World Superbike: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca

Marco Melandri, Tom Sykes split wins at California track.

WSBK Race 2 starting grid

In both World Superbike races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, only three riders could keep the pace: Sylvain Guintoli and Marco Melandri on Aprilias, and reigning champion and series points-leader Tom Sykes on a Kawasaki. Both races were “grinders”—contests to see which of the three would have the pace that lasts.

Through practice and qualifying, the factory Ducatis of Chaz Davies and Davide Giugliano were very fast, and only an amazing Superpole lap by Tom Sykes—four tenths of a second seemingly pulled from nowhere—put him in front.

Race 1

A marshal with a green flag walked across the back of the grid to signify all riders in place, and another in front, holding a red flag, then walked off to place the riders “under starter’s orders.” Engines revved up, yodeling against their limiters, and bikes leapt forward in a group drag race into turn 1.

Sykes moved to his left, was challenged, and wheelied over the hill into turn 1. Melandri and Guintoli were all over him, and when he dashed across the dirt down the Corkscrew in Valentino Rossi style, his loss of momentum let both Aprilias past him.

On lap 2, Davies was off in turn 9, knocking himself hard enough that medics kept him from race 2. The race settled out as Melandri led from Guintoli and Sykes. By lap 7, only these three remained in contention, Giugliano in fourth being almost 4 seconds out of first by lap 11. By lap 12, all the frontrunners had slowed into the 1:24s. Late in the race, Melandri’s rear tire could be seen to step out in small jumps, spinning, as its grip slowly lost consistency. All three riders were being extremely careful—concentration cannot lapse, allowing a fall. Points are the goal, not glory, which is racing’s fool’s gold. Slowly Sykes fell back, still third, to be 6.6 seconds out of first at the end.

WSBK Race 1 Marco Melandri race action photo

Melandri’s times increased to high :24s in the final laps, and he rode easy out of turn 11 on the last lap, giving up more than a second of his lead over teammate Guintoli in second to cut risk. As the Italian anthem was played, he sang along.

Race 2

This one was stopped twice by red flags, and by rule, since more than one-third distance had been completed, the restart must go just seven laps.

Sykes, as Superpole winner, started first in both races, and in race 2, he got a good jump, followed closely by Melandri, Guintoli, Eugene Laverty, and Toni Elias. Sykes’ lead never increased but fluttered between nothing and two-tenths. This tense grinder ended when Alex Lowes’ Suzuki touched Loris Baz’s Kawasaki just before the Corkscrew, and Lowes went down.

Sykes later said, “We made three changes for race 2, one more change for race 2, part 2, and yet another for race 2, part 3.” The aim? To keep the pace without working the tires harder. Every rider and crew work tirelessly to refine their performance, yet the combination of Sykes and his crew chief, Marcel Duinker, seems to do this most successfully and consistently.

At the first restart, Melandri led from Sykes but had only completed two laps when a dreadful crash brought another red. Sylvain Barrier, only lately recovered from a previous injury, came off his bike on the exit from turn 11, the rider-less bike crossed the track from right to left still on its wheels, and struck the concrete wall an instant before its rider did.

At the second restart, Melandri definitively nailed it, leading lap 1 from Sykes by .356 second, only to go down at turn 11. As Guintoli would later observe, this was something that could have happened to any of the leading three at any time; no one is truly “on rails.”

WSBK Race 2 Tom Sykes race action photo

Sykes would then hold a half-second lead over Guintoli to the end. Jonathan Rea, whose fast pace on the Pata Honda had been obscured by a qualifying crash that put him 10th at the starts (“I felt a bit of a donkey…”) asserted himself over Elias to finish third, 2.8 seconds out of first.

Sykes enjoyed the moment in his lusty style, standing up “four-square” on his rolling bike, blowing kisses to the crowd and shaking his fists in triumph.

Fastest lap of race 2—a new lap record—went to Giugliano, who crashed out unharmed at the Corkscrew. Once again, the Ducatis were fast, fully competitive in lap time. The race 1 quick lap was Guintoli’s seventh lap.

About those EVO bikes...

Next year, this whole grid will ride the cost-limited and Superstock-like “EVO” Superbikes that are being added to grids this year to make the numbers. As in nearly all race series today, the expense of top technology—engines, suspension, brakes, etc.—has driven out financially weaker teams. Although we have all loved the full Superbikes, they are too much for the present economy. In both races at Mazda Raceway, Kawasaki-mounted David Salom topped the 10 EVO bikes entered.