The big talking point at the weekend was obviously the rider merry-go-round and the ‘done deals’ which don’t seem to be quite as done as we first thought. The key moves surround Yamaha and Kawasaki in a triangle between Toprak Razgatlioglu, Leon Haslam and Alex Lowes.
It was widely expected there would be an announcement at the weekend that, in what seemed to be the worst kept secret in the paddock, Razgatlioglu would replace Alex Lowes at Yamaha. One thing we are sure about is that Lowes is on his way out of his current Crescent Racing/Pata Yamaha seat. He has confirmed that but where he will end up is still a mystery. The options are to stay in the Yamaha ‘family’ and ride for GRT or Ten Kate. I spoke to Kervin Bos from the Dutch squad and he confirmed that they were planning to run a two rider team in WorldSBK in 2020, so slotting Lowes in there would seem a reasonable assumption. GRT on the other hand are closer to the Yamaha factory outfit in general, sharing workshops in Italy with the MotoGP team. That would therefore be a logical fit as well.
The chat around the press room was that Yamaha have told him they will work it out with him and retain his services with either of those teams. Lowes himself seemed content he would have a ride next year and it was just a matter of deciding where. The curve ball then came from one chat that suggested he was close to jumping ship to Kawasaki as teammate to Jonathan Rea, with Leon Haslam being slotted in at Puccetti. That was a new one to me as I was under the impression that Haslam was another ‘done deal’ and it was just a matter of timing the announcement.
Maybe there are frantic negotiations still on going behind the scenes, or maybe the riders and teams are toying with us to keep us all guessing.
Tom Sykes ended his guessing game and confirmed his option to ride with BMW again next year. The SMR squad and Sykes are beginning to find some form, although that deserted them a little at the weekend, at a track that Sykes has been voiced objection to in previous years, and with a year of development they will hopefully be a step further forward next season.
Alvaro Bautista was another to play the guessing game, insisting he has not signed a contract with HRC, despite a few people in the press room insisting he has. As far as I know there is still a big debate within Honda and HRC as to how they will structure the team next year. It would appear that the relationship with Moriwaki and the Czech base for the current team will disappear and they will move to Spain, most likely the Barcelona region and have a new structure more aligned to the MotoGP team and Japan. However, there is also a suggestion that they want to run a second string team. Could that still be with Althea, based in Italy? It would seem plausible. Talking about it in the press office we couldn’t see another team, currently in the paddock, that would have the infrastructure to compete at that level. Honda don’t even have a strong team in WorldSSP that could step up much like GRT did for Yamaha in 2019. I think this one will meander for a few weeks yet and it maybe that nothing is announced until the EICMA show in Milan in November. If you remember the bombshell that was dropped in terms of WorldSBK at the show last year, then I guess anything can happen.
Bautista got back to winning ways at the weekend despite still feeling the effects of the injury sustained in Laguna Seca. It was a pretty impressive performance given the pressure he came under in the closing laps from Jonathan Rea. It was noticeable when I was shooting trackside that everyone was struggling with grip from the rear tyre around the mid point of the race. As I rode on my scooter back to the paddock with two laps to go I noticed Bautista sliding through the uphill turn 12 with smoke billowing from the rear tyre. I stopped as it was a shot I had to try and get.
It can be frustrating shooting at Portimao as much of the track is bounded by really tall fences. It’s over ten years since the circuit opened but there are still no holes cut in the fence for photographers, like you have at other tracks. Some sections have been cut out to accommodate TV crews and flag marshalls but in some cases there is a really nice shot that you can’t get because of the fencing. There are places where it is possible, with a little bit of ‘engineering’, to make a gap between the bottom of the fence and the Armco barrier to shoot through but at T12 I was left to press the 600mm lens against the barrier and hope that it did obstruct the view too much.
With all that Bautista and Rea came round on the next lap as if they were racing like they had nitroglycerin in their back pockets, trying to get to the line as fast as possible whilst trying to prevent the back of the bike from blowing up. You could clearly see a different body language of them both as they gently manipulated the relationship between the throttle and the rear tyre. JR had a little left in his rear Pirelli and reeled in the Ducati superbly in the final few corners. Bautista, however, just managed to hang on as they crossed the line. I didn’t get the smoking tyre shot but it was pretty cool to watch at first hand.
You might have thought Jonathan would have been a bit pissed by not getting the win, one more lap could have sealed it, maybe, or should he have pushed a lap earlier? Maybe. In the end he was really pleased with the race. I spoke to him briefly before we all left on Sunday and he really enjoyed himself, he saw what I had seen with the Bautista’s rear tyre and gave it everything in that last lap but I think he knew he was also on the ragged edge and there was nothing more to give. With three rounds remaining and a 93 point lead in the standings I think he can be pretty chuffed all round.
We are therefore set up for a completely unprecedented five in a row at Magny Cours. It’s an outside chance but a chance nonetheless. Otherwise the fans in Argentina could well be treated with a WorldSBK title celebration which, given their enthusiasm last year, I am sure they will embrace.
By Graeme Brown @geebeeimages
Photos by GeeBee Images @geebeeimages