A new year brings with it new hope in the World Superbike Championship. Objectives will vary up and down the field, but here’s just a few of the possible achievements which might motivate the riders heading into the season…
Greg Haines reports from Barcelona
Three-time World Champion Jonathan Rea has become the man to look to when it comes to record-breaking. Just five more race wins would equal the all-time best of ‘King’ Carl Fogarty. Rea goes into the year on 54; nobody has ever made it 60. Incidentally, a fourth world title would equal the all-time record. Before JR, no rider had ever clinched three championships in succession, let alone four.
Chaz Davies also has his sights set on the title (if neither he nor Marco Melandri clinch it, the Panigale unfortunately becomes the first Ducati model in history never to collect at least one World Superbike crown). Davies is close to becoming just the eighth rider in history to clinch 75 podium finishes – the Welshman heads into the campaign just eight away from this achievement. We mustn’t forget how impressive a rider he is but, like everyone else at the moment, he’s been put in the shade by an all-time legend at the peak of his career.
I said several times in the Eurosport commentary last year that I expected Tom Sykes to overhaul Troy Corser’s pole position record during 2017. As it happened, I was wrong, as the Yorkshireman ended the year with ‘just’ four pole positions (from qualifying, that is – reverse grid poles for Race 2 don’t count here). He moves into 2018 on 42 career poles: one more will equal Corser and a further pole establishes a new record of 44.
One number which certainly will not be beaten in 2018 is the 99 of Troy Corser. This doesn’t refer to wins, podiums or poles, but the incredible number of front row starts racked up by the outstanding Australian (who, according to some close friends in the paddock, could have won even more than two titles had he really wanted to) between 1994 and 2011. His closest challenger is Sykes, still 31 in arrears, while Rea sits fourth in the table on 55 front row starts – 44 short of Corser at present.
Some consider individual race victories even more important than World Championship titles. But what about fastest race laps? The great Noriyuki Haga leads the way here, on 59, but Rea is beginning to breath down his neck on 41; a difference of 18 means it’s unlikely the Northern Irishman will threaten this record in 2018 (Rea managed 11 fastest laps in 2015, six in 2016 and 14 in 2017 which remarkably matched the record for a single season: Doug Polen in 1991).
There’s some notable race milestones coming up in 2018. Sykes is due to become only the fourth rider in the 31-year history of WorldSBK to hit 250 race starts, in Race 2 at Laguna Seca in July. His team-mate continues to rack up the numbers as well; by the time we leave Donington Park in late May, only four riders will have started more races than Rea: Corser, Haga, Frankie Chili and Sykes.
2013 Champ Sykes is also getting closer and closer to the record of most races led (officially counted by ending at least one lap of a race in first position). Sykes has led 93 WorldSBK races to date, while the record of 100 is held by Haga. Naturally this also means Sykes is close to making history in terms of laps led: Haga led 1,050 laps across his impressive career, while Sykes is just 82 behind on 968. But there’s a ‘but’ here…in the form of Rea. He has led 82 races and 906 laps to date. Which of the Kawasaki team-mates is going to grab Haga’s ‘leading’ records first?
And then there is that famous accomplishment unique in World Championship motorcycle racing to WorldSBK: the double (or winning both races on a single weekend, in more words than one). Mr. Rea heads into the new season on 16 doubles. This has already equalled the record number of career doubles held by Fogarty and Troy Bayliss. Will we see a new record established in the season-opener at Phillip Island in February? If history is anything to go by, the chances are high. Rea did the double in Australia in both 2016 and 2017, while also winning the season-opening race of 2015, meaning he has clinched five of the last six races there.
No fear, though. Although Rea and Kawasaki remain my firm favourites for the titles despite the rule changes (I’m reliably informed that JR was racing in Qatar last year on a modified bike which would comply to the 2018 regulations), I don’t foresee it being as clear-cut as last year. Where’s the fun if you can’t make a prediction or two? I forecast both Yamaha riders, Alex Lowes (now with Andrew Pitt as Crew Chief) and Michael van der Mark, will become race winners at least twice in 2018. I reckon Jordi Torres is well-placed to pick up the first ever podium finish for MV Agusta (thanks in many ways to all of the great work done by Leon Camier since the start of 2015). What of Camier himself? Leon might not like this but, if he doesn’t win one of the opening ten races, he becomes the rider with most race starts to his name without actually winning one (Piergiorgio Bomtempi currently holds this record, with his 194 starts ahead of Gregorio Lavilla on 188 and Camier himself on 185). It’s probably unfair of me to mention that of Camier, whose job of developing the MV Agusta F4 over the last three seasons has been nothing short of superb. Should he be allowed to work as he requests, I believe we could see the Honda Fireblade challenging for podiums in the second half of the season (I also said this of Honda last year, although an unbelievably unfortunate set of circumstances stopped it from happening). Bizarre rain-affected races aside, I’m not expecting wins from Honda until 2019. But I’ve been wrong before – and it would be great if I am, as that means Honda is back at a time when the championship needs more variety.
There’s more, of course. We have Aprilia, Jake Gagne, the returning Loris Baz on a BMW and that’s not to mention Toprak Razgatlioglu (start practicing that) with Puccetti, Tati Mercado with Orelac Racing and PJ Jacobsen on a third Honda. It leaves us with plenty to discuss when the Torque On podcast begins later this month.