Attending races of series you don't normally cover is always informative and instructive. To paraphrase a famous quote, the World Superbike paddock is a foreign country, they do things differently there. While I feel I have a reasonable grasp of the workings of MotoGP, coming to WorldSBK at Misano both makes me all too conscious of how much I don't know, and lets me look at the Grand Prix paddock with fresh eyes.
World Superbikes is a much more human experience. The paddock is a friendlier, more relaxed place. The hospitality units are more modest and therefore more inviting, rather than the great gleaming monstrosities in the MotoGP paddock. That also creates more of a feeling of space: you are no longer jammed in between towering facades, but can still see the sky.
Then there's the paddock show. Free on Friday, but €20 extra on Saturday on Sunday, World Superbike fans at Misano get access to the paddock, and can watch the proceedings on screens set up in a giant tent, complete with live interviews with riders and commentary by host Michael Hill. It brings fans and riders together, and turns them into beings of flesh and blood, rather than the unapproachable and aloof status some MotoGP riders can attain. World Superbikes is very much the people's championship.
Fans love it, fans hate it
Misano was also my first chance to talk to riders about the way the series has changed, after the schedule was radically shaken up at the start of the season. Splitting the races over two days has divided the fans as well, some praising the fact that they find it easier to spare an hour on Saturday, then another hour on Sunday, instead of having to give up most of Sunday morning and early afternoon to watch two races.
Others have decried the lack of action on a Sunday; having just one World Superbike race on Sunday means less motivation to go attend a race. The effect has not been noticeable at the gate, however. Attendance is slightly up on last year at most rounds, and TV audiences are better too.
It has had a bigger impact on the riders, though. The change to the schedule means that the teams basically have one day to get the bike right, ahead of the first race on Saturday. Turning up with a ballpark setting is crucial, gaining precious time in the two one-hour sessions on Friday.
Getting it right first time
Aruba.it Ducati's Chaz Davies gave his insight into the effect, after half a season of the new schedule. "It's different," the Welshman told me. "It's takes a little bit of adjusting to. There's a lot of positives to it. If you turn up on a Saturday it's really busy, like at Aragon. And a lot of other tracks have been surprisingly busy on Saturday, and for the television, it's been really good, from what they have been saying."
The downside was the way it worked out for the riders, Davies explained. "The negative is that the structure of the weekend isn't very good. So we have two free practice sessions on a Friday of one hour, and you basically have no time for anything on Saturday. 15 minutes at 8:45 in the morning when the track is cold, then you've got Superpole, and you don't learn anything in Superpole, and then it's race one. From a structure point of view, I think it could be improved, but from every other aspect, it's done its job."
The biggest impact was the way the pressure it put on the teams to get their set up right at the first attempt. Any mishaps or misadventures, especially with a single bike, puts you at a major disadvantage. When Davies' bike burst into flames during FP2 at the British round of WorldSBK, it set Davies back more than he liked. "I missed a session on Friday afternoon at Donington, a full one-hour session. That's half your practice time over the weekend, your decent practice time. It does put a little bit more stress on Friday, but it's the same for everybody."
Three instead of two
Davies felt the schedule could benefit from splitting the two free practice sessions of one hour into three shorter sessions. "Anything over 45 minutes is not that helpful. Because you need to look at the data, and you need to digest what you learned," Davies said. "I think even shorter sessions on a Friday, but three of them rather than two of them would be better than two long ones." It was something which had come up in the World Superbike Safety Commission, but without reaching a satisfactory solution.
The Safety Commission – constituted in the same way as the same body in MotoGP – has been a boon. Speaking off the record, one rider praised the way Dorna had responded to the body's requests. "When we ask for something, they do it."
The change to the schedule had also impacted the World Supersport class. Gino Rea of the eponymous GRT Racing Team said that the WSS riders suffered similar problems. They too have two hours of free practice on Friday in which to prepare for Superpole on Saturday. Having one-hour sessions made trying major set up changes tricky, thanks to the single bike rule. Spending 15 minutes or more in the garage while mechanics radically changed the geometry, swapped a shock and messed with springs was a frustrating experience.
Pace vs laps
Being prepared paid off for Nicky Hayden. The Ten Kate Honda rider was fastest at the end of the first day, benefiting from arriving at Misano with a good set up found at a test after Donington. Yet Hayden was not too confident, as his fast lap had been exactly that, a single fast lap. Hayden was more concerned about his race pace. "Happy about the lap time, worried about the pace," Hayden summarized it pithily.
If you are looking for strong race pace, look no further than Jonathan Rea. The reigning World champion hammered out a total of 14 laps in the 1'35s. Compare that with fastest man Hayden, who had just two 1'35s, one of which put him fastest.
Chaz Davies believed that the strength of the Kawasaki lay in its ability to deal with the grip levels at Misano. Over a year on after the resurfacing of the track, grip levels are lower, and nearer the grip of the old surface. "Last year, when the track was new, it was unexpectedly grippy, and also consistent," Jonathan Rea explained. "But now, I don't know whether it's because we've had bad weather last week and a lot of the rubber's been washed away, or just because the track is a little bit greener now it's been worn in, it just seems the grip and consistency isn't as good as last year."
That caused a problem for the Ducatis. "We're struggling a little bit at maximum lean angle," Davies explained. "The grip here is a little bit low, we need to basically lean a lot to turn like we want to turn. It kind of feels like the grip's not really good enough to do that. So the first crack of gas, we're losing a little bit."
It was a complaint which reminded me of the lament of Ducati's MotoGP riders, when they were racing the GP13 and GP14. That bike only turned at maximum lean angle, and once the grip of the tires dropped, the bike would start to understeer, and the riders would go backwards.
Davies described the behavior of the Ducati Panigale R in similar terms. "You have to bury the thing at 60 degrees," Davies said. It's OK, but you can't really do 20 laps like that. I've had the bike in the ballpark before, depending on the grip level, where I can keep it at, say, 55 degrees and it's all good. You don't need to force the bike that last bit to get it round the corner, it's going by itself because the grip's there. But as it stands at the minute we're not there. I feel like even when I'm completely decked over on the thing, I need to go even more, but there's a limit to what you can do."
Davies' deficit to Rea is 62 points, and Misano was a track he was hoping to close the gap. He has his first chance on Saturday, and as Rea explained, having more riders like Tom Sykes, Hayden, Davide Giugliano, and Markus Reiterberger in the mix made it a more challenging proposition. The more riders Davies can put between himself and Rea, the quicker he can close the gap. What Davies must fear, however, is that the opposite can also happen.
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