The first round of the 2017 World Superbike season is coming from Australia and the Phillip Island circuit, located around 850km away from the capital, Canberra. Three of the top ten closest finishes in the history of WSBK have come from the Australian track, including the most recent one, in race 2 in 2015, when Leon Haslam won from Jonathan Rea. With a series of changes coming in both the series and within the teams, 2017 has all the credentials to be yet another vintage season.
The preseason favourites are without doubt Kawasaki and more-so Jonathan Rea, the reigning double champion. Aiming to become the first ever rider to win three championships on the bounce, the Ulsterman has won at least one race at the track since he joined the Kawasaki Racing Team back in 2015. Rea hasn’t won since the second race at the Lausitzring last season, and if Chaz Davies’ form is anything to go by, then it might not be all in the recently-turned-30-year-old’s favour.
His teammate, Tom Sykes, set a new pole record at Phillip Island last year but came away with nothing better than a 5th and 6th place after the races. Phillip Island is one of only a handful of the current circuits that Sykes hasn’t won at and he will be looking to put an end to that statistic. Having not been on the podium at the track since 2014, he will want a return to form, as he needs to bag points early on to have a real chance of beating Rea. Can the Huddersfielder do it? Only time will tell.
Chaz Davies has been in the top three for the past two seasons, and comes into 2017 as the rider in form. Seven wins from the last eight races in 2016, the Aruba.IT Ducati Team have got every faith in the Welshman to deliver the number one plate direct to Italy. 30-year-old Davies won more races than anyone else last season, but inconsistency – crashes at Phillip Island, Donington Park and Laguna Seca most notably – lead to the bronze medal position in 2016. Having set the fastest lap in at least one race at Phillip Island since 2014, he will be looking to convert one lap speed for consistent race pace, to take his first victory at the track.
Marco Melandri has won at Phillip Island, back in 2006 in MotoGP on the Fortuna Honda. The Italian has been on the podium every season in WSBK at the track since joining the series back in 2011 and has potential to become the first Italian pole-sitter in the history of WSBK at Phillip Island. The last Italian winner was Max Biaggi in 2012 and Melandri will be hoping to rewrite that record. Ducati will also be looking for success, having not taken a victory at the Australian venue since 2012 with Carlos Checa. Melandri could become one of a select group of riders to win on four makes of bike if he manages a victory at some point this season. Keep your eyes on the #33.
Honda are sporting a new look in 2017, revamped with their new bike and with their striking appearance – fashioning a Red Bull livery – it could be love at first sight for their riders. Nicky Hayden took the old Honda Fireblade to its first victory since Portugal 2014 last season at Sepang, on his way to securing a solid 5th place in the championship. The American will be looking to add to that tally, as he begins his 2nd full season in the WSBK category after leaving MotoGP in 2015. Hayden’s best result at Phillip Island was a 4th place in race 2, although this year, the Kentucky Kid will hope for a taste of the champagne.
Joined by fellow former MotoGP star, Stefan Bradl will partner Hayden at Red Bull Honda. The 2011 Moto2 champion begins his career in WSBK at Phillip Island, a circuit he has never won at although he took 2nd in his Moto2 championship season. The German has adapted quickly during in testing for the series but expects to be playing catch up with the new Honda until Aragon in April. On his journey this year, the son of former GP winner Helmut Bradl, will be encountering new circuits such as the Chang International Circuit, Imola, Portimao, the Lausitzring and Magny Cours. Can the German be a threat?
As well as the top three manufacturers from last year, teams such as Althea BMW and Milwaukee Aprilia will be searching for victories throughout the campaign, with former GP stars such as Jordi Torres and Eugene Laverty in the mix for both teams respectively. Alongside them are Markus Reiterberger (BMW) and Lorenzo Savadori (Aprilia) – neither of which have scored their first WSBK podium.
The Pata Yamaha Team operated by Paul Denning of Crescent Racing retain Alex Lowes for a fourth straight season and introduce Dutchman Michael Van Der Mark into the fray, as Sylvain Guintoli heads back to BSB. Leon Camier stays on the MV Agusta for another season, hoping to also achieve the team’s first ever podium. He achieved a great 7th place at Phillip Island last season, wanting to do better this year no doubt.
Other riders such as Xavi Fores, who was quickest in testing Down Under, make up the grid. Alex De Angelis switches to the oldest team in the paddock at Team Pedercini Kawasaki, with Ondrej Jezek and Ayrton Badovini joining the Grillini Kawasaki outfit. Roman Ramos remains in the GoEleven Kawasaki team, the Spaniard being the only full time rider last year to finish every race he took part in. Leandro Mercado represents the whole of South America, as the Argentine teams up with Ioda Racing who in turn become a one-man outfit for this season. The grid is rounded out with Italy’s Ricardo Russo on the Guandolini Yamaha, as the team return to the championship, and by former GP star and World Supersport race winner at Phillip Island in 2016, Randy Krummenacher, who steps up to the World Superbike class with World Supersport champions from last year, Pucetti Racing.
21 riders, 13 rounds, 11 countries and over 40 international and national titles between them, it’s hard not to see competition levels on show this year. With new sponsors, new teams, returning riders and tracks, not to mention new, longer-lasting qualifying tyres and the race 2 grid system, World Superbikes is set to have a renaissance in 2017. After the conclusion of the first weekend, we will have a rough idea of who is hot and who most certainly is not, as well as knowing how good the new system for race 2 grid positions will be. The only absentee from proceedings this weekend is Leandro Mercado, who nurses an injury following a testing incident – the team opting not to replace him.
You can follow the season with us this year, with every round covered to the highest standard. Follow us online for exclusive interviews and polls, as well as competitions and live updates from events – our handle is @PitCrew_Online. You can follow me too, for all things bikes, whether it be WSBK, BSB, MotoGP, CEV or the Shell Asia Talent Cup! @MotoGPKiko is where to find me!
Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko