Alvaro Bautista came to the WorldSBK championship and has been unstoppable. Since figuring out how to get the right feeling from the front end of the brand new Ducati Panigale V4R, he has won all six races held so far – four full-length races, and the two new Superpole sprint races held on Sunday. His winning margins in the four full races were 14.983, 12.195, 8.217, and 10.053 seconds. He won both sprint Superpole races by over a second as well.
Naturally, that kind of domination attracts attention. The WorldSBK series is meant to be a close battle between bikes based on road-going motorcycles, and as modification of the standard bikes is limited, there are mechanisms in the rule book for keeping the disparity between the different bikes racing to a minimum, giving any manufacturer which sells a 1000cc sports bike a chance to be competitive.
To ensure this, the rules have a section on balancing performance between the different bikes competing. The method of balancing performance has varied over the years, but the current rules use only the maximum revs to try to keep the bikes close. The maximum rev limit is set when each new model is homologated, following a formula described in the rules, and explained by WorldSBK Technical Director Scott Smart in a video on the WorldSBK website. The short version is that the bikes are limited at 1100 RPM above the point at which they make their peak horsepower.
After the rev limit has been set for each new model at homologation time, the results of that model are monitored after every three rounds. If the bike is too successful, then the rev limit can be revised down in steps of 250 RPM. Conversely, if the bike is not doing well enough, the rev limits can be revised upwards by the same amount.
The algorithm used to calculate whether the rev limits need to be adjusted is complex. It is based on a number of factors, including relative lap times, top speeds, race results, laps led, overall race time, and number of riders per manufacturers. These factors are all balanced out based on anticipated rider performance and the recency of results obtained.
The exact formula used is not publicly available, Scott Smart explained to me in an email. "The rev limits are changed / analyzed every three rounds using the algorithm," he wrote. "The algorithm was created by an external company appointed by the series, and we get their analysis at those points." Because the algorithm used is proprietary, it has not been published, but it has been signed off by the manufacturers involved in WorldSBK.
The reason for waiting for three rounds is to eliminate outliers, such as one track being particularly good for a specific rider or manufacturer. "The results from one round are statistically unreliable - hence normally waiting for three events," Smart said. But with three new models in the series this year – besides the Ducati Panigale V4R, BMW's S1000RR is also completely new, while the Kawasaki ZX-10RR is sufficiently changed for it to qualify as a new model – the algorithm is being run more often, to monitor results.
The rules also state that the FIM and Dorna reserve the right to change the rev limits at their own discretion. That discretion would only be used if the results were starting to skew too strongly in favor of one particular manufacturer.
Six wins from six races suggests that might be starting to happen, perhaps. So is an adjustment of the Ducati Panigale V4R's rev limits likely any time soon?
If the decision were to be made solely on the strength of Alvaro Bautista's results, it might, but the reason for the complex algorithm used to calculate whether performance balancing needs to be triggered is to allow for an individual rider to excel without being punished. Remove Bautista from the equation, and the Ducati's dominance disappears completely.
Michael Ruben Rinaldi has usually been the second rider on a Ducati Panigale V4R to finish the races. In five of the six races held so far, he has been the first Ducati behind Bautista. And he has been a very long way behind: in race 1 at Phillip Island, he crossed the line in ninth place, over 25 seconds after Alvaro Bautista. In the two full races at Buriram in Thailand, he was over 27 seconds slower than Bautista, finishing in eighth place both times.
In race 2 at Phillip Island, Chaz Davies managed to be the second Ducati rider across the line. But even Davies, who has finished runner up in the championship for three of the past four years, was 27 seconds slower than Bautista, and in seventh place.
Of course, there are plenty of possible explanations for this disparity between Alvaro Bautista and the rest of the Ducatis. Chaz Davies missed a lot of preseason testing, and seems to still be struggling with the after-effects of injuries sustained at the end of last year. So he still hasn't found the right feeling with the front end of the Panigale V4R. The Barni Ducati team of Michael Ruben Rinaldi is shod with Showa suspension, while Eugene Laverty's Go Eleven squad are using Bitubo suspension, both of which are very different to the Ohlins adorning the factory Aruba.it bike.
These are all good reasons why Davies, Rinaldi, and Laverty are not able to match Bautista. But the yawning gap between Bautista and the others, and the fact that they are all well behind the Kawasakis and Yamahas suggests that there is much more to Bautista's success than just a massively powerful engine. It is hard to see how stripping 250 RPM from the Ducati Panigale V4R is going to help to reduce the 25+ second gap between Bautista and the other Ducatis.
There is precedent for this, of course. Last year, Jonathan Rea dominated on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR, but rev limits were not applied, because the other Kawasakis were never able to finish anywhere near him. It was something Scott Smart is taking note of. "Another consideration is that Kawasakis weren't slowed when only one of their riders was dominating - as is the case with Ducati - only one rider managing to get the very best from the bike," Smart said.
The same thing looks to be happening this year as well. Rea has finished second in all six races held so far. The gap between Rea and the next best Kawasaki rider is significantly smaller, however. KRT teammate has been the second Kawasaki finisher in five of the six races, crossing the line third overall in two of them, and fifth in the remaining three races. The gap between Rea and the next Kawasaki has generally been a handful of seconds – the biggest gap was 10 seconds in race 1 at Buriram, the smallest a quarter of a second in race 2 at Phillip Island. But Rea is still head and shoulders above the other riders on the same bike.
The differences between the Ducati and the Kawasaki riders fall into sharp relief when contrasted with the Yamahas. The four YZF-R1s on the grid – two factory-backed Pata Yamahas, two GRT Yamahas – have managed to cross the line pretty much as a pack in all six races so far. All four Yamahas have finished between third and eighth place in every race contested this year, with Alex Lowes taking three podiums, and Marco Melandri taking another. It is clear that the Yamahas are all very evenly matched.
Revs can go up as well as down
Of course, rev limits can be revised up as well as down. While the new BMW S1000RR has shown real potential, especially in the hands of Tom Sykes, the Honda CBR1000RR has slipped even further behind since HRC dropped the Ten Kate squad and backed Moriwaki and Althea. In 2018, Leon Camier had a fourth, two sixth, and a seventh place finish. This year, the best finish for a Honda has been Camier's tenth place in the second race at Phillip Island.
Based on the results of the WorldSBK races so far this year, there is a good chance that rev limits will be adjusted, though not where the fans might be expecting. The disparity in results between Alvaro Bautista and the other Ducati riders makes it extremely unlikely that the Panigale V4R will have revs taken away. Much the same could be said for the Kawasaki, Leon Haslam getting close to teammate Jonathan Rea, but still finishing well behind the world champion.
The Honda CBR1000RR, on the other hand, looks to be struggling. Though not short of top speed, the bike is clearly not competitive, and in need of some help. Whether 250 extra revs will make much difference remains to be seen, however.
No decision is due to be made yet on rev limits. The state of the championship, and the balance of the various bikes, will be reassessed after the third round of the WorldSBK series at Aragon. Perhaps Chaz Davies, after his test at the circuit, a track he has traditionally been exceptionally strong at, will join Bautista at the front, and skew the performance balancing algorithm against the Ducati. But it might take a few more rounds before the Panigale has its wings clipped. First, we have to be sure that there is more to Alvaro Bautista's success than just brilliant riding.
Current rev limits for the WorldSBK machines:
|Aprilia RSV4 RF||14700|
|BMW S 1000RR||14900|
|Ducati 1199 Panigale R||12400|
|Ducati Panigale V4R||16350|
|Kawasaki ZX 10 RR 2019||14600|
|MV Agusta F4 RR||14950|
|Suzuki GSX R 1000RR||14900|
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