Superbike World Championship: Phillip Island Round One Wrap-Up

Suzuki earns a surprise victory, while Aprilia leaves Australia with the series points lead.

Aprilia factory rider Sylvain Guintoli race action shot

As I looked over the results from this past weekend's opening round of the 2014 FIM Superbike World Championship at Phillip Island, big questions popped out. From the start, race 1 looked like an Aprilia show. Despite the departure of race manager Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati, the RSV4 Factory is a mature machine with experienced riders, Sylvain Guintoli and Marco Melandri. But then, on lap 17, Eugene Laverty, now on a supposedly "ancient" Suzuki GSX-R1000, came from behind to take the lead from Superpole-winner Guintoli. Laverty and his teammate, Alex Lowes, had been one and two at a preseason test in Portugal and quick in practice in Australia.

Suzukis have been nowhere, running 90-odd races on a 2009 design without a top finish. How did they "come good" now? Voltcom Crescent Suzuki Team Manager Paul Denning said they are fortunate to have the riders they do—Laverty from Aprilia and British Superbike champ Lowes—and that Suzuki is not doing tech development; the team is handling that in-house.

Denning credits “improved power delivery via changed electronic-control strategies and a myriad of details changes.” But preseason test photos show a highly finished bike in black bodywork that looks as “factory” as any preseason MotoGP bike, not like something cooked up locally. For me, the Suzuki question remains open.

Where was Tom Sykes? After missing the SBK title in 2012 by half a point and taking the win last year, Sykes was seventh in race 1 and third in race 2. Phillip Island is windy. In qualifying, Sykes and his factory Kawasaki ZX-10R were quickest for the first two track sectors but caught a wind gust in 110-degree left-hand Lukey Heights.

“As soon as I came over the top of the hill, the wind got underneath the bike,” Sykes said. “I managed to save it but immediately lost it again. I know that lap would have been well into the 1:29s.” Then, in the first race, he ran off at Honda Corner, a 170-degree slow right, on the cold side of the tires. He rejoined to finish 15.6 seconds behind Laverty.

Loris Baz (76) and teammate Tom Sykes (1) race action shot

Bad luck? There may be more to it. This year, Dorna requires use of "cut-rate" (price-capped) suspension components that may not be capable of what riders expect. Sykes's teammate, Loris Baz, has now come to terms with the Kawasaki, taking a fifth in race 1 and second in red-flag-shortened race 2 (Laverty's GSX-R blew up while running second, handing victory to Guintoli).

Ducatis tested well in preseason, and Davide Giugliano was fourth in race 1, an improvement over the Panigale’s dismal 2013 level. Superbike Project Manager Ernesto Marinelli said, “The electronics system…has been completely modified. With regard to the chassis, the biggest change involves the new Öhlins suspension, which this season has a price cap imposed by the regulations. The braking system has also changed, with new 328mm Brembo front discs, and the engine has undergone evolution in order to achieve greater performance.”

Riders have said the Panigale engine makes top power but lacks “Ducati punch.” Is that fixed? In race 1, Giugliano had rear-grip issues five to six laps from the end. Phillip Island works the rear very hard, causing Marinelli to say, “As so often happens at this track, the stresses on the rear tire somewhat conditioned our races today.”

Giugliano “held back” a bit in the hotter race 2 (118-degree Fahrenheit track temp!) and came fourth again. His teammate, Chaz Davies, also battled loss of rear-tire grip. In the second race, a stone damaged an engine sensor. He was eighth and seventh, respectively.

Pata Honda started slowly last year, growing into a new electronics package. This year's electronics—an upgraded Cosworth suite attended to by Massimo Neri—is said to be "much improved." Jonathan Rea was sixth in race 1, fifth in race 2, with teammate Leon Haslam sixth in race 2 after crashing out of the opening 22-lapper.

Jonathan Rea race action shot

BMW withdrew from the series at the end of last year, so only Imre Toth was on the brand, with 16th- and 19th-place finishes.

Guintoli now leads the series points. He was injured last year and spent the off-season being surgically repaired and doing physical therapy, but the Frenchman now looks fully competitive.

What about series newcomers, Erik Buell Racing with American riders Geoff May and Aaron Yates, plus MV Agusta with former MotoGP rider Claudio Corti? The EBRs were down 25 mph in top speed (174 mph versus Guintoli's 199-mph Aprilia) and still bravely insisting Erik Buell's single-disc front-brake concept is a better way.

Don't count them out. Once Honda faced an incredible number of DNFs in Formula 1 then overcame it to dominate the series. R&D resources are the key. EBR is now backed by a major manufacturer, Hero MotoCorp., which can, if it chooses, deploy dyno cells, test tracks, and graduate engineers galore. Will it happen? I don't know. But it could. Honda was new and unknown in 1960 and used racing to teach its name to the world.

May broke his collarbone in last practice and didn’t start. Yates was last in both races. MV Agusta is another story. MV history is rich and romantic, but winning races takes R&D clout—the money to push new designs through development to maturity. Who’s paying?

As you may have noticed, Yamaha is the "missing person" in World Superbike, that brand having pulled out of the championship at the end of the 2011 season.

The top eight or nine bikes in both races were traditional Superbikes, with highly modified engines in modified chassis. The EVO bikes, basically lower-cost Superstock-level engines in Superbike chassis, brought up the rear. Next year, the whole SBK grid will be EVO, and we will see whether Dorna’s cost-cutting concept repopulates the series.

Aprilia factory rider Sylvain Guintoli left Phillip Island with the SBK points lead.

Chaz Davies struggled with rear tire grip and engine problems in his Ducati debut, but he still set a new lap record in race 1.

Ducati's Davide Giugliano (34) was fourth in both races.

Jonathan Rea was sixth and fifth, respectively, on his Honda CBR1000RR.

Kawasaki's Loris Baz (76) and teammate Tom Sykes (1) completed the podium in red flag shortened race 2.

Leon Haslam rebounded from a race 1 crash to finish sixth in race 2.

MV Agusta 675 mounted Jules Cluzel won the World Supersport race at Phillip Island.

Voltcom Crescent Suzuki team manager Paul Denning and rider Eugene Laverty were all smiles on the podium after race 1.

Superpole winner Sylvain Guintoli took top honors in race 2.