Testing, rules, 2019, new bikes & new headaches?

WorldSBK rolls into motion once more

I left the recent WorldSBK test at Portimao feeling a little bit flat. I had set off for Portugal with sense of determination to get back into work and use the test to generate some extra content but in the end came home with a feeling that I had merely ticked a box.

Part of the reason was taking some new camera gear from Fujifilm to do a back-to-back test with my current Nikon kit. It was a suggestion that was made after I had the lenses stolen from the press room at Misano. The Fuji system is a modern mirrorless camera system and without getting too technical it operates in a different way from a traditional SLR, with far more electronics controlling the operation of the camera.

Despite having sat on the plane and done a really ‘unblokey’ thing of reading the instructions first, I still spent much of Thursday morning fiddling with the cameras menus trying to work out the best settings to get the results I was after. In the end it didn’t really work out. I delivered nearly all of the content to my clients from my Nikons and felt I wasted a lot of productive time working out the Fuji’s set up.

It’s also pretty much like the teams in terms of testing their race machines. There is a lot of time spent in the pit box, checking settings and changing the set-up and parts, before trying it all again. From my work perspective it can mean long periods sat at the side of the track with only one or two bikes circulating. There is a big temptation to head back to the pit lane and see what is happening but sod’s law dictates that as soon as you do that everyone heads out on track. It does however give you an impression of what teams are flat out testing new things.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Test, 23-24 August 2018, Portimao, Portugal, Yamaha Mechanics

In Portimao it was clear that Yamaha were on the stops with Alex Lowes and Michael VD Mark spending a lot of time on the asphalt. Each of them had two bikes available, so when Alex Lowes tipped off early on Thursday morning it wasn’t long before the second bike was prepped and ready to roll and he was back on track. I spoke to a couple of the mechanics on Friday morning and asked how they were getting on and they confirmed that they had a long list of things to test including some new front forks that Ohlins had brought.

Honda was also relatively busy. They had already been at the track for two days before the other WorldSBK teams turned up and whenever I passed the pit box the Ten Kate boys were always busy working on the bikes. Triple M rider PJ Jacobsen also turned up and took over testing duties from Jake Gagne on the Friday.

The main buzz in the pit lane was around the Ducati box. Aside from the Ohlins forks I couldn’t much else on the bike that was new and why would there be? The current Panigale R only has four races left in its top-line racing lifetime before the new V4 replaces it. My understanding is that because this was an official Dorna session they could not test the new bike and it will only break cover at the first winter test at Aragon in November.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Test, 23-24 August 2018, Portimao, Portugal, Chaz Davies, Ducati

The big news was that the Aruba team finally announced their rider line up for 2019. As expected Chaz Davies has retained his seat but Alvaro Bautista will replace Marco Melandri as his teammate. It had been rumoured for a number of weeks that Bautista would have the ride but according to Melandri it was news to him. He was reported to have been very disgruntled with the development and more so that Ducati had not contacted him to tell him he had lost his ride (not according to Ducati who countered that they had been in contact with his manager the whole time).

I was sat in the small makeshift press office at Portimao beside one of the series’ main journalists and he was absolutely peaking on Thursday evening after he had interviewed Melandri about it and there were some pretty eye opening revelations from the Italian’s side of things. One point that he did make was that series organisers Dorna had no doubt played a hand in the choice of Bautista, to have a Spanish MotoGP star riding in the WorldSBK series, along with Bautista’s management team who also represent current Ducati MotoGP star Andrea Dovizioso. It would seem that cards were stacked against Melandri on this one.

Personally I think I would feel the same as Marco if I were in his shoes. He has been a consistent top finisher in WorldSBK and is a proven race winner in the series. Where he’ll find employment now is up in the air with a only a few seats left available in WorldSBK and rumours that he will head to the US to race in MotoAmerica.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Test, 23-24 August 2018, Portimao, Portugal, Marco Melandri, Ducati

Another point that chimed with me is a comment I read on social media. There was a tremendous fanfare from Dorna about Bautista’s signing. Being an official test, there was a camera crew at Portimao and they filmed all the current riders to send a message welcoming the Spaniard into the championship. It was noted amongst some that Leon Haslam hadn’t had the same treatment over his signing at Kawasaki. Is Bautista’s signing at Ducati much bigger news than Haslam’s? Does the fact that Haslam has already raced in SBK, and most recently wildcarded for Puccetti, mean that it is not such a big deal, or is it, as was suggested, that fact that he is just another British rider? I can see both sides of the coin but the thing that I don’t dispute is that WorldSBK needs as much publicity as possible, good or bad.

I really hope that Melandri secures a competitive ride in WorldSBK and for me battles between him and Bautista and Haslam will be the ones to relish in 2019 when they all have a point to prove

Back at the Portimao test there was a contrasting view at the bottom end of the pit lane with Kawasaki only having Jonathan Rea testing and apparently just working through a small amount of machine set-up options. On Thursday Rea spent a lot of time in the box whilst the mechanics, at one point, changed the front forks and shortly after made a complete engine change. There was no impetus to have Rea on track on a second bike when the mods were being made. Showa too had brought some new forks but much of Rea’s work on Friday was running through the selection of development tyres that Pirelli had brought to the track.

FIM Superbike World Championship, Test, 23-24 August 2018, Portimao, Portugal, Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki

In essence Kawasaki are in a similar situation to Ducati with a new iteration of the Ninja ZX-10RR breaking cover in Japan as we speak. This week the world’s motorcycle media have started to spread the word about the latest version of the all-conquering green machine. The headline news is that the limited 500 run RR version, essentially an homologation special, comes with a new valve train design and titanium conrods. The latter saves over 400g on the existing version, making the engine spin up more quickly and also crucially allowing it to produce an extra 600rpm, and to hold that peak rpm for longer. As if it were needed then this is a clear example of how seriously Kawasaki take the WorldSBK series.

In recent years Dorna, along with the FIM, have done all they can to make the racing competition closer. Kawasaki, however, feel that they are being penalized for their success but still they dominate and in 2019 they clearly intend to do so again. To me it says ‘whatever obstacles you put in our way we will get over them’. For that they have to be admired. As has been said in the past it is now for the other teams to try to keep up but no other manufacturer seems willing to spend the time and the money on similar homologation specials to compete in WorldSBK, and therefore may forever be the bridesmaids.

The reworked Kawasaki also gives Dorna and the FIM a bit of a headache. The 2018 technical regulations state that a manufacturer will start a new season with the same rev limit as they finished the previous one. Updated machinery with the same basic engine design will be treated in the same way and the same rev limits applied but a redesigned engine will have the rev limit set by calculation. Bearing in mind that the initial rev limits were calculated from that of the existing road bike, and that Kawasaki are currently running to 14,100 rpm, up to 600 rpm less than their competitors, will this engine be viewed as a redesign or an update? Will this put Kawasaki at loggerheads with the rule makers again?

Regardless of any conflict over the technical rules, as we approach the closing stages of the 2018 season with Jonathan Rea sitting pretty on a 92 point lead in the standings, it seems Kawasaki are determined to stay at the top of the pile in 2019 and beyond. What next then for WorldSBK?

Words & Photos by GeeBee Images @GeeBee

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