2019 Phillip Island WorldSBK Test Round Up: Is The Ducati As Fast As It Looks?

Alvaro Bautista wrapped up testing in Phillip Island by dominating the time sheets in all four sessions. The Ducati rider has it all signed and sealed ahead of his WorldSBK debut this weekend. The top speed of the Ducati Panigale V4R is such that he’ll blow past everyone on the straight. Single-lap speed and top speed will make it an unbeatable package. After four years of Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki, dominance we’ve traded one era for another.

So goes the logic from some quarters of the WorldSBK paddock, but don’t run to the bookies to put the mortgage on Bautista. He’ll definitely start this weekend’s races as the favorite, and rightly so after his testing performances, but that’s the thing... that was testing. Racing is a very different beast and while the headlines from testing belong to the Spaniard, the Prosecco and the trophy might land somewhere else.

Phillip Island is a track tailor made for Bautista. Carrying corner speed and big lean angles mean that the long radius corners of the final sector are his ideal type of turn. Add to this the middle sector of the lap where you sweep from one side of the track to the other, and his accurate style always works well here; there’s a reason he was a contender for the MotoGP win last year.

Old dog, new tricks

There’s also a reason why we don’t see the Ducati riders riding with the same style as the rookie: the Pirelli tires. The Italian rubber needs to be ridden in a certain way. Typically that’s with as little angle as possible. It’s about getting the bike upright as soon as you can. Whereas most riders will try to carry that corner speed, the fastest riders in WorldSBK have always tried to get the bike stopped and shot out of the corner as quickly as they can by spending as little time on the angle as possible.

This was something that was flagged about Bautista’s style as early as his first test on a WorldSBK machine at Jerez in November. He might be able to make it work in Australia but that style won’t work at the majority of tracks on the 13 round championship. Indeed for Bautista in his race simulation, which was interrupted by a red flag, the drop in the closing stages was off a cliff face. In those final laps his pace had dropped off by two seconds and he was scrambling.

Of course the 34 year old will have that knowledge and experience going into the race but can he make it pay off?

“The second test day of the test was very positive,” said Bautista. “In the morning we worked on set-up and in the afternoon we did a racing simulation to find out how the Ducati behaves with used tires. There was a red flag after three laps but then I went back out with the same tires. For the last four laps, the tire had a big drop, the grip was gone. In the race you pay more attention to tire wear than I did in this though, I basically gave everything I had until half distance and had hardly any problems. I was under the lap record. For the race weekend we also collected a lot of data to adjust the electronics. The tire wear was not so bad [until those final four laps] so we will probably get that under control with the electronics.”

Bautista knows how a bike should feel at Phillip Island and he’s said that the Ducati feels better than any big bike, including last year’s factory MotoGP machine, he’s ridden at the Australian venue. It remains to be seen if he can fully comprehend how a Pirelli tire should feel in those crucial final laps of a race.

Many happy returns?

For Leon Haslam Australia has been a happy hunting ground over the years and he’s sure that Bautista’s pace should be enough to win the 10 lap Superpole Race but for the longer 22 lap races he’s a lot more confidence in his chances. The reigning BSB champion is back in WorldSBK and he’s wasted no time ahead of the opening round to get his dander up and start the season well after a rare crash-free Phillip Island test...

“The test went really well,” said a smiling Haslam. “Kawasaki is the sixth manufacturer I'm on at Phillip Island and I think that I crashed in the test with the other five manufacturers. This year I stayed on for the first time so that’s probably a positive! It's nice to finish the test in front of Johnny but a test is a different scenario to a race weekend.

“If you are fast here for a lap, you are usually slow on the race distance. Let's see how it will be with Alvaro, though, because he slowed by two seconds on his final laps. For the sprint race, this is enough to be ahead after 22 laps, but 1'32 laps are not enough in the longer race. Ducati already has a big advantage in top speed, in the last sector and on the straights we lose a lot. But keeping the tires alive for 22 laps will be new for Alvaro. We know what to do. Whether we achieve that is another question. We are not missing much and of course we will try everything.”

From trackside numerous spotters have said that Haslam looked very strong as during his longer run. The Englishman could spring a surprise at one of his strongest tracks of the year. Haslam has the advantage of a clear head this weekend. In comparison to previous teams and seasons he’s said that 2019 is an opportunity to just focus on riding rather than worrying about the smaller details that can fret a rider when teams aren’t quite at the top level. With the Provec-run squad having won five titles in six seasons there’s no risk of that, and already Haslam, a five times WorldSBK race winner, feels comfortable and confident in his surroundings.

Rea the sleeper

Does his teammate? That’s the million dollar question in Australia but given the state of the currency exchange at the moment that’s probably not as big a question as we think. The Northern Irishman didn’t set the world alight during the Phillip Island test but throughout January he led the way and looked very comfortable. After going the wrong direction on settings 12 months ago he was keen to avoid going down a blind alley during this test. We’ve not seen his cards yet by any stretch and he focused on making sure that he could maintain his rear tire life throughout his stint.

“These two days were positive,” said the reigning champion. “There were a lot of crashes on Tuesday and I couldn’t do a race simulation or try to work for an ultra-fast time. The layout of Phillip Island is unique, as well as the load on the rear tire due to the fast corners in fourth and fifth gear. In the end, we've collected a bunch of data that will be useful to us at the race weekend.”

As Rea said Australia is such a unique track that it’s very easy to read too much into what we see during the test and race weekend. He’s definitely under more pressure going in to Round 1 than we can remember for a long time, but Rea and Pere Riba have shown how consistent they can be over a 13-round season. If he’s not at the front during the races, this isn’t a sign that his time at the top is coming to a close. We’ll need to see that at a lot more tracks to consider that a possibility.

All change

For the Moriwaki Honda squad and Leon Camier the test has been positive. The team and their bike has finally broken cover and the operation certainly looks slick. There was plenty of apprehension heading to Australia about just how factory this factory HRC effort would be. For Camier, the steps made by the team have been positive, but it’ll be a very deliberate development plan placed in front of the team.

The bike, derived from the Suzuka 8 Hours and All-Japan Superbike, is very different to last years bike. Everything is new for HRC and there are lots of white shirts and the Vice President of HRC will be in Australia this weekend. That’s a clear sign of the importance that they are placing on this program. For his part, Camier is patient and realistic.

“We've all the right people here,” said Camier. “HRC has a very structured way of working compared to what I was used to. That's good, on a motorcycle you can get lost in the settings very quickly. The way of working is very defined and it will pay off in the long run. We are only a few days into using Pirelli tires with this bike which was designed for another tire. It will take a while for HRC to understand exactly what it takes for these tires to work.

“Last year's [Ten Kate] bike was developed on Pirelli tires; this bike is here for the first time and was developed with Bridgestone tires for Suzuka. We still lack so much information. We'll take it step by step. Every time we make a big change, we want to make sure it's going in the right direction. It will take time, we are not ready tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. But we will make progress. This motorcycle has many strengths, but we first have to work it out.

“The power delivery is very linear, the engine is really nice to drive. That's positive. The performance is not bad, the speed fits. The feeling for the bike could not be more different to last year. I can't put into words why that is, but it's unbelievable how different it is. When we came here last year, the bike had already made some development and there was a lot of information.

“One difficulty is that this bike reacts quite differently to changes compared to last year. On the positive side it is very stable. There are pros and cons. That was to be expected given that we had been riding on Pirelli tires for a few days. Although this is still a Honda, she is totally different to last year and how it reacts to changes. We tried a few things and the bike reacted very differently than I expected.”

The conclusions from their opening days of public testing is that the team looks the part but that the bike needs work. Coming into 2019 it was thought and expected that HRC would spend this year learning about the Pirelli tires and the regulations, and then push for progress in 2020. That’s still the case.

Another step forward?

Yamaha on the other hand has been pushing for progress in recent years and they’ve found it again this winter. In January, Alex Lowes starred in Jerez and Portimao, but two crashes on day 2 have blotted his copy book going into the opening weekend of the season. Marco Melandri and Michael van der Mark look strong, and Sandro Cortese, a much less heralded rookie than Bautista, has gotten better with every day on his R1.

The Yamaha doesn’t have the speed of the Ducati but it has the pace for the race. Throughout the week, the one constant was that all four riders struggled to dip into the 1'30 bracket but that the bike was able to live comfortably in the 1'31s. If the Yamaha riders can do that this weekend they can win this race. Melandri is a Phillip Island specialist and definitely shouldn’t be discounted.

For Cortese, it’s been interesting to see him come to a high speed track like Phillip Island. At the Portimao test it took him until the final afternoon to look comfortable, but here he’s been learning what the bike needs with each day. He spent day 1 working on the riding style needed and understanding how smooth he needed to be with his body movement as he came out of the bubble under braking, learning how aggressive he could be with the brake or the throttle. All those lessons have given the reigning Supersport champion the confidence that he can challenge for a top ten finish this weekend.

“We tried many things that we hadn't done before with the geometry,” said Cortese. “We tried setting the bike higher, lower to put more weight on the front or the rear. We wanted to see if it gave us some positives. I am happy because eighth on the time sheet is OK, but the top riders are very fast. Alvaro was very fast in his long run and had a lot of high 1'30s or 1'31s. I was in the 1'32s. If you look at the other top guys, though, they are perhaps only 0.2 to 0.3 seconds faster. In the race when we’re in a pack, I think that I will be able to do that.”

Bring it on

Unlike previous years we go to Round 1 with lots of riders having the confidence that they could fight at the front. Rea is quietly confident, Bautista and Ducati are grabbing the headlines, the Yamaha looks good for race pace, Haslam is out to prove a point, BMW and Tom Sykes are way ahead of schedule too. There’s stories and intrigue ahead of the WorldSBK season.

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For the thoughtful and lengthy round up.  Superbike is making progress. Write ups like this will help get people more interested. I know you're a busy guy, but I hope someone can produce this sort of quality round up for superbike events just like GP.  

I dropped my WSBK subscription two years ago due to the gap in entertainment value between it and MotoGP, but with several intriguing story lines emerging to potentially break up the hegemony of Rea and Kawasaki (at least for race wins if not championships) I might just have to buy one again.  Reading your articles and listening to the Paddock Pass Podcast is a good way to stay connected but I'm missing the show itself.