WorldSBK: Gentlemen choose your weapons
In an old fashioned duel the weapons to be used would be identical. In motorsport, teammates do get to have the same machinery but quite often the biggest duels take place between rivals with different equipment.
In WorldSBK over the last year or so the big rivalry to emerge has been between Jonathan Rea on the in-line four cylinder 1000cc Kawasaki, now ZX-10RR, and Chaz Davies on the twin cylinder 1199cc Ducati Panigale R. Being on completely different types of race machinery however hasn’t stopped the pair having a ding dong on and occasionally off track each weekend.
Last season ended with Davies smarting a bit as Rea sat up on the last lap of the last race in Qatar, allowing his Kawasaki teammate Tom Sykes to pass him on the finish straight to secure second overall in the 2016 Championship ahead of the Welshman. Post race Davies acknowledged that he “saw it coming” and went into the winter confident that he would come out strong at the start of 2017.
Rea on the other hand had been frustrated in the second half of the campaign as he couldn’t match the pace of Davies, who notched up six straight wins to close the season as the dominant rider, albeit with Rea as Champion. Jonathan will tell you that he had a bigger prize to look after but I know from speaking to him regularly at the end of last term that he was desperate to put an end to Davies’ winning streak each weekend. Ultimately he didn’t get there and went into 2017 all guns blazing.
Fast forward to Australia in February and round one of ‘17 and you would think that there hadn’t been a winter break. The two went toe-to-toe at Phillip Island again and traded barbed comments in the post race press scrum.
As I snapped them being interviewed on TV and by the assembled journalists JR mentioned that, as he led the race, he had to be really defensive down the Gardner Straight as Davies had a higher top speed. Chaz broke off from his discussions to sarcastically interject that he had been so much faster that he couldn’t get past the Kawasaki. Rea then answered back that he was happy to sit down and look at the time sheets together and discuss it.
And that was that.
In any other form of sport the media would have been banging on about the ‘War of Words’, but nothing more was said about it. I have mentioned previously that many people inside and out with the WorldSBK paddock would like to see a proper bitter rivalry between a couple of riders; something to get chins wagging and the gossip merchants trading in he said this, he said that fare. Much like F1 and MotoGP over the last few years. But, nothing.
And what of the guys themselves?
I spoke to Chaz in the winter about the new race two grid regulations and we touched on the subject of Rea. For sure he has a real inner desire to beat the Kawasaki man but my personal feeling is that there is a genuine respect for what he has achieved since he moved from Honda.
Likewise, Jonathan is very good at choosing his words carefully in a press interview and can drop the odd comment into the conversation that is clearly intended to provoke a reaction. However, I have known him for a long time and I don’t think he has a real deep-seated dislike of anyone. For sure he doesn’t suffer fools but I don’t think there is any real bitter animosity towards anyone.
I have to admit myself that working in the WorldSBK paddock you notice that there are very few riders who are at each other’s throats. However, with all sports unless it is the two challenging for the title, no one really cares.
Personally I have a lot of time for both Davies and Rea. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Chaz on Wednesday night in Alcañiz as we found ourselves in the same restaurant at separate tables ready to pretty much eat alone. I have also known Jonathan since he arrived in the BSB paddock in the UK Red Bull Rookies in 2003 and we now have a very close working relationship.
In having the ability to spend down time with both of them I find them both pretty mature, level headed guys. There doesn’t seem to be any petty, ‘school boy’ style antics from either of them. However, does the WorldSBK Championship need something like that to generate more engagement with fans? In the social media age of celebrity and ‘fake news’ I sadly have to say yes, most probably.
Motorland Aragon last weekend was another opportunity for the press pack to stir the pot as the two traded leather and rubber in the run to the final corner in race two. However, and tellingly, when he got off the bike in parc ferme, Jonathan was very quick to congratulate Davies and shake his hand.
As far as rivalries go it certainly isn’t Rossi/Biaggi, Rossi/Gibernau, Rossi/Lorenzo, Rossi/Marquez….there’s a bit of a theme there isn’t there…..or Senna/Prost; Hamilton/Rosberg, Borg/McEnroe. I don’t think Davies and Rea will be heading out for dinner together anytime soon but I don’t see them having a true dislike for each other. Theirs is, I would suggest, a real race rivalry – on track no quarter is given, but in a safe manner and afterwards the pair accept the results and move on. Maybe we have to accept that that is the way it is going to be and look elsewhere for the real animosity.
The trouble is, it is only this pair that are walking the walk in WorldSBK at the moment. The rest of the teams and riders are not quite in the same league. Only their team-mates Sykes and Melandri look like sharing the podium places this year so far. Until such times as someone else is winning races regularly and trading track position, as well as words, with either Rea or Davies we will need to just accept and enjoy the dispute between the green and the red corner and keep the pistols under lock and key for another day.
Photos by GeeBee Images