Quite simply, the greatest World Superbike season anyone has ever put together. Back when WorldSBK was in its pomp, Colin Edwards set what looked to be an untouchable points record of 552 over 26 races after an epic title battle with Troy Bayliss. 2017 saw that all change though as Jonathan Rea set completely new standards and at the rate he’s going, he may soon have the record books all to himself.
He may have been pushed to the final weekend by his team-mate Tom Sykes but there was no other way of describing it, Rea had dominated the World Superbike Championship for the second year running in 2016 and series organisers had clearly decided enough was enough, introducing a brand-new reverse grid rule for race two in 2017, ensuring the race one winner would have to come from the back of the third row second time around.
For Rea and Superpole specialist Sykes, the rule change was intended to prevent them running away with the championship but Ducati’s Chaz Davies was aiming to do that all for himself, embarking on his fourth season with Aruba Ducati with new team-mate Marco Melandri, returning after two years away.
Honda were hopeful of leading the chasing pack with the long-awaited new Fireblade and the incoming Stefan Bradl to partner Nicky Hayden, completing a world championship winning duo. Yamaha were arguably 2016’s big underachievers and they responded by signing Michael van der Mark to partner Alex Lowes while Aprilia’s attempt to bounce back from their year in the doldrums was to join forces with Shaun Muir’s Milwaukee team, signing 2013 title runner-up Eugene Laverty to lead their effort.
As ever, Phillip Island would host the first instalment on the final weekend of February and it was clear who was most prepared for the season’s curtain-raiser. Rea, who stated after an impressive testing showing in November that he already in good shape for the new campaign, demonstrated his credentials with a record-breaking pole position lap, beating Sykes to the punch.
The opening race would entertain and excite throughout as a six-man leading group formed at the front. BARNI Ducati’s Xavi Fores and MV Agusta’s Leon Camier were the shock names looking to perform a giant-killing act while Lowes signalled Yamaha’s intent by leading midway through, but the natural order was restored in the end as Rea pipped Davies in a photo finish, the pair dropping Sykes into third late on.
The new regulations were put to the test for the first time in race two but Rea was up for the challenge, slicing through from ninth to first within six laps before fending off Davies for the second race in succession. Melandri marked his return with a podium after edging out pole-man Lowes, exacting a measure of revenge after a collision between the two eliminated him in race one, while Sykes trailed home in sixth after failing to negotiate his way through the reverse grid traffic. It would prove to be a feature of the season.
When the series touched down in Thailand, it soon became apparent that Phillip Island had set the bar a little high for the 2017 season. All hope that Ducati and Yamaha had brought themselves on terms with the green machine was crushed as Rea converted his second straight pole into a third straight win, beating Davies by over six seconds.
Race two was even more soul-destroying for his rivals as Rea made a complete mockery of the reverse grid format, climbing from ninth to first in no time at all. A fourth consecutive victory followed but Davies hadn’t appeared to have learned the lesson of previous seasons where costly points fell away due to crashes. The Welshman tumbled while battling with his team-mate Melandri and only made it back up to sixth thanks to a mid-race red flag. Rea was already 30 points clear of the Welshman with Sykes a further eight points in arrears despite completing Kawasaki’s first 1-2 of the year in race two.
Even at such an early stage in the season, Aragon had the feeling of a pivotal round in the world championship with Chaz Davies arriving at a circuit he had effectively owned in recent years. Failure to beat Rea here would really set the alarm bells ringing. All appeared to be going to plan early in the weekend as Davies eased to pole position but no matter how hard he tried in race one, Chaz couldn’t shake off the reigning champion who shadowed the Ducati.
Perhaps those aforementioned alarm bells played a part at the end of the penultimate lap as the pressure finally told, Davies losing the front end of his Panigale at the final corner and handing another 25 points to his championship rival. To his credit, Davies rebounded with a much-needed victory 24 hours later despite another near-miss on the last lap but Rea had made his point with a close second. The Ulsterman had taken 45 points from a possible 50 around one of Chaz Davies’ strongest circuits on the calendar, moving him 50 clear at the top.
The growing points gap didn’t mean the tensions between the two weren’t growing too, as proven at Assen next time out. During SP2, moments after setting a blistering pole position lap, Jonathan Rea was cruising back to the pits when he was caught by a livid Chaz Davies, still circulating at racing speed in search of a better grid position. The Welshman was furious and vented his fury at the world champion during a foul-mouthed exchange in parc fermé. Rea was duly punished, handing a first pole of the season to Tom Sykes, but the tensions between Kawasaki and Ducati’s leading riders were close to boiling point.
True to the script, the opening race in the Netherlands boiled down to another head-to-head between the two protagonists but just as in Aragon, late drama would deny us a grandstand finish. This time, Ducati mechanical failures would intervene with Davies’ no.7 grounding to a halt two laps from home, leaving the path clear for Rea to make it six wins out of seven. Sykes was the other chief beneficiary, inheriting second place, and the Yorkshireman would back that up with another 20 points in race two and the closest challenge to his team-mate yet. It was all in vain though, with Rea romping to another ninth-to-first success.
Ducati’s title dream was already in tatters by the time they arrived at their first home round of the season, rendering the dominant Davies double that followed all-but irrelevant in championship terms, especially with Rea following him home in both races, but the weekend did provide a major morale boost for the Bologna squad. For Italy’s other leading manufacturer, Imola brought more disappointment in an underwhelming campaign with Eugene Laverty lucky to avoid serious injury after a heavy collision with Alex Lowes approaching Rivazza, the RSV4 careering into the concrete wall before exploding into flames.
In the weeks following Imola, news broke elsewhere in Italy which paled all the trials and tribulations of motorcycle racing into insignificance. While training on his bicycle in Rimini, Red Bull Honda’s Nicky Hayden was involved in a road traffic accident, the American hit head on by a car. The news shocked the sporting world with Hayden admitted to an intensive care unit but after five days fighting for his life, the hugely popular Kentucky Kid succumbed to his injuries, bringing the sport into a state of mourning.
With a heavy heart, the show would go on at Donington Park with Honda initially deciding to field Stefan Bradl as their sole entrant for the UK round. For Jonathan Rea though, the intention was clear. Having defeated Chaz Davies at Aragon, he now looked to break the ultimate Tom Sykes stronghold, the Yorkshireman having won the last eight races consecutively on home soil.
The weekend started just as the form book would have suggested with Sykes demolishing the opposition in Superpole but Rea defended valiantly throughout the opening race, only fading when a vibration at the rear of his Kawasaki began to handicap him. The root of the problem became apparent in dramatic circumstances when the rear Pirelli came off the rim approaching Craner curves, sending Jonathan into a terrifying crash. Despite his stroke of fortune, Sykes wasn’t complaining after taking his ninth straight Donington win, but more importantly his first of 2017, nor was Leon Haslam who marked his wildcard outing for Puccetti with a stunning second. The BSB frontrunner had barged Alex Lowes off the road on the opening lap of race one but that didn’t deter the Yamaha man who rode the race of his life to claim a podium, mugging Marco Melandri on the last lap.
Sykes’ hopes of a perfect ten in race two hinged on his ability to navigate through traffic from the third row and ultimately, the 2013 champion’s achilles heel caught up with him again. Tom did eventually claw his way up to second by one-third distance but crucially, Rea had gone from tenth to the front in a lap and a half, earning him four seconds of breathing space over his team-mate. Not even Sykes’ unrivalled Donington pace could bring that back and Rea had indeed conquered the streak.
Fortunes were starting to turn for Tom though with his second win of the season coming in race one at Misano and the win itself owed more than a little to good fortune. Sykes actually started the final lap in fourth, and even that came courtesy of a devastating crash for Michael van der Mark who had Yamaha daring to dream of a maiden WorldSBK win since returning to the series. Four corners into the last lap, Marco Melandri tumbled out of third but the biggest sting in the tail came three corners from the finish as race leader Chaz Davies low-sided, scooping up Jonathan Rea in the process with the impact causing a broken vertebra for the Welshman. Sykes thus inherited the most fortunate of victories ahead of Lowes in a career-high second with Rea remounting to salvage a podium.
With the injured Davies on the sidelines, Marco Melandri was forced to go it alone for Aruba Ducati in race two but the home favourite rose to the challenge superbly, making history with the 100th victory for an Italian rider in the championship’s history, his first since Magny Cours 2014. Rea got the better of Sykes for second as the Kawasakis endured a rare off-day while another surprise package saw a potential podium pass him by, Jordi Torres missing out this time when his Althea BMW conked out while running second.
The loss of Nicky Hayden wasn’t felt stronger than at Laguna Seca for the annual US round of the championship. Honda acted by drafting in another American as Jake Gagne made his WorldSBK debut but the focus would be on the British trio at the front once again. Chaz Davies’ fitness was in question after the back injury sustained at Misano but he provided the perfect answer to the doubters, riding a gritty race to see off Rea and Sykes. The Kawasaki juggernaut fired back in race two though with Rea dominating despite a third-row start, leading a KRT 1-2 in a race that could be described as processional at best. With Rea 59 points clear of Sykes, a perceived lack of entertainment was now being jumped on by the public. The natives were growing restless.
It perhaps didn’t help that a six-week summer break followed before arguably the season’s least popular venue, as the Lausitzring hosted its final world championship event before closing to become a test venue. The previous visit in 2016 saw total domination from Chaz Davies and Ducati in dry conditions and 2017 saw more of the same, Jonathan Rea putting up little by way of resistance. In the bigger picture though, two second places merely strengthened his position at the head of the championship with Sykes now 70 points back and any slim hopes the Yorkshireman had of reeling his team-mate back in would go up in flames, quite literally at Portimao.
On Saturday morning in Portugal, Sykes lost control of his ZX-10RR approaching turn five, the impact leaving him with a broken wrist while his machine burst into flames. With surgery required in Barcelona, Tom’s weekend was over before even making it into Superpole and to all intents and purposes, his championship bid was over too. With the other factory bike out of commission, Rea was simply unstoppable on his way to a double victory, nobody finishing within five seconds of him in either race. The weekend did show shoots of recovery for Aprilia with Eugene Laverty and Lorenzo Savadori both qualifying on the front row while Yamaha returned to the rostrum for the first time since Misano, Michael van der Mark getting his just reward this time.
Sykes was back in action for Magny Cours but Jonathan Rea was staring at his first championship point, knowing a victory in race one would see him become the first rider ever to win three consecutive WorldSBK titles. Despite torrential rain which threatened to blow the formbook wide open, the conditions merely exaggerated the difference between the reigning champion and his rivals, if they could even be called that. In truth, Rea was on another planet entirely in the wet conditions, taking pole position by 1.2 seconds from surprise package Leandro Mercado before trouncing the field by 16 seconds in race one. If there was ever a storybook way to wrap up a championship, this was surely it.
Five races still remained in the season and with one piece of history secured, Rea now turned his attentions to another. 97 points from the 125 available would take him past Colin Edwards’ all-time record from 2002 but just as in 2015, the opportunity looked to have been ripped from his grasp through no fault of his own as Eugene Laverty tumbled ahead of him in race two, damaging the break lever on the no.1 Kawasaki and ending his race. Chaz Davies took full advantage to hand Ducati a consolation win ahead of Lowes and van der Mark while Sykes did at least give Kawasaki something to cheer, clinching the Teams Championship despite trailing home in seventh.
Rea’s only hope of breaking the record was to sweep the board in the final four races, a scenario that looked slightly remote with Marco Melandri on course for victory in race one at Jerez. This time though, the racing gods smiled on Rea with the Italian cruelly robbed of his second win of the season by mechanical gremlins, handing the world champion victory. Rea’s race two win owed very little to fortune as another masterclass from the third row saw him leave the rest trailing. Melandri was rewarded with second ahead of Davies who ensured he would take a slim advantage over Sykes to Qatar in the fight to finish championship runner-up.
Chasing maximum points for the record, Rea’s relentless march continued under the lights at Losail, taking another double with the minimum of fuss, completing the greatest WorldSBK campaign of all time. The battle for the silver medal went Davies’ way despite an enormous moment in race two which smashed the Ducati’s screen as a rare crash for Sykes settled the issue. Yamaha served notice that they may be a force to be reckoned with in 2018 with Alex Lowes finishing third in the final race of the year while for the likes of Aprilia and Honda, they were simply glad to put this season behind them.
For Jonathan Rea though, this season will live long in the memory. A season where he hit new heights and raised the bar higher than WorldSBK has ever seen before. 2017 will always be remembered as a year where the sport lost one of its most popular figures in Nicky Hayden and while nothing on-track will ever make up for such a tragic loss, Rea’s remarkable run has truly been a joy to watch. The greatest superbike rider of his generation and who knows, perhaps the greatest of all time.
WorldSBK 2017: Riders’ Championship (Final Standings)
|C||1. JONATHAN REA||KAWASAKI RACING TEAM||6||14||16||556|
|2||7. Chaz Davies||Aruba.it Racing – Ducati||2||5||7||403|
|3||66. Tom Sykes||Kawasaki Racing Team||4||2||2||373|
|4||33. Marco Melandri||Aruba.it Racing – Ducati||1||4||1||327|
|5||22. Alex Lowes||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||242|
|6||60. Michael van der Mark||Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team||1||223|
|7||12. Xavi Fores||BARNI Racing Team||196|
|8||2. Leon Camier||MV Agusta Reparto Corse||168|
|9||81. Jordi Torres||Althea BMW Racing Team||158|
|10||50. Eugene Laverty||Milwaukee Aprilia||157|
|11||32. Lorenzo Savadori||Milwaukee Aprilia||124|
|12||40. Roman Ramos||Team Kawasaki GoEleven||118|
|13||36. Leandro Mercado||IODARacing||115|
|14||6. Stefan Bradl||Red Bull Honda WorldSBK Team||67|
|15||35. Raffaele de Rosa||Althea BMW Racing Team||53|
|16||88. Randy Krummenacher||Kawasaki Puccetti Racing||50|
|17||69. Nicky Hayden||Red Bull Honda WorldSBK Team||40|
|18||5. Sylvain Guintoli||Kawasaki Puccetti Racing||34|
|19||15. Alex de Angelis||Pedercini Racing SC-Project||32|
|20||21. Markus Reiterberger||Van Zon Remeha BMW||29|
|21||86. Ayrton Badovini||Grillini Racing Team||26|
|22||37. Ondrej Jezek||Grillini Racing Team||22|
|23||91. Leon Haslam||Kawasaki Puccetti Racing||20|
|24||45. Jake Gagne||Red Bull Honda WorldSBK Team||14|
|25||121. A. Andreozzi||Guandalini Racing||14|
|26||34. Davide Giugliano||Red Bull Honda WorldSBK Team||13|
|27||13. Anthony West||Kawasaki Puccetti Racing||13|
|28||84. Riccardo Russo||Pedercini Racing SC-Project||13|
|29||72. Takumi Takahashi||Red Bull Honda WorldSBK Team||8|
|30||27. Jake Dixon||Royal Air Force Reg. & Res.||7|
|31||11. Jeremy Guarnoni||Pedercini Racing SC-Project||5|
|32||25. Josh Brookes||ERMotorsport-EliteRoads.com.au||4|
|33||44. Roberto Rolfo||Grillini Racing Team||4|
|34||3. Julian Simon||Milwaukee Aprilia||4|