So here we are, after twelve rounds and seven months of globe trotting, the FIM Superbike World Championship reaches its final round this weekend at the Losail International Circuit, in Qatar.
It is the final time that the current race format will be used. From 2019 onwards World Superbikes will have three races each weekend, comprised of two ‘regular’ length races and one shorter ‘sprint’. The precise details – such as scheduling and points allocation for the sprint are yet to be confirmed. The general understanding is that the regular length races will remain in their current slots (one each at the end of Saturday and Sunday), whilst the sprint will begin Sunday’s race program.
As ever, all eyes will be on Kawasaki Racing Team’s Jonathan Rea. Having completed another victory double last time out in Argentina, the reigning world champion has his sites set on breaking the outright points record for a single season. It should be worth noting that Rea currently holds the record, having finished the 2017 campaign with a total of 556. To break his own record, Rea will need to score 37 points, which in simplest terms equates to a race win (25pts) and a fourth place finish (13pts).
There is also another record which the Northern Irishman could break this year – the number of race victories in a season. Another double this weekend will see Rea catch and surpass the current record of 17 wins in a season – set by Doug Polen, on a Ducati, way back in 1991. Should he do that, then only the record for number of world championships would remain on his hit-list.
Across the other side of the KRT garage, and there is a real sense of the end of an era. Tom Sykes will ride for the team for the final time this weekend, bringing down the curtain on an eight-year relationship with the Japanese marque. Whilst this season has been difficult for the Yorkshireman, both rider and team can look back fondly over a period of considerable success, including 34 wins and 47 pole positions. Not to mention that Sykes claimed the first championship crown for the team back in 2013. Both he and the team will be hoping to go out on a high, with one final victory together.
The ‘end of an era’ feeling is magnified further in the Aruba.it Ducati garage. For the Ducati Corse supported team, they say farewell to both Marco Melandri and the V-twin engine Panigale R machine this weekend. Whilst there is an undeniable level of disappointment in the team, that the Panigale has failed to follow in the wheel tracks of its illustrious predecessors (every previous Ducati Superbike model has been ridden at least 1 championship title), it has been tempered by the testing results of the upcoming Panigale V4 machine – which is being introduced for 2019.
Nevertheless, much is on the line this weekend for Ducati’s number one rider, Chaz Davies. The Welshman has battled injury ever since the mid-season break, having broken his collarbone in a crash during training. The highly physical demands of the somewhat volatile Ducati, have ensured the injury has not healed. Despite this considerable setback, Davies is still fighting for second place in the championship. With the Losail circuit traditionally playing to the Panigale’s straight line strength, the Qatar round presents Davies with his best chance of securing a brace of strong results for the first time since back at Imola.
Michael Van der Mark (Pata Yamaha) is also gunning for second place in the championship and, sitting just 16 points behind Davies, knows it is a very realistic possibility. The Dutchman has had an outstanding campaign, and has fully lived up to his pre-season billing as the most exciting prospect of the series. Two race wins and a further eight podium finishes this season, have put the 25-year old in pole position to secure that second place overall.
This week also sees the final outing for the Shaun Muir Racing team, in their current guise as Milwaukee Aprilia. After weeks of speculation, the team will switch from running Aprilia machinery, to the newly updated BMW S1000RR. The deal reportedly also includes significant factory support from the German manufacturer. As a result of this, it is all change as far as the riders are concerned. Sykes moves across from KRT, whilst Markus Reiterberger moves up from the – now defunct – European Superstock 1000 class having won the championship aboard a BMW.
The decision to hire two new riders for 2019 leaves the current incumbents (Eugene Laverty and Lorenzo Savadori) without a ride for next season. Both riders feel they should be at one of the factory supported teams. This is especially the case for Laverty who has taken two podium finishes and a pole position this season, on his way to scoring 145 points. At time of writing there is just one seat left available with such a team – Red Bull Honda. Expect the pair to throw the kitchen sink and more this weekend, as they desperately try to secure that seat for themselves.
WorldSBK Schedule – All times BST
Superpole 1 – 14.30-14.45
Superpole 2 – 14.55-15.10
WorldSBK Race 1 – 17.00
WorldSBK Race 2 – 17.00