It took Kawasaki until last year to finally win a WorldSBK manufacturers title. Having retained the crown in 2016 the Japanese factory will have to dig deep in 2017
Winter testing is a time to take stock of what worked well on your bike in the past and what now needs to improve. Kawasaki has won over half of the races in the last three years, 39 victories from 76 races, but despite these successes the team are working hard to find improvements.
The final four rounds of the season saw Chaz Davies and Ducati dominate proceedings and the Italian manufacturer's renaissance over the last 12 months has made it the early favourite for title success in 2017. New regulations will see split throttle bodies now outlawed and there are also changes to the battery regulations.
While Jonathan Rea has been running his bike in this specification for most of 2016 his teammate, Tom Sykes, has not. The Englishman spent last off-season commenting about the lower inertia engine he is now having to deal with a significant change in the mass around the engine unit. Whereas in the past Sykes used a battery in his ZX10R to maintain lower inertia he will now have to revert to a crankshaft with a generator that will increase the engine inertia. The higher inertia was a problem for Sykes in 2015 and he had hoped that the changes for this year would offer him advantages compared to Rea. That didn't transpire and now the Yorkshire rider is clearly feeling the pressure.
“With all the changes to the rules, I’m having to adapt a lot and that’s something I tried to do in Aragon last week,” said Sykes. “I feel we made some small steps there. So we’ll keep working on that but one thing is for sure. The rules are changing every minute of the day. I think when people say it’d be nice to keep the championship cheap and then the rules are changed every year, it doesn’t keep it cheap as you have to look for alternatives.
“I’m disappointed in the way the rules have gone, in having to take out batteries and replace them with generators. It does affect what I want to do on the bike. I’ll just try as hard as I can to be competitive. We already started that in the Aragon test. Basically this is another kick in the teeth. It’s a little bit disappointing and upsetting because it takes away performance from me. People can say what they want but for the way that I ride the bike I’m a long way away from that now. What can I say? I can go on about it all day but it is what it is and we’ll try and do our best with it.”
In 2013 Sykes was on top of the world having won his first title. Despite finishing in the top three of the standings for the last five years he is however scrapping tooth and nail at the moment. The 31 year old has been on the receiving end of Rea's consistency over the last two years and is clearly eager to answer back. Whether he can or not over the course of a 13 round season is a question that needs to be answered.
For Rea today was about evaluating some new parts. Last week in Aragon the team tested some new suspension parts from Showa in the dry conditions and with a wet track the team used this opportunity to confirm the improvements. In addition to this Kawasaki also has an upgraded engine to test but the short Jerez circuit is not an ideal circuit to assess engine power given that the bikes barely use sixth gear.
For Rea the biggest key area that he has been seeking improvement has been with the gearbox. Throughout the 2016 season the world champion suffered a series of false neutrals. Finding a solution to this has been key but as Rea explains it as not been a simple problem to solve.
“From the first time that I rode the bike I said that the gearbox was the weakest part of it for me and we needed to improve it,” reflected Rea. “We brought a lot of new mechanical parts throughout the season and it was never ideal but at the Aragon test in the last two hours we wet back to the first configuration that we used 12 months ago and I came back in and said it was the best we've had it. To find out that it was the same setting we used first was a bit difficult to swallow.
“All year every corner where you needed to backshift more than two gears I was thinking about it and looking at the dash and that's not something that you should be thinking about on the bike. In 2015 it seemed fine but this year because of the nature of the new bike it needs to be ridden differently, more stop and go, and because it brake later and deeper you are asking a lot more of the gearbox because you're that much closer to the limit.”
Rea knows that the team cannot afford to leave any stone unturned given the form of Ducati at the end of the season.
“We have a lot of upgrades to come before Australia. We're expecting an engine upgrade and they're working so hard because we lost some power this year and Kawasaki are keen to get it back. With the power lost we're having to push so hard on the front and whereas in 2015 we could be a bit more conservative in the corners and use the power in the straights.
“Now Ducati aren't really at a disadvantage, in fact at some circuits they've been stronger than us. Their engine configuration naturally means that they have some advantages in terms of tyre consumption and agility, and they have as strong a package. Ducati has been working so much to improve and now it's up to us to step up.”
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