How do you solve a problem like Alvaro?

I missed the race in Thailand so didn’t really get to gauge anyone’s feeling about the situation at the moment where Alvaro Bautista seems to be winning at his leisure. On current standing there is no competition. That sadly is the way everyone else in the paddock is feeling. The tables have truly turned.

For the last few years Jonathan Rea has been the focus of everyone’s ire; he was making the series boring, it was dull watching the same guy winning every week, the Superbike championship is washed up. At this point last year, JR had only won two races and he was in a proper fight with the Ducatis. It wasn’t until Laguna Seca that he started to dominate. This year, Bautista has won nine from nine with no challenge to speak of. At the moment I can’t see any way that anyone in the paddock can make up 15 seconds to start beating him and that is what most other people think as well.

There were a couple of dissenting voices on the weekend in Aragon, however and in particular someone who has been looking closely at Alvaro’s riding style and the data and feels that we may have seen the best of him in the first three races. Bautista apparently rides the bike in a very particular style where he brakes very early into a corner, losing time, but then gets on the gas really early and is able to fire the Panigale V4 out of the corner, getting up through the gears quicker than everyone else to reach top speed on the straights. The reverse rotation of the crank helps with the balance of the bike and it doesn’t want to wheelie so much meaning there is less stress put on the rear tyre and the electronics are not working so hard. Engineering and technology that has comes directly from the MotoGP bike.

That riding style may not be suited to tracks like Assen, Imola or Donington and the suggestion was that we may see Kawasaki and Yamaha come back into contention.

The result at the weekend was that Alvaro got to make use of his tattooed knuckles on Sunday to point out that he has now won nine races in a row. I am not going to bet against him using both fists sometime soon to display the full 19.

After that last couple of years of Twittering about ‘JR should really be in MotoGP’ I was going to start the conversation that AB19 ‘really should be in MotoGP’ but someone beat me to it and has actually set up a GoFundMe page “Get Bautista Back To MotoGP”. It inevitably drew the comparisons between SBK and MotoGP riders with one comment claiming that this put the issue to bed once and for all – that SBK riders would never cut it and that Marquez and Rossi could stop for a cup of tea and still win the race. I just added @calcrutchlow to the conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always rated Bautista as a racer, back to when he was dicing in 125 and 250 GP’s. No one becomes a world champion in any sport without a modicum of talent.  However, I go back to what I said last time out that we are at a bit of a technological watershed in Superbike racing and I foresee the other manufacturers raising their game in the coming year with new models of the one litre sports bikes.

One criticism I heard within the paddock over the weekend is about the ‘balancing’ rules for WorldSBK where the cost of everything is capped.  This is designed to ensure that one manufacturer doesn’t throw an open budget at their Superbike project and to allow the private teams to have access to the factory machinery and thus level the playing field. The cost of the base production bike is capped at €40,000 but, as more than one SBK engineer said to me at the weekend, the true cost of the Ducati is way more than €40k. I don’t think this is in any way sour grapes and I trust those in the know that have way-more technical and engineering knowledge than me. Over the weekend I heard prices from €60 to €100k as a true value for the bike. It’s widely accepted that Ducati have taken the MotoGP bike and turned it into a road going production bike. It’s then a marketing decision to sell it for €39,999 to bring it within that price cap for WorldSBK racing. Honda could have done the same with the RCV213V-S road bike that they produced in 2015 but it was priced at it’s true value of €150,000. 

Time will tell if the circuits coming up will change the order of things but my feeling is that Ducati and Bautista have, by whatever means, hit a particular sweetspot and not much is going to derail them.

One piece of good news in the last week was the announcement that Ten Kate Racing will be back on the grid in a few races time. They have partnered with Yamaha and Loris Baz and should be ready to race by the summer. There were rumours that they would ally with BMW or Suzuki but in reality Yamaha was the much better fit.

Gerrit Ten Kate made his name with his race tuning workshop. For many years he was the go-to person for the best Hondas in production racing, to the point that his race prepared CBR600’s were regularly beating the HRC factory prepared machines.  The new partnership with Yamaha will see Ten Kate go back to their roots as a tuning company. The bike they presented was in their trademark yellow livery and they will now become the technical centre and supplier of the GYTR (Genuine Yamaha Technology Racing) parts and service.

This is another sign of Yamaha’s current commitment to production racing and the results of the factory Superbike team this season are really impressive. If you bear in mind that Kawasaki introduced a revised Ninja ZX10-RR over the winter and they have been quicker at every test and race so far this season, for Alex Lowes to be pushing JR all the way to the line over the last two races means that they have actually made an even greater improvement over the winter. 

The weekend’s racing was properly engaging and the result of the battle for second place was never guaranteed. One telling thing was that in the post race comments all riders said they enjoyed it and certainly everyone I spoke to thought it was a the best racing we have had for a while.

Now: what about Alvaro?

Words by Graeme Brown, Photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages

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