Testing paints a picture but it’s never a complete one. It shows only what the artist wants you to see with their work in progress. The winter is a time to work through your program and do it at your own pace. This year that has been even more the case. With new bikes for Ducati and BMW there is plenty of change in the air of the World Superbike paddock, and after eight days of testing there are arguably more questions than answers.
The Ducati V4R was billed as the weapon to finally end Jonathan Rea’s dominance of WorldSBK. It was a MotoGP-derived bike that didn’t pull punches. It was one that broke cover over 12 months before its competitive debut. It was expected to be a honed creation from the outset. It was expected to be seamless. But instead, Ducati’s introduction of their new machine has run aground this winter.
Circumstances have worked against Ducati. Four days of testing in November were ruined by bad weather in Aragon, and then a bad track surface at Jerez that would need to be replaced. With a brand new surface at Jerez, it was dirty for the opening test of 2019. It took time to clean and it was almost impossible for riders to do long distance stints without excessive tire wear. Coming to Portimao it was hoped that Ducati could get some information on the new bike.
Three factories and eight WorldSBK riders turned up at Jerez on Monday, Ducati bringing their brand new Panigale V4R, but at the end, Jonathan Rea was fastest. Plus ça change.
All eyes were on the Ducati garage, and Alvaro Bautista's first day on the Panigale V4R. "First day at school" was how the Spaniard characterized it, taking some time to adapt to the bike. It was quite a switch from the Desmosedici he had been riding in MotoGP, the bike having a lot less power. But the V4 engine still has plenty, rival teams complaining that the Ducati was 10km/h faster than the others at the Aragon test. Here, the difference was less, but the Panigale was still clearly quicker than the rivals.
The bike reminded him more of a 250, Bautista said, needing corner speed to get more out of it. Aruba.it Ducati teammate Chaz Davies joked that it might have reminded Bautista of his 250, but that bike was very different to the 250 Davies rode when he was in the class. But overall, Bautista's adaptation went well, the Spaniard trying two qualifying tires as it was the first time he had had a chance to ride qualifiers. He needed one set to figure out the potential of the tires, and a second set to attempt to set a time on the tires. His time was good enough for second place, three tenths behind Jonathan Rea on the Kawasaki, and a couple of tenths ahead of his teammate Chaz Davies.
It has been a strange and intense year in MotoGP, so it seems fitting that we should end the year with such a strange and intense weekend. Three races defined by the weather, by crashes, and by riders holding their nerve and playing their cards right. And at the end, an explosion of emotion. Exactly as it should have been.
There were no titles on the line on Sunday – no serious titles, though the riders vying for Independent Rider and the teams chasing the Team Championship may choose to disagree – but the emotional release on Sunday was as great, or perhaps even greater, than if all three championships had been decided. We had records broken in Moto3, a new factory on the podium in MotoGP, and a farewell to old friends in all three classes, as riders move up, move over, or move on.
The weather figured prominently, as you might expect. Moto3 and Moto2 got off lightly, the rain falling gently and consistently, keeping the track wet, but never to a truly dangerous degree. That did not stop riders from falling off, of course, and dictating the outcome of both races. Those crashes – two races, two riders crashing out of the lead – were just as emotional as the riders who went on to win.
In with the new, out with the old
The most remarkable skill of truly great motorcycle racers is their ability to compartmentalize everything. Break down every situation, put each part into its own separate container, and not let one thing bleed into another. Private lives – often messy, sometimes chaotic – stay in the box marked private life, and don't cross over into racing. Pain stays in the section reserved for pain, and is not allowed to encroach in the part set aside for riding. Crashes are to be analyzed, understood, and then forgotten, but not to be allowed anywhere near the part of a racer's mind where they keep their fears. That is the theory, at least, and the better a rider can manage to live up to the theory, the greater their chances of success.
Marc Márquez gave a masterclass in the art of compartmentalization during qualifying at Valencia. The Repsol Honda rider went out on his first run in Q2, and on his first flying lap, lost the front going into Turn 4, the first right hander after a whole sequence of lefts. It looked like a harmless low side, of the sort which Márquez has so often, and which he usually escapes without harm. But whether it was due to the bars being wrenched out of his hands, or due to his arm being folded up awkwardly beneath him as he tumbled through the gravel, he managed to partially dislocate his weak left shoulder.
Ducati's new WorldSBK machine will get its first public airing at Aragon today
It's hard to remember a more hotly anticipated racing motorcycle than the Ducati Panigale V4R. The bike will make its track debut today at Aragon with Chaz Davies on testing duties.
The V4 is arguably this is the most interesting bike to hit the track since 2015, when the first Gigi Dall'Igna-designed Ducati MotoGP machine rolled down the pit lane at Sepang. That GP15 transformed Ducati's fortunes in Grand Prix racing, and the GP15-inspired V4 will hold similar hopes for the Bologna based firm.
It took a year for Ducati to get back to winning ways in MotoGP but the GP15 was a podium threat from the opening round of the year. The Italian manufacturer doesn't need to make huge leaps forward in WorldSBK, so if the V4 improves on its predecessor it will be an instant contender to end Jonathan Rea's dominance of the production-based series.
How close is MotoGP at the moment? If you just looked at the championship standings, you might reply, not particularly close. Marc Márquez wrapped up the MotoGP championship after just 16 of the 19 races, with a lead of 102 points. He had won 8 of those 16 races, a strike rate of 50%, and been on the podium another five times as well. On paper, it looks like the kind of blowout which has fans turning off in droves, and races held in front of half-empty grandstands.
But that's not what's happening. The series is as popular as ever, TV ratings are high, crowds are larger than ever before, and social media lights up on every race weekend. Rightly so: the show has been spectacular in 2018. Marc Márquez' championship blowout belies just how close the racing actually is. How? Because there are eight or nine riders who can compete for the podium on any given weekend.
The five races leading up to Sepang bear this out. There have been four different manufacturers and six different riders on the podium, and that is with Jorge Lorenzo missing four of those five races. The podiums are fairly evenly distributed as well: Honda have 6 of the 15 podium places, Ducati have had 4, Suzuki 3 podiums, Yamaha 2 podiums. Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha have all won races.