To stick or twist?
With some time to reflect on the events of WorldSBK at Imola it was good to put them in context with the racing that took place at the weekend. Imola had been a happy hunting ground for Chaz Davies and Ducati in recent years with four wins on the trot, and I fully expected a similar outcome this year. Indeed with Xavi Fores being a regular on the podium in 2018 on his privateer Ducati, I was ready for complete podium domination from the Borgo Panigale marque.
However, the combination of Jonathan Rea and the Ninja ZX-10RR can never be discounted. Bear in mind that this year the Kawasaki squad has had their race machines hamstrung by the WorldSBK 2018 technical regulations and have been short of the outright pace they have shown in the last two years. Rea has been open this season, saying that race one on a Saturday is his chance to score maximum points as he is struggling to get through the field in race two with the reverse gridding, and aiming for a podium place is the main target. He told me a while back that ‘you know when it is your day, and that is when you have to push as hard as you can for the win’. Rea is forever pushing hard but some days there are too many risks involved in chasing the win, and collecting the points for second or third is more valuable in the long term.
Last weekend he obviously felt both Saturday and Sunday were his days. It was reminiscent of 2017 when I guess he could have started from the pit lane and by lap three or four would have been challenging for the lead. To be fair to Chaz Davies he put up a strong challenge in race two with a bit of fairing paint being traded but in the end Rea was just too strong.
So is the Superbike championship still boring and predictable?
It may still be predictable but in my view it is anything but boring.
I sat down for a veritable feast of action on Sunday. Having done everything in my power on Saturday to avoid the thing that shall not be mentioned, Sunday was my time to make a dent in the sofa. It was a TV and laptop sort of day with MXGP on the TV and MotoGP and Giro d’Italia on the laptop (2 wheels good – with or without a petrol engine). Only one of those events was less than predictable, as Simon Yates looks more and more likely to become the first Brit to win the Giro.
In both the other races I reckon I had pretty much worked out the result before the lights had gone out and the gates had dropped. The opening laps of the MotoGP race were pretty action packed and I certainly didn’t predict Dovi and Zarco making those small errors that cost them their race, but Marquez looked as though he was cruising once more.
It was the same in MXGP. Jeffrey Herlings took a handful of corners to get into the lead in both motos and was never seen again. Quite literally. I chuckled a couple of times at commentator Jack Burnicle’s frustration that the Director was focusing first on Cairoli chasing Desalle, then the dice between Gasjer and Paulin, but nothing of Herlings. Like many of us, Jack just wanted to sit back and marvel at the poise and control of man and machine in perfect harmony.
Having witnessed Rea dominate in Imola and watched Marquez and Herlings take comfortable victories in Le Mans and Teutschenthal, I am coming more the appreciate that we are currently seeing some of the most outstanding talent we will see in our sport for a long time.
Rea has now equalled Carl Fogarty’s outright wins total in WorldSBK and will no doubt surpass it, if not this weekend at Donington, in the next few races. He is also looking more and more likely to equal King Carl’s four Superbike titles with an unprecedented consecutive run.
We are just in a time and place where these immense talents have flourished, and rather than discredit them for being boring and predictable, although I think no one would ever accuse Marc Marquez of that, we should revere them, as we may never see their like again.
The rider’s game of musical chairs has got underway as well. In MotoGP there a couple of tasty options up for grabs with seats at Honda and Ducati still to be filled but in WorldSBK it could be all change as there are a few itchy bums as well as shaky coat hooks at the moment. The king pin will of course be Jonathan Rea.
I had a good old gossip on the flight home from Imola with the guys from Eurosport and we reckoned there was potential for a complete reshuffle pretty much all the way down pitlane. It has been widely rumoured around the press office that Ducati have made Jonathan Rea an offer to ride the V4 next season but Kawasaki are obviously desperate to hang on to their man as well. I don’t think things got as far as a firm offer from Ducati but I know that JR had spoken to them and was impressed by the performance of the V4 test mule that appeared at Jerez in January this year.
Beady eyes however might have seen Jonathan’s manager at Le Mans at the weekend and my understanding is that he still has a number of positive options to ride in MotoGP next year. One thing is for sure like Rossi and Marquez in MotoGP once JR puts pen to paper for 2019 the rest of the WorldSBK paddock will start to fall into shape.
It looks like Davies and Melandri are on their way out at Ducati. Our 37,000ft gossip had Melandri heading to Yamaha under the tutelage of Andrea Dosoli once more but no firm idea of where Davies would go. There also seems to be the possibility that both Yamaha riders would move on as well. Tom Sykes is apparently keen on returning to the brand that gave him his break in WorldSBK. With Michael VD Mark seemingly still hanging his hopes on a MotoGP seat it would leave Alex Lowes looking for options around the paddock.
If both Rea and Sykes were to leave Kawasaki that would arguably mean the best two seats in the paddock were up for grabs. That may be a better option for van der Mark and it could see Razgatlioglu promoted from the Puccetti squad. The latter would bring sponsor headaches as the Turk has huge support from Red Bull Turkey with the KRT team backed by Monster.
Further along pitlane there could be more swaps on the cards. BMW are rumoured to be unhappy with the performance of the Althea squad, especially given that Markus Reiterberger is posting similar and sometimes faster lap times than Loris Baz, whilst riding a Superstock bike. There is a new boss at BMW Motorrad and they will introduce a new bike next year. It looks as though they will favour the German Alpha Technik team ahead of the Italians, to run what will essentially be a factory programme. Could there be a return to BMW for Davies, who last raced for them in 2013, taking a double win at Aragon that year, before his move to Ducati? On that basis Genesio Bevilacqua would be looking for bikes to run and Aprilia may be the best option. The Milwaukee squad, who currently run the Aprilias, have struggled with the Italian marque and Eugene Laverty’s recent crash has hampered any progress this year. It could be that the Althea team would run with Aprilia next year with Shaun Muir’s Milwaukee team reverting to Yamaha, with whom they had their BSB success in 2015, as a satellite team.
One thing for sure is that the future rider and bike line-ups for next year in WorldSBK are less than predictable. I am sure the coming weekend in Donington will bring more rumour and intrigue so I guess it is just a case of watch this space.
Words by Graeme Brown @GeeBeeimages
Photos by GeeBee Images