It has been a long winter of waiting for Loris Baz. For a long time, it looked like the Frenchman would not have a full time ride for 2019, but on Tuesday, at the press conference presenting the Dutch round of WorldSBK at Assen, the Ten Kate squad announced they would be making a return to World Superbikes, racing a Yamaha R1, with Loris Baz at the helm.
Baz had been in contact with the Ten Kate squad for a while, and had decided to wait for the team to take shape. He had spent his time training hard, often riding in the snow, as well as occasionally helping other teams where the needed it.
"Already at the end of last season we took the decision, my manager and the guys around me, to only race if we could have a package to be fighting at the front," Baz said. "I didn't want to have another season like year but we couldn't find anything in WorldSBK so we looked in MotoAmerica, in BSB and other places."
The discussions with Ten Kate team managers Ronald ten Kate and Kervin Bos had persuaded Baz that it would be worth waiting. "When we started to talk to Ronald and Kervin it made us think that we should wait and see if anything can happen with them. We were told by Ten Kate that if the project would happen it would only happen with the right package. It was a long time waiting for it to happen but finally it's cool! It's worth it."
All about the package
For Baz, it was the complete package of bike and team which had convinced him this was a project worth joining. "The package is everything," he said. "Unfortunately this is a sport where you need everything to perform. You can give the best bike to the best rider but if he's in a bad team it won't work. You can give a fantastic team a bad bike and it won't work. A perfect bike, a perfect team and a bad rider won't work either!"
"You really need everything and everyone knows that Ten Kate is a strong team. They've struggled in the last few years but it doesn't change what they did in the past and we know that the Yamaha is a strong bike. I knew that the package was strong for me so now I can't wait to try everything! I've never ridden this R1, I've not ridden with Ten Kate in Superbike but I rode for them in the Superstock class."
Baz had found support for the project inside Yamaha Motor Europe, thanks to his past connections with the Japanese brand. "I don't want to always be changing my bike, like the last few years, and I think that it's cool to be back with Yamaha," he said. "I started with them and [ex-Paris-Dakar star] Jean-Claude Olivier did a lot to help me launch my career. Also, when we started to talk, [YME COO] Eric de Seynes did a lot to get this project approved too and [Yamaha WorldSBK boss] Andrea Dosoli was keen for us to do it. I've ridden almost every brand of bike but Yamaha has always been special for me because I started with them, I rode their bikes for many years, even my first year in MotoGP [with Forward Yamaha], and it's cool to be back with them again."
It was clear to Baz that the Yamaha YZF-R1 is a well-rounded bike, as the fact that all four Yamahas have consistently finished between third and eighth place in the six WorldSBK races held so far. "The package is for sure capable of fighting for the podium - Alex had three in Thailand and Marco in Australia too - so this package is clearly able to finish on the podium. The gap between Johnny and the Yamaha has closed a lot from last year... It's just Alvaro is just flying at the moment!"
Why is Alvaro Bautista flying at the moment? According to Baz, because he has been forced to switch so often in recent years, which makes it much easier to adapt his riding style to a new bike. "When you're used to changing many things in your career - Alvaro has ridden the Suzuki, Aprilia and Ducati in MotoGP so he has this experience - it means you can adapt pretty fast. For me adapting back to Pirelli tires took a lap so it can happen quickly."
Bautista's success is down to him gelling perfectly with the Ducati Panigale V4R, Baz believes. "For sure he's doing fantastic at the moment but I think that the gap between Alvaro and the others isn't just the rider or just the bike. They are working so well together and he's found a great balance with the bike and is riding it perfectly. When the package is good it's hard to fight against that and we saw that with Johnny [Rea] for years. The bike isn't easy to ride though because Eugene [Laverty] and Chaz [Davies] are struggling with it."
Podiums the goal
Having missed so much of the start of the championship, Baz knows finishing high up in the championship is impossible, so his focus is entirely on trying to score podiums. "I want to finish on the podium," he said. "We have already missed two races, we will miss two or three more, so we'll not be able to think about the championship at all. So we can focus on the races. If we race like we can do we'll finish on the podium."
Getting to the podium will not be easy. The team won't be present at Aragon or Assen, so the earliest they can enter the WorldSBK championship is in early May at Imola. But that would be more of a shakedown, as they would not be able to test ahead of Imola. The team may wait until Jerez, in which case they will do a test ahead of the Spanish round of WorldSBK.
" I want us to be on the podium as soon as possible but it's likely that our season will start in Jerez, Imola is still on the books at the moment but we'd not have much testing for that," Baz said. "If we go to Imola, it will be like a test session, if we go to Jerez, for sure we will test before, but I can't wait to get started. I've not ridden the new R1 yet, I rode the old bike in 2011, but I've ridden so many bikes over the years since. Kawasaki, Yamaha in MotoGP, both types of Ducati in MotoGP and the BMW so I'm sure that I can adapt to this bike pretty fast and the podium is the target."
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