Michael van der Mark
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.
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
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.
Jonathan Rea claimed another WorldSBK double, his fourth in a row to remain unbeaten since the end of June, at the French round of the championship. With his Saturday success Rea was able to wrap up a historic fourth consecutive title and now his attention has shifted to loftier goals.
An assault on the record book
Rea's latest success has put him in a position to break the record for most points in a season, and also most wins in a year. The points record, which Rea holds from last year's campaign, is 556 points, and as a result he now needs 87 points to break that record. With 100 points available from the final two rounds of the year, including a visit to an all new circuit, it's definitely a big ask of Rea, but not one that is out of reach.
Rea is the man to beat and until his run of eight consecutive victories comes to a close, he will control his own points destiny. In addition to that he is also chasing Doug Polen's record for wins in a single season. The American's total of 17 wins in 1991 has stood the test of time, but is now seriously under threat. With Rea sitting on 14 wins thus far in 2018 he will need to win the final four races of the year to break the record. If he does, the points record is also his.
Carrasco makes history
With Pol Espargaro ruled out of this weekend's British Grand Prix, Loris Baz will fill the void at KTM. With replacement riders once again in the MotoGP news, how does it feel to jump onto a MotoGP bike?
“It was like I'd never ridden a motorbike before,” is Leon Camier’s review on his MotoGP debut when he deputized for Nicky Hayden in 2014. With such a steep learning curve, what can you gain by jumping on a MotoGP bike for one weekend? It's a hiding to nothing according to many, but as Camier attests, world class riders can get up to speed quickly.
“It's tough mentally and it was draining to try to learn so much in such a short space of time. Understanding the tires was the biggest thing to learn because the brakes are quite normal; they stop the bike when you pull the lever! The tires take time to get the most out of them. You'll figure out how to get the most from them for one lap pretty quickly, but understanding them for a race takes longer.”
The WorldSBK series may be on its summer hiatus, but there is still plenty of news going on. After the official announcement that Tom Sykes would not be back with the KRT Kawasaki team, it is the turn of the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK squad to make announcements. Today, the team issued a statement saying that current riders Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes will remain with the team for the 2019 season.
Though the announcement did not come as a surprise, it does close the door to Tom Sykes, who had been linked to a possible ride with Pata Yamaha, had either Van der Mark or Lowes moved to the Kawasaki team to replace him. But with Leon Haslam set to take the second seat next to Jonathan Rea, Sykes will have to look elsewhere.
These are the first signs that WorldSBK's silly season is about to accelerate over the summer. There are still a lot of open questions left in the WorldSBK series, and a lot of open seats. Complicating issues is the fact that there could be an influx of riders from the MotoGP series now that rides are all tied up in that championship.
The American Frontier was about finding a way to survive. To do this, people from all over the world had to work together and find a way to coexist on the open plains and in the mountains. They did this because they knew the rewards could be massive. Unimaginable wealth lay beneath the rivers and mountains of the West Coast, and everyone believed they would find it.
Every racer in the world also believes that the trophies and points are at their fingertips once they have the tools at their disposal. Finding a way to work with a group of people from all over the world and making them believe in you is crucial. The American Dream was founded on the ideal that anything was possible and the Racer's Dream is based on the belief that you're the best in the world and any issues you're having are just a temporary delay of the inevitable.
At Laguna Seca we had proof once again that the Racer's Dream is real. Jonathan Rea was a highly regarded rider prior to moving to Kawasaki in 2015 but since then he has been all but unbeatable. On Sunday he claimed his 62nd WorldSBK and fourth victory at the American venue. The success that the Northern Irishman has enjoyed has been unprecedented but, at least for Rea, was the gold he'd been seeking in a river bed.
The US Round of the 2018 WorldSBK season highlighted once again the importance of hard work in motorcycle racing. Last year it was hard to imagine Milwaukee Aprilia standing on the podium on merit; on Sunday Eugene Laverty made his long awaited return to the rostrum. We have seen in recent rounds Yamaha win three races with the R1, but last weekend's races arguably did more to prove the potential of the bike.
Aprilia back in the hunt
After a four-year wait Eugene Laverty finally managed to scratch an itch, and spray some prosecco. The Irishman has been a title contender in the past, though he has suffered from poor machinery in recent years, but the hard work of the Shaun Muir Racing outfit paid off with a superb weekend. Laverty was on the pace throughout and looked very comfortable from FP1 as he finally converted potential into points. His 2018 season will always be punctuated by his crash in Thailand, but it now appears to be a pause rather than a full stop on his aspirations.
Yamaha making strides
Laguna Seca is one of the world's most famous race tracks and it could play host to a memorable race this weekend. Yamaha are on a roll, Kawasaki are in the midst of what could become a difficult break-up, and Ducati are looking to recapture lost form at a venue of past glories.
Can Yamaha keep it up?
Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes have combined to win three of the last four WorldSBK races but few circuits have uncovered the R1's shortcomings in recent years like Laguna Seca. A best result of fifth since 2016 has seen the US become a round to forget in the past. However" the progress made this year could change their fortunes and see the PATA squad head to California like the prospectors of 200 years ago. There's glory in the hills of Northern California and their confidence could see Yamaha spring a surprise again.