After missing the top of the time sheets during the two-day test in Phillip Island earlier this week only due to a scorching one-off effort by Tom Sykes, Suzuki rookie Alex Lowes further strengthened his credentials by leading a well-balanced group (five different manufacturers in the top positions, all within three tenths of a second) in the first day of free practice for this weekend’s opening World Superbike Championship event in southern Australia.
"The strong gusts made it a little more difficult out there," Lowes said, after taking the lead with a best lap of 1:31.100. "But when you're used to riding in tracks like Oulton Park in British Superbike, Phillip Island looks easy. We made some pretty big changes on the electronics side, and corner entry is much better now. Tomorrow, we will focus on suspension settings."
Behind the Brit, Marco Melandri (Aprilia) led the chasers, only 0.037 seconds behind. The Italian, among the overwhelming favorites after switching to the bike that won the Constructors title, praised Lowes, saying he "didn't expect him to be so fast, especially since he has to adapt to a new track and conditions were tricky." However, Melandri highlighted how the race, in Australia, is usually a different matter. "Gaps are always narrow here during practice," he added. "But I don't think more than four or five riders will be able to challenge for the victory. The ability to manage tire wear in the second half of the race will make the difference."
In third provisional place, Davide Giugliano (0.105 seconds behind) confirmed the progress made by the Ducati Panigale so far, preceding reigning world champion Tom Sykes on his Kawasaki (0.295 seconds behind) and Jonathan Rea on the PATA Honda (0.336 seconds behind). The latter tried three different tire compounds, and worked on rear shock adjustments to increase grip and stability.
Overall, only nine tenths of a second separated the first eleven riders on the grid, laying the basis for what appears bound to be a hard-fought Superpole. The American duo comprised of Geoff May and Aaron Yates on the EBR 1190 RX also recorded improvements, but still have some catching up to do.
"We are continuing to improve the bike and constantly trying new things," said May, who ended up in 20th position, 3.540 seconds behind Lowes. "It’s much better now on the back part of the section and on the run up to Lukey Heights. The bike is turning well, I just need a bit more drive but it will come. To be inside the top 20 is encouraging and we aren’t too far from the 33s. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow.”
His teammate Yates is still struggling with setup, but managed to take three tenths of a second off his previous best and currently ranks 23rd. "The bike is turning better now and I have a better feel which is encouraging," he said. "We are still working on the suspension to get more feedback with the tires but we are definitely moving in the right direction."
During the second free-practice session, both Loris Baz and Chaz Davies crashed, at turn 11 and 9, respectively. Davies landed heavily on his back and was brought to medical center for examinations, which excluded any injuries. Both will regularly be on track on Saturday.
World Superbike Phillip Island Friday practice results:
Alex Lowes (GBR) Suzuki 1:31.100
Marco Melandri (ITA) Aprilia 1:31.137
Davide Giugliano (ITA) Ducati 1:31.205
Tom Sykes (GBR) Kawasaki 1:31.395
Jonathan Rea (GBR) Honda 1:31.436
Eugene Laverty (IRL) Suzuki 1:31.448
Leon Haslam (GBR) Honda 1:31.533
Loris Baz (FRA) Kawasaki 1:31.637
Chaz Davies (GBR) Ducati 1:31.757
Sylvain Guintoli (FRA) Aprilia 1:31.759
Toni Elias (SPA) Aprilia 1:32.073
Niccolo Canepa (ITA) Ducati EVO 1:32.340
Fabian Foret (FRA) Kawasaki EVO 1:32.734
David Salom (SPA) Kawasaki EVO 1:32.944
Glenn Allerton (AUS) BMW EVO 1:33.118
Claudio Corti (ITA) MV Agusta 1:33.119
Sheridan Morais (RSA) Kawasaki EVO 1:33.635
Allesandro Andreozzi (ITA) Kawasaki EVO 1:33.996
Jeremy Guarnoni (FRA) Kawasaki EVO 1:34.279
Geoff May (USA) EBR 1:34.640
Imre Toth (HUN) BMW EVO 1:35.117
Mathew Walters (AUS) Kawasaki EVO 1:35.810
Aaron Yates (USA) EBR 1:36.338
Peter Sebestyen (HUN) BMW EVO 1:39.076