In racing you’re either under pressure or you’re applying pressure. The one thing proven over the years is that pressure will do strange things to a rider. The tension that comes from pressure and your reaction can lead to mistakes and Jerez showed that once again. We saw crashes and cool heads from riders under pressure.
Some riders are at their best when the pressure is at its most, others struggle in those moments and some make their mistakes when the pressure valve is relieved. On Saturday we saw Jonathan Rea make the mistake of a rider who has been seeing a world title slip away after round by round domination of Alvaro Bautista. On Sunday it was Bautista’s turn to make the mistake of a rider out in front. With two Jerez wins already in the bag he would have been feeling secure that another hat-trick was on the cards. Between these two riders stood Michael van der Mark. The Dutchman was peerless in race trim at the Spanish circuit and never put a foot wrong over the 50 racing laps. His reward were three podiums and his first win of the campaign.
Top level sport is 90% mental. The differences in outright talent levels aren’t that significant - they can’t be when you’re looking at the best in the world. The differences are subtle. It’s hard work, dedication and the mental game that separates the great from the very good. A slice of luck doesn’t hurt but you can’t rely on the rub of green on a consistent basis!
Seek and destroy
Under the blue skies of Jerez WorldSBK had an action packed weekend. There were mistakes, crashes and clashes. Riders on social media playing the blame game. Racing is a battle. Weakness is there to be exploited. It’s survival of the fittest on track.
At Jerez it was Michael van der Mark that was the apex predator. The Yamaha rider was fast from the first laps of the weekend and spent the weekend refining his bike. The Dutchman is always at his best when there’s blood in the water. If there’s an opportunity of a good result he rarely makes a mistake. Last weekend was no exception and he proved his worth once again.
Think back to 12 months ago and he was claiming a double victory at Donington Park having gone toe to toe with Rea and beating him. The first hour of their Suzuka 8 Hours battle was the same. Misano is next on the WorldSBK calendar and Van der Mark was strong there last year too. He’ll be expecting to use this success as a springboard.
There was little external pressure on Van der Mark in Spain. The bike was working well and he was riding terrifically, but he’s not in the title fight. That scrap has long distilled into a question of whether anyone can contend with Bautista round by round. Until Sunday we’d not seen the Spaniard make a mistake. Race 2 changed that.
To err is human
With a comfortable lead as they finished the first lap, the Ducati rider slipped off the track into turn one and was out of the race. It was a slip up that didn’t prove too costly though. Having won the opening two races of the weekend the crash meant only a net loss of two points of his title lead. It will however have proved to him that, once again, there are faults with the Ducati Panigale V4R. After Imola he said there were areas to improve upon, after crashing at the recent Misano test he reiterated this and now he has a crash against his name from Jerez. They’re small cracks, but those can develop into something bigger if they’re not taken care of quickly.
Bautista’s mistake was a surprise because he was out in front and didn’t seem to do much wrong. He looked comfortable on the opening lap but got caught out. Was it a cold tyre? Was it pushing too hard? Was it something that can be repeated in the future? The answer to these will only really become known if he’s under pressure in Italy at the next round. Van der Mark certainly felt that his pace in Race 2 was strong enough to have brought the fight to Bautista.
In the race he controlled the pace in those early laps and from one third distance he was able to set a series of very fast laps. The Yamaha was the fastest bike on track at that moment and the 26 year old was exploiting it perfectly. Misano will see the Ducati able to stretch its legs better than at Jerez but following the recent test Yamaha will be quietly confident of still being able to fight it out. Winning races gives you that confidence.
Confidence hasn’t been in short supply for Jonathan Rea in recent years but at Jerez he was struggling. A lack of confidence in the front end of his Kawasaki left him feeling under pressure. In the opening rounds of the year he was consistently able to grind out second position finishes, but now with the improvements of the Yamaha and Kawasaki trying to compete with the Ducati the ZX10RR seems to have been taken down a wrong path at times. This could be seen by the team making wholesale changes to the bike and its weight balance. Rea was moved around on the bike to try to find some extra confidence with it. That’s a very significant change to make mid-season and showed that the team are desperately trying what they can to find a solution.
Ultimately, in Spain there wasn’t a solution. Rea wasn’t happy with his bike and despite talking pole position he never looked to be at the races. In Race 1 he dropped behind Bautista immediately and Van der Mark was able to take advantage of his pace to make his move and break away. Afterwards the Yamaha rider said that “usually you sit behind Johnny because it means you are setting fast times. In this race though I was faster so I wanted to overtake him and open a gap.”
Van der Mark did this but his teammate, Alex Lowes, did not. Lowes was the fourth fastest rider on track all weekend and only a smidgen slower than the leading trio. At Jerez it was about the fine margins and in the race his bike was working well and the pace gap shown on Friday to Rea had disappeared. He had more confidence in his bike and with a chance of standing on the podium he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers.
The Englishman is under pressure to finish third in the championship. After illness robbed him of his strength at Imola it was imperative to find form at Jerez. He did that on Saturday and was looking set to come out on top of his scrap with Rea. That was until the final corner when Rea tried to overtake.
Crime and punishment
It looked like a classic case of trying to force a move at the last corner at Jerez. The only problem was that there was contact. Rea simply came from too far behind to make the move stick. Switching from the outside to the inside, it looked as though Rea had been caught between two minds on the entry as to where he could attack Lowes. Ultimately it was a racing incident and one that we’ll see again Lorenzo Corner, but it showed just how much pressure Rea is under this year.
The ease with which he won races over the last four years is gone. He’s a competitive animal and it hurts to finish second. To finish fourth...that’s unthinkable. That’s why with the pressure of seeing points slip through his fingers and the title lead of Bautista extending by 12 points Rea needed to get past. Stem the bleeding with an extra three points.
It didn’t work and it had a big knock-on impact for Rea. Race Direction deemed it a racing incident but once Yamaha appealed the FIM would take control of proceedings. It’s new for 2019 in WorldSBK and after a lengthy delay - there was still track action until late on Saturday - the verdict was delivered that Rea would start from the back of the grid for the Superpole race. Coming through the pack he dropped yet more points by finishing fourth. Like compound interest it was all starting to add up for Rea. Sunday was costly for the Northern Irishman but with Bautista’s crash it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Three riders. Three different situations. All under pressure from external or internal sources. Every race is a referendum on your value. Knowing that value is key for riders and on Sunday it was Van der Mark that proved his worth under pressure.
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