Year three of Yamaha's return to WorldSBK will see the team expected to produce race wins, but are they ready to deliver?
For Alex Lowes and the Yamaha WorldSBK squad the goal is clear in 2018; to win races. Since joining the Crescent team in 2014 Lowes has been able to grow into a front running WorldSBK rider, but hasn't quite made the step to winning races. The package underneath him has rarely been one capable of delivering victories, but the progress of Yamaha last year offers hope that finally the illusive first win is possible.
“The second half of 2017 was quite good and we were able to challenge for the podium in most races,” said Lowes. “We're still a little bit behind Kawasaki and Ducati and I'm not really starting the year with any expectations other than to get the best we can at every round. The chassis is working really well but we need to keep working on the electronics of the bike. The plan is that we'll go to Phillip Island with an older electronic specification and then try to change the electronics for Thailand where we'll have some extra technical support and staff from Japan.
“We've changed the electronics during a season in the past and it's a big challenge but we're confident we can do it for Round 2. We'll start a little on the back foot in Phillip Island but our bike is really strong at that circuit so it should be strong at the first round and then at round two we'll go to our full specification. I believe that we'll be challenging for the podium in Australia.”
For team manager Paul Denning the challenge has been in developing the Yamaha package. When the team switched from Suzuki to Yamaha the potential of the R1 was huge but results were hard to come by in year one. Last season saw plenty of progress and plenty of podiums but the bike still wasn't quite where the team needed it to be.
“Some tracks have suited the bike better than others, but at the end of last year we were on the podium at each of the last four rounds,” assessed Denning. “Imola and Laguna Seca are the circuits that we need to focus on improving the bike. It's important that we keep making progress. Last year I was aiming for us to have both riders in the top six of the championship. We achieved that target and could have even won a couple of races. For 2018 we want to win races.
“The biggest area for us to develop is with the electronics because that's what gives the rider the most confidence. We're working very closely with Japan to develop that. Last year we had a test with the Japanese team and that was one of the first physical information sharing exercises between Japan and our team. It was great to compare the positive aspects of the WorldSBK bike and the Japanese Superbike.”
The partnership with Japan is key to the future of the WorldSBK project. Kawasaki and Ducati have raised the level of WorldSBK in recent years, and to compete with them Yamaha will need to have everything lined up in advance. A mid-season change to the Japanese electronics specification is one that has risks but the reward could be significant. From the second round of the season the team will have additional engineers from Yamaha in the garage and that support is the real key to making progress.
For Lowes the winter has been spent getting ready for the start of the campaign. It was an action packed period for the 27 year old with his wedding wedged into the middle. Even with so much to do in a short period of time he feels refreshed and ready for the season to start.
“It's been busy during the winter but I feel really refreshed and I was ready to get back on the bike. The break seems short but I had a couple of holidays, got married and spent a lot of time training to get ready for the season. I've been able to do everything I needed to do and I can't wait for the season to start. The preseason tests came at the right time for me.
“I'm excited about this season. I think that I did a really good job last year and I want to continue that. It's a very different project to what Yamaha has had in the past. Now it's a partnership with Crescent, whereas in the past, when Spies was winning the title, he had the same team around him that are running the Yamaha MotoGP project now. It's really difficult to understand the exact level of everyone in WorldSBK because there is an expectation that Yamaha and other manufacturers should be winning races, but most teams can't put in the same resources as Kawasaki.
“It's a tough job being a racer because it's all about being in the right place at the right time. There's no one on the grid that isn't talented, but there's also only a few seats where you can really show what you can do. It's easy to feel invincible when you're on the best package, but racing is a difficult sport to judge performances. The rider can make a massive difference but he needs to have the right machine.”
Time will tell if the Yamaha has made enough progress to be the right machine.
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