Martin Darlington, Marhaba’s friend and an ardent bike race fan, writes about the 2016 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship finale held at Losail International Circuit on 30 October 2016.
Jonathan Rea arrived in Qatar with one hand on the title but with two other riders still with mathematical chances to snatch it away. Team mate and fellow Kawasaki rider Tom Sykes was 48 points behind the title leader and reigning champion, Aruba.it Ducati rider Chaz Davies a further two points behind.
With 50 points available Chaz could only match Jonathan’s points total but to do so he would have to win both races, hoping that Jonathan could only pick up two points in total from the two races and, if that were to happen, Chaz would be crowned champion by way of total wins; he’d have 11 to Jonathan Rea’s 9.
As it transpired, Chaz Davies did exactly what he needed to do which was win both races. In doing so, Chaz won his sixth race in a row, an incredible achievement and one that will have his rivals looking nervously toward him at the start of next season.
Jonathan Rea did what he needed to do and picked up a second place in race one, held under the floodlights on Saturday evening, confirming that he was World Superbike champion for the second year running and removing any title doubts before the second race, held on Sunday evening.
Jonathan Rea becomes the first World Superbike rider since Carl Fogarty to win back-to-back titles which the former rider achieved in 1998-1999. Along with Doug Polen and Fred Merkel, Fogarty and Rea are the only riders to have achieved this feat.
Local hero Saeed al Sulaiti arrived at his home track looking forward to racing in familiar surroundings and with deep knowledge of the circuit. He admitted that during race one he was cautious, wanting to make sure he finished safely although during qualifying he managed to break his own personal best time at Losail circuit, coming in with a time of 1’59”.734, breaking through the 2 minute barrier.
A 17th place in race one with some good pace shown encouraged Saeed before race two on Sunday. Sadly he wasn’t to finish the race but through no fault of his own; running fast down the home straight his Perdicini Kawasaki blew its engine and the fans were shocked to see Saeed quickly exiting the track with his bike on fire. Flames were licking around the Qatari racer’s legs before he slowed enough to leap from his bike and walk back toward the paddock, visibly frustrated with such an ending.
Saeed has become a popular member of the WSBK paddock and whilst there has not yet been official confirmation of his plans for 2017, the strong rumour is that he will remain in the World Superbike championship, continuing to be supported by the QMMF.
The oil that Saeed’s bike lay down right in the heavy-braking zone at the end of the long, fast straight meant that the race was immediately red-flagged to give the track officials time to clear the oil before a 10-lap restarted race took place, grid positions being determined by the riders’ respective positions when the red flags came out.
Former MotoGP Champion and fans’ favourite Nicky Hayden was another rider to suffer from mechanical woes over the weekend. During Sunday warm-up practice his Ten Kate Honda Racing Fireblade had an engine breakdown which needed to be changed before the evening race. This exceeded the season’s allocation for the American rider which meant that Hayden had to start race two from the pit lane with a 5-second delay, rather than take his hard-fought front row place on the grid. The incident with Saeed al Sulaiti’s bike catching fire and the subsequent red flag and race restart allowed Nicky Hayden to fight through to an eventual 7th place after the restart.
At the front of the pack during the restarted race two, a newly-crowned Jonathan Rea was riding the bike to the very edge of its abilities – twice his foot slipped from the footpeg as the bike slid and snaked around the floodlit track. Passing Leon Haslam, a race winner here in 2015 and arriving for a one-off race after competing in British Superbikes this season, Rea continued his progression past his teammate Tom Sykes. With Chaz Davies leading and Rea sandwiched between him and Sykes, it meant that Chaz would pick up second place in the title race.
On the last lap, Jonathan Rea slowed, causing some to think that he had a mechanical failure. Far from it; the Champion started pulling wheelies, frequently looking over his shoulder at his closing teammate who passed Rea near the end of the final lap. Rea was clearly allowing his fellow Kawasaki Racing Team rider to pass. The two riders pulled off the track during the warm-down lap to embrace and shake hands leaving Chaz Davies to celebrate his second win of the weekend with a wry smile at having come so close to the runner-up position.
Some may criticise the apparent use of team-orders but Jonathan Rea was quick to say that it was his decision and it is worth noting that Tom Sykes received the gesture in a thoroughly sporting and warm manner. There has been tension between the two Kawasaki Racing Team riders in the past, understandable when there is such close rivalry and championships are at stake but this was a gesture of camaraderie and respect for each other that is hard to criticise.
Earlier on the Sunday the 600cc bikes of the World Supersport championship had their final race of the season. The title had already gone to Turkish rider Kenan Sofuoglu, his fifth title in total at the previous race weekend at Magny-Cours in France. Sofuoglu was determined to finish the season with another win but Frenchman Jules Cluzel and British rider Kyle Smith were equally determined to end the season on a high.
All three fought for the entire race, Cluzel dropping back near the end, leaving Smith and Sofuoglu to fight it out. An incredibly dramatic last lap saw Sofuoglu lead into the last corner only for Smith to slide his bike inside the Champion to lead onto the home straight. Sofuoglu pinned his throttle and was slowly moving past Smith when they crossed the line; neither rider seemed sure of who had won until the time-boards showed the result: Smith by 0.006 seconds. Six thousandths of a second; at the speed these riders are moving, is about the depth of a low-profile race tyre. It doesn’t get much closer than that.
So as the sun sets on another fantastic season of World Superbikes we can look forward to more close racing next year. Honda Racing Team have MotoGP rider Stefan Bradl arriving to team up with Nicky Hayden. Pata Crescent Yamaha will have Alex Lowes continuing to develop the Yamaha R1 where he is joined by one of Superbike racing’s hot properties, Dutch rider Michael van der Mark. Former MotoGP race winner and Superbike title runner-up Marco Melandri returns to join Chaz Davies at the Aruba.it Ducati team. Aprilia are also stepping up their challenge with Lorenzo Savadori continuing on the Italian bike and current MotoGP rider Eugene Laverty returning to the WSBK paddock. It goes without saying that the Kawasaki Racing Team pair of Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes will continue to be strong contenders. There is much to look forward to.
The next World-level motorcycle action to take place in Qatar will be the MotoGP test in early 2017 quickly followed by the MotoGP season opener. There is likely to be extra interest at next year’s event with 3-time MotoGP Champion Jorge Lorenzo having moved to Ducati and Maverick Vinales leaving Suzuki to move to the Movistar Yamaha team to race alongside the legendary Valentino Rossi. This season’s champion Marc Marquez continues with the Repsol Honda team and will be hoping to start his title defence in fine style. We’ll see you there.