New bike and fresh outlook ahead of this weekend's Phillip Island season opener
Tom Sykes’ last four years in WorldSBK have been trying, to say the least.
The 2013 world champion has still been competitive – he’s now moved to 34 wins in the production series, fifth on the all-time list – but he very much played second fiddle to the juggernaut that has been his Kawasaki teammate Jonathan Rea.
In those four years, Rea leapfrogged all and sundry to become the most successful rider in WorldSBK history in terms of race wins, and equal with Carl Fogarty in championships won.
Meanwhile Sykes, despite occasional bouts of brilliance, just couldn’t muster the pace and unnerving consistency of Rea, and in 2018 he finished outside the top three in the title for the first time since 2012.
It was clear that a circuit breaker was in order – and along came BMW Motorrad, which was recommitting factory resources into the WorldSBK title alongside the release of its completely revamped S 1000 RR.
Sykes has now joined young German Markus Reiterberger in the BMW outfit, and it already appears the old spark has returned ahead of the opening round of the 2019 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship at Phillip Island this weekend (February 22-24).
The round will see the debut of the new ‘triple treat’ formula where the traditional 22-lappers at 3:00pm on Saturday and Sunday will sandwich a 10-lap sprint at midday on Sunday.
The 33-year-old Sykes was second fastest in the final WorldSBK shakedown test at Phillip Island earlier this week (February 18-19) behind Ducati’s Alvaro Bautista and ahead of Leon Haslam (Kawasaki), Rea, Marco Melandri (Yamaha) and Toprak Razgatlioglu (Kawasaki).
The result even surprised Sykes.
“I’m over the moon with the S 1000 RR. It’s so new in terms of track mileage, but to do those lap times at Phillip Island earlier this week is nice because this isn’t a particularly strong track for me,” said Sykes at the pre-event press conference. “So all things considered, we’re probably a little bit more advanced than we were expecting at this point in the program.
“One of the big things is that I’m smiling again and enjoying my racing, and I’m getting rid of a black cloud that has followed me around in my personal life.
“And working with my crew chief, Pete Jennings, we’ve got a lovely little environment going on, and we’re all working in the same direction.
Sykes is far too wise to get ahead of himself, though, but the signs are positive.
“There are still areas we need to work on. We’ve been working a little bit under the radar in previous tests and it was hard to know where we sat as people were using different tyres,” Sykes continued. “But the feedback we’ve got has been good, and the engineers we have are a really high level.”
At the other end of the WorldSBK experience scale to Sykes, Bautista will be competing in his first WorldSBK round this weekend – with a number of new frontiers for the ex-MotoGP rider to conquer.
“I’m so excited to race in this championship. The potential of my bike and the calibre of the riders in the championship is so high,” said Bautista, who was fourth in the 2018 MotoGP race at Phillip Island. “I have been trying to understand the tyres, suspension, brakes, but I am quite happy because at the Phillip Island test we were improving and getting more confident with the bike.
“But tests are tests and races are races, and the WorldSBK weekend will also be all-new for me as I have only been used to one race at a MotoGP round – there’s no time to relax. You have to be on top of things the whole time.”
And that’s where the race-hardened Rea comes in, with the Northern Irishman the clear championship favourite with his heady mix of speed, smarts and aggression.
“It’s so nice to be back at Phillip Island, and I speak on behalf of the whole WorldSBK paddock when everyone gets so excited to come here,” said Rea, who has won five of the last eight WorldSBK races at Phillip Island.
“Testing has been going so good for us. We have a new bike this season and step-by-step I am learning the way. These tests have been beneficial to learning a lot more about our bike.
“I’m really excited about the weekend. I’ve got a lot of family and friends turning out, so let’s see some good racing.”
Besides Rea, other WorldSBK race winners in this weekend’s 19-rider field – which includes Aussie wildcard Troy Herfoss (Honda) – are Melandri, Eugene Laverty (Ducati) and Haslam, while Bautista and Yamaha’s Sandro Cortese have won 125 and Moto3 GP races at the circuit.
A second Aussie wildcard, Tom Toparis (Yamaha), will compete in this Sunday’s WorldSSP race, but he’ll be battling through the pain barrier after crashing in testing on Tuesday and suffering nasty friction burns.
As well as the two world championship races, there will be nine support races on the weekend in national Superbike, Supersport and Supersport 300 as the 2019 Aussie titles kick off.
Three-time WorldSBK champion Troy Bayliss is one of the stars of the Superbike grid.
Tickets and on-circuit camping for the Yamaha Finance-sponsored WorldSBK round are available at Ticketek or at the gate.