Ballyclare’s Jonathan Rea made the perfect start to his defence of his world superbike title winning both races at the opening round of the 2017 championship at Phillip Island.
If this sort of form continues throughout the season he will certainly rewrite the record books by the end of the year, becoming the first ever rider to win three world superbike titles in consecutive years.
Rea started the opening 22-lap race on Saturday from pole, his ninth of his career, and battled with team-mate Tom Sykes and Arubi.it Ducati rider Chaz Davies for the lead throughout the race. With Rea using all of his race craft on the final lap as they headed for the chequered flag he held off Welshman Davies to give the Ninja ZX-10RR its first race win by 0.042 seconds, with Sykes in third place.
Rea said afterwards: “I knew when Chaz mounted a challenge at the end I needed to be really strong. Twice after lap ten I tried to go to the front and push the pace forwards but it did not really pan out. With two to go I got track position and then played it clever on the final lap. We have been working hard in the off season to find some advantages.”
Race two on Sunday saw Rea, under the new rules this year, having to start from ninth on the grid. Despite his disadvantage he wasn’t hanging around and by lap six had worked his way into the lead from his third row start. The East Antrim man raced for the win from then on, holding off Chaz Davies over the finish line for the second time in two days, this time by a margin of 0.025 seconds. Jonathan has now won five of the six most recent Phillip Island races, on a Kawasaki. This latest race win gave Rea his magical 40th career victory; a level only reached and then later passed by three other riders in WorldSBK history, Carl Fogarty, Troy Bayliss and Noriyuki Haga.
“Phillip Island was really rewarding and to win two last lap battles here means a lot because it is a such a hard track to lead from the front on,” he said. “Whilst that 40th career victory means a lot it is more important to put a good score on the board for round one.
“When I went through to clean air in the lead with three or four to go I was worried that the other riders may be learning too much about the bike. I had to be sure just to change the lines up a little bit but on the last lap, from Siberia corner onwards, I just put my head down and completed a very good back section.
“I covered my line into the MG hairpin and got myself tucked in as well as I could on the front straight. There was not only one area where we found some pace in the winter tests; we generally just polished the bike. Nothing magic happened but I feel good about this bike. The way things have changed a little bit have suited me. I can ride less on the limit and we have more tyre left to fight with at the end of races, compared to last year.”
Rea leads the world championship on 50 points from Chaz Davies 40 and Tom Sykes 26 as the series heads to the Chang International Circuit in Thialand for round two.
Eugene Laverty didn’t have the sort of Aprilia debut he was looking for as he struggled with the RSV4 RF around the Phillip Island track. Eighth in race one and despite challenging for the lead in the early stages of race two with Alex Lowes and Xavi Fores he eventually slipped back too tenth by the flag. Still two points scoring finishes weren’t the worst start to the new season.
“I made the race hard for myself in race one by starting 13th, but I managed to make up a few places quickly,” he said. “My feeling on the bike wasn’t great throughout and I struggled with getting it stopped and turning, but to score points was a positive.
“Sunday was a really tough race. At the start we had some good pace and I was shaping up to take on Alex [Lowes], but my pace dropped off and I started to go backwards. I rode hard and I tried to hang on, but our race pace just wasn’t enough. We don’t just want to take small steps forward; we want to take big chunks out of the guys at the front. At the moment the bike is some way from them, but the team know that and I know they’ll work to fix it.”