Veteran Italian rider Marco Melandri took his first double win since 2014 in a thrilling and sometimes controversial opening round at Phillip Island, in Australia, this weekend.
The Ducati rider took a comfortable win in Saturday’s opener after passing Tom Sykes four laps from home. Sykes and fellow Brit Chaz Davies completed the podium, but the real story of the 22 lap race had been the tyre troubles suffered by a number of riders. Yonny Hernandez suffered a spectacular crash when his Kawasaki’s rear tyre blew out, while Jonathan Rea and Michael van der Mark were forced to slow with grip problems in the latter stages, coming home fifth and ninth respectively.
With the Pirelli tyres unable to cope with the stresses of the demanding Australian circuit, which features a unique combination of long, fast, left handed corners, a decision was made to enforce a compulsory pitstop in Sunday’s race, with riders allowed a maximum of 12 laps on a rear tyre in order to avoid a repeat of Saturday’s dramas.
From the start, Eugene Laverty built up a good lead, only to throw it away on the third lap, leaving an interesting multi-bike battle for the lead that was led by Davies.
Davies led after the pitstops, but was caught out by the grip levels from his new tyre and crashed out while trying to break away on lap 12. Spanish privateer Xavi Fores then took over the lead but was stalked by a rejuvenated Rea. The world champion looked like taking his 55th career superbike win, but a fine last lap from Melandri saw him slipstream the Kawasaki down the straight and take the win by 0.021second.
“It’s been a crazy race,” said Melandri. “The tyre change made it impossible to come up with a strategy, as many riders could be fast for 10 laps. It was a big fight, with many aggressive manoeuvres. We still tried to look after the tyres after the pit-stop, and in the last five laps we found our rhythm. Towards the end, it was difficult to pass Rea under braking so I decided to focus on the final sprint and catch the slipstream out of the last corner, in which we were particularly fast, and the plan worked. I’m super happy and can’t wait to race at Buriram.”
Rea added: “My only chance to win the race was to try and be in the lead out of the last corner. On the penultimate lap and during the race they were passing me on the straight. When I got passed by Marco into turn one I just thought ‘I am going to let the brakes off and go right down the apex and see what happens!’ I wanted to put together the best last lap I could but all weekend we have been struggling with fourth gear. It was too long for that corner and we did not have enough drive on the exit. I could not get it done today and I made a bit of a mess of my pit exit. I completely forgot to change into second gear to release the pit rev limiter and both van der Mark and Fores came past me, so I lost track position. When we came round there were already a few riders ahead so I gave myself some work to do. I am happy to turn the page and start afresh in Thailand.”
The championship now has a one month break before round two, which takes place at the Buriram circuit in Thailand. Melandri leads the series with a maximum of 50 points, with Sykes on 33 and Rea on 31. Fellow British riders Alex Lowes and Leon Camier are fifth and sixth in the standings, with Davies seventh and Laverty 11th.