A detailed look back at WSBK Round One

With Mark Bracks

With Dorna running both major two-wheeled road racing world championships there has been plenty written about a conflict of interests and/or speculation that Dorna will absorb the category into a Grand Prix weekend, or slowly strangle the Superbike World Championship out of existence.

WSBK Rnd Phillip Island Alex Lowes
World Superbikes at Phillip Island in 2019

Whatever the criticism, the owners are having a go with a few innovations and an overhaul to try and increase spectator interest. The introduction of the 10-lap Superpole Sprint race on Sunday morning to determine grid positions for the afternoon’s race, making for three WSBK races over the weekend, might go some way to rejuvenating the championship.

Dorna have tried a couple of things in recent years, including new rules for engines and chassis, as well as the rev limits in a bid for closer competition. On a spectator perspective Dorna thought a move to a race on Saturday, to split the two races over the weekend was a good idea. OK, maybe that didn’t have the impact that Dorna envisaged, but the sprint race is an exciting idea to attempt to rectify the situation.

Phillip Island Saturday WorldSBK Rea GB
Jonathan Rea claimed pole at Phillip Island

Dorna can’t be blamed for having a go, with CEO David Carrera and Race Director, Gregoria Lavilla, constantly looking at ways to improve the show.

Another big positive for spectator interest and participation in the last couple of years is the open paddock for three day ticket holders to be a part of the very popular Paddock Show. Plus the opportunity to take part in the post-race celebrations in parc ferme, the podium ceremony and after race press conferences.

That doesn’t happen in MotoGP.

Bautista dominates WorldSBK 2019 Phillip Island races

In the three races at the opening round at Phillip island, Bautista and the Ducati were simply unstoppable and untouchable, but there were indications that Rea and Haslam were within poof-teenths of the rampaging Ducati.

Rea topped the sheets in FP1 after completing a race run on the tyre that was preferred from testing. In fact, I have never seen a rider so happy on his return to the pits at the end of the first session of a race weekend.

Phillip Island WorldSBK Race Rea JM
Rea kicked off the weekend on a high note

It was as if he had won; as he brought the bike to a halt in pit lane and the bike was lifted into the air as the stands were hooked up, JR punched the air with both fists and raised them in the air before embracing his crew. He leapt off the bike and virtually danced his way into the pit box with plenty of hugs, back slaps and congratulations along the way. The tyre looked remarkably good with no signs of blistering or tearing

The mood changed a few hours later.

Every year Pirelli bring out a selection of new solutions developed for Phillip Island. Two of the solutions are used during testing and then in a move that many just can’t fathom, Pirelli introduces a new “solution” on Friday afternoon. Nine times out of 10 it causes all sorts of grief and Rea was no exception.

Pirelli tyres

All the good work of the morning was reversed as the team searched to find a set up to suit the new bag. Rea’s demeanor changed dramatically as after just a couple of laps of the afternoon session he returned to pit lane, climbed off the bike, walked into the box with palms uplifted as if to say “What the F*&^?!”

The Kawasaki team were not the only ones, as many did not approve, the impression continuing all weekend as the vast majority of riders stuck with the tyre from the test. If it aint broke don’t fix it.

WSBK Rnd Race Breakaway begins...Alvaro Bautista on the DUcati Panigale VR with Jonathan Rea in pursuit
2019 WorldSBK
Round One – Phillip Island
WSBK Race One

Bautista topped FP2 and FP3 from Rea and Haslam. The times showed that the rest of the field wasn’t too far off the pace but it was Bautista’s metronome lap times that continued to cause furrowed brows from the opposition.

The only rider of note that wasn’t worried one iota about the opposition was Tom Sykes, now with the BMW Motorrad Team after many seasons in the ranks of KRT. All weekend he was waxing lyrical about how good the team was and its progress. He sure is a different guy this year. Tom is back to his old ways and it is refreshing to see the old Tom.

WSBK Test PI Final Tom Sykes
Tom Sykes – 2019 Phillip Island WSBK

Rea returned to form for Superpole and in some consolation broke his outright fastest lap from last year to grab the number one slot on the grid. But from there the weekend went awry.

Come race time and Bautista not only smashed them, he assaulted and molested the opposition as he pulled away at roughly a second a lap in the trio of races. In Saturday’s race one he romped away to record the largest winning margin in a dry race at the track by a jaw-dropping 14.983 seconds. His first race win since the Catalunya 250cc GP in 2009. Imagine how good that felt!

The Ducati bosses should’ve been hanging over pit wall, arms flailing like a bunch of ravers to get him to slow down to take away the attention to horsepower at such a domination in the opening race of the year. If, indeed there were any signals to slow down they fell on deaf ears, ears filled by the sounds of the deep throated roar of the V4.

WSBK Rnd Race Alvaro Bautista ..first victory for the Ducati Panigale VR in world superbike
2019 WorldSBK Round One – Phillip Island

Considering his lack of experience on the recalcitrant Pirelli tyres, his efforts at tyre management and lap time consistency were astonishing.

While it may have looked processional and boring, Alvaro was clinical in his dominance with the consistency of his lap times astonishing.

His first four flying laps were right on record pace in the high 1:30s with a difference of just 0.091 sec. Twelve of the next 14 laps were in the 1:31s (he dropped back into a 1:30 on lap 8) all separated by just 0.763 sec – a total difference of 0.854 second in 18 laps!

WSBK Round Phillip Island SBK Friday Rob Mott Alvaro Bautista
Alvaro Bautista – 2019 WorldSBK
Round One – Phillip Island – Image by Rob Mott

Sunday morning saw a piece of history with the first Superpole sprint race. The first outing for the concept was spectacular in its speed. With no need to conserve tyres the consensus was that the lap record, set last year by Marco Melandri on a Ducati that shook its head on Gardner Straight more violently than a tantrum throwing toddler, would fall.

I don’t think anyone realised by just how much it would be lowered. Such was the pace that the 2018 lap record was bettered a total of 14 times in 10 laps, between four riders. Bautista did it six times including every one of the last five laps after garroting 0.707 sec off the time on his second flying lap.

Rea bettered it five times, posting a new best race lap of 1:30.075 on lap eight, just 0.047 sec faster than Bautista on the same lap. Haslam bettered it four laps in a row while Melandri, on his Yamaha bettered his old lap record once.

Jonathan Rea – Image by Rob Mott

The first Superpole sprint race may not have the cut and thrust dicing that was mooted, but the continual lowering of the record was fascinating to behold.

The final WSBK race of the weekend demonstrated more domination of the Ducati and Bautista in another clinical display of consistency. Over 19 laps he carded seven laps in the 1:30s with a best time of 1:30.573 and a difference in them all of 0.399 sec. Plus 12 laps in the 1:31s within 0.742 of each other for a total variance of 1.141 seconds on a track with a temperature that measured 44 degrees.

Three wins in a 24 hours. It would’ve been a good trip home to Talavera de la Reina, near Toledo in Spain.

WSBK Round Phillip Island SBK Friday Rob Mott Leon Haslam
Leon Haslam – Image by Rob Mott

Beside the domination of the Desmo rider, there was some intriguing shenanigans between the Team Green lads in the battles for second and third.

The opening leg was shaping up to be a five bike freight train as Rea and Haslam swapped positions for second as Bautsita nicked off but Haslam and his bike parted ways at T4 at third race distance. That was a bottler and shows how hard they are willing to push it. Some of the dive bombs by Rea on his team mate going into T1 were mental.

The pair has been team-mates a number of times. They have the utmost respect for each other on track and they will be continue their on track rivalry that we will benefit from watching.

WSBK Test Jan Portimao Michael VanDerMark SnapGeeBee
Michael van der Mark – Image by Geebee

It was also encouraging to see the threat that Yamaha will provide a two-pronged attack. The established official Pata Yamaha team of #3 in the world, the Dutchman, Michael van der Mark, and Alex Lowes (with crew chief, Andrew Pitt), were under attack from the new “satellite”  GMT Yamaha WSBK team of Marco Melandri and 2013 Moto3 Champion and reigning Supersport Champion, Sandro Cortese.

The Italian and German will cause a lot of grief to the official Pata Yamaha as the season unfolds. It is claimed to be satellite, but it is no more than another factory team. The pit boxes were a long way apart but there was a 40 metre cable slung along the pit complex wall so the teams could share data immediately. There is even a Pata sticker on the GMT machines, and they are almost identical in livery.

WSBK Rnd WorldSBK Lowes GB
Alex Lowes – Image by Geebee

The Italian GMT team is vastly experienced in Endurance and World Supersport competition and have taken the likes of Lucas Mahias to a World Whampionship, so there is no shortage of knowledge and experience in their garages.

Both were impressive debuts for the team. Melandri was impressive in the opening leg from eighth on the grid in the first race and after a mediocre start Melandri stormed through to claim another podium at the track.

Marco Melandri – TBG Image

Cortese will be all the better for his first outing on a Superbike and as he related, it is the most powerful thing he has ever ridden but also the most fun. He wasn’t too far off the pace either.

The likeable Turk Razgatlioglu will be one to keep an eye on, having claimed a couple of podiums last year. His crew chief Phil Marron said, “We have only been working together a short time. He is a very quick rider, knows what he wants and is very determined as well as having no regard for reputations whatsoever, but he likes spinning the rear too much. We have to get him to start conserving tyres!”

WSBK Rnd Phillip Island Markus Reiterberger
Markus Reiterberger

Besides the BMW Mortorrad Team of Sykes and Markus Reiterberger (who has now fully recovered from the injuries that nearly derailed his career) the other outfit that will progress through the year is the Moriwaki Althea Honda Team of Leon Camier and multiple BSB champion, Ryuchi Kiyonari.

Under the guidance of HRC there will be major progress throughout the year. Camier said that this year’s Honda and last year’s bike he rode for Ten Kate have only one thing in common, the badge!  The bike is very close to the Endurance World Championship bike that Josh Hook won the title on and the bike Kiyonari used in last year’s All-Japan Championship.

“It’s so completely different to what I was riding last year,” explained Camier. “Everything is so different. There seems to be no two parts the same on it. HRC are determined to get back to the pointy end. It won’t happen immediately but I reckon from about half way through the season you will see more consistency and the progress will be noticeable.”

WSBK Round Phillip Island SBK Friday Rob Mott Leon Camier
Leon Camier – Image by Rob Mott

In closing, mention must be made of the wretched weekend the Penrite Honda team had. The team was behind the game from the outset. All the bits and pieces that were sourced from around the world to construct a World Superbike spec’ machine arrived in the country just a few days before the test. There was next to no time to build a bike so there was no chance of any private testing prior to the official two-day test the week of the race.

No matter what they tried the jigsaw would not fall into place, and gut wrenchingly for the defending Australia Superbike Champion, Troy Herfoss was lapping at least two-seconds a lap quicker on his Aussie bike than the World-spec bike – a factor that should have been reversed.

WSBK Rnd Race Herfoss CQ
Troy Herfoss

The result was no way an indication of how good the personnel are in that team and how much talent the rider possesses. I truly hope that they stick with the project and take the year to build a bike that is competitive, so we can see the real Troy in action as if he has the right package that he is comfortable with he would be in the hunt for a top ten finish

The next two rounds looks as if they will be suited to the Ducati. Buriram in Thailand, where Alvaro finished eighth last September, just 6.6-seconds off the lead, and then Aragon in Northern Spain, where he crashed out on the first lap last year, both having large horsepower sections with long straights to allow the Dukes to stretch their high revving legs.

WSBK Rnd Race Podium CQ
World Superbike Sunday Race Results
Alvaro Bautista – Ducati
Jonathan Rea – Kawasaki +12.195
Leon Haslam – Kawasaki +12.454

It’s not until the circus get to the tighter tracks of Europe and the likes of Laguna Seca in the US, that we’ll truly see if the Ducati is that continually dominant.

There is no advantage of a two day test for the rest of the year so it will be very interesting to see how all teams perform after they hit the ground on the run.

One round doesn’t make a season. Bautista will not have it all his own way all year and it remains to be seen if the Ducati will be severely knobbled. Even if they do, this scribe thinks that Bautista will rise to the occasion to prevail against what is thrown at him in 2019.

Cyclone Alvaro is expected to hit land in Thailand in a few weeks time.