And so the season ends for WorldSBK. The weather finally behaved at Jerez, and the four WorldSBK teams and three WorldSSP teams got a full day of testing in at Jerez. Or rather, nearly a full day of testing: the track opened at 10am, but the riders didn't go out for about 45 minutes, as cold track temperatures made it a perilous undertaking in those early minutes. But the sun soon did its work, heated the asphalt, and away they went.
Heating the asphalt meant there was grip, but the surface is still in a bad way in several corners. Turns 1, 2, 6, and 8 are the worst, according to the riders. One seasoned rider spotter pointed out just how gracefully Jonathan Rea was riding around the holes in the tarmac, and still producing a really fast time. But it hadn't been as easy as Rea made it look.
"It’s wearing ruts in the short corners where everyone is using the same line and putting the power down, or pushing the front in it," Rea said on Tuesday night. "It’s lifting the asphalt up. It’s treacherous if you run over that. That’s the common racing line for track day users or normal racers. If you’re on the limit or really sharp you can stay just inside that, like pretty much on the white line. But even that, you compromise your line, especially in corner one, two, six… So the track’s in really bad condition so they’re doing right to resurface it."
Smoother on top
Rea ended the day as fastest, six tenths clear of Alex Lowes on the Pata Yamaha, who in turn was four tenths quicker than Rea's Kawasaki teammate Leon Haslam. Rea was working on adapting to the updated 2019 Kawasaki, and especially on making the top end power delivery a little smoother. "I’ve told Kawasaki engineers that’s where we need to focus over the winter, making that top RPM more smooth," Rea said. Rea's team experimented with changing the balance of the bike, which made some improvement. That came after Rea had tried a longer run, though he felt the pace was rather underwhelming, and did not reflect the pace he was capable of.
Rea had not been surprised by the pace of the brand new Ducati Panigale V4R. "It’s Ducati," he said. "They’re not going to show up with anything that’s not competitive." He rejected any suggesting that Ducati were fast out of the box. "It’s hard to say it’s out of the box when they’ve had a full test team working for the last 18 months," Rea pointed out. "It looks like both Chaz and Alvaro are going really fast, but that’s expected."
Alvaro Bautista went fast, but found himself crashing twice. The Spaniard was to blame for one of them, when he lost the front in the morning, but his second crash was completely beyond his control, the Aruba.it Ducati rider being wiped out by Raffaele De Rosa's MV Agusta, the Italian Supersport rider having crashed in Turn 1 just as Bautista exited pit lane.
The Spaniard had spent the day figuring out the Ducati Panigale V4R, he and his team making changes to the bike in an effort to understand how it reacted. He was happy with the pace he had found, running consistently in the 1'40s for most of the day.
Though he had felt relatively comfortable on the bike, he was still trying to figure out the Pirelli tires, Bautista said. "I can ride, but I still don’t know how to use them and how to get more performance," the Spaniard told us.
Where the bike needed some improvement was in the middle of the corner and on exit, Bautista said. In the middle of the corner the bike wanted to run wide, but Bautista wasn't sure whether that was a result of the bike or the Pirelli tires. The one area which both Bautista and teammate Chaz Davies said needed improvement was in calming down corner exit. At the moment, the bike was moving around a fair amount on corner exit, and really wanting to wheelie.
After climbing off the WorldSBK Panigale on Tuesday, Bautista will be back in action on Wednesday, riding the Ducati MotoGP bike as a test rider. He is substituting for Michele Pirro, who is undergoing shoulder surgery. Though Bautista said he was looking forward to riding a MotoGP again, it is a very different prospect from subbing at a race, with a lot of hard work to get through to help the factory team for 2019.
New bike, no data
Chaz Davies had been the main focus of Ducati's WorldSBK testing program, as a veteran of the series and of the factory. But his experience with the Ducati Panigale 1198 V-twin had been of little avail, as the V4 is a completely new bike, with no real resemblance to the twin it replaces. The good thing, Davies said, is that the four cylinder does everything at least as well or better than the old twin, so the project is off to a good start.
Davies and Bautista had been sharing a new swingarm, which both had felt was an improvement. It was meant to help make the bike a little less aggressive on corner exit, which Davies felt was an issue for the new bike. Davies was pleased that the swingarm was pointing in the right direction, but there was still a mountain of work to do. "It still feels like there is a mountain to climb and putting it together," Davies said. "There is so much information but it is about putting it together."
Despite the fact that they still have so much work to do, Davies was optimistic about the direction of the new bike, and about the prospects for Ducati for the 2019 season. He felt he could be more consistent, as he wouldn't need to be pushing right at the limit for so much of the season. But Davies was cautious about venturing any predictions for the future, beyond a feeling that he could be competitive.
It is important for Ducati that the Panigale V4R is competitive. But it is also important for WorldSBK. So far, any attempts at reining Jonathan Rea in has met with failure, the Northern Irishman taking any technical rule changes as a challenge to be overcome. Ducati's outrageous V4 should be able to crush Kawasaki's opposition, Dorna will be hoping, making the series look a lot more competitive.
The bike is impressive even in its stock form. Ducati's road tester Alessandro Valia was circulating on the road-legal version of the bike, in preparation for the media launch of the bike at Jerez on Friday. On a bike with used tires, and with a generalized setup aimed at journalists rather than racers, Valia was five seconds off the pace of the Aruba.it riders on qualifying tires. Chaz Davies reckoned that the potential of the standard bike was closer to three seconds off the race bike. That is an impressive base, but bridging that gap would make for three expensive seconds.
Controlling the rear
At Yamaha, it was Alex Lowes' turn to try the new swingarm which Yamaha had brought to the test, Lowes and Pata Yamaha teammate Michael van der Mark swapping testing objectives. Lowes used the new swingarm, while Van der Mark worked on the front end of the bike.
Lowes was pleased with progress made, and the changes they had found to the setup, which had helped get the best from the new swingarm. They had moved the weight more to the middle of the bike, and that had reduced the disadvantages on braking which the new swingarm had produced, while keeping the increased stability and grip on corner exit. The aim, Lowes said, was to create a bigger window of adjustment, to make the bike more competitive at more circuits.
On Monday, Lowes had told us that he felt the Yamaha was giving away 0.5 seconds to the competition. The improvements found with the swingarm had cut that to 0.4 seconds, which was better, but still too far behind.
Lowes had been working on his riding style, as well as the bike. The objective had been to scrub off a little more speed earlier on corner entry, to reduce his tendency to enter the corner absolutely on the limit. It was a change he had been making through the course of the 2018 season, but testing was the ideal opportunity to spend time on working on that.
The one area left for Yamaha was the electronics, both Lowes and teammate Michael van der Mark agreed. Electronics were where the biggest steps could be made, and where the added stability and exit speed could be found.
Van der Mark had spent his day working on the front end of the bike, but he had been limited in what he could achieve. The Dutchman was suffering with a scaphoid injury, meaning he didn't feel he had full control of the bike out of Turn 5, for example, the fast right leading onto the back straight. Thankfully, the injury is healing well, and he should be fully fit when he returns for the next test in January.
At the GRT team, Marco Melandri was not allowed to talk to the media – the result of him still being under contract to Ducati – but his teammate and reigning World Supersport champion Sandro Cortese was. The German was still in the middle of adapting to World Superbikes, the Yamaha YZF-R1M nothing like the R6 he had raced last year. Cortese was visibly struggling on the brakes, the bike moving around much more than for the other riders. But all that was just part of adapting to riding a Superbike, he said.
What conclusions can we draw from the winter test? It is hard to judge, according to reigning WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea. "It always is in winter tests," he said. "To be honest, I feel like it’s really difficult to say. I feel like last week in Aragon it seemed like the toys were out of the pram at Yamaha and then this week Alex has looked like he’s been the most competitive behind us. I think everything is in place for Yamaha, Alex and Van der Mark to step up. Of course the Ducatis are going to get better and better. The ingredients are there for a great season but it’s really hard to tell. Racing’s different from testing and putting 26 races together is tough. We have a package that works everywhere. We can be confident of that. I don’t need to change my preparation or my approach."
Times from Tuesday, and combined times over two days, can be found here.
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