Good clean racing or overstepping the mark? That was the question being asked on Sunday night in Thailand after a thrilling race long duel between Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea.
For many the sight of Sykes fighting tooth and nail and refusing to cede the win to his teammate was something that was hoped for but not expected this year. The Kawasaki teammates fought a war of words over the winter but after Rea's dominant title victory last year, many expected something similar this year.
While Rea has walked away with 95 points from the first four races, the message from Sykes in Thailand was clear: You're not going to have it all your own way this time around!
Having split the honors at the Chang International Circuit both will feel positive about their Far-East jaunt but the happier of the two will be Sykes. The Englishman laid down a marker on Sunday and his robust defense of the lead on the last lap was a clear statement of intent. Swerving across the track on the short straight to the last corner he made clear to Rea that there was no room for a move and that he would have to settle for second.
The move was criticized by some as being too aggressive, particularly against your teammate, but in the eyes of Race Direction and the majority of onlookers it was simply a strong defense with everything on the line.
Chaz Davies had the best seat in the house running just behind the leaders and said, "It was just racing and there was nothing crazy out there. There were some big moves out there, but it was just racing."
There certainly were big moves, but nothing that stood out as dirty or unwarranted racing moves. On the last lap of a race almost anything goes, as shown by last year's Argentina Moto3 race, and while Sykes move across the track was borderline to some it was ultimately a clean maneuver to make.
After the race Sykes said that he felt that the win had allowed him to "cross a bridge" and find the competitiveness needed to beat Rea. Having struggled for grip throughout the race the way in which he adapted his lines were impressive and showed a willingness to change his style that we haven't seen for some time from Sykes.
"I was surprised to win because after six or seven laps I was really suffering with the front tire and expected to drop like a stone," said Sykes. "There was a lot of pressure from behind and I had to really change how I manage the ZX-10R. Jonathan made some good passes on me but because I had changed how I make the lap time it was more difficult for him to get ahead of me and make the pass stick. It was a great race and in the closing laps because I knew where he was strong I was able to close the door. Overall I'm very happy because Jonathan is so strong here and I was so weak here last season so I feel that we've crossed one of the bridges that we needed to do."
During his title winning season of 2013 Sykes routinely hit the front in races and forced riders to ride aggressively and attempt moves in unusual sections of the track. With Rea attempting his moves into Turn 4, the fastest corner on the track, the Northern Irishman needed his moves to be inch perfect to make them stick, something he ultimately wasn't.
Running slightly wide each time he forced his way past Sykes, Rea was forced to concede the lead to his teammate immediately at Turn 5.
“From ten laps to go I had a much higher pace than Tom but it seemed every opportunity I had to pass I was blocked or swerved at," said Rea afterwards. "I put myself out of the line twice trying to overtake, and on the last lap I tried to make it stick but I knew that he was going to switch back in T5. He went too deep and unfortunately I gave him enough space to come through. Today we got beat and we accept that, so fair play to Tom."
The aggressiveness of any rider on track depends so much on your perception of an incident. Having been defeated Rea could be forgiven for thinking that the moves were harsh from Sykes but ultimately Sykes straddled the line of acceptable riding but never crossed it. Would Rea have done the same?
“It’s a little bit scary when you’re doing 170mph and a 165kg bike is swerving in your way, but that’s racing. You have to think with your brain. This sport is dangerous enough without exaggerating that danger. I try to keep my mouth shut with the tactics used because Tom did a great job.”
Ducati and Davies impress at "worst track"
On the surface it looks as though we're set for another Kawasaki whitewash in 2016, however the pace of Chaz Davies in Race 2 shows the progress Ducati has made in the last year.
Davies said on Saturday that he "needed a miracle to get a podium" after a disastrous opening race at a track that he views as the worst on the calendar for him and the bike. His performance on Sunday was certainly verging on the miraculous. Having suffered from excessive tire wear in the opening race of the weekend a fresh engine combined with a functional tire transformed his bike for the second race.
There's still plenty of work for Ducati to do if they are to make the Panigale R a regular winner again this year with finding horsepower the main concern.
"It was much better in Race 2," said Davies. "We changed the engine and had a tire that worked better. In race one it was very strange because we finished the tire way earlier than we should have, so it was definitely a big turnaround because of those reasons. With the changes we made we were able to stay in the group."
Having bridged a gap of three seconds to the Kawasaki's and fighting past the Yamaha and Honda riders, the positives were clear from Thailand. For Davies, however, being able to maximize the potential of his bike in Thailand wasn't enough, and until they get more power he won't be satisfied.
"To close down the Kawasaki's was good because this is probably our weakest track. I had to work hard for it today but to improve is a question of horsepower and putting myself in the right position at the right during the race. We need to solve this problem quickly."
The top speed advantage of Kawasaki was clear to see once again in Thailand with Rea blasting past easily on the power on the long straight. Finding a solution to that problem is key for the Bologna manufacturer, with Davies saying "It's difficult at a horsepower track, but we need to find a solution as quickly as possible."
A change of engine helped the situation somewhat in Thailand with Ducati confirming that the switch of powerplant was not planned and out of sequence. The engine was running slightly underpowered and costing top speed, and with km/h at a premium in Chang, they were left with no option but to use a new engine. The team confirmed to us that they will be able to determine the cause of the issue without opening the engine seals. If Ducati can do that, they will not lose the unit from their allocation of seven for the season.
Ducati's speed at the start of the season has been encouraging with Davies and Davide Giugliano both enjoying strong starts to the season. Unfortunately for the Italian it once again come at a cost in Thailand. Having battled with Davies in the opening race, and almost trading paint with his teammate, Giugliano once again showed why it's impossible to rely on him.
Crashing out of a safe fifth place in the opening race after "doing nothing differently" from one lap to the next was likely bad luck but it's something that has dogged him throughout his career. Until Giugliano can iron out the mistakes and show consistency it's difficult to offer him the benefit of the doubt in such crashes.
There was no gray area on Saturday in Superpole for the Italian. Cruising on the racing line and not paying attention to what was happening around him he almost took out Davies on a hot lap.
"I left the pits a bit earlier than the rest of the field," explained Davies. "I was on my Q tire and setting a fast lap when I saw Davide and I just had to put it down the inside and hope we didn't crash. I don't blame Davide though, because there were a few riders doing the same thing. It's just unfortunate, because I think without it I could have had a front row start."
Davies was being exceptionally cordial to his teammate, and said that once he was back in the pits Giugliano immediately apologized to him for the incident. Holding his hands up and admitting fault is admirable for the Italian, but something that he has had to do time and again in the past. He needs to avoid these incidents if he is to live up to his potential.
Yamaha failing to deliver
The potential of the Yamaha R1 is clear for all to see. Sylvain Guintoli and Alex Lowes have had strong showings in each round, but there is a clear failure to get the results that have been possible from the flyaway rounds.
For Lowes, the biggest issue has been mechanical frailty. In Thailand this raised its ugly head once again, with technical problems on both Saturday and Sunday. While the team has not confirmed the source of the problems for Lowes his qualifying and Race 2 issues are both rumored to be engine related.
In Superpole, the Englishman set the seventh fastest time despite only completing one run in the session on race rubber. It was a highly impressive effort from Lowes, and one that again showed just how much potential he has once he has time on the bike. After a technical issue robbed him of any chance of showing what he is capable of in the second race at Phillip Island, he could have been excused for throwing toys out of the pram in Thailand.
But Lowes was calm when talking with the media, refusing to pin blame on the team and is instead focused on Aragon.
"Unfortunately this is a results-based game, and no-one really cares for the reasons why you don't score," said Lowes after the weekend. "At the end of the year, we all look at the championship and forget about why you dropped points. It's disappointing, but I'm pleased with how I'm riding and the progress that I'm making."
That progress was clear to see in Thailand, where Lowes was once again able to move through the pack off the line and make some aggressive moves. A top six finish was his reward in the opening race, but some of his moves showed that he has lost none of the aggression that was his hallmark in the past since his switch to the Yamaha.
The change of bike was expected to compromise Lowes' all action style, but he showed again that if there is a chance to attempt an overtaking move he'll take it. Diving down the inside of Davies to out-brake the Ducati was a perfect example of this from the 25-year-old. While he was unable to hold the position, it was an example of what we can expect from the Crescent rider this year.
On the other side of the Yamaha pit box we had another example of what to expect from Sylvain Guintoli. The Frenchman is a model of consistency and his 6-5-7-6 finishes this year show that once again he will be a safe pair of hands that will take home a decent haul of points each weekend.
Guintoli said in Australia that he needs to understand better how to race the Yamaha and how to get the most from it in battles. The riding style required is all about maintaining corner speed and using momentum to set the fastest lap times. This is tremendous in qualifying and will allow Guintoli to set fast times in Superpole but by trying to use this style in races it becomes increasingly difficult to overtake rivals.
Over the season the 2014 champion will understand how to do this better and will have some podiums, but at the moment his opening two rounds have been a continuation of what we saw last year on the Pata Honda.
Honda on the Mark in Chang
It's been a strong start to the year for Honda, with a first pole position since 2014 and three consecutive podiums for Michael van der Mark. The improvement from the Fireblade has been marked. The Ten Kate team are working much more efficiently than in the past, with the arrival of Nicky Hayden having been viewed as a major catalyst for this change.
Van der Mark's speed has never been in question, and his desire to be a champion is clear for all to see. Having worked as a truck driver until recently, he understands the value of hard work, and also the importance of racing in his life. Teaming the hungry young Dutchman with the veteran leadership of Hayden could prove to be a stroke of genius by Ronald Ten Kate over the course of the season.
In the opening race van der Mark was on the limit and was giving it absolutely ten-tenths, but he was overriding the capabilities of the bike. This led to a couple of lurid moments where he ran off track. The cause of these was the engine braking settings, but claiming a podium was a clear sign of the improving fortunes of the bike.
With more horsepower and a more efficient working process over the weekend the team have made a huge step. Chang was their weakest circuit last year, with the lack of power crippling the team. This year was a different story and one that they expect to continue when the WorldSBK paddock returns to Europe.
Hayden finding his feet but looking for more
American Nicky Hayden is used to being successful. Having claimed AMA Flat Track titles, an AMA Superbike title and a MotoGP world title, his speed, commitment and talent is beyond question, but he is in the early stages of finding his WorldSBK feet.
Having seen Michael van der Mark claim podiums and a pole position, he is in no doubts about the speed and talent of his teammate and the potential of the bike.
"I'm very happy that we came to another track and showed that we were competitive," said Hayden after finishing fifth in the second race. "This is a very different track with very different conditions to Australia. It also gave me an insight into what I should expect this year, because it was a new track that I had to learn on Friday. We had a sensor problem in Race 1 and had to retire, so just like Phillip Island we were on the back foot in the second race because you've had that DNF. The retirement was out of my control and it meant that you have to be a bit careful, because you don't want to crash and have two DNF's."
Losing track time is crucial for Hayden. He needs to maximize his learning at this stage of the season, and having lost out in Race 1 it made things very difficult for him in the second race. The track conditions changed markedly over the weekend with rubber going down on new asphalt, and losing time on the bike put him at a disadvantage in Race 2.
Saturday has become exceptionally difficult for riders with limited time between sessions. The change of schedule has been well received by riders with Hayden saying that "the positive side of the change is that you can have 24 hours to make improvements to the bike, but Saturday is now very busy!"
The nature of the 15-minute sessions means that riders go on track for only one run in FP3 and then are straight into a Superpole session, where once again you can make very limited changes. If the bike isn't right on Saturday morning you will carry that problem in qualifying, and possibly the race. For Hayden, though, this will change as he gets more experience with the bike and develops a base setting that works from one round to the next.
Speaking to team members the respect they have for Hayden was clear. Having ridden for Honda and Ducati in MotoGP there is obviously a wealth of knowledge that they can tap into and so far they seem willing to do this. With the bike having clearly taken a step over the winter further improvement will come with working better together but for Hayden the key thing for him is that they are willing to listen even if resources are tight.
"The bike has some good potential and the team are doing a good job to squeeze out the potential from it, but we know that it's not the newest bike on the grid. The team have helped me a lot, and I think that I've helped them too. I spent 11 years in MotoGP with factory teams and working with big test teams and I didn't have my eyes and ears closed during that time. I soaked up a lot. The team is working very efficiently and any of the changes that I've asked for have been made right from the start of the winter in testing. If we had a bit more sponsorship it would be nice to allow us to spend more money on R&D, but they do an incredible job with the money they spent."
Track comes under fire from top riders
The Chang International Circuit is one that riders have universally praised. The layout is much more rewarding than it appears on television, and the facilities are as good as anywhere in the world. It's likely only a matter of time before it is added to the MotoGP calendar, but last weekend the surface was a major talking point.
A decision was made to relay the asphalt in certain places. There was a huge bump into turn one that needed to be removed, the kerbs needed to be smoothed and extended in certain corners, and the astroturf run-off needed to removed in others. These were all standard changes needed to a brand new circuit, but the decision to lay a new track surface at Turn 3, 7, 8 and 12 came under fire.
The Turn 3 hairpin is the best overtaking opportunity of the circuit, but the new surface meant that riders couldn't take the typical racing line, needing to turn in incredibly late and stay wide. It made overtaking almost impossible, with Leon Camier saying "There is probably only a one-meter wide line on the way into the corner. If you miss that line, you either crash or run wide."
This meant that riders were forced to be very tentative into the corner and very few overtaking moves were attempted, never mind successful ones. Alex Lowes explained the problem by saying that the front end would almost fold into the corner and the rear would slide. It was a lottery for riders to avoid running wide at the corner if they misjudged their braking even slightly.
These are some of the best riders in the world, however, and they adapted to the conditions and found a way to stay out of trouble. When WorldSBK returns in Aragon at the end of the month, there will be no such issues, and the riders will have a familiar track that most have tested at over the winter. The flyaway races to start the season are now in the bag and there are still plenty of questions to be answered once the European season begins.
The speed of the Kawasaki's is ominous, but Van der Mark and Davies have given plenty of reason for optimism that this will be a hugely competitive season.
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