The second round of the World Superbike Championship will take place this weekend in Thailand, and while Jonathan Rea has started the year in terrific form there's plenty of reason for optimism along the pit lane. Thailand will offer a true indication of what to expect this year in WorldSBK, and while it's unlikely we'll see the same number of bikes fighting for the win, it's likely that the scrap at the front will be just as competitive.
Rea still the man to beat in WorldSBK
Rome wasn't built in a day and championships aren't won on the opening weekend of the season but in Australia, Jonathan Rea put down a marker to the field that showed that he won't relinquish his World Superbike title without a fight.
Rea claimed a double victory at Phillip Island that was as measured and controlled as expected from the reigning champion. Even so the Northern Irishman had to fight off a spirited challenge to spray the Prosecco from the top step. Chaz Davies and Michael van der Mark forced the Kawasaki rider to dig deep in both races, but even though both successes came down to the last lap there was a constant feeling the Rea was riding with more of a comfort level than his rivals.
Having that extra speed in hand when required has been the hallmark of plenty of champions in the past and the while none of his rivals openly bemoaned the speed of the Kawasaki some privately lamented about the straight line speed of Rea's bike.
In both races it seemed that while the Ducati and Honda riders could match lap times with Rea, they required that extra bit of effort in comparison. The Kawasaki ZX-10R is still the fastest bike in a straight line, as perfectly illustrated by Rea's race winning move in Race 2, and the most complete package on the grid. The performances of the machines are closer compared to last year but in terms of performance the green bikes still hold an edge.
Ominously for the rest of the field Rea feels that he is just scratching the potential of the bike at this point.
“I feel like we're working at about 85-90 percent potential of the bike,” he said. “I'm really proud to give Kawasaki these two wins. It's the first time with the new bike. We hear so much noise about other people having new bikes. This is a new chassis, new bike, new engine. A big change from last year, which is how we attacked the winter. We had so many components to analyze. “Finally to get here just shows the strength of Kawasaki and the strength of the team behind me. There are so many people involved behind the scenes that have got the bike here. I'm just so grateful to be involved with a factory like Kawasaki.”
A Ducati resurgence?
Chaz Davies once again looks to be the most likely rider to compete with Rea over the course of the season but this weekend's race at the Chang International Circuit will be an important barometer of what to expect from the Welshman this year. Crashing out of both races left Davies with a mountain to climb in the championship and he spent the rest of the season trying in vain to get back on level footing in the standings.
This year he'll travel to Thailand feeling bullish about his chances. With the base setting of his Ducati having been, for the most part, set in stone since the middle of last year Davies has steadily grown in confidence. In Australia he struggled mightily on Friday and qualified on the third row but found a solution in time for the race and should have claimed two podiums.
If his base setting works from the outset in Chang he'll be very confident of being able to fight with Rea. The Ducati is still short of top end speed but it's now a manageable deficiency and not the chasm in performance that we saw in the past although it was clear after Australia that Davies is looking for more power from the Panigale.
“I'm not disappointed with the way I rode,” said Davies after crashing in Race 2 and remounting to finish tenth. “I felt like we've moved on from last year. Our electronics package is working good and in general I'm very happy with the bike. We just missed that last bit. We want to take home race wins and I think it's pretty easy to see what that last bit is.”
Horses for Honda
Honda were competitive in Phillip Island, but until Van der Mark and Nicky Hayden prove to be competitive at other circuits, the jury will be out about their potential for this season. The Fireblade has found performance – team insiders revealed that they had found 10bhp over the winter – but it remains to be seen if this will bring them closer to the front in races this year. Chang will be an ideal opportunity to gauge their potential for this year.
With Kawasaki, Ducati, Honda and Yamaha all scrap in the lead group Phillip Island showed us that this could be an epic year for World Superbikes but it's also important to remember that while the circuit promotes close racing. As a result it will only be in the coming rounds, likely when we get back to Europe, that we see a genuine picture start to develop. Australia was a window into the season but the curtains haven't been fully drawn yet and this weekend will start to offer a bigger view of what to expect.
What gives Kawasaki their edge?
Teamwork, top speed and a supple chassis are pretty much the holy trinity of success in motorcycle racing and Kawasaki has all three in spades.
Whether it's Jonathan Rea or Tom Sykes the green machines have a world champion sitting on them and the relationship and faith that both riders having in their respective crew chiefs is complete. Riding safe in the knowledge that your crew are working towards your goals means that both riders have huge confidence on the bikes.
The all new for 2016 ZX-10R is a finely balanced weapon that can't be matched in a straight line but is also confidence inspiring for the riders. While it's not the most stable bike under braking compared to some of their rivals the overall package is second to none in World Superbikes and having been the dominant package over the last five years there is no reason to suggest that the pecking order has changed yet.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that the Kawasaki has over its rivals isn't performance but rather adaptability. Whether it's the cold, frigid conditions of Magny Cours or Donington or the sweltering humidity of Sepang and Chang the Kawasaki can find its operating window easier than any other machine.
That wide range of comfort means that the team does not need to search for setting solutions and can use a similar base setting at every circuit. When a bike setup is not temperature-dependent it breeds confidence in the team and allows everyone to know exactly what they can expect entering a race weekend.
Having fewer items to check off your checklist allows you to focus on the minute changes needed to win races rather than having to hope to find a solution at a race meeting.
No "senior tour" for Hayden
Not since Max Biaggi hung up his Grand Prix leathers and headed to World Superbikes has a rookie generated as much excitement as Nicky Hayden. The American is adamant that he can compete at the front in WorldSBK this year and already you can see the fire and determination in him to succeed.
For much of the last five years Hayden was saddled with uncompetitive bikes in MotoGP but his demeanor already in the Ten Kate garage is that of a man keen to get back to winning races. The fire that led him to Europe 13 years ago is still burning, and now he feels that he has the package available to show his speed once again.
"I'm not here for a year or two on the Senior Tour, I'm here to win," was how Hayden summed up his approach to WorldSBK and there's little doubt that he's fired up for the coming rounds as he gains experience of what to expect in the championship.
Having had two days of testing at Phillip Island Hayden acknowledged that this weekend will offer a much truer indicator of what to expect from the Honda. With the bike having been expected to fight at the front in Australia this weekend is a much greater unknown for Hayden and his team.
“I'm looking forward to going to Thailand. We'll find out a bit more the reality of what our potential is for this season. In Australia we had two days for testing and I was able to understand Superbike. Thailand is going to be what I'm up against this year.
"On paper it doesn't suit our bike like this one. We'll go on Friday morning, have two sessions and basically a quick qualifying and a race. It'll be entirely different. Not that this weekend was easy by any means but I'm expecting it to be harder next week. That's what I'm going to be in for this year so I might as well get a taste for it.”
Promising beginning for Yamaha
Setting the fastest time on the opening day of the season put smiles on the faces of everyone in the Crescent Yamaha garage but the rest of the weekend wasn't quite as smooth. While Sylvain Guintoli converted his opening day speed into strong race finishes the challenge facing the team is clear-how to get the most from the YZF-R1.
As with any racing Yamaha the key to generating speed and performance from the R1 is corner speed. Watch the bike on track and it's very similar to what you see when you look at Jorge Lorenzo in MotoGP. Riders need to carry corner speed and momentum at all times and be as smooth as possible.
This means that if a Yamaha rider is at the front of the pack he can set tremendous lap times, but if he is mid pack, progress can easily be thwarted. Guintoli found this in both races with the mid-corner speed of the Yamaha negated by having to back off due to rivals carrying less corner speed.
Having ridden the bike in the Suzuka 8 Hours, Bradley Smith explained last year how similar the bike is to the M1 by saying "it feels like my MotoGP bike and you need to ride in a very similar fashion. All Yamaha's – whether it's the M1, R1 or R6 – need to carry corner speed, and it takes time to adjust to riding a bike like that. It took me a long time but once you crack it you can unlock so much speed."
At the moment Guintoli is better able to unlock that potential than Alex Lowes. The Frenchman has a background in 250GP and was able to translate that riding style to the Superbike in Australia. The flowing nature of Phillip Island also played to the strengths of that style and it allowed him to outshine his teammate and challenge in the leading group in both races.
Lowes, on the other hand, is having to adapt and adjust his all-action style to the Yamaha. In Phillip Island, bad luck and that transition of styles cost him dearly, but from Friday to Saturday to Sunday there were clear signs of progress for the Englishman. Technical issues and two crashes held him back, but he left Australia feeling that his potential hadn't been reflected in the races. Thailand, where he claimed his first World SBK podium last year, should give him that opportunity.
For Crescent and Yamaha the new relationship is still in its infancy, but the manner in which they are already working together speaks volumes of what can be expected from them. These are still exceptionally early days in the project but the speed on show in Australia shows that the team's confidence in the package could be well placed.
This article also appeared on friends of MotoMatters.com, Asphalt & Rubber.
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