Michael van der Mark in action at Phillip Island
Image by Honda Racing
A few hours North-East of the capital city of Bangkok, Chang International Circuit in Buriram is the newest venue on the World Superbike calendar. The world-class track first hosted the WorldSBK paddock in 2015; the inaugural event in the partnership seeing eventual Champion Jonathan Rea take his first double win of the season on his way to the 2016 crown.
Last time out in Phillip Island, the first Round of the season saw reigning Rea come out on top in two incredible last lap battles, the first of which saw the Kawasaki rider take victory in the final corner. As WorldSBK heads to Thailand, the question will undoubtedly be asked as to how to depose Rea in Buriram. Untouchably at home on the new track last year, Rea will be looking to roll his momentum through to Thailand as those who wish to depose him start to plan their assault.
With a full 50 points from two races, Rea will surely be happy with his start to the year. Taking a perfect double and seeing his biggest rival from last season fail to score in Race 2 in Phillip Island means the Northern Irishman has reason to breathe easier. But with the chasing pack not so far away, Rea will not be looking to be complacent.
Honda rider Michael Van Der Mark is the first challenger as it stands after Phillip Island. The ex-rookie, who already had 3 podiums from his maiden season under his belt and further added to his tally in both races in Australia, sits 14 points behind Rea on 36, and led laps on the Island in a great display of his intentions in 2016.
After the Flying Dutchman come the Ducati duo of Davies and Giugliano, with the Italian Ducati rider never having ridden at Chang due to missing the Round through injury last year. Davies, who crashed out in Thailand in 2015, has nevertheless shown good pace in Buriram and counts on a further-improved Panigale R with which to take on Rea’s ominous Thai form. After a crash on the final lap of Race 2 in Australia, Davies will want to start chipping into the Northern Irishman’s early lead.
Then there’s the trio of Champions: 2014 WorldSBK Champion Sylvain Guintoli will be looking to build on a positive first race weekend of the season, and 2006 MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden will be counting on making another step forward after an Australian Round of quick adjustments and learning, his improvement from Saturday to Sunday at Phillip Island showing just what can be achieved overnight. And Tom Sykes, 2013 WorldSBK Champion and Jonathan Rea’s Kawasaki teammate, now leaves a track that doesn’t suit him to make a fresh start to the season on the more standard layout of Chang International Circuit. Fastest in much of testing, Sykes’ Australia was neither his full hand nor the ace up his sleeve.
By topping Friday in Phillip Island, the new Yamaha YZF R1 joined the paddock with a bang in Australia, but the bike is as yet not quite ready to dominate the Championship as is surely the intention of the returning Japanese manufacturer. With updates and modifications already coming, it looks set to progress quickly and take on the podium finishers of Kawasaki, Ducati and Honda. The new Kawasaki Ninja looks able to fight for the crown this year once again and the Panigale R is now a proven race winner, only losing out on adding to its tally of victories in Australia on the final corner of Race 1 and the last lap of Race 2, and the Honda similarly achieved two podiums in its first two outings this year.
After Free Practice on Friday decides entry to Tissot-Superpole 2 the following day, the lights will go out for Race 1 at 4pm local time (11am CAT) on Saturday before Race 2 gets underway 24 hours later.
Kenan Sofuoglu in action during SuperPole 2 in Australia
Image by Dorna / worldsbk.com
4-time and defending WorldSSP Champion Kenan Sofuoglu suffered a tyre problem when out in front in Australia, leaving the Turkish rider with no points to show for a weekend of searing pace. After setting pole in the first ever Tissot-Superpole sessions for WorldSSP, the Puccetti rider was out in the lead after fighting off wildcard Anthony West when rain started to fall and a tyre problem saw him lowside out of the race. With the pace there for the reigning Champion, will Chang see him return to his throne? Sofuoglu set pole last year in Buriram and came home second in the race, his first podium of the year on the way to the title.
Teammate and World Supersport rookie Randy Krummenacher could hope not. After riding brilliantly in difficult conditions at Phillip Island, the Swiss rider inherited a well-deserved lead and crossed the line more than two and a half seconds clear to take his first win on the first attempt. Being a rookie, ex-Moto2 rider Krummenacher has never ridden at Chang before, and will be hoping to get up to speed quickly to retain his advantage over his WorldSSP veteran teammate.
Sofuoglu’s key rival in the last few years, Jules Cluzel on the MV Agusta, had a difficult weekend at Phillip Island as the team make adjustments stemming from the new technical rules in WorldSSP, including the ban on traction control. Sidelined for the latter part of last season through injury, the Frenchman crashed out of the race in Australia after making an incredible start and leading the race from 8th on the grid. Leading much of the WorldSSP race before a technical problem last year in Thailand bodes well for him to begin his title challenge proper, hoping to catch the Puccetti pair for the first time this season: Sofuoglu on pace and Krummenacher on points.
New kid on the block Federico Caricasulo will be hoping to continue his form from Phillip Island after scoring his first podium, and 2015 title challenger PJ Jacobsen will be keen to repeat his Buriram podium of 2015 after dueling with eventual winner Ratthapark Wilairot and second-placed Kenan Sofuoglu last season.
WorldSSP action kicks off on Sunday at 14:20 local time (9:20am CAT), after Friday practices define entry into Tissot-Superpole 2 on Saturday afternoon.