Alvaro Bautista came to the WorldSBK championship and has been unstoppable. Since figuring out how to get the right feeling from the front end of the brand new Ducati Panigale V4R, he has won all six races held so far – four full-length races, and the two new Superpole sprint races held on Sunday. His winning margins in the four full races were 14.983, 12.195, 8.217, and 10.053 seconds. He won both sprint Superpole races by over a second as well.
Naturally, that kind of domination attracts attention. The WorldSBK series is meant to be a close battle between bikes based on road-going motorcycles, and as modification of the standard bikes is limited, there are mechanisms in the rule book for keeping the disparity between the different bikes racing to a minimum, giving any manufacturer which sells a 1000cc sports bike a chance to be competitive.
To ensure this, the rules have a section on balancing performance between the different bikes competing. The method of balancing performance has varied over the years, but the current rules use only the maximum revs to try to keep the bikes close. The maximum rev limit is set when each new model is homologated, following a formula described in the rules, and explained by WorldSBK Technical Director Scott Smart in a video on the WorldSBK website. The short version is that the bikes are limited at 1100 RPM above the point at which they make their peak horsepower.
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.
There have been some major shake ups on the WorldSBK grid for 2019, leaving some big-name riders without a ride. Today, one of those big names found a home. The Go Eleven Team announced they had signed Eugene Laverty to race a Ducati Panigale V4R in the WorldSBK championship for the 2019 season.
That Laverty should return to a Ducati is hardly a surprise. The Irishman has maintained close links to the Italian factory, and has always had a good relationship with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna. Laverty had been linked to other teams considering running Ducatis before finally signing with Go Eleven.
Laverty's arrival means the loss of Ramon Ramos, who has to make way for the Irishman. But the switch from Kawasaki and the promise of support from Ducati, coupled with Laverty's proven potential as a WorldSBK race winner made it an easy choice.
"'I’ll do my talking on the track,' are no longer words to live by"
Musical chairs is a children's game, but in the grown-up business of the paddock it is still just as relevant as if you were at a birthday party. When the music stops, you need to be sure you have grabbed a seat. Unfortunately for Eugene Laverty he's been left as one of the last riders chasing a seat for 2019, and with Marco Melandri, Loris Baz, Jordi Torres and Xavi Fores all also running in circles, the clock is ticking until the music stops for good.
Having thought that he’d be sticking with Shaun Muir Racing for next year as the team switch to BMW, the Irishman now finds himself on the outside looking in. From feeling secure that he would have a good ride for 2019, he suddenly finds himself staring at limited opportunities.
It's not the first time that Laverty has found himself in a predicament like this. In the autumn of 2013 he missed out on staying with Aprilia and had to search for a ride, which led him from being a WorldSBK title contender to riding an uncompetitive Suzuki, and from this he began a two-year stint in MotoGP. From that he made a return to WorldSBK, which yielded solid progress in his second year with the Milwaukee Aprilia squad. But this was not enough to keep his ride, with Tom Sykes expected to be announced as the rider to replace him.
The Circuit San Juan Villicum has surprised everyone in the WorldSBK paddock this weekend. With the Andes Mountain range offering one of the most picturesque backgrounds in all of racing, this brand new facility has instantly added a unique circuit to the championship.
The 4.2km circuit has received positive feedback from the riders and teams, and Milwaukee Aprilia's Eugene Laverty offered us his perspective of the track.
“I think that they've done a really nice job with this track and I've been quite impressed with it,” said the Irishman. “It took a day to rubber the track in, but in FP4 it has really started to offer more grip and we could start to push on. Over the start finish line we're able to hold fourth over the start finish straight, it's a bit too slow an exit from the final corner with low RPM to need fifth gear for us, but we're back to first for turn one.
“There's a steep descent into this corner, like at Portimao, and it's tricky going into that corner, but coming around Turn 2 it opens up and we're into second and then through the kink we'll hold second gear even though some riders are able to get into third for it. It's really nice through the faster section as you take third and fourth gear through the sweeping corners, and it's similar to Misano into Turn 6 and 7.”
A new circuit presents new challenges for everyone in the paddock. Whether its riders learning the layout, engineers understanding the compromises required of the track, or the challenges facing a tire manufacturer, a new circuit has so many variables.
This weekend in Argentina, the WorldSBK paddock will face that task. For a rider, the build up is spent trying to learn the track with videos or track maps. For an engineer, they'll use the information to hand, length of straights and corner design, to try to come up with a baseline setting for the weekend.
“Usually it's quite easy to learn a new track,” explained Pata Yamaha's Alex Lowes. “We ride at so many tracks that after a handful of laps you typically know the layout and understand where you need to be. I've always been quite good at learning new tracks; if I think back to 2014 and my rookie season in WorldSBK I was up to speed quite quickly at circuits that I hadn't ridden at before.
“There's a lot of ways that you can try to speed up the process and the easiest is to find some on-board laps from circuits or old race footage. Even from the cameras around the circuit you learn a lot about the lines and where you have to be. Obviously, for this weekend in Argentina we don't have a lot of information to use because it's brand new, but we have enough information to know what to expect.”
Jonathan Rea may have had a third consecutive double at the Portuguese round of WorldSBK but that's not to say there wasn't plenty of action and intrigue as WorldSBK resumed following the summer break.
Rea gets creative
Jonathan Rea came away from Portimao with another 50 points and moved ever closer to a historic fourth consecutive title. The Northern Irishman has enjoyed another stellar campaign and has won 12 races already this year. He'll be out to wrap up the crown in two weeks time in France and knows that following his Portimao double, he has one hand on the crown.
“I can't quite believe what's happening right now,” said Rea afterwards. “We knew after coming to the test that we'd be strong, so we kept the bike the same as at the test. I had really good pace to catch Chaz, but he was braking like an animal and I knew that I'd have to be creative to overtake him. I made the move at Turn 10 and it stuck, after that I tried to control the race. I know that my target is to win the title in Magny-Cours because I know that at this point, it's my championship to lose.”
With 116 points in hand over Davies, the title can be secured following Race 1 in France.
Davies digs deep