This weekend, the Superbike World Championship heads to Imola in Italy, for the fifth round of the 2018 championship. Tom Sykes comes into this round on the crest of a wave after his victory in Asses two weeks ago, but it is his teammate, Jonathan Rea, who leads the championship.
But Sykes’ victory in Assen showed that this season will not be as easy for Rea as the previous ones, as it was the first time Rea had been beaten at the Dutch circuit since he joined Kawasaki back at the end of 2014. And Imola is a strong circuit for the 2013 World Champion, too, and one where he has strong support from the Italian fans – who can forget Sykes’ rage-fuelled pole lap in 2014 on race tyres when his initial lap on a qualifying tyre was disallowed because he crossed the line after a red flag was thrown. In addition to that, he scored a double win in Imola back in 2013, which proved critical for the title race as his championship rival, Sylvain Guintoli, retired from the first race. If Sykes can keep hold of his tyres this weekend, a traditional weakness of the number 66 but one he seemed to be able to remedy at an unusually warm Assen, he could be difficult to beat.
But if anyone could do so, it would likely be his teammate, Jonathan Rea. The Northern Irishman won both Imola races in 2014 on the underpowered Pata Honda. However, Rea hasn’t won at the San Marinese circuit since 2015, when he also did the double. Despite a test at Brno, on the way into this weekend Rea has claimed that he is still missing something to take the maximum from the 2018 ZX10-RR. But, like when Marc Marquez said the same thing about his Honda RC213V after last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, it is difficult to take this statement from Rea as one which perhaps put him under threat. If anything, it just serves as a worry to his fellow competitors, and there is no doubt that the reigning champion will be in the fight for the victory this weekend.
However, Imola is Ducati’s home, near to their Borgo Panigale base, and they will be eager to bounce back after a difficult weekend in Assen where they scored only one podium. Chaz Davies, though, has won the last four races at Imola, doing the double in the last two years on the #7 bike, and it will be important for the Welshman to do the same this weekend to maintain his championship challenge – his fifth place in Assen race two did not help his situation.
It was the other factory Ducati rider, Marco Melandri, though, who made the big progress at the Brno test. The Italian has suffered with straight-line instability all season, and it didn’t get any better in Holland, despite the outward appearance seeming significantly improved. The Italian will be hopeful of repeating his Phillip Island performance from February this weekend at his home race, although he has not won in Imola since he won the 125cc Grand Prix there in 1999.
The Yamaha riders had contrasting fortunes in Assen. Alex Lowes took pole, but his weekend got significantly worse from there, with the wrong front tyre being fitted to the bike (his second bike) for race one, and then, after starting from tenth due to his poor race one result, he crashed out of sixth place in race two, although he remounted to take 2 points for fourteenth. The 2013 British Superbike Champion will be hoping for better luck in the races this weekend and that, combined with recent improvements on the part of the bike, could get him back on the podium this weekend.
It was an almost opposite weekend for the #60 Yamaha of Michael van der Mark. The Assen home hero had a difficult qualifying, ending up seventh, but took second in race one and third in race two, challenging Rea on both occasions. Although, van der Mark has never been on the podium in Italy. He should have won race two in Misano last year, but his tyre failed causing him to crash – he will be hoping to correct that this weekend, although in the past Imola has proven a tricky circuit for Yamaha – they haven’t scored a top five since their return in 2015.
Honda have a difficult situation. Whilst Jake Gagne is fit for the whole weekend after missing days two and three of Assen, Leon Camier has only been given clearance for FP1 on Friday morning. It is good to have the pair of them back after there were no Ten Kate Hondas on the grid at their home race, but Camier will only decide if he will ride after the first session once it is completed. If Camier should decide to not continue with the weekend, BSB’s Jason O’Halloran, who took the Honda Racing CBR1000RR SP2 Fireblade to second place at Oulton Park last weekend in the British championship, is ready to take over for the weekend.
Eugene Laverty is back too, after he missed Aragon and Assen due to the injuries he sustained in Thailand when he was hit by Jordi Torres’ MV Agusta after he crashed the Milwaukee Yamaha. The Northern Irishman is back one round ahead of his plan, so it will be interesting to see his competitiveness – hopefully he will be okay to make the weekend with a good pace, and maybe he can make two good results in the races on Saturday and Sunday.
Leon Haslam is back in World Superbike, too, after his three successive wins in BSB, including a double win last weekend at Oulton Park which fired him to the top of the general standings. Haslam will be riding a retro Elf livery on the Puccetti Kawasaki, one similar to that his dad, Ron, used to ride, albeit on a Honda. Haslam, of course, took a podium in race one at Donington last year when he finished second, behind Tom Sykes who won thanks to Jonathan Rea’s tyre failure. Whether Haslam can replicate that result this weekend, on a track which he has not ridden since 2015, when he struggled a bit on the Aprilia, remains to be seen. And, of course, the Kawasaki in World Superbike is significantly different both to the one he rides in BSB, and that which he rode last year at Donington – most notably the maximum rev drop that Kawasaki has been suffering with so far this season will be a factor in Imola.