The start of December marks the beginning of what is rapidly becoming a tradition in the world of motorcycle racing. After the Jerez test in late November, it is now "Why Is Jonathan Rea Faster Than A MotoGP Bike" season. At Jerez, Rea pushed his Kawasaki ZX-10R WorldSBK machine – down 35+ bhp and up 10+ kg – to the fourth fastest overall time of the week, ahead of eleven MotoGP regulars (including two rookies), three MotoGP test riders and Alex Márquez, who the Marc VDS team were using to train up the new crew recruited to look after Tom Luthi's side of the garage while the Swiss rider is still injured.
How is this possible? And what does this mean? Are WorldSBK machines too close to MotoGP bikes? Why are MotoGP manufacturers spending ten times as much to be shown up at a test by Jonathan Rea? And why, for the sake of all that is holy, does Jonathan Rea not have a MotoGP ride?
The answer to all but the last of those questions is buried away in the bigger picture of the laps posted throughout the week. When you examine the numbers, the picture is a lot more complex than the headline times seem to suggest. Tires, temperature, and track all play a part. But all of that can't disguise a rather outsize dose of talent.
Rea vs MotoGP
Though it is undeniably true that in the overall times, Jonathan Rea finished fourth behind only MotoGP riders Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, and Jorge Lorenzo, that is not representative of Rea's real race pace. Rea's two fastest laps on Friday – a 1:37.986, and a 1:38.062 – were both set on qualifying tires. His next fastest lap – a 1:38.893 – was set during a four-lap run, and is more in line with what he is capable of in terms of race pace. That 1:38.893 would put Rea behind Jack Miller on the Pramac Ducati GP17 (twelfth fastest, if you exclude the other WorldSBK riders on qualifiers).
The chart below gives a much better indication of overall pace. On a qualifier, Rea is pretty much on a par with the MotoGP riders on their fastest laps. But beyond their third fastest laps, Rea's pace is a little under a second slower than the MotoGP riders. Still punishingly quick and impressively consistent, but if Rea were to enter his WorldSBK-spec Kawasaki ZX-10R on Pirellis in a MotoGP race, he would be lucky to make it into the top ten.
The table showing the average of best laps, minus presumed qualifying laps, bears this out. Rea is nine tenths of a second slower than Cal Crutchlow on the LCR Honda, and over a third of a second slower than Pol Espargaro on the KTM.
|Average sub 1'41 laps (minus qualifying laps)|
|Cal Crutchlow||Honda RC213V||MotoGP||1:38.993|
|Andrea Iannone||Suzuki GSX-RR||MotoGP||1:39.026||0.033||0.033|
|Andrea Dovizioso||Ducati GP17/18||MotoGP||1:39.036||0.042||0.009|
|Jorge Lorenzo||Ducati GP17/18||MotoGP||1:39.078||0.085||0.042|
|Pol Espargaro||KTM RC16||MotoGP||1:39.227||0.234||0.149|
|Jonathan Rea||Kawasaki ZX-10R||WSBK||1:39.900||0.906||0.672|
The chart does reveal some interesting trends among MotoGP riders. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were working more on speed rather than race pace. Dovizioso, in particular, only had nine laps below 1:38.6 before his pace dropped to around the 1:39 mark. The decline in Lorenzo's pace was not quite as precipitate, but follows the same trend. This is consistent with Ducati working on a new chassis and parts aimed at solving some of the turning problems the GP17 had during 2017.
Suzuki vs Honda
The two most interesting curves on the graph belong to Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Iannone. Crutchlow's, in particular, is revealing. The LCR Honda rider found himself roped in to do the donkey work of testing of Honda's preliminary version of their 2018 machine. At the Valencia test, both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez had said they were surprised at how much closer to being ready the new RC213V was than it had been in previous years, and Crutchlow's times would appear to agree with this.
Crutchlow's pace is very solid, with eighteen laps under 1:39. Crutchlow did one longish run on Thursday: at 3:45pm, which was quick – nine fast laps, six of which were 1:38s. Though it is hard to see whether it was the 2018 or 2017 bike he did a given run on – and almost impossible to keep track of, without an army of people wandering pit lane to do so – Crutchlow's pace and consistency suggests the Honda could be quite good in 2018. Also for riders not called Marc Márquez.
Andrea Iannone's lap times will also be reason for cheer for Suzuki. The Italian was not quite as faster over a single lap as the factory Ducatis or Crutchlow (or Jonathan Rea, for that matter), but his pace and consistency were very good. Iannone did not do any long runs, but even during runs of five or six laps, multiple laps would be sub-1:39s. Overall, Iannone's pace was broadly comparable with Crutchlow's, a relief for Suzuki after a dismal 2017.
Rea vs WorldSBK
To get a better picture of Jonathan Rea's worth – even under the new regulations – we can compare his times against the other WorldSBK riders. Rea's fastest time is a third of a second faster than anyone else, and his advantage in race pace is pretty similar. No matter where you look, the gap between Rea and the rest is pretty similar. At the test, Rea put this partly down to the regulation changes: the rev limits in place make the bike more ridable, allowing the Ulsterman to carry more corner speed and apply the throttle earlier without risk of upsetting the bike. The new rules have only moved the Kawasaki closer to his natural style.
If the testing data bears out that the new rules have helped Jonathan Rea, they also appear to have helped Alex Lowes on the Yamaha. Lowes race pace is quick and consistent, matching (if not better than) that of Tom Sykes on the other Kawasaki. Lowes did a lot of laps in the 1:39s, but he also did a long run of 15 full laps, or just under 80% of race distance. All of those laps were under 1:41, and all bar two were under the race lap record Jonathan Rea set during Race 2 here in October. This was a very promising run for Lowes, offering hope that the WorldSBK podium (if not the top step of it) could be a very much more diverse place in 2018. The table below shows the average of sub 1:42 laps posted by five different riders, and this also shows just how strong Lowes was at the test.
|Average sub 1'42 laps (minus Q tires)|
|Jonathan Rea||Kawasaki ZX-10R||1:39.900|
|Alex Lowes||Yamaha YZF-R1||1:40.247||0.348||0.348|
|Tom Sykes||Kawasaki ZX-10R||1:40.324||0.424||0.076|
|Marco Melandri||Ducati Panigale R||1:40.406||0.507||0.082|
|Leon Camier||Honda CBR1000RR||1:40.870||0.971||0.464|
Less obvious, but still visible is the fact that Marco Melandri is struggling. Though the data used for Melandri is not completely comparable – the only data I have for the Aruba.it Ducati rider is for Thursday, not Friday – it seems a fair reflection of the problems he was having. The Italian was faster on Friday, but only by a tenth of a second, and still over a second and a half slower than Rea.
Melandri did not try for a quick lap on qualifiers, so it is understandable that his best time was a lot slower than the others. But even in terms of pace, the Italian is lagging behind Sykes and Lowes. The Ducati Panigale R has arguably been hardest hit by the rev limits introduced in the new rules. Ducati are having to chase revs to make enough horsepower to compete against the four cylinders, and losing those extra revs are costing Ducati both top speed and lap time.
Just how badly Ducati are struggling would be clearer if we had Chaz Davies' data to compare. However, Davies crashed on Wednesday, and suffered a knee injury. Unfortunately, I do not have the full list of lap times posted by Davies on Wednesday, and so cannot make a comparison. However, Davies' fastest time on Wednesday was a 1:40.630, 0.9 behind his teammate and 2.3 seconds behind fastest man of the day Tom Sykes. That suggests that Davies' data would not have revealed that much. That might have been very different if he had not been injured on Wednesday.
Camier vs Cosworth
Though Leon Camier was slowest of the riders selected – both in terms of outright speed and race pace – it is clear just how hard the Englishman is working on the Red Bull Honda CBR1000RR. Camier put in over 70 laps on his new steed, working on adapting to the new bike and giving feedback to the Ten Kate team to help move the bike in the right direction. Though Camier is slower – roughly half a second off the pace of Melandri, Sykes, and Lowes – the consistency of the bike was impressive. Camier did a lot of laps around the 1:40.5 mark.
The main complaint Camier had was about the electronics of the bike, currently a Cosworth system. He felt there was a distinct lack of throttle connection, he told us afterwards. The throttle took a fraction of a second to react to inputs, making it difficult to control precisely. It was very like a scooter, Camier told us, requiring planning to get into and out of corners. Camier and the Red Bull Honda team are hoping that a switch to Magneti Marelli electronics will help address that, and provide a more direct connection with the throttle, but the first test with those will not come until January.
Why comparisons are flawed
As interesting as the comparisons are, they only answer some of the questions we posed at the beginning of this article. To get the bigger picture as to why the WorldSBK machines are so close to the times set by the MotoGP bikes, we have to look at all of the factors involved. Leaving aside the riders for the moment, there are good reasons why WorldSBK bikes are at something of an advantage (or rather, less of a disadvantage) at Jerez. Those reasons can be broken down into two factors: 1. The track; and 2. Tires and temperatures.
Starting with the track, the nature of Jerez is such that it does not allow the MotoGP bikes to truly stretch their legs. The track has a lot of corners where the bike spends a lot of time on its side. The track favors corner speed over top speed (the maximum recorded speed along the back straight is a lowly 293 km/h for the MotoGP bikes, well down on the 350+ km/h at a track like Mugello), and the final corner and front straight is the only place the MotoGP machines get to use their advantage in acceleration.
Comparisons with other classes help clarify just how much of an impact the track has on keeping times close. Rea's best non-qualifying lap on the Friday of the test was a 1:38.893, about a second behind the MotoGP bikes. But a week earlier, the Moto2 machines had been at Jerez, and Miguel Oliveira had posted a best lap of 1:41.518, roughly 2.6 seconds slower than Rea, on a bike with half the horsepower and only 15 or 20 kg less weight. On the Tuesday, Nacho Calero had posted a 1:45.067 on board a Supersport-spec Kawasaki ZX-6R.
When compared to other tracks, the gaps between the classes are closer. The gaps between the lap records for the MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3 classes are roughly 4 seconds at Jerez. At Motegi – a fast track with a lot of hard acceleration – those gaps are 6 seconds between each class, despite the lap time only being 6 seconds slower than at Jerez.
Tires and temperature
Another area where the WorldSBK bikes have a slight advantage is in the combination between tires and temperatures. Track temperatures at the November test were not far off the temperatures recorded at the WorldSBK round in October, somewhere between 25-35°C. The tires Pirelli bring to the test work well in the cooler temps – in fact, the Pirellis seem to work better in cooler conditions overall than MotoGP Michelins – and so more of the performance from the tire is available to the WorldSBK riders and with less effort than for the MotoGP riders.
Michelin brought the same compounds to the test which they had during the MotoGP round back in early May. Then, track temperatures were in the mid-40°s C. The tires which worked then would have struggled a little in the much cooler temperatures at Jerez in November.
Where's the difference?
Despite all this, Jonathan Rea, riding a hopped-up street bike, managed to lap within a third of a second of a pure MotoGP prototype. Kawasaki are said to spend roughly €7 million a year on their WorldSBK program, while MotoGP factories spend in the region of €50 million a year. That is a lot of money to be spending for only a marginal gain.
But motorcycle racing is a game of marginal gains, and each incremental speed increase costs money. To go from being three seconds a lap slower to one second a lap slower is relatively cheap. Going from being one second slower to getting within half a second is an awful lot more expensive. Each tenth of a second after that costs exponentially more, and takes twice as long to achieve.
If Kawasaki were to decide they wanted to enter MotoGP, it would not be as simple as removing the fake headlights from the fairing and phoning Dorna for a grid slot. First, they would extract the extra 10-15 horsepower which should be relatively easily available, put carbon brakes on, and shod the bike with Michelins. Then, off to a track to go testing.
There, Kawasaki would find that the uprated engine meant that the bike was approaching corners faster and getting off the corners harder, requiring a new swingarm and frame. More power means different geometry, which also needs a new frame. Carbon brakes mean they are braking later, meaning the front of the frame would need to be stiffer to cope. The much stiffer and very different profile of the Michelins mean that the bike would behave completely differently, and the frame, swingarm, geometry, weight balance of the bike would need to be radically revised to get the best of the tires.
Once they felt they had reached the limits of their current engine, they would have to build a new one, with more power but a still usable power delivery. More power means a new frame, new swingarm, higher top speed, harder braking forces, which needs yet another frame, stiffer headstock, stiffer triple clamps, etc. Rinse and repeat until you have burned your way through a massive pile of money. Incremental gains come at exponential cost.
It's the rider, stupid
As should be obvious from the charts and tables comparing Rea's times with the other WorldSBK riders, Rea himself is also one of the biggest reasons the gap is so small. Anyone who has watched World Superbikes this year has been able to see just how well Rea is riding at the moment, able to pass other riders at will, and at any point on the track, and capable of lapping with surgical precision and blistering speed for an entire race.
If it is obvious to anyone watching WorldSBK just how good Jonathan Rea is (and arguably, Chaz Davies as well), why isn't he in MotoGP? There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, but most of the blame lies with the short-sightedness of the MotoGP paddock. MotoGP team managers – and especially MotoGP factory bosses – do not regard the WorldSBK paddock as a viable path to MotoGP. Instead, they look to Moto2 and Moto3, taking the best of the riders from there. There are good reasons for doing that – being able to watch a rider progress, and interact with them informally gives managers an idea of what a rider is made of. But it also misses out on a lot of potential talent in WorldSBK.
With factory bosses focused on Moto2 and Moto3, that leaves only seats in satellite teams up for grabs. It is much harder for riders to make an impression on a satellite team than on a factory bike. Make the wrong choice, and you end up hamstrung by a poor bike in a poor team, and without the chance to prove what you are capable of. In a career which is already short, taking the wrong turn can prove very costly, and mean you never get another chance without a mountain of cash to pay your way.
In a way, Jonathan Rea's career is an example of how circumstances – and perhaps wrong choices – can dictate where a rider ends up. We suspected Jonathan Rea might be quite good when he entered World Superbikes, but he found himself on a Honda and having to override the bike just to keep up with his rivals. The fact that he convincingly beat his teammate at Honda every single year was another sign of how good he was.
But nobody in the Grand Prix paddock saw through the weakness of the Honda CBR1000RR, looking only at the headline results. The MotoGP rides he was offered were on inferior machinery, and with Honda continually promising to bring a much faster bike in WorldSBK (including the mythical V4 which never seems to materialize), Rea stayed put. By the time he lost patience with Honda and moved to Kawasaki, he was already 28 years old, unfashionably ancient for the youth-obsessed Grand Prix paddock.
The proof of the pudding
At Kawasaki, Rea proved just how good he is. Since jumping onto the ZX-10R, he has won exactly half of the 78 races he has started and all three championships. The rest have barely gotten a look in.
How good would Rea have been in MotoGP? We will never know, though we came very close earlier this year when there was a very serious plan for Rea to swap places with Andrea Iannone on the Suzuki MotoGP machine. Rea is comfortable where he is, and very well paid (for a WorldSBK rider). He makes a lot of money both in wages from Kawasaki and in bonuses from his sponsors. With two young children rapidly approaching school age, being away from home for 13 races, rather than 19 MotoGP rounds is an attractive proposition.
Above all, though, MotoGP factories remain transfixed on Moto2 and Moto3, and even the feeder classes below that, such as the Red Bull Rookies and FIM CEV Moto3 Junior World Championship. Their eyes are turned inwards towards prototype racing, rather than outwards to the world. Until that changes, even talents like Jonathan Rea – easily one of the best six or seven racers in the world – will be ignored in favor of some callow youth on a Kalex.
Epilogue: method in this madness
A word on methodology. The data used to make the following comparisons was taken from the full list of lap times on the Circuito de Jerez live timing website. Unfortunately, that data is not made permanently available, nor easily accessible, and has to be taken from the website separately on each day of the test. This is a very time-consuming business, and was not possible for every rider on every day.
So I took a smaller sample on a number of days. The fastest days of the test for the WorldSBK and MotoGP riders were Thursday and Friday, and I took the full lap times (every lap turned) for a representative selection of fast riders. The comparisons the analysis below is based on were made using the pace for MotoGP riders on Thursday and the WorldSBK riders on Friday (for the most part). Those were the days the riders set their fastest times.
The charts used were made by taking every lap turned by a rider on a particular day, sorting them by lap time, and discarding obviously slow laps (slower than 1'41 for MotoGP riders, slower than 1'42 for WorldSBK riders). This provides a rough basis for comparison, though it is hardly statistically rigorous.
Laps set in qualifying trim are easy to identify for WorldSBK riders, but a little harder for MotoGP riders. The qualifying tires Pirelli supply to the WorldSBK series are good for one fast lap before they are done. Any two-lap exit – a slow out lap followed by a very fast time between six and eight tenths faster than any of the rider's other laps – is likely to have been set on qualifiers. As there are no qualifying tires in MotoGP – and no record of who set what lap on which tires – riders tend to go out for slightly longer runs (three or four laps) when chasing a quick time. Even the softest compound Michelin makes available should be capable of lasting race distance.
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