In life and in racing, we hope for surprise, for something new that jumps out at us, forcing us to think in a new way—to enjoy. Today’s World Superbike Race 2 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca did just that. After winning yesterday, Kawasaki’s Tom Sykes took the lead from fast-starter Eugene Laverty on Lap 3, easing under the Aprilia rider in Turn 11, the last turn before the finish straight. No more holding our breath: This is the way it’s going to be. Ho-hum. The very vocal Sykes fans shouted their approval.
But Sykes didn’t get away. Lap after lap, his lead over Laverty was a bare tenth, two tenths, maybe three. Hmm, this could become more interesting than we expected. In fact, the top six riders were all very close—a situation rich with possibilities. On Lap 8, Davide Giugliano (Aprilia) showed he had something extra, knocking out a 1:23.934 lap and passing Laverty in Turn 11, to boot. That pass cost both Laverty and Giugliano time, giving Sykes a gap of .7 seconds.
But there was no break. Next lap, Giugliano (pronounced “Juliano”) was .3 second back, then .2. Sykes was unable to respond in kind, although he was working to keep position. On Lap 13, another key piece of information clicked in: Sykes’s on-bike camera showed his rear tire, oscillating up and down over Laguna’s un-smoothness, was “grained”—worn into a pattern of closely spaced surface waves that indicate the rubber compound is not strong enough for conditions. Then, with Giugliano just .1 seconds behind (pressure!), Sykes had a big slip in left-hand Turn 5. And the next lap, you could see Sykes taking care not to slip again.
At this point, race commentator and many-time AMA 250cc GP champion Rich Oliver observed, “The way things are going, they’ll all bunch up behind the leader,” implying that Sykes was now holding his pursuers back. “He was changing direction slowly,” said Laverty after the race. “I don’t know what the issue was. Davide had more grip than me for two-thirds of the race, but then that situation flipped, and I had more than he. So, I realized it was time to win.”
On Lap 18 of 26, Sykes slid and wobbled in Turn 5. He had clearly lost the grip necessary to control the race. The next lap, Laverty gave Giugliano a try, slowing them both a bit. Another try, this time on Lap 23, was successful in the marginal grip of Turn 5. Lap 24 was “all change,” and the new order was Laverty, Giugliano, Marco Melandri (who had stayed close to the leading group), followed by a fast-fading Sykes, and more distantly trailed by Guintoli. That is how they finished.
Superbike World Championship points standings:
Laverty commented that Saturday’s motorcycle was only good for a fifth or sixth, and his podium finish was the result of a daring double-pass. “We definitely made a step today (rider-speak for a setup improvement).” Chaz Davies (BMW), who had been so strong on Saturday, was in pit lane on Lap 3 with his front brake lever coming to the handlebar.
Sykes said he’d worked his tire too hard early in the race. To make it steer decisively, his ZX-10R carries more weight on its front tire than those of other bikes in the series, and so the rear tire spins more easily. Might he have won with better tire management? The fact that the others were always with him suggests not.
At the moment, the Aprilias are looking like the most solid package, but Melandri’s third shows that the BMWs are nearly as capable here. Aprilia is making a developmental push to make its bike successful in MotoGP, and what is being learned clearly spills over into the SBK program.
Another day, another track, another balance of power. Racing requires continual problem solving to best exploit strengths and manage weaknesses. The great attraction of World Superbike is its several teams and riders of roughly equal potential. That does not happen by accident, but results from a clear policy of keeping the teams competitive.