In sport, it’s one thing to win a championship, it’s quite another to retain it. No championship has epitomised that in recent years quite like the World Superbike Championship where no rider had successfully defended the title for seventeen years. It was always going to take a special talent to break that streak. Step forward Jonathan Rea.
In 2015, Rea had put together one of the most dominant championship campaigns ever seen in WorldSBK history, finishing 134 points clear of the competition, and forcing his rivals to regroup for 2016. Tom Sykes, having lost the high-ground within Kawasaki, had a point to prove while Chaz Davies continued to lead Ducati’s challenge with the Panigale R. Honda had called upon the services of 2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden to partner Michael van der Mark while Yamaha made their eagerly return with the formidable YZF-R1, fielding Alex Lowes and Sylvain Guintoli.
Phillip Island hosted the traditional curtain raiser and that wasn’t the only thing staying the same, Tom Sykes was still a rider without equal over a Superpole lap while Jonathan Rea was still the gold standard over race distance. The Ulsterman used all of his defensive skills to resist Davies and van der Mark in race one while Davies’ desperation to defeat the defending champion caused a crash on the final lap, handing Rea maximum points. Van der Mark took a career best second ahead of the second Aruba Ducati of Davide Giugliano but the pole man failed to break into the top four, giving his teammate a 29 point head start.
Although van der Mark enhanced his reputation still further with a maiden pole in Thailand, the Kawasaki duo were the centre of attention at Buriram with two classic tussles. The first went Rea’s way, taking him to three wins from three starts and with 34 points now separating him from his teammate, Sykes was already entering must-win territory in race two, and it showed. In a fierce final two laps, Tom matched Jonathan at every turn before a rather brutal chop heading into the final corner made absolutely sure of his first win of the year, halting the champion’s winning streak.
It felt like a significant moment to see Sykes take the honours in a fair fight and from that point onwards, the two tended to be much more closely matched from weekend to weekend. Aragon was a prime example of this as the pair essentially shared the points on offer, Rea edging out Sykes in race one before giving best in race two. Unfortunately for Kawasaki, the points on offer were those for second and third as an improved Ducati Panigale powered Chaz Davies to a dominant double.
After his impressive start, van der Mark’s jets had cooled slightly with Aragon only yielding a seventh place finish. With that in mind, a homecoming weekend at Assen came at the perfect time for the former World Supersport champion and the local favourite was inspired in race one, pushing Rea to the limit before a heartbreaking crash two laps from home cost him a genuine shot at victory. Rea took full advantage to win from Davies with Nicky Hayden giving Honda something to smile about with third, his first podium in WorldSBK.
Sykes had suffered an uncharacteristic crash at the final chicane on Saturday, surrendering yet more ground in the title chase, and although he returned to form in a chaotic race two, Tom could only follow his teammate home in second. The race was characterised by a rain shower prior to the start which provided BSB champion Josh Brookes with the platform to lead the way, a rare highlight in an otherwise disappointing season for series debutants Milwaukee BMW, and a dramatic phase of mid-race tyre changes. Rea and Sykes called it correctly to seal a Kawasaki 1-2 with van der Mark wronging the rights of race one with a podium finish in third.
The pendulum between Kawasaki and Ducati was swinging one way and another and after Rea’s double delight in the Netherlands, Davies struck back in Italy. Imola had played host to arguably the worst weekend of Chaz’s WorldSBK career twelve months prior when two mechanical failures sidelined him but nothing would deny the Welshman this time as he crushed the opposition, winning both races by a country mile. Honda were largely anonymous, a description that could’ve accurately described Yamaha’s season to this point but the Crescent squad hit the headlines in unfortunate fashion at Imola when a horrendous Superpole crash left Sylvain Guintoli with a broken ankle, ruling him out until the autumn.
Alex Lowes went it alone for the team in Malaysia, taking a season’s best fifth in race one, but nobody saw which way Tom Sykes went as he produced a blistering display in sweltering conditions, winning at a canter. To many people though, his victory will go down as the ‘forgotten win’ of Sepang 2016 due to the events on Sunday in a rain-affected race two.
With Sykes not known for his wet-weather prowess, a crash demonstrated that, and the likes of Rea and Davies taking a cautious approach, Hayden saw his opportunity and seized it. The American held off the challenge of Davide Giugliano to claim his first victory at world championship level for ten years, a universally popular moment for one of the sport’s shining stars.
With the British clean sweep of 2016 now out of the question, the championship frontrunners looked to reassert their superiority on home soil. Fortunately for British fans, one of the common themes in recent history was maintained. When World Superbikes race at Donington Park, Tom Sykes wins. The Yorkshireman extended his winning streak there to eight races with yet another double while Rea was restricted by mechanical gremlins and Davies suffered his first non-finish of the year.
Although Rea overcame his false neutral issues to take a double podium at Donington, the world champion had now gone six races without a victory, a statistic that would’ve been unthinkable at the height of his 2015 success. In the face of relative adversity, and an in-form Sykes, Rea responded like a champion with a supreme double victory at Misano on a weekend where Kawasaki had the front of the field all to themselves, partly thanks to another disastrous Davies weekend where a turn one tangle and another crash saw him take just thirteen points from the two outings.
It was at this stage of the season that Chaz’s championship challenge fell off the rails. Having missed the rostrum in four of the last five races, Davies compounded his problems by crashing out of the lead in race one at Laguna Seca, giving up another 25 points to Rea who held off Sykes to win the opener. Circumstances presented Davies with a gilt-edged opportunity to win race two in the United States but the Welshman met resistance in the form of his own teammate Giugliano, and the Ducati inter-team squabbling saw both riders miss out on the win.
The second Stateside race saw a significant swing in the title chase too with Rea, who went into race two 71 points clear of Sykes, suffering his first mechanical retirement of the season, swinging the door wide open for Tom to close the gap. The no.66 came under intense pressure throughout a nail-biting race but the aforementioned arguing between the Ducatis, as neither could agree on which rider would give chase, let him off the hook to claim his fifth win of 2016.
Sykes couldn’t carry that momentum forward into the German round with a two month summer break separating us from the Lausitzring’s WorldSBK return in early September. The bad luck which struck Rea in America seemingly followed him to Germany though with more technical gremlins causing a crash in race one. Sykes took a safe second to close to within 26 points of the championship leader, giving us the prospect of a real head-to-head in the final seven races. The opening race win at Lausitzring went to Davies in utterly dominant fashion. Get used to that, you’ll be reading that regularly in the remainder of this review.
Unfortunately for Sykes, the pattern of recent races which had seen him reel in Rea didn’t continue in Sunday’s second race. A torrential downpour transformed the race and on the opening lap, sent Sykes sprawling to the tarmac in a crash which effectively ended his realistic title hopes. The Yorkshireman remounted to finish twelfth but with Rea romping to his ninth win of the year, the title was now completely out of Sykes’ hands with six to go. Davies could only manage sixth while Giugliano effectively ended his season with an enormous crash out of second spot. The unlikely beneficiaries were Alex De Angelis and Xavi Fores who splashed their way to maiden WorldSBK rostrums.
Wet weather would also have a bearing on the opening race at Magny Cours and after getting his tyre strategy so wrong back at Assen, Davies atoned in France with an inspired call to start on intermediates, providing him with the springboard to take victory from van der Mark and Sykes, two riders who made an early switch from wets to dries. Rea did likewise but his relative caution through traffic saw him slip a place behind his teammate while Leon Camier, who went all-in with his gamble on wet tyres, fell from the lead on his MV Agusta to an eventual seventh. The Briton was having a phenomenal season though, as demonstrated in race two with a sensational ride to fourth in the dry, equalling his season-best.
It won’t take you long to guess which three riders finished ahead of the MV Agusta but the order remained in doubt until the closing laps. In the end, Rea’s eyes were only on Sykes as he looked to keep his championship advantage under control and with the Kawasakis preoccupied with each other, Davies sneaked past the pair of them to complete his third double of the season. Two more were about to follow.
With Chaz untouchable at the penultimate round in Jerez, the Kawasaki riders would find themselves fighting over the lower spots on the podium once again and their battle took on added significance with Rea on the verge of clinching the title. Sykes drew first blood in race one, beating Rea to second, but with the gap standing at 44 points, the Ulsterman headed into race two knowing second would secure the championship, if he could get a rider between himself and the sister Kawasaki. In a tense ending to race two, Nicky Hayden zeroed in on the back of Sykes but the Yorkshireman held on, ensuring the title would be decided under the lights at Losail.
Rea’s task in the final round was relatively simple, with two points the target, while Sykes was left to pray for one last sting in the tail. His prayers weren’t answered though as Rea followed Davies home for second place, propelling him onto the list of WorldSBK greats as a back-to-back champion. For Sykes, there was another pressing matter as Davies’ relentless run of victories had brought him right into play in the race for the runner-up spot in Sunday night’s season finale.
All Sykes needed to do was finish second, even if Davies won, but a red flag for Saeed Al Sulaiti’s engine failure put a safe P2 in some doubt. A bad start had dropped Rea out of the top ten but a fresh restart put him right back into the action, between the two riders scrapping for second in the points race. With race victory ultimately beyond him, Rea would have the final say as he sat up on the final lap, repaying his team for another glorious season handing second spot to Sykes, not only in the race, but the championship too.
Despite six straight wins and ten for the season, Davies had to settle for third overall while van der Mark edged out Hayden for fourth. Jordi Torres was rewarded for a superbly consistent campaign on the Althea BMW with sixth ahead of Giugliano and Camier while Xavi Fores finished the year in ninth, just ahead of impressive rookie Lorenzo Savadori. For Yamaha, eleventh and twelfth in the championship was an unsatisfactory return to world-level competition but Guintoli did at least sign off from World Superbikes with a podium in the final round.
The season would ultimately belong to Jonathan Rea though as the 29 year old became the first rider this century to successfully retain the World Superbike Championship. Only Fred Merkel, Doug Polen and Carl Fogarty had previously achieved such a feat which illustrates the level Rea is now on. He is now a true great of World Superbikes and with the Kawasaki juggernaut showing no signs of getting any weaker, he may yet go on to become the greatest of them all.
WorldSBK 2016: Final Championship Standings
|C||1. JONATHAN REA||KAWASAKI RACING TEAM||2||6||9||498|
|2||66. Tom Sykes||Kawasaki Racing Team||8||6||5||447|
|3||7. Chaz Davies||Aruba.it Racing – Ducati||2||10||11||445|
|4||60. Michael van der Mark||Honda World Superbike Team||1||267|
|5||69. Nicky Hayden||Honda World Superbike Team||1||248|
|6||81. Jordi Torres||Althea BMW Racing Team||214|
|7||34. Davide Giugliano||Aruba.it Racing – Ducati||2||197|
|8||2. Leon Camier||MV Agusta Reparto Corse||168|
|9||12. Xavi Fores||Barni Racing Team||1||150|
|10||32. Lorenzo Savadori||IodaRacing Team||150|
|11||50. Sylvain Guintoli||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||141|
|12||22. Alex Lowes||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||1||131|
|13||15. Alex De Angelis||IodaRacing Team||96|
|14||25. Josh Brookes||Milwaukee BMW||89|
|15||40. Roman Ramos||Team GoEleven||89|
|16||21. Markus Reiterberger||Althea BMW Racing Team||82|
|17||13. Anthony West||Pedercini Racing||64|
|18||17. Karel Abraham||Milwaukee BMW||33|
|19||59. Niccolo Canepa||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||30|
|20||91. Leon Haslam||Pedercini Racing||16|
|21||35. Raffaele de Rosa||Althea BMW Racing Team||16|
|22||151. Matteo Baiocco||VFT Racing||12|
|23||76. Matthieu Lagrive||Pedercini Racing||11|
|24||99. Luca Scassa||VFT Racing||10|
|25||44. Lucas Mahias||Pedercini Racing||9|
|26||6. Cameron Beaubier||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||6|
|27||9. Dominic Schmitter||Grillini Racing Team||5|
|28||4. Gianluca Vizziello||Grillini Racing Team||4|
|29||119. Pawel Szkopek||Team Toth||3|
|30||46. Mike Jones||Desmo Sport Ducati||2|
|31||16. Josh Hook||Grillini Racing Team||2|
|32||20. Sylvain Barrier||Pedercini Racing||2|
|33||56. Peter Sebestyen||Team Toth||1|
|34||11. Saeed Al Sulaiti||Pedercini Racing||1|
|35||94. Matthieu Lussiana||Team ASPI||1|