The 2018 World Superbike championship returned to action over the weekend with its traditional season-opening round at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in Australia, which didn’t disappoint.
In his tenth year in the series, 2013 World Champion Tom Sykes kicked off his campaign with a pole position at the high-speed circuit for Kawasaki Racing. He was joined on the front row by Eugene Laverty (Aprilia) on his comeback from MotoGP and Ducati rider Marco Melandri.
But the action would come later in the day in Race 1 with 35-year-old Melandri taking the top prize. The oldest rider of this year’s grid sat in third for most of the 22-lap race before overcoming Kawasaki teammates Jonathan Rea on Lap 15 and then Sykes with a handful of laps to go.
Rea – the defending World Champion – had a wonderful start launching himself into second from sixth on the grid, but the British rider fell back in the end due to tyre wear. He dropped outside the podium positions and finished fifth.
It was a good day for Ducati, with Melandri winning and teammate Chaz Davies finishing third; the pair sandwiched Sykes on the podium.
On Sunday however, drama was guaranteed from the start with Race Officials announcing that the final race will be ‘flag-to-flag’ – meaning riders must use two compounds of tyre in the race by performing a mid-race bike swap during a specific pit-stop window.
The decision was made due to concern over tyre life in Race 1, where notable riders such as the aforementioned Rea dramatically losing pace in the latter stages of the race as their tyres gave up.
The top ten stayed tight for most of the race, despite the mandatory bike swap. Davies held the advantage with nine laps to go after all riders had made the switch. Bad luck fell the Brit’s way, however, as he slid offline and fell; he was unable to re-join the race.
Race 1 winner Melandri sliced his way through the leading pack to sit in second on the final lap, getting ever so close to the rear of Rea’s Kawasaki at Turn 1 and again at Lukey Heights. A perfect slipstream performance got him alongside Rea and the pair crossed the finish line side-by-side – crucially Melandri’s front tyre was just ahead on the line. The margin between the two was just 0.021 seconds.
Javier Forés would compete the top three in his Ducati, scoring his first ever podium in the World Superbike Championship.
Melandri leads the championship by 17 points with a perfect score of 50 points for the round. Kawasaki duo Sykes and Rea hold second and third with 33 and 31 points respectively. The championship visits Chang International Circuit in Thailand in a month’s time.
Image via FIM Superbike World Championship