It has been a remarkable few weeks where Jonathan Rea has turned around an 85 point difference to leave Donington Park at the weekend with a 24 point lead.
Where has it all gone wrong for Bautista? He admitted in the UK that the crashes in Jerez and Misano were ‘our fault’ but alluded to more fundamental chassis issues that meant he was off the pace at Donington. It was something I wrote about for OTOR in April. In Aragon I spoke to someone who, let’s say, knows what they are talking about, and they predicted that at tracks like Imola and Donington Bautista and Ducati would struggle. I had no reason to disbelieve the view as it was backed up by information but to a layman like me I couldn’t see it. However, here we are.
The changes of direction; Imola’s fast chicanes, Craner curves etc and the circuit grip levels do not play to Bautista’s riding style in the way that Phillip Island, Buriram and those early season tracks had. He said on the weekend that they were struggling with set up and he just couldn’t stay with the Kawasaki’s of Rea and Razgatlioglu. He finished race two physically exhausted with the effort and was really happy with his third place on the podium.
There is also the fact that Bautista has not had the chance to test and develop the bike very much using the Pirelli wet tyres. This was a crucial difference that Jonathan Rea mentioned in his post race comments on Saturday, that he hadn’t needed to ride much in FP3 on the wet track as he has a really good feeling with the Ninja ZX-10RR and the Pirelli wets made him confident for that afternoon’s race. In the end he won by over 11 seconds.
The one thing I did notice at the weekend is that we really are pretty much in a two horse race for the title. Michael VD Mark, in third place in the series, is 170 points behind JR with five rounds remaining. It’s not impossible but it is highly unlikely that he will challenge for the crown now. Did we not say something similar back in April?
It was also reported that Bautista will most likely stay in WorldSBK in 2020. Ducati are obviously in pole position to retain him and now that Danilo Petrucci has been confirmed for the MotoGP squad, Baustista’s current seat is the last piece of Ducati’s rider jigsaw to be put in place. However, there were also mutterings around the paddock at the weekend that Honda and HRC are primed and ready for a full scale assault on the WorldSBK title and have a healthy budget to spend on riders.
Back in Jerez the WorldSBK website carried a story that HRC had offered Johann Zarco a ride for 2020 on an all-new Superbike. That story was very hastily removed but it provided the spark for a fire that is now nicely crackling away in the hearth. Big budget riders, and from the rumours about the bike’s performance in Misano, it could be that both Kawasaki and Ducati need to keep one eye in the rear view mirror for the big red wing charging through from last to first. Social media is full of names, from Alex Marquez to Scott Redding being thrown in the mix, but could Bautista be tempted from Ducati?
One rider whose value must have increased in recent weeks is Toprak Razgatlioglu. At Donington and Misano he pushed Jonathan Rea hard and has been knocking on the door of a race win…in the dry. He said on the grid on Saturday that he didn’t expect much from himself and was waiting for the dry race on Sunday. He was beaten before he had even started. If he is to step up to a factory team and challenge for titles he really needs to learn to ride in the wet. However, he is still only 22 years old so has a way to go.
Most races this year have also brought little moments of controversy. This time it was the disqualification of Tom Sykes from the results in the Tissot Superpole race, when he crashed on oil after the red flags had come out, and failed to return to the pit lane on his bike. At the time it seemed an awfully harsh penalty. I had rushed from the Old Hairpin back to parc ferme when the red flags came out so at the time didn’t know what had happened. Sykes appeared believing he was in second place only to be told that he had been removed from the results, Razgatlioglu had been promoted and Haslam slotted into third. He was understandably angry and WorldSBK commentator Michael Hill asked the fans to give him some space as he trudged back to his box.
The phrase of the day was ‘rules are rules’. As I said, I was at the Old Hairpin when the red flags came out. The bikes had just come through Redgate and were heading down Craner Curves. With the incident having taken place at Melbourne, the second to last corner, the riders had virtually a whole lap to “return slowly to the pits” (FIM WorldSBK Regulation 1.32.2). Eurosport’s Charlie Hiscott summed it up perfectly in tweet – “24 waving red flags starting at Turn 1 and 4 sets of double waved yellow, waving oil and waving red from Turn 10 to Turn 11 and 10 sets of red lights and received red flag dashboard message at i1 (Turn 3)” – it could therefore be argued that Sykes had little to complain about.
Loris Baz on the other hand offered a very fair response to some of the criticism Tom had faced by posting his thoughts on the incident. He said it was actually difficult to see the oil on the track and he reckons he didn’t go down only because he saw Tom crash and changed his line. He also made a good point about the ‘oil flag’ and that it is not restricted to notification of oil on the track. FIM Regulation 1.32.1 states that a Yellow and Red Striped flag shall be waved when: “the adhesion on this section of the track could be affected by any reason other than rain.” He pointed out that it had been used a lot over the weekend, mostly when there was gravel on the track. He advocated the use of another flag that is only used for an oil spillage that would make it clear to the riders how dangerous the situation was. I reckon that is a fairly valid point. If he and Sykes had come over the crest coming into Melbourne knowing there was oil on the track rather than gravel, or debris, or something else, they may well slowed down even more and the crash wouldn’t have happened.
As it was the TV footage shows the BMW rolling through the gravel with marshals running in all directions. I read that the keyboard warriors had criticised the marshals as well over the incident but taking the comments from Loris into account, they had done everything at their disposal to deal with the situation. The ambiguity over the condition of the track that the red and yellow flag may cause, has in this instance also put the safety of the track marshals at risk. Something that really has to be looked at.
That aside the events of this and the past weekend have given WorldSBK more than one talking point, which is always good for any sport. They used to say ‘it’s all about opinions’ – now it’s all just click bait, social media posts designed to elicit a reaction but stuff that gets people interested in bike racing, for whatever reason, has to be a positive.
By Graeme Brown @geebeeimages
Photos by Kawasaki/Ducati