2019 WorldSBK Testing Round Up: Panigale A Work In Progress, Rea Dominant, Lowes One To Watch

Testing paints a picture but it’s never a complete one. It shows only what the artist wants you to see with their work in progress. The winter is a time to work through your program and do it at your own pace. This year that has been even more the case. With new bikes for Ducati and BMW there is plenty of change in the air of the World Superbike paddock, and after eight days of testing there are arguably more questions than answers.

The Ducati V4R was billed as the weapon to finally end Jonathan Rea’s dominance of WorldSBK. It was a MotoGP-derived bike that didn’t pull punches. It was one that broke cover over 12 months before its competitive debut. It was expected to be a honed creation from the outset. It was expected to be seamless. But instead, Ducati’s introduction of their new machine has run aground this winter.

Circumstances have worked against Ducati. Four days of testing in November were ruined by bad weather in Aragon, and then a bad track surface at Jerez that would need to be replaced. With a brand new surface at Jerez, it was dirty for the opening test of 2019. It took time to clean and it was almost impossible for riders to do long distance stints without excessive tire wear. Coming to Portimao it was hoped that Ducati could get some information on the new bike.

Hampering progress

A freezing wind was blowing in Portugal, and as a result riders were struggling with unseasonably low track temperatures. It was treacherous at times, as shown by so many red flags on Day 1, and with Chaz Davies riding with an injured back, the red bikes were very much on the back foot. Alvaro Bautista gave them something to cheer about with the third fastest time on both days.

The Spaniard set his fastest times on the qualifying tire, but his pace throughout the course of the Portuguese test indicated that there was still plenty of work to do, with the V4R looking to be close to one second a lap slower than Rea.

“Tests are tests and races are races,” said Bautista. “I feel better than Jerez but I’m still not at 100%. I think we’re at about 85% with the bike and me. We need to improve the bike but there’s potential in this bike. I didn’t know Portimao so for sure starting the season at Phillip Island is better for me. Inside the garage and working with the team is the same as in MotoGP but the biggest difference is the tires. I feel worse in cooler conditions than when it is hot but I need to learn and understand how to manage different conditions.”

Banged up is bad for testing

For his teammate Davies, the tests were clearly tough. Sitting out half a day in Jerez didn’t help, and at almost every test he has found his mileage limited by one factor or another. The Welshman has never been a strong tester and admits that it’s something he could improve on, but also knows that when the lights go on race day he has always been able to get the most from his package. The feeling he had on opening the throttle on corner exit with the new Ducati was a problem in Jerez but the team made a step in Portugal. Getting fit is the goal for Australia.

“This was tough because you are jumping all over the bike here in Portimao,” said Davies. “The rear is kicking quite a lot and it felt like I was on a motocross bike at times. It jars up through the back. It is definitely the last thing I need, but now I need to focus on getting ready for Australia. Physio and rest are what I need but obviously we’re just before the start of the season so I’m training and trying not to put too much load on the back.”

With Eugene Laverty and Michael Ruben Rinaldi also on the Ducati, there are enough bikes on the grid to give an indication of its potential. Of all four riders, it was only Bautista that had a headline grabbing lap time. Overall though his pace dropped off, and while he was still comfortably the most competitive Ducati rider the challenge facing them shouldn’t be underestimated. Laverty talked about how “the effort needed to do my lap time was a lot more than the result shows. I’m having problems with the rear, and we need to address that before Australia. Portimao was always going to exaggerate our problems because of the hills, but we need to work hard for Round 1.”

The Irishman will use Bitubo suspension on his GoEleven machine, while Rinaldi will use Showa. With the factory riders using Ohlins, it’s a very strange situation, seeing a brand new motorcycle with so much variety. All three suspension manufacturers can work in WorldSBK - Showa are used by Kawasaki and Davies actually used Bitubo when he won his WorldSSP title - but adding additional variables to the equation seems to be adding more challenges than necessary. Of course, lots of factors go into making these decisions and now it is up to GoEleven and Barni Racing to make their bikes work for their riders.

Bang on schedule

While Ducati are trying to find their feet with their new bikes the updates that Kawasaki and Yamaha brought to the Iberian peninsula have given them a very stable base. Jonathan Rea continues to lead the way, and in every category he dominated in Portugal. His one lap pace, his race pace, and his consistency were a step above everyone else, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from Kawasaki and Rea. They've had the best bike on the grid and it’s only gotten better.

When working with Mick Doohan in 500GP, Jeremy Burgess always said that Honda didn’t need to reinvent the wheel each year; they needed to find 2% improvement. If they could do that they’d stay in front. Kawasaki looks like they’ve found their 2% for 2019, but Portimao was always going to be tough for Ducati, and with the freezing track conditions it skews the numbers still further.

Rea crashed at the end of the test; he was doing a practice start and on the way back to the pits was pitched off the bike in a big highside, but overall it was plain sailing for the four times champion.

“I thought that Portimao would be a better base for comparison compared to Jerez,” said Rea. “I feel good, set good times and I’ve a lot of confidence going to Australia. I’m happy with the bike but we can still improve it because you’re never at 100%. In Portimao I had some issues under braking at Turn 1 but it felt great on the last runs.”

Rea was the only rider to lap inside the 1'40s, and his fastest time was just under one second faster than Alex Lowes. While that qualifying tire lap grabbed the headlines, it was once again his consistency that emphasized how good Rea and the Kawasaki are as a package. He could lap in the 1'42s for fun and his average pace (for this purpose his fastest 15 laps from the test) was giving him a consistent edge. Lowes was Rea’s closest pursuer, but was four tenths of a second adrift but it was the margin to Haslam that will be setting off alarm bells.

Relearning old habits

The British champion is re-adapting to WorldSBK and has had to change his riding style considerably, he is looking to carry less corner speed and exit the corner better, but he was consistently over half a second slower than Rea. Testing is a time to improve yourself and get ready for the start of the campaign and Haslam is a proven WorldSBK race winner and front runner. He’ll be there again this year but it was surprising to see how much he appears to have left to do. Weather played a role in Haslam not showing his full potential in Portimao and he didn’t get to show his pace on the Q tire.

“I was second fastest behind Johnny on race tires,” said Haslam. “I've settled in very well with the team and they’re incredible. I'm learning something new every day and we're making steady progress with the bike. I’m running well on race tires already, but now I have to understand better the softer compounds and the Q-Tyre. There's a lot of work but the direction is right. Portimao is one of my favorite tracks, but there are still two or three corners here where I lose time. It was getting better and better but the time lost by red flags and the rain didn’t help. I have to adapt my style, but doing a 1'42.1 on a race tire gives me confidence.”

Alex Lowes, dark horse

While Haslam is building his confidence, Yamaha are looking very content with this week of testing. Lowes completed more laps than anyone, and at both Jerez and Portimao he was the closest challenger to Rea on the time sheets. Having broken his duck last year and registered a win at Brno last year, he’s used these tests to adjust his style. Looking to brake harder and spend less time in the corner, he’s attempting to make the Yamaha spend less time on the angle in the corner and more time upright. It’s working at the moment, and his form at both tests was something that made people sit up and take notice.

“This was a really good test because I’ve always struggled at Portimao,” said Lowes. “My times were consistently fast and my fastest lap was on the SCX tire, the sprint race tire, because there was a lot of traffic when I was on the Qualifier. I can improve that, but doing a single quick lap wasn’t important to me. I wanted to be able to hold my pace and we did that and we were able to complete our entire test program and we’ve got a good base for the test and the races in Phillip Island. We worked hard this winter and we’ve made no mistakes.”

For Michael van der Mark, this was another solid test, and while the Dutchman didn’t match his teammate’s times, there is little doubt that when the racing starts in Australia that he’ll be right there. After Portimao it was strange to see Marco Melandri struggling so much and the Italian was forlorn at times through the week. He was outpaced by his GRT Yamaha teammate, Sandro Cortese, at the end of the test and the Italian couldn’t match the times of Lowes and Van der Mark. With their top speed lacking and only having one bike, controlling their mileage could have been a factor.

Consistency beats headlines

While Yamaha has a solid platform to build off, the BMW looks to have a lot of potential. To be within a tenth of Haslam on race tires is very encouraging for Tom Sykes. The 2013 world champion didn’t use the qualifying tire for his times and his pace was quite solid and on race tires the Shaun Muir Racing run project seems to be within a second of Rea and Kawasaki. That’s very impressive and shows just how good a base package the BMW S1000RR will be for the team.

“When you look at the times everything depends on who went with which tires,” assessed Sykes. “I didn't use a Q tire. We had so much to do, we preferred to work through our tasks. I'm happy how it went and we’re all working in the same direction. We’ve worked on the electronics, the chassis and the spring elements and improved my seating position. It never stops! Portimao isn’t my favorite track and conditions weren’t ideal but we were very productive.

“The strong wind compounded some of our problems but it’s good to do that because it can be very windy on Phillip Island. We can handle the wind much better now. I am satisfied with our consistency, but it is really difficult to judge who is where because a lot of riders were using new tires on Day 2.”

That, in a nutshell, is why it’s a lottery, or a fool's errand, to read anything into testing times. There are so many variables and so few concrete answers. Testing is preparation but the exams will start on 23rd February in Australia with the first Superpole session of the season. It will only be then that every rider is pushing for a lap time with the same conditions at the same time.

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Thanks Steve! I haven't been expecting the V4 Duc to be sorted yet. Agreed that testing conditions have made it harder for a fresh bike to get sorted. They have a lot of work to do. It has not been an easy bike to get set up re suspension and chassis. The power though, this motor has monster offerings to exploit. The second teams running their own suspension is an idea to take behind the barn and hit with a shovel. They will get the bike at the pointy end. It is not anything I expected soon. Mid season battles with Rea would be very welcome.

Beautista has been looking like a serious threat, this is exciting. Lowes too. The electronics on the R1 look good, hoping a touch more grunt is on tap. This BMW may yet impress. Sorry to not see the new Aprilia...that is a GEM of a machine. 

The Haslam name sure has been seen a good while. Is he the elder statesman of the current grid? Was Chili the oldest rider we've had? Hooray for the old dusty perservering fellas! 

Haslam is 35.  Getting on for a motorcycle racer, but WSBK has always favoured older riders while I've been watching it.  Often riders who have reached the end of their time in GP.

Checa was 39 when he won his title, and kept racing for two more years after that.

Biaggi was 41 when he won his last title - and promptly retired.

Corser retired at 40 (not entirely by choice).

Bayliss won his last title at 39 and retired from the world stage after that.

Even Rea is 32 now - no spring chicken.