“We have more support from Japan now and they are pushing the project a lot,” he added. “We have moved the workshop to Italy and I’m 100% sure we have made a step forward. Nobody knows where we can be – which is normal for the first race of the year – but I’m sure we can be closer to the front.”
Phillip Island has seen plenty of rubber burned across the asphalt in recent weeks with the MotoGP test and SBK fine-tuning their settings. The first hardcore racing action of 2017 is now only a matter of hours away.