The opening round of the 2021 Superbike World Championship is in the books and after three intriguing races there’s a lot to dissect ahead of this weekend’s round at Estoril.
The “new” Kawasaki ZX10-RR certainly looks different. With aerodynamic upgrades it has a very different profile, but this is very much a facelift rather than a new model. Engine upgrades were quite limited but with some new parts they had found a not insignificant 500rpm. During the winter Jonathan Rea and Alex Lowes both commented that the bike was now much better as they wound on the power.
With a much fuller power curve the big advantage is found mid-range rather than in outright power. The Kawasaki doesn’t make its power at maximum revs. “We’ve been filling in the gaps of the power curve” was how Rea explained the improvements. That didn’t mean the team weren’t frustrated to lose the extra revs though.
Clearly annoyed at finding improvements and not being able to use them will always leave a team feeling exposed but in Aragon they found a way to make it work. The Kawasaki came away with podiums in all three races and leading the standings. It was a fantastic weekend for Team Green and gives them a lot to build on.
Rea’s performances will never surprise. Winning his 100th WorldSBK race on Saturday got a monkey off his back but as he was always going to win races this year, it was a question of when, not if.
The improvement for Lowes is what will be really encouraging for the team. Last year the Englishman struggled to make consistent starts and to have confidence in the bike under braking. Three races and three great starts show that they’ve handled that problem. Three races and three podiums showed that he was consistent in Aragon. Coming out on top in wheel to wheel battles in all three races showed he had total confidence in the bike underneath him despite the conditions.
The most impressive of those battles came in Race 1 when he was fighting with Toprak Razgatlioglu. Nursing an overheating front tyre Lowes had to be canny, and seeing his Yamaha rival spinning the rear a lot he gambled on being able to outdrive him to the line on the last lap. It worked a treat and earned him second in the standings leaving Round 1.
Scott Redding had a very difficult opening two races in Aragon but salvaged it with a daring ride in the final race of the weekend. Opting for slick tyres he was the lone wolf in the lead group to gamble. In that moment it either works and you’re a hero or it’s be a disaster and you gift Rea a massive points advantage leaving Round 1.
The pressure was on and when Redding’s mechanics took the tyre blankets off he’d have been forgiven for thinking he’d taken the wrong option. Making Redding’s decision even more impressive was that on the grid lots of riders were toying with the idea of full wet weather tyres but were talked into using the intermediate tyre. It’s no wonder that on the cool-down lap that Rea complimented Redding on his “fortitude.”
In the Superpole Race Redding had been conservative and used the full wet tyre. It was a decision that he immediately regretted with the Kawasaki’s pulling an immediate gap. The frustration was crystal clear when he returned to the pitbox. He vowed not to make the same mistake again.
His experience in MotoGP led him to to his decision in Race 2. Having sat on the grid at Sachsenring in 2014 with intermediate tyres he lost out on a opportunity to challenge for a win that day. In Parc Ferme afterwards he said that “from that day onwards I said that I’d never race the intermediate again.”
Redding would succeed or fail in Race 2 on the basis of his convictions. It worked and he left Spain 17 points behind Rea and breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Over the last few years there has been a massive change in Toprak Razgatlioglu. The Turkish rider has matured from being an exceptional talent but one that was very raw into a much more considered rider. Testing was once a chore but now is embraced. In the past after 50 or 60 laps you could be sure that the Turk’s day was done except for a stoppie in pitlane. Now? He’s churning out the miles in testing and taking on the role of team leader.
Between sessions in Aragon he was giving his teammate, WorldSSP champion Andrea Locatelli, advice on how to ride the Yamaha to get the most out of it. He wasn’t pushed to do this, it was a natural progression from Toprak to help a younger rider. He was returning the favour that saw Rea do the same for him when he was a Kawasaki rookie.
Talent and speed has never been an issue for Toprak but the hard yards were a problem. Training was all about riding bikes and the gym wasn’t too important. You can get away without training when you’re younger but as you get older it becomes more and more important to be a part of a rider’s programme. Toprak has embraced it over the last year and learned as teammate to Michael van der Mark the importance of preparation.
The Dutchman is a fair comparison to Toprak too. In his early career, when he was still driving a truck for his family haulage firm, he was blessed with so much ability that he could take shortcuts. When he came to WorldSBK he saw the work ethic of Sylvain Guintoli, Nicky Hayden and Alex Lowes. He knew he had to change.
The same was the case for Razgatlioglu and he’s fully embraced it. In Aragon, a track that has been terrible for him in the past, he was fast all weekend and able to come away with a podium in Race 1. He was in the fight for a Race 2 podium before a technical issue cost him time and he fell back in the closing laps.
Estoril is next and that was Yamaha’s strongest track last year. Don’t be surprised to see Toprak match his double win of 2020.
Ideal conditions for intermediate tyres
“And that, kids, is why intermediates are the safe but wrong choice,” so tweeted David Emmett on Lap 2 of Race 2. By the end of 18 laps however we saw that the intermediate tyre was a lot more competitive than we traditionally expect.
In WorldSBK the sole tyre supplier, Pirelli, has continued to offer intermediate tyres as an option in changeable conditions. When the tyre was available in MotoGP it was rarely used and quickly discontinued by Michelin but Pirelli has persisted. They believed there was a scenario where the harder compound and shallower threads would be ideal. In Sunday’s damp conditions at Aragon it was the perfect tyre.
Scott Redding’s gamble on slick tyres paid off but the ability of the intermediate tyre to hole on to performance and durability was very impressive. With almost the entire field opting for the tyre it seemed that pitstops would be inevitable but instead the pace stayed fast, about four to five seconds off dry weather pace, and consistent. The race was won by Scott Redding’s gamble but the race was saved by the intermediate tyre being the surprise package.
On the grid Pirelli’s engineers were in demand. Even before leaving pitlane Jonathan Rea and his rider coach Fabian Foret were in the Pirelli truck asking about whether the intermediate tyre would work. They were told to keep in mind that in the Supersport race the intermediate tyre was the right option and that even though there had been more rain that it would work.
“We have some rules for our engineers because we give suggestions to the team from Thrusday onwards,” explained Pirelli’s manager Giorgio Barbieri. “Before the races I told our engineers to stop making a judgement on the conditions and leave it up to the teams to make a decision. At the end of the day it is up to the riders and teams to make a decision not us. Even if it seems to be a strange decision you have to hand it over to the teams and let them make their decisions.
“With conditions like these I told our engineers to get on to pitlane a few minutes early because in conditions like this we need to be prepared. Ten minutes before the pitlane opened Johnny [Rea] and Fabien [Foret] came to me asking about what tyre to use. Is the intermediate the right option? It was riders and engineers looking for information but the decision has to be their decision. We'll always give suggestions but it is their decision at the end of the day.”
The gamble on slicks worked. The decision to use intermediate tyres worked.
Steady Sykes leads the BMW brigade
Tom Sykes has been criticised by many, myself included, in the past for his focus on one fast lap in the Superpole session. His race pace has been shaky at times and he’s lost ground as the laps tick away. By qualifying at the front of the field though he can salvage points as his teammates try and recover lost positions with faster race pace.
In Aragon this wasn’t the case. In Race 1 Sykes was very fast and consistent and did well to come away with a top six finish. Race 2 saw him finish fourth in tricky conditions. Leaving Aragon he’s fifth in the standings and after a difficult winter for BMW he’ll have given the team a major lift with a front row start and good races.
That his new teammate, van der Mark, also came away with two top five finishes on Sunday was encouraging. This was a very difficult weekend for the Dutchman. An early crash on Friday afternoon and a technical issue on Friday morning meant that he had only a handful of laps under his belt heading into the Superpole session. It was no surprise he was down the order but scoring points in Race 1 and a very strong Sunday showed some potential and gave him something to build on.
The BMW M1000RR is quite different to last year. With aerodynamic and engine upgrades there is a lot of potential for them to improve. The conditions in Aragon played a role in their strong weekend but with points on the board they’ll head to Estoril at least feeling positive that they’ve already improved on their best result of last year.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.