The FIM World Superbike Championship comes to Chang International Circuit, in central north-east Thailand, this week, for the second of 13 rounds in 2018. On the grid on Sunday for the World Supersport 600 race will be three Thai wildcard riders, all capable of winning and taking podium positions away from the regular stars in the series.
Yamaha Thailand new signing, Ratthapong Wilairot, team mate Decha Kraisart and Core Kawasaki Thailand’s Thitipong Warakorn, will all be aiming to emulate the sensational victory at the inaugural round in 2015, when Ratthapark Wilairot beat five times world champion, Kenan Sofuoglu, to the top step of the podium. Ratthapong himself was fifth in that race.
Ratthapark crashed out of contention the following year, but, in 2017, Decha Kraisart took second place after having been denied the chance for victory by the actions of disqualified rider, Britain’s Kyle Smith. Perhaps more sensationally, Thitipong, riding in place of the injured Sofuoglu, started from the back of the grid after gearbox problems and carved his way through to finish fourth.
We can see from the opening round of the Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) in Buriram at the beginning of this month that all three wildcards are in race winning form. Thitipong won Race 1 by 4.3 seconds from World Supersport regular and former GP rider, Anthony West. Decha crashed out of the leading group, while Ratthapong finished sixth, just 5.7 seconds behind the winner in his first race on the R6. In Race 2 Thitipong was forced to pull out with electronics problems, Ratthapong was clattered out of a possible second place at the final turn and Decha took the second step of the podium, behind West.
Who are Thailand’s star wildcards most likely to be up against?
Certainly Jules Cluzel on the NRT Yamaha. The Frenchman always goes well at Chang, though his ‘win or crash’ style means that his speed is not always reflected in his finishing positions.
Kenan Sofuoglu is recovering from skin grafts following his Round 1 crash at Phillip Island, but the tough Turk is capable of winning anywhere on the Puccetti Racing Kawasaki..
Last year’s winner, Frederico Caricasulo, for the official GRT Yamaha team will want to repeat his performance, while reigning champion, Lucas Mahias, who won the first round, will want to create a safer championship lead by winning in Buriram.
Third place last year was taken by the exciting young Finnish rider, Niki Tulli. This year he switched from Yamaha to Simon Buckmaster’s CIA Landlord Honda, so will be a threat once again.
Australian Anthony West will put himself among the leaders and is clearly in good form after taking a second place and a win in the ARRC round three weeks ago.
The 2017 Supersport race was packed with incidents and riders being penalized for a variety of infringements. Watching from Race Control, it was one of the busiest races I have ever been involved with. This year we hope for a cleaner race with the same levels of competitive action.
WHILE THERE ARE no Thai wild cards in the two Superbike races, a hot contest is shaping up once again. The Kawasakis of Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes, arrive having won all six races so far at Chang International. However, technical rule changes that reduced rev limits have taken an edge off the mighty green machines, as teams experiment with power deliver options under the new regulations. In spectacularly close racing at Phillip Island last month, Marco Melandri took a double win for Ducati to give himself 50 points and a 17 point lead over Sykes, with Rea a further two points back on 31. Melandri’s Welsh team mate, Chaz Davies can also be expected to be fighting for wins.
The Pata Yamahas appear more competitive this year in the hands of Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark and will be aiming to get amongst the Kawasakis and Ducatis.
The Chang International crowd will miss Nicky Hayden, who died tragically in a cycling accident in Italy last May. His Red Bull Honda team now have British star, Leon Camier alongside American, Jake Gagne. The Hondas still lack the power of their rivals, but are showing signs of getting back into contention.
Wroommm!! will be reporting from pit lane throughout the event.