After months of pre-season toil, the 14-round 2016 Motul FIM Superbike World Championship officially hits the start button at Phillip Island on Friday, February 26 for the Yamaha Finance round, with Kawasaki’s Jonathan Rea beginning his quest to become only the fourth rider since 1989 to retain the WorldSBK crown.
Rea has enjoyed a solid pre-season on the updated ZX-10R, with the Northern Irishman completing a final two-day test at Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit on Monday and Tuesday this week, second on the timesheets behind teammate and 2013 world champion Tom Sykes.
The duo again represents the most potent WorldSBK combination, but the opposition will come thick and fast in 2016 from Ducati (Chaz Davies, Davide Giugliano, Xavi Fores), Honda (Nicky Hayden, Michael van der Mark), Yamaha (Sylvain Guintoli, Alex Lowes), Aprilia (Alex de Angelis, Lorenzo Savadori), BMW Motorrad (Josh Brookes, Karel Abraham, Marcus Reiterberger, Jordi Torres) and MV Agusta (Leon Camier).
Alongside reigning British superbike champion Brookes, Josh Hook (Kawasaki) is the second Aussie full-timer in the 2016 series, but he’s in doubt for the Phillip Island opener after breaking and dislocating his left shoulder on Tuesday afternoon.
Another Aussie, Queenslander Mike Jones will run as a wildcard for the new Troy Bayliss-managed DesmoSport team. Jones completed the WorldSBK test in 16th position, one spot behind Brookes — but he only produced about 20 ‘full-strength’ laps after struggling with electrical gremlins.
At the two-day shakedown, times were extremely close as the top 11 riders finished within a second of each other, with Giugliano in third from van der Mark, Guintoli, Torres, Hayden, Lowes, Fores, Davies and another rookie, Reiterberger.
Hayden is the most intriguing entry, with the amiable 2006 MotoGP world champion desperate to start his new WorldSBK career on a positive note at a circuit where he set some lightning fast laps in the past — but where a GP victory proved to be elusive in the era where Casey Stoner ran amok.
Yamaha is also back after a four-year self-imposed WorldSBK exile, and 2014 world champion Guintoli is always a threat at Phillip Island where he has won twice. Rea is also a WorldSBK winner around the spectacular 4.448km circuit, while Brookes and deAngelis have won world championship races there in supersport and Moto2.
Guintoli holds the record for the best ever lap (1:30.038) at Phillip Island in WorldSBK guise, while Davies owns the official lap record (1:30.949. Both were set in 2014.
Only three riders have successfully defended a WorldSBK title since the series commenced in 1988: Americans Fred Merkel and Doug Polen in 1989 and 1992 respectively, while British hero Carl Fogarty did it twice in 1995 and 1999.
The two 22-lap WorldSBK races will be held at 3:00pm on Saturday and Sunday.
The 2016 world supersport title also commences at Phillip Island with Turkey’s Kenan Sofuoglu (Kawasaki) chasing a fifth title, but with a fast new teammate in Randy Krummenacher the pressure will be on from the get-go.
Krummenacher was fastest in this week’s testing from Sofuoglu, dual Phillip Island winner Jules Cluzel (MV Agusta), Patrick Jacobsen (Honda) and Lorenzo Zanetti (MV Agusta), with Aiden Wagner (MV Agusta) the leading Australian in 13th. Anthony West (Yamaha) was one spot behind in 14th.
West is making a one-off Phillip Island appearance in the 18-lap race, scheduled for Sunday at 1.30pm, alongside compatriots Alex Phillis (Honda), Mitch Levy (Yamaha) and Kane Burns (Suzuki), while Glenn Scott (Honda) and Lachlan Epis (Kawaski) will continue the 13-round title chase onto Thailand and then Europe.
Epis already holds a record as the youngest rider to ever embark on a full-time WorldSSP campaign.
If Hook races this weekend, that will represent a total of 10 Australians in action — the biggest representation at Phillip Island in many years.
In addition to the world championship races, there will also be back-to-back support racing in Aussie superbikes, supersport, Moto3/125GP and historics at Phillip Island.
For tickets and information for the 2016 Motul FIM Superbike World Championship, Yamaha Finance round at the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit go to www.ticketek.com.au or www.worldsbk.com.au or call the Superbike ticket hotline on 1300 728 007. Tickets available online or at gate.
Gates open 8am Friday, Saturday and Sunday for ticket sales.
On track circuit camping open 24 hours a day, for holders of event tickets, from Thursday 9am till Monday.
Children 15 and under free for gate entry and camping, if accompanied by a full paying adult.
Ticket prices at gate
3 Day $150
All children, 15 and under, and accompanied by an adult are FREE