The WorldSBK series returned this past weekend and with a bang! The first races of the 2017 season took place at one of the most iconic and exciting tracks on any race calendar, Phillip Island.
The weekend started and ended in similar fashion. Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies dominating most of, if not all, the sessions from practise and through the two races. Rea started race 1 from pole after his qualifying lap record 1:29.573 followed by Sykes, Melandri and Davies.
It was then no surprise that race 1 would go to Rea, or was it? Rea had to work hard for the victory and almost had it snapped from him by a seriously impressive Chaz Davies. Chaz attempted to use the slipstream in the race to the line, it almost worked. The race itself was most certainly not all Rea and Davies. It was more like watching a MotoGP race, maybe even Moto2 or Moto3, the way things were changing up front. Marco Melandri was having a fantastic return to WorldSBK until a mistake caused him to run off track and eventually retire. Rea, Sykes, Davies, Melandri, Fores and Lowes were all involved in the fight for a large part of the race, Rea and Davies only really breaking away in the final few laps to drag to the line. Sykes picked up a solid 3rd place.
For the first time we would see the new rules at play during race 2. The grid was shuffled according to the results from race 1. Sam Lowes would start on Pole after his 4th place in race 1, followed by Leon Camier and Xavi Fores on the first row. Rea would start from 9th on the grid after winning race 1 with Davies and Sykes ahead of him on the 3rd row of the grid. As I expected however, it did not have much effect, at least not a positive one. Rea and Davies flew out of the blocks and found themselves out front in no time. That however left others like Sykes reeling in traffic as Rea and Davies broke away.
Eugene Laverty and Xavi Fores managed to take advantage of the new rules in the early stages of the race as they led the way early on. Lowes also getting involved, picking up where he left off in race 1. Eventually though, it was business as usual, Rea and Davies fighting for the win, although in a superb battle with Lowes and Melandri along the way. The race would end in almost identical fashion as Davies tried to take the win on the line. Rea, however, came out on top again, but only just. The pair were this time followed by Melandri in 3rd.
It was an impressive weekend for a number of riders. Tom Sykes overcoming his issues with Phillip Island with a podium, and although finishing 6th in race 2, he would still be well pleased with the weekend, at what he might consider a ‘bogey’ track.
Marco Melandri unfortunately crashed out of race 1 but more than made up for that with his 3rd in race 2. A good return after a long absence for the Italian.
Alex Lowes set his sights on top 5 finishes and ended up with two brilliant 4th places, the Yamaha R1 looking far more competitive this year.
Xavi Fores and Leon Camier were impressive and both came away with great results and were up for the fight.
There were however also a few disappointments. Nicky Hayden, Stefan Bradl, Jordi Torres and Markus Reiterberger all had a rather tough time of it over the weekend. This, I feel, was more up to the standard of the bikes over the performances of the riders. Honda and BMW are unfortunately just not up to standard just yet and it was easy to see.
Where does this leave us then after the first race of the season?
It is very much still too early to say who the title will go to and where everyone will end up, but as the commentators said on a number of occasions during the races, “although you can’t win a championship in the first round, you could potentially lose it.” Evidence of this may come from last season as Chaz Davies fought for the title but was always chasing after his mistake in the first round at Phillip Island. Chaz most certainly made his intentions clear with two mistake free races and only lost out to the brilliance of Jonathan Rea.
Rea was enormously impressive. I see him as the Lorenzo of WorldSBK (Just not in personality or lack thereof), unbeatable on his day, and oh so smooth in riding style.
I am almost sure that the title will be fought out between Rea and Davies, even after seeing some really close racing. I just feel the two of them are on a different level right now and it will take some special riding to beat the two of them to the line. It sure looks like there will be plenty entertaining racing to watch this season in WorldSBK. It could possibly be one of the most exciting seasons for some time. The real question may just be, who will finish 3rd?
My Word on the opening round of the 2017 WorldSBK championship.