Aruba Ducati’s Nicolo Bulega won the first WorldSSP race of 2023 in a weather-disrupted, red flagged opener at Phillip Island.
Vince64 Puccetti’s John McPhee scored a sensational podium on his debut in the series with equally impressive rookie Tarran Mackenzie finishing fifth on the Petronas MIE MS Honda.
On a day dictated by intermittent rain, the weather would cause all sorts of problems in a race that was red flagged after four laps before a delayed restart led to it being shortened to a ten lap sprint. Even then, a heavier shower in the final laps served to shake up the order right to the flag.
In the end though it was Bulega who emerged triumphant, scoring a first WorldSSP win for both himself and the Ducati Panigale V2.
Though the Italian began the weekend as one of the favourites, it belies his charge from 16th to first on the opening lap of the restart on an unusual afternoon that saw VFT Yamaha’s Nicholas Spinelli and McPhee complete an unexpected podium.
With rain in the air, the race began in dramatic circumstances when the clouds opened just as the riders lined up on the grid. With no track condition reference points for the riders to rely on and certain parts of the circuit more treacherous than others, the opening moments were a nervy affair as those with more confidence in the increasingly slippery conditions slalomed around those taking it more gingerly.
Shaking up the order with each turn as the bikes jostled for position, it meant the order at the end of the first lap took on an entirely different look to how it had started with EAB’s Glenn van Straalen - who started eighth - pulling ahead of Barni Ducati’s Yari Montella across the line.
The order would continue to change repeatedly though, with McPhee - in his maiden WorldSSP race following his transition from Moto3 - surging up from 20th on the grid to hold third mid-way around lap two.
Third became second by the end of the lap before McPhee swept through into a sensational lead at the start of lap three on the Vince64 Kawasaki. His joy would be short lived though after being usurped by Puccetti’s Can Oncu, the front row starter finding his groove having ended the opening lap down in 14th place.
The race was just beginning to settle down with Oncu leading van Straalen and McPhee when fourth place man Adrian Huertas high-sided his MTM Kawasaki coming through Siberia, taking a luckless Montella with him, prompting a red flag.
With the race shortened to 10 laps and the grid determined in the order at the time of the stoppage, the aforementioned trio formed a new front row at the restart, with Oncu now on pole.
Once more, however, rain would begin to fall just as the warm-up got underway, leading to officials accepting the pleas of riders to delay proceedings again.
Even before the restart did get underway though, Oncu - having already run off track on the sighting lap - suffered a bizarre high-side at Miller Corner on the warm-up. Extraordinarily, then collected by fellow Turk Bahattain Sofuoglu, the ensuing damage ruling the pole man and his countryman out on the spot.
Leaving van Straalen on a de facto pole position, his challenge wouldn’t last long either following an erroneous decision to start on slick tyres, a blunder that went on to leave him a lap down at the flag.
As such, McPhee - on full wets - powered into the lead once more, chased initially by Evan Bros. Yamaha’s Andrea Mantovani and MV Agusta’s Marcel Schrotter, before Bulega quickly worked his way into second place by Miller Corner.
Another rider on full wets, Bulega was one of the losers from the first start when an off dropped him to the 16th place he’d begun the restart.
Quickly reeling in McPhee, Bulega nosed ahead coming into lap two and quickly put distance between himself and the Scot, who in turn held a good gap to the pack behind.
With various combinations of wets and intermediate tyres among the field shaking things up, some of the lesser fancied riders on full wets were making swift progress, not least Mackenzie, who negated his Honda’s visible lack of straight line speed by repeatedly clambering back through in the bends to run inside the top six.
An improvement in the track conditions, however, would bring those on slicker rubber back to the fore, not least original pole man Stefano Manzi, who with five laps to go was lapping fast enough on the Ten Kate Yamaha to catch the leaders in third.
However, the weather would turn again - spelling bad news for Manzi - but good news for Bulega, who despite adopting caution initially would have enough in hand to reach the flag and take the victory.
Even so, he was lucky the race ended when it did after being chased across the line by a charging Spinelli - thriving in the increasingly wet conditions - who would end up less than a second adrift to clinch a surprise maiden podium.
Though he’d lose out to Spinelli on the final lap, McPhee’s run to third place spells a remarkable turnaround for the debutant following a troubled week blighted by technical issues and illness.
A long way adrift in fourth place, Niki Tuuli was another to gain time in the closing stages to secure fine finish on his Dynavolt Triumph debut, the Finn leading home the steadfast Mackenzie in a superb fifth.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Mackenzie will be permitted to keep his unexpected top five finish having been given dispensation to race with an un-homologated engine for this event.
Manzi settled for sixth place after Mantovani crashed out of the position late on, with Schrotter, Yamaha Thailand’s Anupati Sarmoon, Ten Kate’s Jorge Navarro and Althea’s Federico Caricasulo rounding out the top ten.
Elsewhere, British rider Harry Truelove scored points in 11th, Adam Norrodin made it two Petronas Hondas up the order in 12th despite crashing, while van Straalen - despite his tyres - kept it upright for points in 14th