Here we are again on Phillip Island, that lovely little piece of land on the south east (bottom right) corner of Australia. WorldSBK is go, kicking off what promises to be one of the most exciting seasons of racing in all championships for a while.
After two days of testing on one of the greatest circuits in the world, ten bikes are within one second of each other. And Honda are back with a factory team and serious intent. What does it mean? It means the technical regulations may be starting to work, manufacturers are regaining interest and the championship seems to be as wide open as it has been for years. The unpredictability is helped by the fact that the Phillip Island circuit is different in character to most other international circuits.
Apart from the six seconds or so the bikes are on the start and finish straight, they’re on one side of the tyre or the other, making it extremely hard on rubber. I fully expect tyre life to have a major influence in how the races pan out over the weekend.
Phillip Island has been the traditional WorldSBK opener for years now but it’s never been a guide to how the rest of the season is going to go. And this year most of the pre-season testing, both in Europe and in the southern hemisphere has been weather-affected, adding to the uncertainty. So for people running new equipment, particularly Honda, lack of testing has been a real headache.
Leon Haslam and Alvaro Bautista say they are still working on the big stuff and haven’t got into the fine tuning. And yet they don’t seem too far away. Leon, in particular, seems to be going well on the new Blade. The technical regulations remain unchanged this year which is great because it allows manufacturers and teams to sing from a known and settled hymn sheet, meaning, in terms of machinery at least, it should be as competitive as it has been for years. The Honda looks like it is going to have tons of power. The bore and stroke of the Blade, though, is the most over square of all the in-line fours. An 81mm wide piston moving in each cylinder only 48mm means it’s gonna rev. .
The WorldSBK rev limit for the Honda (worked out from the rev limit of the standard road bike) is 15600rpm - horrendously high for a one litre in-line four with conventional valve operation. The Panigale V4R revs even higher but this is because it has Desmodromic valve operation - the valves are opened and closed by cams, not pinged shut by springs.
Honda cannot afford to fail. That is the whole point. They seem to be putting massive effort in, it’s their first factory involvement in the series for a long time. They’ve had plenty of time to look at the rule book and to work out what a machine needs to be a winner.
And they’re Honda, surely they can’t afford to fail. Revs equals power, so the bike is going to be fast, but whether it is going to be useable yet I am not so sure. Lack of dry track time could hamper them in this respect. Yamaha have always been good on corner speed and now they seem to have an engine to match in terms of power. So they should have all they want. Of course, to take the benefit of good corner speed you’ve got to be near the front at the start or you get held up, especially at Phillip Island where you can easily lose three seconds in the first lap just by being in the pack, being a tad quicker down the straight will really benefit them.
The Kawasaki is largely unchanged but we know how good it is, and how good the team is. The Ducati is also largely unchanged except some tweaks to the rear of the bike, the swingarm, but still with the same rev limit so presumably the same straight-line speed albeit with a heftier rider in the shape of Scott Redding. Redding is going about his business, doesn’t seem fazed by anything. He knows Phillip Island like the back of his hand having raced there many a time in MotoGP. He’s been getting to grips with his rivals and the team, all new to him. He’s got a lot of confidence but isn’t cocky. I am sure he’s sitting there now reasonably confident can run near the front most of the season.
Chaz Davies hasn’t gone quite as quick in testing but we know what a ‘Sunday man’ the likeable Welshman is. He knows how to grit his teeth does the fella…
Alex Lowes seems to be taking a little bit of time to find his feet on the Kawasaki. He’s been in the gravel during the Phillip Island test, but so have most of the others, so I wouldn’t read too much into that. The biggest problem for Alex will be sitting in the other side of the garage. We all know the first rule in racing: must beat teammate.
Van der Mark seems to be going about his business fairly methodically while Toprak Razgatlioglu had his great breakthrough in the second half of the season last year when he was simply brilliant.
The big question for this year was whether he would click with Yamaha after cutting his WorldSBK teeth on the Kawasaki. Well, it would appear he has. It seems he’s sussed out quickly what differences in technique are needed to be fast on the R1. I really rate the kid and I think he’s going to be strong. In total, the grid is looking a lot stronger and more competitive, one of the reasons being as I said before that the rules, being largely unchanged, have started to work. When there’s a rule change some teams are always going to benefit more than others.
Kawasaki always seemed to be in a position where they could throw a bit more resource at it than some others and make any rule change work for them. Others took time to catch up. It is a compliment to technical director Scott Smart and his FIM team that it looks like we have some tech regs that people know, understand and can work with. So what is going to happen this season. Everything I can see points to it being a more competitive and exciting championship in 2020 . . however (I think you knew this was coming) Jonathan Rea is still gonna be the man to beat.
Looking at it in the round and over the whole season he and the team seem to get the best out of every situation. Who will challenge? Well I really like Loris Baz and the Ten Kate team but I can’t see him challenging across the whole season. So my top three, in that order, would be Rea, Redding and Toprak. As to the races this weekend it is, because of the track, it’s anybody’s game. It’s a tyre battle and everybody takes their time in the opening laps. But it makes for great racing in that dash for the flag towards the close.
Finally, two other things which are really encouraging. We have some young rising stars, two 23 year olds Toprak from Turkey and Federico Caricasulo from Italy, and then a ‘veteran’ in experience but only 27 in years, Scott Redding, together with other younger riders coming in from Moto2 and Moto3.
Superbikes has never been an old man’s bash. It’s where riders seem to stay longer and it’s not a crime to be in your 30s or even 40s.There’s plenty of life in those old dogs, Rossi celebrated his 41st last week. And the survival, indeed revival, of the Supersport class which many, including me, had written off because, with the exception of Yamaha, none of the other major manufacturers are producing the 600cc sports bikes that the race bikes are based on. Well, that’s still the case but the class is oversubscribed. Yes, the grid is ‘Yamaha heavy’ but the racing is great so who cares…