Aruba.it Ducati’s Nicolo Bulega has opened up his 2023 WorldSSP Championship campaign with a double victory at Phillip Island after winning a truncated second race In Australia.
The Italian had been embroiled in a fierce three-way tussle for honours with Ten Kate Yamaha’s Stefano Manzi and Puccetti Kawasaki’s Can Oncu when an impromptu track invasion from two (brave) geese with five laps remaining forced race direction to throw the red flags.
Their arrival came shortly after Bulega had just re-taken the lead back from Manzi as they entered the closing stages. For now, it remains unclear as to whether the race-ending incident was simply a case of fortuitous timing for the ex-Moto2 rider or whether the feathered spectators-turned-hooligans were employing some militant ‘Ducatisti’ tactics to ensure a Bulega victory.
Either way, the result caps a breakthrough weekend for Bulega, who followed up his hard-fought maiden victory in Saturday’s first race with an altogether calmer run to glory in race two.
Indeed, while a stop-start race one was held in wet conditions, the second encounter was a dry affair with Bulega - promoted to the front row in place of the injured Yari Montella - making the most of his elevated position to get the hole-shot into Turn 1 from Oncu and Manzi.
After Bulega and Oncu surged clear of the field initially, the pair were swiftly reeled back in by pole man Manzi, the Ten Kate rider shucking off a ponderous opening lap to join the leaders and put two seconds between himself and a chasing pack headed by Althea’s Federico Caricasulo, race one podium winner Nicholas Spinelli and Marcel Schrotter on the MV Agusta.
The front trio remained static in their positions for several laps, Bulega not putting a foot wrong in defence of an eager Oncu through the more technical sections before using the Ducati Panigale V2’s top-end advantage to repeatedly repel the Kawasaki down the home straight.
However, Bulega would come under greater threat once Manzi eventually scurried past Oncu on lap eight, the Italian promptly pouncing on his countryman at the start of lap ten to lever him aside coming through Turn 2.
Undeterred, Bulega regrouped to fight back three laps later with a sweeping pass into Turn 1 in what would turn out to be a definitive move when the arrival of two - almost comically docile - Cape Barren Geese wandering slowly across the track forced a premature conclusion.
Scuppering Manzi’s hopes of mounting a rebuttal in the final laps, with two-thirds of the race having been completed, Bulega was classified as the winner with full points, much to the chagrin of Manzi in a settled second.
Also preventing a close-following Oncu from launching a late charge, the Turkish rider will nonetheless be satisfied to get points on the board after throwing away a potential win in the race one restart from pole position with a peculiar high-side on the warm-up lap.
Having lost touch with the leaders early on, the fight for fourth would take place some ten seconds further back with MV’s Schrotter picking his way to the head of the chasing pack.
The German’s cause was aided first by Spinelli hitting technical problems on lap four while dicing with Caricasulo, whose own hopes of a strong result were dashed on lap 12 by mechanical gremlins.
Glenn van Straalen - a contender for victory in race one before an erroneous gamble on tyres sent him to the back of the field - bounced back to take fifth on the EAB Yamaha, ahead of Jorge Navarro on the second of the Ten Kate Yamahas.
Orelac Ducati’s Raffaele de Rosa, GMT94 Yamaha’s Valentin Debise and Dynavolt Triumph’s Niki Tuuli followed in seventh, eighth and ninth respectively, the trio having lucked out by picking up a position each late on when Oli Bayliss was forced onto the grass at Stoner in avoidance of Caricasulo’s expiring Ducati ahead.
Despite the wild moment, DG34 Ducati’s Bayliss held on to complete the top ten, with Bahattin Sofuoglu, surprise race one podium winner John McPhee, Yamaha Thailand duo Apiwath Wongthananon and Anupab Sarmoon, and Adam Norrodin completing the points’ paying positions.
Having made the most of a leveller playing field in Saturday’s wet race to score a surprise top five finish on the Petronas MIE MS Honda CBR600RR, Tarran Mackenzie was dealt a harsh dose of reality in the dry, lapping well off the pace on the under-developed machine to finish a distant 16th and last.
Elsewhere, Harry Truelove’s hopes of building on a point-scoring start to life in WorldSSP came to an early conclusion when he slid off at Turn 2 on the opening lap, while Andrea Mantovani crashed into another DNF on lap six.
The race got underway with 20 of the original 22 starters with front row qualifier Montella and MTM Kawasaki’s Adrian Huertas absent following their race-stopping incident in race one. Prompted by Huertas high-siding before being collected by Montella, the former has been confirmed with a broken vertebrae, while the latter sat out with a broken collarbone.