While it has hardly been surprising to see Ducati and Kawasaki maintain their position as the dominant forces at play in WorldSBK the battle for best of the rest has been an interesting subplot for 2017.
Over the course of the opening three rounds of the campaign the form of Honda and Yamaha has been marked by their stark contrast in fortunes. Last year, Honda had been a podium and front row regular as the season moved into the European swing, and Yamaha looked to be clutching at straws in looking for any positives they could find on their return to the series.
This year has seen their roles reversed, with Yamaha consistently the best of the rest and in position to fight for a rostrum finish. Honda on the other hand have had a disastrous start to the campaign with an all-new Fireblade.
Heartbreak for Honda
At the press launch of the new bike journalists raved about the handling and power of the Honda but, as has been shown time and again in the past, the requirements for a road bike and a race bike are very different. The new bike has been a hybrid throughout the campaign so far with various parts from the 2016 bike still in use but with upgrades set to come thick and fast the Ten Kate squad will be hopeful of making progress.
With the bikes arriving just weeks before the first test of 2017 the team were always likely to face an uphill task in the early races. Just how difficult it would turn out to be has been a surprise though. With Red Bull backing and two world champions on the bike the expectation was high but has since turned flat.
The team has plenty of legitimate excuses with production delays caused by the Japanese earthquakes that badly damaged their factory, but there is still a sense of disappointment. There is no doubt that they have been put on the back foot from the outset but their inability to match last year's performances has been a big surprise.
American Nicky Hayden has done his best to search for positives throughout the winter and early rounds but his patience is clearly being tested at the moment. With the team expected to test some new parts at Portimao it should at least give the 2006 MotoGP world champion some hope that progress can be made and they can push to be closer to the front of the field.
The biggest issue this year has been the electronics and with constant engine braking problems the team has struggled to use their track time for much more than trouble-shooting the bike. At the post Aragon test Hayden comment that “it's been a good day and we were able to work on a lot of set-up options and try some things. Overall it was positive and a useful day and we tried some new things with the transmission. We wanted to test the new softer tyre but had some problems at the end of the day.”
The WorldSBK paddock has moved on in recent years and Honda's decision to rely on Honda Europe rather than HRC to fund the project, not to mention rely on Ten Kate to develop the bike, has given them additional obstacles. If big H is to be a front runner in WorldSBK in the future they will need to offer resources from Japan to the championship.
A Yamaha return to form
Yamaha has been in a similar situation with the Crescent run squad based in the UK and initially receiving minimal support from Japan. Over the course of the winter this has changed considerably and so has their fortunes.
Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark provide a potent rider lineup and in addition to this both riders have been successful in getting the most from the R1. Last year was a challenging season, a lone podium for Sylvain Guintoli was a highlight, but this year has seen Lowes a constant top five fixture and Van der Mark get more and more from the bike with each outing.
At the Dutch round in Assen both riders will go to the weekend expecting to be in the thick of the fight rather than hoping to be close. There is still work to be done to be on par with Kawasaki and Ducati but whereas a year ago they needed a wing and a prayer now the team can feel much more confident. “It's been a good start to the year and the test went well,” said Lowes. “We worked on trying to find improvements on corner entry, this has been a focus all winter, and some of it worked well and others didn't but that's normal in a test.”
On the balance of the season must of what they have been working on has been offering improvements. With the next round Van der Mark's home race it would not be a surprise to see the blue bikes in the running at the front.
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