Jonathan Rea to shine as weather improves in Magny-Cours
Early morning rain left the Magny-Cours circuit in France very wet and slippery ahead of yesterday's opening free practice session for the 11th round of the World Superbike Championship.
The tricky surface quickly took its toll when both champion Jonathan Rea and his closest challenger for the title Alvaro Bautista slipped off their machines on their first flying laps, Bautista ditching his Ducati at Turn 2 and Rea parting company with his Kawasaki further round the lap at Turn 13, both unhurt.
The pair were soon back out on track, Ulsterman Rea ending the session seventh fastest and Bautista 13th.
Conditions gradually improved and Michael Van Der Mark (Yamaha) set the fastest time on his final lap of the 45-minute session, nicking top spot from Rea's Kawasaki team-mate Leon Haslam by 0.223sec.
Rea was a second back in seventh, completing just five laps, while fellow Ulsterman Eugene Laverty was 10th fastest on his Go Eleven Ducati, a third of a second slower than Rea.
Heavy rain battered the circuit for FP2 which was almost three seconds slower than the first outing. Rea, who only completed seven laps, topped the time sheets after surviving a near second crash when the back end of his Kawasaki stepped out, the four-time world champion managing to keep control although out of the seat and running through the gravel.
He was almost a quarter of a second clear of Tom Sykes and Haslam.
A number of riders didn't venture out in the treacherous conditions including Laverty, Bautista, Van Der Mark, Chas Davies and Alex Lowes - rumoured to be joining Rea in the Kawasaki Racing Team next year.
Rea said: "Having a lot of fun out there! Almost too much. Overall, I'm happy. With the weather forecast clear (for today and tomorrow) it was hard to be fully focused on building a set-up. We changed some engine braking settings and needed to confirm them in the wet.
"In the morning I wasn't so happy, but after a few tweaks I was much happier in the afternoon going fastest in full wet conditions. As a dry line appeared late in FP1 a lot of people went fast right at the end."
Rea has a mathematical chance of winning his fifth consecutive world title this weekend, but it will not be won before the final race tomorrow and a lot can happen between now and then with FP1 and 2 proving the thin line between success and ending up in the gravel trap.
The opening Superbike race this afternoon is an historic one, as it is the 800th since the very first one held at Donington Park on April 3, 1988 in which our five-time F1 world champion Joey Dunlop finished in third position behind winner Davide Tardozzi and Marco Lucchinelli. Dunlop was fifth in race two.