Until the last few laps of Race 2, I was going to start this report by saying that the on-track action at the Chang International Circuit had been overshadowed by the track conditions. The slippery surface that had riders regularly running off the track at several corners was detracting from the on-track product. Then the last 5 laps happened. Then we saw a real scrap between the Kawasaki powerhouse teammates Johnny Rea and Tom Sykes. The two Team Green riders put on a epic display of speed, cunning, and true grit as they jockeyed for the lead. The slippery asphalt raised the stakes, making the scrap even more impressive to watch. While Tom Sykes got the victory, despite his previous problems maintaining rear tire grip over a full race distance. But this was no ordinary victory; it was more than a win. After having won a world championship and having narrowly missed out on two more, Johnny Rea turned Tom Sykes’ world upside down last year. Rea’s dominant championship-winning year left many wondering how good Skyes really was. Despite losing Race 1 to Rea, Sykes boldly answered back in Race 2. While last year Rea was the clear number one rider at the Kawasaki team, Sykes has now proven he indeed has the talent and confidence to beat Rea head to head. However, Sykes’ performance at Phillip Island two weeks ago was not nearly as spectacular. Despite taking the pole in Australia, Sykes finished P5 and P6 in Race 1 and Race 2, respectively. The next track on the WSBK calendar, Motorland Aragon, is a fast but technical track. It will be interesting to see how both riders perform there.
While the epic battle between Sykes and Rea made the headline in the end, the track conditions at the Chang International Circuit were less than ideal. Riders were seen having to sit their machines up mid-corner in several areas of the track. Most perturbing among them was Turn 3, the right-hander at the end of the track’s longest straightaway. Although ample, paved run-off room was available to the riders, having to suddenly change one’s line can make for hazardous on-track conditions. The slip-and-slide asphalt detracted from the races, as riders who were otherwise performing well were penalized by poor pavement rather than poor riding. While the conditions were not egregious, one would expect them to be addressed before next year’s event in Thailand.
Another notable performance was that of Dutchman Michael van der Mark. Riding for the Dutch-owned Ten Kate Honda team and teammate to American Nicky Hayden, van der Mark has shown astoundingly fast cornerspeed and scrappy racecraft in the first two rounds of the WSBK season. The 2014 World Supersport Champion and weekend pole winner, van der Mark has shown both speed and consistency this season. He has usually been able to get solid starts off the line, and has been able to maintain solid track position to the end of a race. Having podiumed three times in his rookie WSBK season in 2015, look to van der Mark to continue to develop both his speed and his racecraft as the season progresses. The Dutch round of the championship at Assen is the series’ next stop after Aragon. Two of van der Mark’s three podiums in 2015 were at the Dutch circuit. Johnny Rea also always seemed to do well at Assen when he was riding the Ten Kate Honda. We could be in store for something very special if van der Mark could pull off a home soil win in motorcycle-crazy Holland.
For American fans, Nicky Hayden had an up-and-down weekend. While Hayden DNF’d in Race 1 (by no fault of his own), Hayden came back from the technical problem to place in the top 5 in Race 2. While it appears Nicky is still getting used to the World Superbike package, look for Hayden to become even more competitive as the season progresses. Of note, Hayden has performed much better in both Race 2’s than in Race 1’s. If that trend continues at Aragon, it will be apparent Hayden just needs a little more time to get used to the WSBK brakes, tires, and chassis before he’s right up at the front with the Kawasakis. Another American favorite, long-time AMA road racer and 2008 Daytona 200 Champion Chaz Davies has performed very well this season. Riding one of the two factory Ducati’s, Davies has placed in the top 5 three times, and has been on the podium twice. If Davies had not crashed out of Race 2 at Phillip Island on the last lap (where he still managed to finish 10th), Davies would be right near the top of the championship standings. Davies has historically done well at Aragon, so it will be an opportunity for him to get right back in the fight for the title.