When the North Wind Blows
Colder than a cold thing that you put in the freezer. That is the only way I can describe how everyone felt at the weekend in Assen. To look out the window you had the impression that it was a fine spring day but as a biting North East wind cut across the flat landscape it was truly ‘Baltic’ in every sense.
Chaz Davies explained via Twitter that an air temperature of 3˚C actually felt like -12˚C when travelling at 290 km/h. I felt for the riders who were out on track at 9:00 AM when the air and ground temperature in the shade was still hovering around zero, and that was without the wind chill. Alex Lowes deployed a two glove strategy with latex gloves underneath his race gloves and Jonathan Rea used an old fashioned cycling trick, in the absence of a copy of L’Equipe or Gazetta della Sport, he used a carrier bag on top of his chest protector, just to try and alleviate the affects of the biting wind.
The cold conditions culminated in snow flurries on Saturday afternoon that resulted in the cancellation of race one. It was described by many as a snowstorm that deteriorated. I am from Scotland and it wasn’t REALLY snowing, it was, as I described it, a brief flurry. It was enough however to wet the track and with the track temperature already very low it was deemed unsafe to race.
As we all milled around the pit lane waiting for either a break in the weather or a final decision from Race Direction there were various grumblings. Some riders wanted the race delayed as long as possible to see how the weather would play out, others wanted just to race, whilst there were those that really felt it wasn’t safe to ride at all. The riders were out in pit lane chatting, debating and wandering up and down but I noticed one man pretty much stayed in his pit box. I didn’t see Alvaro Bautista, at anytime, engage in any discussions, he just sat patiently and waited for a decision.
The racing on the weekend was pretty good again. Bautista won but claimed he felt he had to work hard for it. Michael VD Mark took two podiums, keeping the home fans happy and further verifying Yamaha’s credentials as a top manufacturer in the series.
Still struggling mid pack was Leon Camier on the HRC Fireblade. I managed to catch up with Leon on Friday night after his regular media debrief. He explained that the bike he is on is basically the one that Honda used in the All Japan Road Racing Championship for the last few years and which Takumi Takahashi won the JSB1000 category in 2017. There is nothing carried over from the Ten Kate/Honda Europe project at all. There were various top engineers from HRC present in Phillip Island and Thailand and they acknowledge the task that they have to be truly competitive in WorldSBK. Leon sounded a little bit frustrated, but understanding, that there is nothing new in development terms in the immediate future and that that is how HRC will do things.
He further explained that the philosophy is not to try many different things on a race weekend and hope that something works but to use the data gathered at the race track for the engineers to work in Japan and find solutions and improvements, only bringing them to WorldSBK when they are confident that they will work. It leaves him battling for places at the bottom end of the top ten for now. There is a two-day test at the end of May and hopefully some new developments for the Fireblade will appear then. We could, however, jump on the rumour mill and speculate that HRC are working on something bigger and more radical that won’t break cover until 2020. Either way I would love to see Leon at the sharp end fighting for podiums.
The WorldSBK balancing rules came into play at the weekend and Ducati had their upper rev limit trimmed by 250 rpm. A necessary but, in my view, futile exercise. Having chatted with some other people about it my conclusion is coming round to the fact that the Panigale V4R that Ducati have brought to the series, in the hands of Alvaro Bautista, really has moved the game on. We can debate all we like about whether or not it is an out-and-out race machine adapted for the road. The fact is that Ducati have worked within the rules to compete this year in WorldSBK and this is where we are. Kawasaki threw all their resources behind their WorldSBK project at the start of the decade and they got five world riders and four manufacturers titles out of it. Someday someone was going to come along and beat them. It just so happens to be Ducati.
You will hear many racing people talking about the ‘package’. In essence it means all elements together; the rider; chassis; engine; suspension; tyres; sometimes even the coffee machine in the pit box. With Bautista you are seeing the perfect ‘package’ for WorldSBK at this moment in time.
The decision to bring the Panigale V4 to bear was described to me by Ducati’s Press Officer, Julian Thomas, as ‘we wanted to make the equivalent of a Ferrari sports car for the road bike market’. You can’t deny that that has been a long held philosophy of Ducati and it’s only in recent years that they have entered the mainstream touring and street bike markets.
As I said last time out, I don’t really see much changing in the WorldSBK results table until at least next year. What I would suggest however is to get down to a WorldSBK where you can get up close to the teams and riders and marvel at the beauty of the Ducati. It also looks like you will see some pretty good racing as well as the field jostles to be the main challenger to Bautista.
By Graeme Brown @geebeeimages
Photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages