Melandri adds the victory to an illustrious list of glory accrued at the Australian track, including MotoGP™, 250 and 125 World Championship wins. Behind Sykes, who took second, Melandri’s teammate Chaz Davies completed the podium – slicing past reigning Champion Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team) right at the end to begin his season on the rostrum after some late drama for Rea.
Sykes bolted from pole and the Brit was in clear air for much of the race, with an impressive start for teammate Rea from further back catapulting him up into P2 to chase down his sister green machine. But Melandri made for close company for the reigning Champion throughout, stalking Rea before passing him and then heading off to chase down Sykes.
The Italian got past the Brit with enough time left to pull away for a safer win – but Sykes held firm in second to take only his fourth podium at the track since 2009; making a huge statement of intent in the title fight. Meanwhile behind him, teammate Rea began to suffer with issues and his pace dropped.
From a seemingly safe podium finish, the reigning Champion faded quickly – with Davies and fellow Panigale rider Xavi Fores (Barni Racing Team) soon on the scene and both soon past Rea. Rea followed Fores over the line for fifth, but Fores did make it into parc ferme, taking the honours as top Independent Team rider in the first race of the season and getting an early lead on some of his key competitors for that title.
Meanwhile for sixth, a stunning Yamaha duel saw Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team’s Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes side-by-side, but the Dutchman began to suffer in the latter stages after his early charge and dropped back, leaving Lowes in P6 and getting some good points after a more difficult weekend. Leon Camier (Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team) made progress in the race after a crash in Tissot-Superpole and was able to come home in seventh with a late charge, breaking free of van der Mark and Eugene Laverty (Milwaukee Aprilia).
Laverty had a more difficult race day to come home P8 after being third fastest on Friday, with van der Mark taking ninth at the flag and just staying ahead of Leandro Mercado, who completed the top ten for Orelac Racing Verdnatura – an impressive first race of 2018 for the Argentinean.
Loris Baz (GULF ALTHEA BMW Racing Team) took eleventh and was close to the top ten on his return to WorldSBK despite a heavy crash on Friday, with American Jake Gagne debuting full time for Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team in twelfth. Toprak Razgalioglu (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) got his WorldSBK career off to a solid start in P13, ahead of Roman Romas (Team GoEleven Kawasaki) and Ondrej Jezek (Guandalini Racing).
Race 2 is on Sunday at 15:00 (GMT +11) – is this a new status quo? Or will the pack shuffle once again…
P1 - Marco Melandri (Aruba.it Racing - Ducati)
"It was an amazing race, Tom had an awesome start and it was difficult to stay with him. I kept the speed in some corners and they Jonny and Tom were faster than me in others. When the pace began to drop off, I was able to catch Jonny but it was difficult when I was in the front and the wind came up. I just tried to keep my rhythm and I am so happy."
P2 - Tom Sykes (Kawasaki Racing Team)
"It was my strongest start to a season, I'm happy and had a smile from start to finish. But I had to do a few things differently in the final turn with the wind, but luckily we'd done a lot of work in the race when the tyre began to drop off. Luckily we put in enough pace early on and only had to lose one place to Marco. It's a shame, I wanted to get the win but we can keep enjoying the racing and can continue to progress."
P3 - Chaz Davies (Aruba.it Racing - Ducati)
"Its been a tough winter and to start with a podium is a great result. I didnt expect Jonny to have whatever problem he had but I'm really happy with the result. I felt like I was fighting with the bike so the first priority is to understand why I lost the feeling on used tyres. I knew there was room for improvement, I can't fault the bike but there was something missing with the bike."
#AUSWorldSBK at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit: Race 1
1. Marco Melandri (Aruba.it Racing - Ducati)
2. Tom Sykes (Kawasaki Racing Team) +1.180
3. Chaz Davies (Aruba.it Racing - Ducati) +9.265