The WorldSBK season goes on its annual summer break with the championship suddenly poised on a much finer edge than was imaginable just a week ago.
Jonathan Rea's dominance of the current campaign has been almost unparalleled. However, his run of 17 consecutive podium finishes to open the season is now over and suddenly he faces a threat from within for his title defense.
An engine issue left Rea on the sidelines in Race 2, his championship lead immediately cut to 46 points. It is still a comfortable margin for Rea but suddenly doubt can creep into the Team 65 side of the Kawasaki garage. Tom Sykes' win on Sunday marked a return to the winner's circle for the former champion and while he is still an outside bet for the title he is at least back in realistic range of Rea.
Equal spoils for Kawasaki riders?
A win apiece for Rea and Sykes left them both with reason to cheer in California but it was Sykes that will leave the happier rider. The 2013 champion left Laguna Seca with 45 points and some momentum entering the summer break.
Sykes followed his teammate home in Race 1 but took advantage of Rea's retirement to take 25 points from his rival. Having crashed in Assen earlier in the season the tally stands at one retirement each but the 46 point lead still gives Rea a very healthy title cushion.
“Something caused a problem with his bike but that’s racing,” said Sykes. “I made a mistake in Assen and he took the 25 points and the role was reversed here. So it’s quite interesting but certainly this is what we needed and we’ll go into the summer quite happy.”
It wasn't a trouble free day for Sykes with the Kawasaki clearly struggling in some areas. The Ducati's were visibly faster through the mid-corner zone at various sections of the track. It was something that Sykes noted but he did well to ensure that he put his bike in the right place to make overtaking difficult for his rivals.
“I couldn’t get the power applied on the edge of the tire today, which was a big, big battle. So they made it very hard for me. This made me very nervous on the front end of the ZX-10R. So I’m happy with how I reacted but we need to be conscious of this and try to improve.”
Ultimately Sykes profited from the infighting at Ducati (more below) and was able to leave Laguna with a 31st career win in WorldSBK.
For Rea the positiveness of a Race 1 win was lost to a mechanical failure. His Kawasaki ground to a halt and after the race his crew chief, Pere Riba, confirmed that it was an engine problem but that he was confident that it wasn't a terminal issue for the engine and that it should still remain in circulation.
At one point Rea was running third but made one of the most audacious moves imaginable by overtaking Sykes and Giugliano into the Corkscrew. From the outside it looked incredibly aggressive but for Rea it was simply a case of seeing an opportunity and taking advantage of it.
“I didn’t think it was aggressive, to be honest. They were getting backed up for some reason. I braked normally and there was an opening. I was like, why aren’t they going in? They got to one point where I was past Tom and Giugliano was really stopping so I had to release the brake and go through on him as well.”
Within a couple of laps Rea ran wide with the start of his technical problems and retired.
“I ran wide at turn seven but my race was red carded anyway because some corners later the rear was locking and we realized that we had a mechanical problem. So that’s how it worked today.”
A win left on the table by Ducati
Two riders into one corner rarely ends well and somehow Chaz Davies and Davide Giugliano both survived to tell the tale of an epic scrap between the Ducati riders. After being boxed in at the opening corner Davies was in the worst possible position for the early laps and fell as far behind as seventh but made his way back through the field to finish on the podium.
In most cases this would have been seen as a respectable fightback but the pace of the Welshman was such that this felt like a win that got away from him. In the closing laps Davies bridged the gap to Sykes and Giugliano comfortably but with his tire grip dropping he didn't have enough confidence to make clean moves. When he did get past his teammate he immediately ran wide at the Corkscrew. For Davies it seemed like a sudden gust of wind blew him off course.
“I think the one mistake on my part was I think me and Tom caught a mega gust of wind going into the Corkscrew with about three or four to go,” said Davies. “We both went wide and it was strange because we were both on line and going for the apex at a normal speed. And then all of a sudden before we knew it we were both three or four meters offline. It was really weird and that allowed Davide to get back by.
“Then it just became a fight to try and finish in front of him and he finished in front of me. I'm a bit disappointed because I think that had I gone through, I’d have had the pace to hold him off in the last laps. But I didn’t manage to get to the front and I couldn’t really do anything about it the last lap. I had lost a little it of time and really I didn’t have good grip all race.
“I really suffered and it was just getting quite hard at the end. But I felt like had I got to the front I could have held it there. But to actually try and make moves, I was really struggling getting off some of the turns. The race was already done by the time there’s a lap and a half to go.”
For Giugliano it was a much needed uptick in performance last weekend. The Italian is under severe pressure and to have claimed a podium finish will have been well received. However, that podium is also tempered by another crash out of podium contention for the Italian.
“I wanted to attack Tom but I did not want Chaz in front,” said Giugliano. “For me it was difficult in this race, as Chaz and Tom were braking harder than me and it was impossible for me to pass. It was a hard race, but it was fun. There was some close action between me and Chaz and on the front straight I was afrid for me and Chaz. We were more and more close but this is racing. I wanted the podium but the victory would have even better.”
That victory, which would mark the 100th victory for an Italian rider, still looks possible for Giugliano but until he can knock open the door it will be something that will define his fortunes. If he is to hold onto a Ducati, he needs to win races.
For Davies, who should have his contract confirmed in the very near future, the biggest challenge at Laguna was holding onto his Ducati. Donington, Misano and now Laguna has seen Davies crash out of contention and after Race 2 he assessed the current situation.
“The bike got a bit looser on the way into the corner and then it found a lot of grip,” said Davies talking about his Race 1 crash. “When the transfer loaded the front tire it was on the part of the track where it drops away from you, so it was like a perfect storm on the deck. I’ll take responsibility for Saturday's crash because I was just pushing on and I felt a little bit unfortunate to have that sort of snap, and then that aggressive recovery. Whereas Misano, the frustrating thing about that was it was really difficult to explain. It felt like I was cruising at that point when I crashed, whereas yesterday I was pushing.”
Davies will need to keep pushing because the wind has clearly left the sails of Ducati in recent weeks and is pushing the Kawasaki's now.
Hayden back on the box
“Laguna is such a special place” said Nicky Hayden after finishing on the podium in Race 1. He has always enjoyed racing in front of his home crowd and the atmosphere and excitement he generated at the Californian circuit was huge. Road Racing was back front and center for an American audience and Hayden didn't disappoint.
His podium came about because of crashes for both Ducati riders but he had to hold off a pack of riders with a bike that was clearly struggling. It was difficult for Hayden he showed again, just like at Sepang, when he is in a position to deliver he duly will.
“At the end of the day two top fives here in Laguna is nothing I should be moping around about or complaining about, but of course I was hoping to do something better on Sunday and hopefully do something a little bit special,” said Hayden after the weekend. “It was a great weekend though and to see all the flags and feel the support is always great.
“People were coming up to me all weekend and there were a lot of people saying, 'Meet my boy Hayden we named him after you in ‘06!' It makes me feel good and I appreciate them supporting me and coming out and supporting this event. It was great to see Laguna come alive and have a lot of energy and a good atmosphere and some good racing. I hope it’s good for road racing in our country. We need some good, big events.”
The state of Road Racing in the United States was a topic not far from lips all weekend and with MotoAmerica on show there was a clear opportunity to tap into a new market for the domestic championship. Having attended a round earlier this year and having a brother race in the championship Hayden is passionate about the championship and wants to see fortunes improve domestically. At the moment however his focus has already shifted to the Suzuka 8 Hours.
“I'm flying straight out to Japan but I’ve tried not to think about Suzuka too much until now and focus on this weekend. But now I can think about it and go out there. It’s going to be different and it's a few years since I've been there and working with teammates and stuff like that.
“I hope it’s a fun event and something I’m happy to go back to Suzuka. Above anything I would love to win it. It would be something. I’ve been fortunate enough to win some big races but it’s going to be a lot of competition this year, but to go ride a factory bike is also something. The bike looks really nice. Hopefully maybe help our relationship with HRC.
That relationship with Honda is key for the future of the WorldSBK team. The bike is much improved this year but still lacking in some areas. For Hayden the biggest disadvantage is horsepower.
“I had some problems in the races and it’s clear we struggled in a few areas, especially up those big hills. They were not good to us. But it’s not easy. This ain’t club racing. These guys are tough to beat and I’m sure they all want to really beat me around here so the podium was something to be proud of.”
Milwaukee talks with Aprilia intensify
It has been a trying year for Shaun Muir Racing with the switch from dominant British Superbike squad to a midfield WorldSBK squad clearly difficult to accept for most in the team. The tension has been clear at various points through the season and the marriage of team and BMW looks set to end sooner rather than later.
Like a Vegas wedding there was plenty promised for the future but within six months the relationship is on rocky ground. The BMW looked like a very attractive package underneath the lights of a casino floor and a quick marriage was arranged with SMR leaving their long term partner Yamaha to move in with the German manufacturer.
Since then both parties have tried to make things work but the clear differences between both parties is becoming more and more evident. Peering into the garage over recent months has been an interesting experience. There are two clear factions and no clear direction to go in. The BMW engineers know and understand their bike and how it needs to be ridden. That path is one that sees the electronics become king and for SMR this isn't a path that they can follow with Josh Brookes and Karel Abraham.
Team insiders have said that Brookes has become more adamant than ever that the bike is the issue and that they need to adapt the machine to allow him to ride with his natural style. BMW have dug their heels in and an impasse has taken place that has seen a pure standoff...and poor results.
SMR are therefore looking for an annulment and to move on with another manufacturer.
That looks set to be Aprilia but they have also held negotiations with Ducati. Both manufacturers open a new avenue for the team. Last year the move to BMW came about in a whirlwind after it looked highly likely that Yamaha would choose SMR rather than Crescent to run their WorldSBK program. Aprilia negotiations were also happening at that time but nothing concrete came about. Now there is a clear opportunity to get into bed with the Italian manufacturer.
“We are talking to Aprilia but there's still a lot to be decided before we can confirm anything,” said Muir in California. “There is however a real desire from Aprilia to be back here and be competitive, but their MotoGP project is clearly very important and they don't want to do both championships unless they can give the proper resources to both.”
Those resources would be factory support and, in all likelihood, Lorenzo Savadori. This year the Italian has impressed on the IODA-run Aprilia and his loyalty to Aprilia has been forged over recent years. For Muir the stability that a partnership with Aprilia could generate would be hugely influential in planning for the future.
“Next year our aim is to consistently fight for the top five and we know the level of effort that will require. We didn't underestimate WorldSBK but the level of competition here is such that if you are not at your best it can be very difficult. We have stability with our partners (Milwaukee and Gulf Oil) and as a result we are looking at what will give us the best chance to be competitive next year.”
Ducati is another option for SMR but those talks are not believed to be as advanced as with Aprilia.
Rider market news
The wheels of WorldSBK rider market look set to turn in the coming weeks with Chaz Davies set to be confirmed at Ducati for a further two years. The Welshman has been a consistent front runner for the team and the biggest question mark is as to who will join him on the Panigale.
A win at Laguna could have put Davide Giugliano back into the frame but for now the Italian is an outside bet for the ride. After a disappointing campaign the one saving grace for Giugliano may be a willingness to accept a low paying offer. According to paddock rumors most of Ducati's budget for riders in 2017 will be taken up with Davies' paycheck and that could mean a willingness to accept a cut rate offer could be important.
The team has spoken to a host of riders, with Michael van der Mark and Eugene Laverty both having held negotiations with the team. Both come as proven commodities in the paddock, Laverty as a race winner and Van der Mark as the most touted young rider. Would either be willing to accept a low-paying ride for the chance to ride one of the best bikes on the grid?
It looks unlikely at the moment with Van der Mark set to remain with Honda and Laverty in the pound seats for a return to Yamaha. The offer that Honda and Ten Kate had placed on the table for Van der Mark, believed to be very attractive to the Dutchman, was set to expire over the weekend but that was most likely just a timeframe where the team told its rider that they would now be forced to talk to other riders in case a backup is required.
With a new Fireblade rumored for next year, Van der Mark will likely choose to remain where he is but Stefan Bradl has talked to the team informally. The German has also been touted at Ducati where his German passport would be very acceptable to the ownership.
Yamaha confirmed that Laverty is very much in the frame for 2017 but that an agreement had not been made yet. The Irishman's appearance at Misano saw him start discussions with the manufacturer but a return to WorldSBK certainly looks on the cards. Kawasaki came incredibly close to pulling the trigger on Laverty but ultimately Sykes signed his deal in perfect timing because otherwise it would be Laverty partner Rea for next year.
If Van der Mark and Laverty turn down the Ducati seat Xavi Fores could be in the frame as competition to Giugliano. The Spaniard has had a strong campaign and another fourth place finish on the Barni Ducati will have helped his cause. Arguably, however, Fores would not mark an improvement over Giugliano so in the secondary wave of rider moves the Italian could still hold strong cards.
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