Rather perversely, a lot of the talk at the World Superbike test at Jerez has not been about World Superbikes at all. Which is a shame, as the 2015 World Superbike championship promises to be particularly fascinating, with testing times very close indeed.
Instead, there was a real kerfuffle about the slowest bike on the track, the one being ridden by Kenny Noyes and Dominique Aegerter. The cause of the fuss? The fact that it was a Kawasaki, a further development of the Open class bike raced by the Avintia Racing team in MotoGP last year, has generated a mountain of speculation that Team Green is preparing a comeback to MotoGP, bringing all four major Japanese factories back into the premier class.
The truth was a good deal more prosaic. As Gilles Bigot, the crew chief working on the project, told Spanish website Motocuatro, this was a private project of engine tuner Akira, who has been involved in engine preparation for Kawasaki's previous MotoGP effort and their World Superbike engines. The company were also behind the development of the Open class bikes used by the Avintia MotoGP team in 2014, and the engines for the FTR bikes which preceded them in 2013. Not wanting to allow two years' work to go to waste, Akira is continuing to develop the bike, looking to learn where there is room for development.
The weather has not been kind to the World Superbikes who headed to Aragon for testing. The first day was lost to a wet track, and while the track dried on the second day, cold temperatures limited the usefulness of the test. 2013 world champion Tom Sykes did not bother going out at all, not wishing to risk injury on a cold track just for the sake of turning some laps.
Sykes' Kawasaki teammate Jonathan Rea did spend some time on track, though for him, too, conditions meant that lessons were limited. Rea spent time working on gearshift set ups, and clutch strategies for race starts. It was important for Rea to spend some more time on the Kawasaki ZX-10R, after having spent so many years on the Honda CBR1000RR with the Pata Honda team. It wasn't just bikes that Rea is switching, the Ulsterman showing off his Monster Energy colors for the first time, leaving Red Bull behind. That is a major change for Rea, who has been backed by Red Bull almost from when he first started racing motocross, before switching to circuit racing.
Preparations for the 2015 season are starting to get underway. While the MotoGP teams will have to wait until February, the World Superbike squads are assembling on the Iberian peninsula to resume their testing programs for 2015. Pata Honda were the first to kick off testing, spending two days at Portimao last week, where reigning World Superbike and World Supersport champions Sylvain Guintoli and Michael van der Mark got to grips with the Honda CBR1000RR. A dry first day meant that both men managed a good number of laps, while most of the second day was lost to rain. Van der Mark told Dutch site Racesport he had not spent too much time testing different settings, his main objective being to get used to riding a Superbike. Both he and Guintoli had tested the new engine, with standard conrods and pistons, while Guintoli had spent a lot of time working on different set ups, trying to get comfortable.
Though tracks around the world have fallen silent over the winter break, testing is due to resume shortly. From mid-January, the World Superbike teams will resume their preparations for the 2015 season at circuits in Spain and Portugal. Testing starts at Portimao, where the Pata Honda team will be the first to hit the track on 14th January. The team then moves to the Motorland Aragon circuit near Alcañiz, where they will be joined by Kawasaki and Grillini, before the action moves back to Portimao for a test including Ducati, BMW Italian, Suzuki, MV Agusta, Althea Ducati and EBR.
After Portimao, the teams head east to Jerez, where from 26th January the circuit will see Ducati, Red Devils, MV Agusta, BMW Italia, Honda, Suzuki, Althea Ducati and EBR joined by the Kawasaki World Supersport team and Ducati's MotoGP test team. A day later, the Kawasaki World Superbike squad will take to the track. From then, they pack up ready to fly the teams and equipment to the Southern Hemisphere, ready for the start of the season at Phillip Island. Testing for the MotoGP class resumes on 4th February at Sepang.
Full private testing schedule for the World Superbike class, as announced so far:
Updated World Superbike Rules: Balancing And Electronics Clarified, And A New Global Entry Class Mooted
At the last meeting of the Superbike Commission, the body which makes the rules for the World Superbike series, representatives of Dorna, the FIM and the factories agreed a number of measures which provide yet another step on the path to the future of the series. There were a couple of minor technical updates, and two changes which point the way to the series' long term future.
The changes to the technical regulations were relatively simple. The balancing rules, aimed at allowing different engine designs to be competitive against each other, received a number of minor tweaks resulting from the fact that those rules will now be carried on from one season to the next. In practice, this means that results for either twins or fours will be carried over between seasons, creating a rolling balancing scoreboard, which should create a better balance between fours and twins.
The other change to the technical rules allow a manufacturer to revert to their 2014 electronics for the first two races of 2015, should the 2015 electronics cause them problems. Basically, this will give the teams a fallback position and give them a little more time to develop the electronics. As the first two round are in Australia and Thailand, the risk of struggling with a system which is not completely ready to race during a period when it is impossible to test has been reduced.
When the rules limiting the number of engines each MotoGP rider is allowed to use were first introduced, their usage was followed hawkishly. After pressure from veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes and myself, and with the assistance of Dorna's incredibly efficient media officer, IRTA and Dorna were persuaded to publish the engine usage charts. These were pored over constantly, searching for clues as to who might be in trouble, who may have to start from pit lane, and who would manage until the end of the season.
How the world has changed since then. Since 2010, the first full year of its application, engine allocations have been cut from six engines a season to just five, but despite that, the manufacturers are getting better and better at building incredible reliability into high horsepower engines. All eight Factory Option Honda and Yamaha riders completed around 9,000 km in 2014, using just 5 engines in the process. In the case of Bradley Smith, he raced for 9416 kilometers using just four engines, an average of 2354 km per engine.
The introduction of the engine reliability rules may have pushed the costs up at first, as factories rushed to modify their engines to suit the new regulations, it has worked well since then to help cut costs. No longer are engines crated up after every race to be flown back to Japan, there to be stripped, measured, tested and rebuilt, then flown back to Europe again ready for the next MotoGP round. Perhaps more importantly, the factories have made real technological progress in the field, Shuhei Nakamoto, Kouichi Tsuji and ex-Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi frequently praising the rule for the advances they have made. It is exactly the kind of technology which will find its way into road going motorcycles, allowing more power to be extracted while retaining reliability. There is good reason to believe that the latest generation of big horsepower road bikes have been made possible thanks to advances in materials and lubrication technology which have made it possible to produce that power without sacrificing reliability.
With the start of a new month comes the start of a new contract and a new challenge for Jonathan Rea. The Ulsterman is now officially under contract to Kawasaki, and as a result, is free to speak to the media. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the Kawasaki Racing team issued a press release containing an interview with Rea, in which he speaks about the new challenge he faces. In the interview, Rea talks about the background to his decision to leave Honda and join Kawasaki, his first impressions of the ZX-10R, and what he expects of the new rules which will apply in World Superbikes in 2015. The press release interview appears below:
Jonathan Rea Excited About New KRT Quest
In the 2014 FIM Superbike World Championship Jonathan Rea won four races and finished third in the World Championship, proving yet again to be one of the most talented and competitive WSBK riders of his generation.
After an entire career spent riding for a single manufacturer and having been a full-time rider in WSBK since 2009, Rea has opted for a new challenge in 2015 - competing as part of the official KRT FIM Superbike World Championship effort.
Rea has already ridden the 2015 spec Ninja ZX-10R - alongside 2013 world champion and new team-mate Tom Sykes – with very positive results for each rider during recent winter test sessions.
Press releases from the Kawasaki and Ducati World Superbike teams after completion of their winter testing program at Jerez:
While the Moto2 and Moto3 bikes were circulating at Valencia, along with the Althea WSBK team, Ducati and Kawasaki wrapped up their test at the Motorland Aragon circuit in preparation for the 2015 World Superbike series. The two Ducati riders were once again fastest, building on the work from Monday, with Davide Giugliano topping the timesheets ahead of teammate Chaz Davies. Jonathan Rea managed to just pip his Kawasaki teammate Tom Sykes, an impressive enough performance on his first ride out on the ZX-10R, though reports from the track suggest Rea may have set his best time on qualifying tires.
All of the riders have a lot of work to do, with new technical regulations that restrict the tuning of the engines and limit electronics to a factory-supplied kit. Ducati has the least amount of work to do, the factory already having prepared for 2015 during the 2014 season, and having not to change much as a result. Kawasaki had more work on their hands, much of it falling on the shoulders of Tom Sykes, as Jonathan Rea's main objective at Aragon was simply learning his way around the bike. Also present at the track were a number of journalists and test riders, who got to ride both Tom Sykes' WSBK ZX-10R and the EVO spec Kawasaki ZX-10R with which David Salom took the 2014 EVO crown. Among those doing media laps were former Moto2 race winner Jordi Torres.
The end of the 2014 World Superbike championship, wrapped up last night at Qatar, has triggered a series of official rider announcements for 2015. Two of the most anticipated announcements were made on Monday, with official confirmation that Jonathan Rea would be leaving Pata Honda to join the Kawasaki Racing Team in World Superbikes, while the seat he is vacating at the Ten Kate Pata Honda team will be filled by newly-crowned 2014 World Superbike champion Sylvain Guintoli. Rea will line up alongside Tom Sykes, while Guintoli will be teammate to World Supersport champion Michael van der Mark.
The moves of both men were an open secret in the paddock, and had originally been expected to be announced after the previous round at Magny-Cours. That, however, was dependent on Sykes wrapping up the title at the French round, but an outstanding weekend by Guintoli and a poor weekend by Sykes took the title chase down to the final WSBK round at Qatar this Sunday. With the championship over, the news could finally be announced.
The partnership of Rea and Sykes is eagerly awaited, both inside and outside the paddock. Rea is very highly rated by industry insiders, who have praised what the Ulsterman has been able to achieve on what is widely regarded as an outdated and underperforming Honda CBR1000RR. Rea has finished ahead of his teammate and as first Honda rider, ever since moving to WSBK in 2009. Rea is expected to be a very strong teammate for Sykes, something which the rumored animosity between Sykes and Rea will only exacerbate. The pairing of Rea with Sykes will certainly make Kawasaki the strong favorites for the 2015 WSBK title.
Press releases from the series organizers and the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after the final round of the 2014 season at Qatar:
Press releases from the series organizers and the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after qualifying on Saturday at Qatar:
In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.
What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.
As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.
Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?
Press releases previewing this weekend's season finale at Qatar from the World Superbike and World Supersport teams and series organizer:
Press releases from the series organizers and World Superbike and World Supersport teams after Sunday's drama-filled races at Magny-Cours: