There are few things better than the off-season for teams and riders in any championship. The winter is spent fine tuning. The big questions get answered and teams are filled with optimism. During testing teams run through their programmes without pressure. There are eight hours of running each day. There is always tomorrow.
But now, tomorrow has arrived. The new WorldSBK season kicks off in Aragon this week, and suddenly the pressure cooker environment of a race weekend is back. A qualifying tyre at the end of a test day papers over the cracks and shows a competitive time, but with everyone working to different programmes a clear picture never fully emerges.
That changes on the opening day of the season when suddenly the evidence is available on the timing screens. Are you fast enough? Can you make the tyre last? Is this the year that it all falls into place? Is this the year that it all falls apart? The winter war is over but now the ground battles are gearing up. The timing screens hold the truth and they don’t lie.
The 2021 WorldSBK season has the potential to be a classic. Scott Redding has said that he feels like a caged dog waiting to be let loose. Jonathan Rea still has a target on his back, but with a new bike he’s out to keep his run going. Garrett Gerloff and Toprak Razgatlioglu lead the Yamaha charge and the pretenders are out to prove themselves. Honda has reshuffled their team with Leon Camier now running the show. BMW has spent big on Michael van der Mark and expanded to four bikes. We could be set for a barnstormer.
We’ve been here before though, and Rea has kept winning. The Northern Irishman is the greatest Superbike rider of all time, and while he’s very difficult to beat he’s not unbeatable. At the end of last season Kawasaki were struggling to keep their edge. Catalunya and Estoril showcased the shortcomings of last year’s bike.
The updated ZX-10RR has a new aerodynamic package and lots of small improvements. Kawasaki don’t reinvent the wheel with new bikes and this year is no exception. It’s better in almost every area, but the biggest step is in generating confidence for riders when they open the throttle. That initial throttle connection was an issue last year and on the edge of the tyre Rea was struggling. A small step can make a big difference.
Interestingly on the other side of the green garage Alex Lowes has said that he’s made a big step. Last year corner entry was his bugbear and he never quite felt as settled on the bike as he wanted. After the winter he’s commented on the improvements made and now feels much happier. It can be expected that he’ll make a step forward this year.
Scott Redding was Rea’s biggest competitor last year and took the fight to the last round. Ducati has backed Redding to the hilt by replacing Chaz Davies with Michael Ruben Rinaldi. Time will tell whether this was the right decision but ahead of the season one thing is clear; Redding needs to win. The former MotoGP rider has established himself on a Superbike by winning the British Superbike title and winning races last year. Now he needs to take the title because Ducati, in the third year of the Panigale V4R era, has had little to show for having the best bike on the grid in recent years.
Redding has the talent but does he have the temperament? That’s going to be one of the key questions heading into Aragon. Last year it was expected that he would use Aragon as the foundation for his title charge. While he won two races there he was outperformed by Rea and with Rinaldi winning a race it put a lot of pressure on Redding. He cracked and crashed and the title battle pivoted towards Rea.
Rinaldi has himself a plum position this year. There’s pressure to perform but if he wins races he’s done a good job and lived up to expectations. The wildcard for 2021 could well be Chaz Davies. Switching seats with Rinaldi he finds himself at the GoEleven team but he has a good team around him and an experienced crew chief, Pete Jennings.
Starting the season at Aragon means Davies goes to his favourite track on the calendar and one where he’s had lots of success. This weekend is crucial for the Welshman. At his best he’s incredible and almost unbeatable. The talent is there and being dumped by the factory squad could well be the spur he needs. Underestimate a scorned rider at your peril.
Blue on red
The Yamaha R1 is arguably the most user friendly bike on the grid. Lowes, van der Mark and Razgatlioglu have all won races aboard it in recent years and Gerloff is capable of adding his name to that list this year. With WorldSSP champions Andrea Locatelli joining for this year, the line-up is very strong for Yamaha along with Kohta Nozane.
Last year Aragon was the worst track of the year for Yamaha so this weekend will be a good yardstick for where they find themselves. They’ll win races but it would be a shock if they win enough to challenge for the title. A top three finish is possible and has to be seen as a realistic goal for their established riders.
At Honda we’ve seen Leon Camier hang up his helmet and take on a leadership role. The goal for Honda is to use the Englishman’s experience and have him operating in a technical capacity rather than running the organisational side of a racing team. Being able to link the race team to the racing department is key and Camier should be the fulcrum of that. Injuries brought an end to his riding career but now he has the opportunity to play a key role in building Honda’s future.
That future should be bright because the Fireblade has the potential to be a weapon in WorldSBK. With a powerful engine there is a good base for the team to build on. In the final rounds of last year we saw Alvaro Bautista make a step forward and we can expect that from the outset this year that team will be contending for the podium. The Spaniard’s history at Aragon also means that starting the campaign there can only be a good thing for Honda. If Honda can start the season at the front that bike will become one of the most sought after seats for next season.
Dial M for Michael
The expansion of BMW this year means that the M1000RR has the chance to make plenty of progress. A powerful engine and aerodynamic upgrades give the bike a solid foundation but it will still take time this year to truly see them find their feet.
The signing of Michael van der Mark is a clear statement of intent; BMW want to win and are willing to open the cheque book. For Van der Mark there is a belief that switching teams will mean taking one step back to jump in front. Time will tell if that’s the case but the Dutchman is an elite Superbike rider that is at his best over a race distance. He’ll compliment Tom Sykes' one-lap speed effectively, but having seen BMW develop the bike around Sykes feedback in recent years there’s work to be done to make the bike more supple and user friendly.
Jonas Folger and Eugene Laverty are also on the expanded line-up with customer machinery. Both are undoubted talents but there will be question marks until they get the results expected of them. Folger remains with his IDM title winning team for his rookie WorldSBK campaign whereas Laverty has endured a tough winter with only three days of testing since joining the Squarda Corse team.
Five manufacturers. A host of riders that will feel they can win races. WorldSBK was a whipping boy for a long time but with a new season dawning the tune of the paddock has changed.
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