Phillip Island, Australia – The 2018 World Superbike series got off to a dramatic start with crashes, red flags and enforced pit stops as it became obvious that the latest batch of Pirellis simply couldn’t be relied on to last 22 laps of the seaside circuit.
Ducati Team leader Marco Melandri got the best out of his increasingly treacherous tyres to take a superbly judged Race 1 win, but at a meeting after the race it was agreed between the teams and race direction that the situation was untenable and that both Race 2 and the 600cc World Supersport race would have to include a compulsory pit stop for fresh rubber.
In the event, however, even that became moot in the Supersport race after a huge crash on lap four brought out the red flags and the restart was run as a nine-lap sprint, which turned out to be an absolute thriller, as did the second Superbike race, which resulted in one of the closest finishes yet seen in the four-decade history of the series.
Kawasaki works rider Tom Sykes bolted from pole and was in clear air for much of the race, as an impressive start for team-mate and reigning champion Jonathan Rea from further back catapulted him up into second. But Melandri made for close company, stalking Rea before passing him and then heading off to chase down Sykes.
Melandri got past Sykes with enough time left to pull away for a safer win - but Sykes held firm in second to take only his fourth podium at the track since 2009. Meanwhile, behind him, Rea began to suffer with tyre issues; from a seemingly safe podium finish, he faded quickly - with Chaz Davies on the second works Ducati and Ducati privateer Xavi Fores soon passing him.
Rea followed Fores over the line for fifth, but Fores did make it into parc ferme, taking the honours as top Independent Team rider in the first race of the season.
A stunning Yamaha duel for sixth saw works riders Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes side-by-side, but the Dutchman began to suffer in the latter stages after his early charge and dropped back, leaving Lowes unchallenged in sixth. Leon Camier (Honda) made progress in the race after a crash in Superpole and was able to come home seventh with a late charge, breaking free of Van der Mark and Aprilia’s Eugene Laverty, who had a difficult race day to come home eighth after being third fastest on Friday. Van der Mark finished ninth, just staying ahead of Kawasaki privateer Leandro Mercado.
After the announcement on Saturday that Race 2 would be a flag to flag with a maximum of 12 laps allowed on one set of tyres, the scene was set for a showdown with a difference. After a huge fight at the front off the line, the battle incredibly resumed full force after the stop and by the end, a three-rider battle to decide the podium order saw Melandri complete the double by just hundredths of a second.
Rea took the hole shot off the line but the top 10 remained tightly packed, until Laverty was then able to get past and get away, pushing hard at the front in an impressive show of pace, until he crashed out of contention.
After Laverty’s fall, Rea, Melandri, Chaz Davies on the second works Ducati, Camier, Sykes and Pata Yamaha Van der Mark and Lowes were locked in all-out war – and the laps were ticking down towards the mandatory time to make their pit stop.
The first three riders to pit from the leading group were Fores, Rea and Van der Mark, piling into pit lane as the battle raging at the front. Davies, Melandri, Lowes and Camier kept it pinned as the three former leaders in pit lane waited the mandatory pit intervention time out, before next time around Davies led the four of the second wave in.
Heading out of pit lane pit lane as the other three blasted down the main straight, the group incredibly reformed almost exactly as it had been but with Davies ahead – and there were just nine uninterrupted laps left.
And if there wasn’t enough drama already, Davies suddenly slid out of the lead and out of the race, leaving privateer Fores leading the way, with Rea, Sykes, Melandri, Van der Mark, Lowes and Camier concertinaing and jostling for position in the tight battle behind him.
Just as Rea pulled away to establish himself in second, Melandri pulled the pin; after his superbly controlled and managed Race 1, this was a different animal. He sliced his way through to the front, passing Sykes into Turn 1 and forcing the Kawasaki rider to sit up and drop back slightly as the Ducati dived underneath him.
Going into the final lap it was Rea leading Melandri and Fores, and the stage was set. Not quite close enough to make it work into Turn 1, Melandri kept his head down and edged closer to the Kawasaki ahead of him. He wasn’t able to make a move at the hairpin or Lukey Heights, but tagged right onto the back of Rea.
Tucking in behind the Kawasaki and catapulting himself out the final corner, Melandri slipstreamed it to perfection before pulling out alongside Rea, incredibly just able to take it over the line with a photo finish so close, that even the Ducati pit crew didn’t dare celebrate until the stewards confirmed the result.
Fores completed the podium, with Sykes putting together another solid result at the Island – following his best result yet at this circuit in Race 1 - to come home fourth. Fifth was another good haul of points for Lowes, who crossed the line ahead of Camier and Van der Mark.
Jordi Torres (MV Agusta) took eighth and got some points on the board after retiring in Race 1, ahead of Loris Baz (BMW) on his returning weekend and a first top 10 result for rookie Toprak Razgatlioglu (Kawasaki).
There was drama from the start as reigning champion rider Lucas Mahias and factory Yamaha team-mate Federico Caricasulo battled for the lead with multiple former champion and Kawasaki team leader Kenan Sofuoglu, until a big crash on lap four brought out the red flags.
Veteran Ant West (Kawasaki) wasn’t able to make it back to the pits and was ruled out of the restart but Sofuoglu’s team-mate Hikari Okubo did, despite an early crash.
With the grid reset into original positions and race distance shortened to nine laps – taking away the necessity for a pit stop – a flat-out sprint for the line saw Mahias and Sofuoglu dueling from the start.
Mahias took the lead and Sofuoglu slotted into second with Caricasulo and Yamaha privateer Krummenacher just behind, before Sofuoglu began to fade. Meanwhile, 2012 Moto3 world champion Sandro Cortese, on a privately entered Yamaha, sliced through the field after a tough start in his World Supersport debut and was catching the leaders with some serious speed.
At the flag, Krummenacher had just enough clear air to take second, as Cortese timed his attack to perfection out of the final corner, tucked in behind Caricasulo and slingshot him to beat the Italian over the line by centimetres.
Luke Stapleford took fifth on his Triumph 675 after a fantastic first race of the season, comfortably ahead of the MV Agusta of Raffaele De Rosa, with Yamaha privateer Jules Cluzel seventh.
Cluzel, a double former winner in this class at Phillip Island, had an early run off that dropped him well down the order and almost outside the points, but sliced back through the field to make up seven positions in six laps and head up a group of four riders over the line.
Kyle Smith (Honda) finished eighth, making it four manufacturers in the top 10, which was completed by Ayrton Badovini on the second factory MV Agusta and Reparto Corse by Vamag) and Cluzel’s team-mate Thomas Gradinger.