The opening round of the 2018 WorldSBK season is in the books and certainly provided us with plenty of excitement and plenty to talk about.
The 2018 season will see three free practice sessions on Fridays, and from the outset we saw the benefit of this schedule. In the past, if a rider crashed or had a technical problem on Friday it severely hampered their weekend. Any time lost was magnified because you could easily lose 60 minutes of track time. The new schedule sees three 40 minute session, to ensure the riders have the same amount track time. A crash on his out lap in FP2 saw Alex Lowes miss the entire session and while the loss of track time hampered the Englishman, getting out in FP3 allowed him to set a time good enough for entry into Superpole 2. The schedule will also allow riders to use Friday afternoon for a race simulation, whereas in the past this was harder to achieve.
Five bikes leading a race and some surprising results would indicate the new rules have had their desired effect. It remains to be seen if that plays out over the course of the season but Australia showed that Aprilia, Honda, and Yamaha can get to the front of the field. Kawasaki seemed a little hamstrung during the opening round, and Ducati seemed to have the legs. But Phillip Island is a unique circuit and it won't be until WorldSBK returns to Europe that a clear picture develops.
Tired and emotional:
In Australia we saw plenty of concern about the Pirelli tires. Issues with the Italian tires forced Race Direction to introduce a mandatory pit stop. This was met with a mixed reaction. The racing was thrilling with two flat out stints of racing on Sunday, but for some riders they felt that their hard work of spending all week making a tire last for 22 laps was wasted. Pirelli introduced a new tire for Australia to distribute the heat better and Marco Melandri used it to the desired effect to claim in the lead in the closing stages of Race 1 and then take the win.
Melandri leads the way:
For the first time in five years the Italian leads the standings of WorldSBK and his weekend in Australia was perfect. He managed his tire on Saturday to take the win and he timed his blast past Rea on the final lap to perfection on Sunday. It was two contrasting strategies but the reward was a perfect 50 points. It was his first double victory since 2014 and offered a clear indication of what we should expect in 2018.
While Melandri had a perfect weekend his former teammate, Eugene Laverty, had one that left a sour taste in the mouth. The Irishman felt fast and confident all weekend but faded in Race 1. The team commented afterwards that it was for a different reason to last year's constant issues, and a highside from the lead on Sunday left him nursing some bruises but more importantly the pain of missing out on a strong results. Last year Aprilia struggled throughout the campaign but now Laverty feels he finally has a bike capable of challenging.
All things must end:
For the first time in three years Jonathan is not leading the WorldSBK championship. The Northern Irishman sits third in the standings and behind his teammate Tom Sykes. The 2013 champion looked as relaxed and confident as anyone could remember all weekend at what has typically been one of the most challenging rounds of the year for Sykes. A career best results of second at Phillip Island offered a sign of what to expect from Sykes and he'll go to Thailand full of confidence. For the first time since joining Kawasaki Rea has had a chink in his armor exposed, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts at Round 2. Rea is still the title favorite and it's easy to read too much into the results of the opening round but Sykes was brimming with confidence for the first time in a long time.
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