The Season So Far: Mano a Mano: Bautista and Rea Battle for World SBK #1

World Superbike promoters Dorna Sports have been, over recent years, trying various Bill Veeck (look him up) concepts in attempts to bring excitement to the production-based sports bikes World Championship that began at Donington Park April 1-3 of 1988 in the Steve McLaughlin days. Unfortunately for Steve, his New Zealand partners withdrew (went bankrupt) and FIM President Francesco Zerbi stepped in to entrust the new championship to FG Sport (Flammini Group). Under Italian management, SBK prospered sporadically from 1989 until 2013. The Flammini-SBK heydays were the Fogarty to Bayliss-Edwards years from the mid-nineties through the 2002 season.

Through a complicated sequence of buy-outs and maneuvering, too complicated to go into here, World Superbike came under Bridgepoint ownership in 2012 and Bridgepoint, then the owners of Dorna, after trying to get the Flammini brothers, Maurizio and Paolo, to accept a rule-package that they stubbornly and determinedly considered unacceptable, assigned WSBK management to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. Since 2013, both MotoGP and WSBK have been Dorna properties.

It required a change of mind-set for Carmelo, after so many years of regarding SBK as “the enemy,” but he has taken on SBK, at first as a red-headed stepchild, but more recently as a work-in-progress on the way to building it into a solid sporting and TV property that complements MotoGP as a stepping stone up to MotoGP (as we have seen, to name only a few examples) for riders like Colin Edwards, Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow and Danilo Petrucci) and a “life after MotoGP” for (to name only a few ) John Kocinski, Alex Barros, Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa, the much-missed Nicky Hayden and, currently, 34-year-old Spaniard Álvaro Bautista from Talavera de la Reina (about seventy miles southwest of Madrid).

The arrival of Bautista and the new Ducati seems to have finally moved the ball. World Superbike has been more in the news this year than at any time prior to 2002. After trying, from 2017, a modified “dog-race” concept of swapping places for the Race Two grid and putting the podium finishers on the third row with the 4th, 5th and 6th finishers on the first row and the 7th, 8th and 9th on the second row, Dorna scrapped that idea and introduced for 2019 the new three-race format with a “dash-for-cash” 10-lap sprint on Sunday before the usual SBK Race 2. They also reserved the right to decrease and increase RPM for individual models during the season based on a secret and impenetrable algorithm, known internally (possibly, but probably not) as “fórmula Melquíades,” for changing rev limits. (The carefully-guarded algorithm is said to include phases of the moon, rider DNA and I Ching input. I think that´s what they told me, but we don’t always have good coverage here in the desert.)

Just as MotoGP works without gimmicks because of great racing and big names, World Superbike has taken a big step so far this year toward recovering the glory that left it after the wonderful Bayliss/Ducati – Edwards/Honda season of 2002. The trick is that there is no trick, no reversing the grid rows or in-season RPM tinkering that can create good racing and human interest. The Rea-Kawasaki dynasty (four years in a long run of successive titles…the longest in WSBK history) now faces the red-hot challenge of a Bautista, a bonified MotoGP regular, and the speed and acceleration of an outrageous ultra-short-stroke Ducati Panegali V4R that shares bore and stroke and general concept with the MotoGP Ducati Desmosedici. Now, the rule makers need to stand back and just keep score.

At first it looked like WSBK had merely exchanged Rea-Kawasaki domination for Bautista-Ducati hegemony, but all that has changed after the opening rounds, as anyone who follows WSBK carefully knew it would. Here´s my take on what we are seeing and what we are likely to see here on out.

Rea, closing the gap

Going into Donington Park this weekend, Northern Ireland’s Johnny Rea is suddenly, after dropping as much as 53 points behind over the opening half of the season, breathing down the neck of Bautista, just 16 points back with 18 races and 372 points still in play under the new three-race-weekend World SBK format. It may have looked like a Bautista-Ducati runaway after four rounds, but now, after six, it´s wide open and the momentum seems to be shifting.

This is a strong SBK field. Ducati was fast out of the blocks, but, in addition to Kawasaki, Yamaha are strong, and, with just a little more horse power, Sykes and the BMW could be in the mix, but the gap from Rea in second back to Van Der Mark, Lowes and Haslam is huge, so great that, barring something extraordinary, this looks like a fight to the finish between the two men at the top of the points table…rivals who had only raced each other twice prior to this season.

In 2012 Rea filled in for Indy-injured Casey Stoner at Misano and Aragon. Bautista, riding a satellite Honda, was third and sixth respectively while Rea was eighth and seventh in those initial encounters. From 2012 until the present, the two riders have had very different trajectories…albeit in very different championships. Rea on the factory Kawasaki, is, at present, the all-time leader in total WSBK race wins with 75 (legends Carl Fogarty and Troy Bayliss finished with 59 and 52 wins respectively), and is currently hoping to prolong the string of four consecutive titles.

Bautista comes from MotoGP where, in the premier class, he had only three podium finishes, all thirds, in 158 starts. After moving up from 250 (fourth in 2007, second in 2008 and fourth again in 2009) he was a factory Suzuki rider in 2010 and 2011, on a Honda satellite bike in 2012 – 2014, on a factory Aprilia in 2015 and 2016 and on satellite Ducati machines for the Aspar Team which morphed into the Ángel Nieto team in 2018.

Rea, in 2018, was at the very top of the Superbike game and Bautista looked like he was about to fall out the bottom of MotoGP, but Gigi Dall´Igna, the man who gave Ducati wings (literally, and diffusers that even provide downforce, hole-shot devices and the twenty-four million-euro Lorenzo experiment, although the latter may have been Claudio Domenicali’s call) has fond memories of winning the 125cc World Championship with Bautista when Gigi directed the Aprilia racing effort. Gigi and the Ducati brain trust (Paolo Ciabatti and Davide Tardozzi) observed Bautista´s lap times and his race results over the 2018 MotoGP season and made an offer the veteran Spaniard couldn’t refuse. Like all MotoGP riders, Bautista wanted to continue performing under the big top but the only offer he had was the one he says he´d never take.

“The only MotoGP team offering me a place, Avintia Ducati, wanted me to buy the ride, and that is something I will never do,” he told a Spanish journalist.

He accepted the offer to ride with the Aruba.It factory squad as team mate to British rider Chaz Davies and as the replacement for Marco Melandri.

During the off-season and most of the pre-season, most experts still gave the edge to Rea, expecting Bautista to struggle at first to come to grips with a multitude of changes and then settle in over the second half. That was wrong, but we don´t yet know how wrong.

The contract was signed by the time Álvaro got a chance to replace the injured Jorge Lorenzo on the factory Duc at Phillip Island for the MotoGP Australian Grand Prix. Bautista´s fourth place, finishing less than two seconds back of Ducati´s title contender Andrea Dovizioso, seemed to confirm Ducati Corse General manager Gigi Dall´Igna´s choice of the Spaniard to join the Ducati World Superbike effort on the new and unraced Panigale V4R. Some Italian journalists suggested that Lorenzo´s rush to return, still unfit, for the Malaysian GP, only to retire after qualifying dead last on Friday, might have been motivated by seeing how fast Bautista was on his bike.

That same Italian press reported unsourced rumors that Ducati was having second thoughts about who would partner Dovizioso in 2018, but both Ducati and Bautista deny that his taking the slot that eventually went to Danilo Petrucci was ever discussed.

Eleven in a row

After a rather average preseason, Álvaro suddenly found his front-end mojo with Pirelli in the final test just before the World SBK season opener in Phillip Island and, in the first four rounds of the season, Bautista was unbeatable, running up a string of eleven straight wins.

Prior to round four in Assen, Dorna had stepped in to trim the maximum revs of the ultra-short stroke Ducati engine (81mm x about 48.5mm) down from 16,350 to 16,100, but Bautista blasted off to two more wins by fairly comfortable margins (the Saturday program was snowed out with both long races run on Sunday and the Superpole sprint race was cancelled.)

By the time the bikes were unloaded and ready to roll at Imola on May 10th, the score was Bautista 236 – Rea 183 and Rea and the factory Kawasaki team arrived at Imola faced with trying to dig out of a 53-point hole. Kawasaki race bosses were grumbling that the MotoGP-inspired Panigale went against the spirit of the regulations. But in the Kawasaki garage Rea´s veteran crew chief Pere Riba, counterpart of Bautista´s Guilio Nava, was ready for war. “This is a long season and we have a great team, a great bike and a great rider. Whatever rules we are given are the rules. We can argue later, but now we race.”

Kawasaki left MotoGP at the end of the 2008 season after disputes with Dorna. Kawasaki was contracted to compete in 2009, but first announced withdrawal and then, after meetings with Dorna, agreed to compete with a single rider and that rider, Marco Melandri, would ride with a bike branded not as Kawasaki but as “Hayate,” Japanese for hurricane. (A Japanese journalist told me the hurricane was in the discussions between Kawasaki and the Motorcycle Sports Manufacturers Association.) Kawasaki considers MotoGP to be too expensive and the rules irrelevant to the development of production machines.

The commitment of Ducati to World Superbike is strong. Long before Loris Capirossi gave Ducati their first win with the Desmosedici 990 at the Circuit of Catalunya in 2003, Ducati had already won ten of the first fifteen WSBK titles. Over the last ten years, while Ducati has focused on MotoGP, the Bologna factory has only won one of the last ten titles. It has now been eight years since Spaniard Carlos Checa, another ex-MotoGP rider nearing the end of his career, won the most recent title for Ducati.

But 2019 opened with a Ducati onslaught. Those eleven wins in a row seemed to sentence the championship. Ducati, some journalists feared, was going to run away with the title.

Bautista himself always knew better. In an interview with Solo Moto journalist Judit Florensa just prior to round three in Aragón, he said, “The truth is, I never expected this. I was facing a big challenge and everything was new: the championship itself, the rivals, the tires, the electronics, more standard suspension, a three-race format that included a ten-lap sprint and, for the first time since my last year in 250cc, I was on a team with a truly competitive bike where it was my responsibility to win. I did expect to win some races and fight for the title, but I never expected to begin the season like this!”

Over the next three rounds after Assen, however, Rea outscored Bautista 131 to 94 with four wins while Bautista managed three wins (although two were in the lower-scoring Superpole sprints), but the real damage was done by two un-forced errors when he crashed out of an early and growing lead in the final Sunday races at both Jerez and Misano.

What happened after Assen and what is likely to happen over the rest of the season? The first part of that question is not easy to answer, but I´ll try. The second part requires taking a look at the nature of the tracks and the principle flaw in Bautista´s riding over the years, one he is determined to amend starting in Donington this weekend.

Imola, Jerez and Misano: It could have been a lot worse for Bautista

Things began to change a bit in Assen. Although he won both races at the Dutch circuit, it was, partially because of the weather and the cold track conditions, a difficult weekend for Bautista. He was only 6th fastest on Friday and improved only a single place on Saturday. He won, but he was starting to lose that sweet feeling with the Pirelli front that had allowed him to throw the bike into corners so lustily in the opening rounds.

At Imola it must have been a shock to see the closeness of the walls. World Superbike veteran journalist Gordon Ritchie told me, “On tracks where he can back it in with confidence, the bike is unbeatable in his hands, but I think it has become front-end sensitive; hence recent falls.”

Rea took back ten points to trail by 43 points after his two wins in Imola. He pulled away to beat Bautista by 7.8 seconds in the dry on Saturday and then in the Superpole Race on Sunday he won again by 2 seconds over Davies with Bautista third, another 4.7 seconds back, beaten for the first time by his team mate. Rea was disappointed when the second Sunday race was cancelled because he saw a chance to pull back another big handful of points.

Back home in Spain and with a much larger crowd in the stands than Jerez usually draws for World SBK (the Bautista effect, they were calling it in Spanish sports papers), things were looking very good going into the final race on Sunday. Not only had Álvaro won on Saturday, but Rea had been given a double sanction and sent to the back row of the Sunday Superpole race for taking out Yamaha´s Alex Lowes on the last lap at the always controversial Lorenzo Corner (Turn 13) just before the home straight. He was also demoted one place by the FIM Jury, with Marco Melandri (Yamaha) awarded third. Rea, was moved down to fourth, losing points not just to Bautista but to Lowes’ team mate, Dutchman Michael Van Der Mark, and Italian Marco Melandri as well.

On Sunday Rea shook it off and came back strong, charging from last to fourth in the Superpole Race. The second long race went to Van der Mark when Bautista crashed out of the lead on the start of the second lap but Rea took second and the 20 points.

Minor damage. Bautista´s lead was still a solid 41 points. Rea had failed to capitalize over the weekend taking only two fourths and a third. A lost opportunity.
Then came Misano. In the rain and after a red-flag on the first start, Rea won from his ex-team mate Tom Sykes (first 2019 podium for Tom and for the BMW) with Bautista holding off long, tall Loris Baz on the Ten Kate Yamaha (hard to write that after so many years of Ten Kate Honda) for third. Sunday dawned sunny with Bautista still leading by 30 points and happy about the prospects of a dry track.

After a very comfortable win in the Superpole Race which saw Rea crash and do a 360-degree roll…something he says he learned to do riding motocross…and still finish fifth, Bautista did it again, crashing out of the lead on lap two of Race Two.

Rea, seeing his chance, decided the reward was worth the risk and won a very hard-fought battle for second from a wild and brave Toprak Razgatlioglu on the Turkish Pucchetti Kawasaki, cheered on from his garage by his mentor and five-times World Supersport Champion Kenan Sufuoglu.

After the race Bautista said, “That’s two big mistakes. I can’t afford to make any more.”

Bautista, no longer the favorite with six rounds and 372 points in play

I imagine that if, after getting his first look at the new Ducati in a points race, Rea had been magically offered the chance of going into Donington Park at the beginning of July trailing by 16 points, he would have accepted in a heartbeat. These next five circuits, the five before the season finale in Losail, Qatar, will be very challenging for Bautista. As we have seen from Van Der Mark, Lowes, Razgatlioglu, Sykes, Haslam, Davies and others, there are more riders capable of winning on a good day, but with a 142-point gap between second place and third place man Van Der Mark, this looks like being a two-man battle for the title. Here is a rundown on how Jonathan Rea and Álvaro Bautista have fared at the six tracks that await them. 

1. Donington Park (GB) Bautista: The twisty little track offers iffy grip that does not inspire confidence for a rider who is starting to suspect his front wheel is bewitched. Losing the front and crashing out of the lead in Jerez and Misano could bring up bad memories on the approach to the notorious Craner Curves downhill section or to Coppice. Bautista knows Donington and won there in 2006 on the Aprilia 125. On the Aprilia 250 he was third in 2008 and second in 2009, but after that the British GP switched to Silverstone, so he has never ridden a big bike at the Leicestershire track.
Rea: Although it might be considered a home track for a rider from Northern Ireland, Rea has not been especially successful at Donington. Of his 75 World SBK wins only one, in 2017, was scored there. Since joining Kawasaki in 2015, he has ridden eight races there and had that single win to go with four seconds, two thirds and a big, scary crash at the bottom of Craner Curves in 2017 when the rear tire exploded.

2. Laguna Seca (USA) Bautista: As the smaller classes did not compete at Laguna during the early part of Bautista´s career, he had to wait until he moved to the MotoGP Suzuki team in 2010 to ride the California track. He crashed out in both his first two rides in 2010 and 2011, finished 8th in 2012 and had a strong ride to fourth in 2013 just failing to take third from Rossi on the final lap. After that MotoGP left Laguna to SBK. Nowadays, there is nothing at any MotoGP track that compares with Laguna´s Turn 1, so Bautista will need to readjust.
Rea: In 2014, riding the Ten Kate Honda, Johnny was 6th and 7th at Laguna, beaten by Toni Elias (Aprilia) in both his first two starts there. Since joining Kawasaki he has only been off the podium at Laguna once when a technical problem forced him to abandon in Race 2 in 2016. He has, in his eight Kawasaki starts, had four wins, one second, two thirds and the DNF. He won Race 2 in 2017 and both races last year, so he comes to Laguna on a three-race winning streak.

3. Portimao (Portugal) Bautista: He has never raced at the Portuguese circuit but WSBK held preseason tests there and, on a track he had never seen, he was third, behind 1.079 back of Rea and just a tenth behind Lowes. It is bumpy and with big elevation changes.
Rea: This is probably the last track anyone would choose for a battle with Rea. He scored his first points with a 4th place at Portimao in his very first WSBK race and since then he has started 20 races at the Portuguese track scoring thirteen podium finishes: 7 wins, 2 seconds and four thirds.

Rea has won his last seven starts there.

4. Magny Cours (France) Bautista. Nada. There hasn´t been a French GP held at Magny Cours since 1992.
Rea: Magny Cours has been on the World SBK schedule since 2003 and Rea first rode there on a Supersport in 2009. Since then he has made 16 starts with 4 wins, 3 seconds and a third, but in the last two years he has won three of the last four including both last year.

5. San Juan Villicum (Argentina): Bautista: He has never seen the track. Rea: This track was inaugurated in 2018 and its first event was the 2018 World Superbike round, the penultimate of the season. Rea won both races.

6 Losail, (Qatar) The Losail circuit came on the schedule in MotoGP 2004 and has been included in WSBK since 2014.
Bautista: Álvaro has raced in all fifteen GPs run at Losail and he won there in 2006 on an Aprilia 125, but after that his record is poor. In 250cc he crashed out once to go with a 6th and a 7th in three starts. In MotoGP he has crashed out in four of nine starts and abandoned on the first lap in 2015 after having his machine damaged in a run-in with Marc Márquez. His best results were in 2012 and 2013 when he finished sixth and seventh riding for Gresini Honda, but the last three seasons have seen him finish 13th, crash and finish 13th again. Historically, Bautista has suffered under the lights in Qatar. (Quick fact: The track added lighting for night races in 2007 and ran the 2008 GP at night. At the time, it was the largest permanent sports venue lighting project in the world, but has since been bumped to second by the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.)

Rea: Johnny has won the last three races at Losail. Last year the second race was cancelled due to heavy rain and standing water depriving fans of a last shoot-out between team mates and rivals Rea and Sykes before Sykes, 2013 World Champion with Kawasaki, left for BMW. Over the years, Rea has won four of nine starts and four of his last five starts at the Qatari track.

The crash factor

That 16-point advantage looks thin, but, as Gordon Ritchie says, when Bautista is comfortable with the front tire, he and the Ducati seem unbeatable. Ducati knew going in that the first half of the season, run on seven current MotoGP tracks where Bautista had experience would be the time to make hay and that that these final six tracks, outlined above, including five tracks where Bautista either has not raced or has not raced for years (since 2009 at Donington and since 2013 at Laguna) would be much more difficult for a rider with little or no track time on a new bike.

The only track he has recent experience on is Qatar where his results over the years have been fairly dismal with the exception of a win in 125 thirteen years ago.

But, if it comes down to Qatar, expect the Ducati to hold a significant top speed advantage down the kilometer-long Losail home straight. Last year the Ducati Panegali was 9 km/h faster than Rea´s factory Kawasaki but if we look at data from this season, we see the new V4 is only marginally faster at the end of the long Aragon straight than last year´s twin, but acceleration off corners is stronger.

Looking for a weakness in the two riders, one flaw in Bautista´s record stands out. Over the last five seasons in MotoGP he has been the third most frequent crasher. Only Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow have crashed more often. Over the last three seasons, 2016-2018 Márquez and Crutchlow each crashed 67 times and Bautista was a close third with 63 crashes, seven more that Jack Miller who, in turn crashed ten more times (56) than Aleix Espargaro. (The two full-season riders with the least crashes were Yamaha team mates Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales.)

Those 48 points, lost in very similar crashes while leading on lap two, would have seen Bautista come into the “hard half” of the season with a lead of near seventy points.

Yes, he crashes a lot, there is another factor, difficult to measure: Bautista is hungry for a title. He hasn’t fought in the points table for a title since his last season in 250cc ten years ago. A MotoGP satellite rider with no hope of winning the crown will take chances in hopes of a big result even if it means taking the kind of risks that a title-contender often eschews in order to assure himself of valuable points in a season-long battle. Álvaro has to remember that.

I was talking to him once about the number 19, Freddie´s Spencer´s number and John Kocinski´s too. “But there is one number I like more,” he said, “and I have never gotten to carry it in a race.”

That number is currently displayed on Johnny Rea´s green Kawasaki and, even though World Superbike is often dismissed as second division, the battle that is currently underway between the full factory teams of Kawasaki and Ducati seems to me just as exciting as that famous 2002 season when Troy Bayliss on the factory Ducati got out to an early lead but was hunted down by Colin Edwards on the factory Honda (Honda´s V2 built, they said, to offset the advantage for twins). That year there were 26 races and Bayliss won 14 of them. Edwards won 11, but he was only off the podium once. Bayliss, much faster in the first part of the series, finished off the podium three times (a 4th and 2 fifths) and he crashed once. He lost to the Texan by just nine points…552 to 541.

Occasionally there are great seasons

In Ducati they still talk about 2002 as the one that got away and, in addition to the focus on catching Márquez in MotoGP, SBK is part of the Ducati DNA and they want this one bad.
For Kawasaki SBK is the only game in roadracing town. Kawasaki Superbike Project Leader Yoshimoto Matsuda: “I did not agree to the new rules; I just accepted them. Leaving WSBK would have surely been a solution. But we didn’t want to choose that. We want to continue to dispute this championship, now we have other challenges. The new rules are a major handicap for Kawasaki. If we win in these conditions then we have achieved a great achievement.”

Dall’Igna, meanwhile, is aware that Bautista left a lot of points in the gravel in tracks where the Bautista-Ducati combo seemed to have an advantage and he knows that the new V4 is a brand new motorcycle going to tracks where the rider has little experience and the bike has logged no data at all. “We are not ready to be on the top for all the races,” Dall´Igna said at the start of the year. “We have some weak points on the bike and we have to solve it to be sure to fight for the final championship in the right way. The stability of the bike is an issue at the moment. The turning of the bike is another weak point of the bike. We have to play a little bit more with the set-up and find out some answers to these questions before being really competitive.”

Occasionally there are truly great seasons. I remember Read-Agostini in 1975, Roberts-Sheene in 78, Spencer-Roberts in 83 and, of course Hayden-Rossi in 2006, and in Superbikes the down-to-the-wire 2002 season when Honda threw everything they had into the late season effort that took Colin Edwards to the title.

No way to know until it’s over, but this one, Kawasaki against Ducati and Rea against Bautista in 2019 just might be one of those great seasons. At moment of sending this text off to Dean after day one at Donington, the top thirteen bikes are bunched into the same second with Rea fourth and Bautista sixth. Both Donington Park SBK and the Sachsenring MotoGP are on the same weekend but the schedules are such that a viewer in the States can catch all the important action in both the Superbike and MotoGP classes due to the one hour time difference between Great Britain and Germany. So, in some ways it does help for both series to be run out of Madrid.

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