A hat-trick of wins for Alvaro Bautista, two Sunday podiums for Michael Ruben Rinaldi and even a double race win in the Supersport class meant that Australia was absolutely perfect for Ducati. With his likely title rivals faltering it was even better for Bautista. Steve English looks back on Round 1 of the Superbike World Championship
Perfect weekend for Bautista and Ducati
Stop the presses: Ducati are a juggernaut! It’s hardly news that Ducati, winners of both MotoGP and WorldSBK titles in 2022, are strong. It was perhaps a little bit startling to see just how strong they were in Phillip Island for the opening round of the Superbike season though. With four bikes inside the top five, they were able to take advantage of Kawasaki’s stuttering start to the campaign and a crash for Toprak Razgatlioglu but even so it was a perfect start to the campaign for them.
With Axel Bassani and Philipp Oettl finishing fourth and fifth in Sunday’s 22 lap finale it was clear just how good the Panigale V4R was working in Australia. It was also likely that Alvaro Bautista would claim a hat-trick of race wins at Round 1 and that Michael Ruben Rinaldi would make progress and be strong, but Bassani and Oettl’s Sundays were very newsworthy.
The progress from the Go Eleven of Oettl was, arguably, the biggest surprise of the weekend. He struggled during the European winter tests but from the outset of the Australian week he was on the pace. Top five performances in both sessions of Monday’s official test lay down a marker but not one that many expected to be repeated. The German did just that on Sunday. It was 12 seconds down the road from Bautista but nobody saw which way the champion went in Phillip Island.
A perfect weekend
“This was a perfect weekend because we won all three races but even better was that we won three very different races,” smiled Bautista. “I was fast at all the winter tests so it’s not just about being fast here. We have made a step forward with this bike and I know the tyres, bike and everything now. It’s easier to ride this bike on the exit of the corner and this is a big step for us. Last year in Indonesia I wasn’t really able to fight for the wins so I’m looking forward to seeing how it feels there. Our weakness is still that we are slow in the mid-corner but the power delivery is better now so I can focus on the exit of the corner.”
If they can find that improvement it will be impossible for Bautista’s rival to challenge him this year. We saw the Spaniard imperious last year. He was mistake free and that puts so much pressure on his rivals. It will be his strategy once again this season and this weekend in Indonesia will be a true test for him and Ducati’s progress. Lombok is Toprak Territory and if Bautista can claim a scalp this week it will mean ever more momentum heading his way.
Rinaldi’s performance in Australia will have quieted a lot of the clamour that he faced last year. During a summer of comparison to Bassani’s performance it was clear that Ducati were deciding which Italian would be the back-up to Bautista. In the end Rinaldi got the nod and his opening weekend showed why that was the right call to make.
Proving a point
Two podiums on Sunday backed up a winter where he had consistently been inside the top five in testing. That it came on the back of a disastrous opening race of the season was a nod to a resiliency that has sometimes been missing. When the rain started to fall on Saturday it was Rinaldi that was left red faced as the red bike fell down the order. Eventually finishing almost a minute behind his teammate it was an embarrassing day at the office but also one where it was clear he had some major issues.
“On Saturday I could have had a podium if it was dry but then it rained,” said Rinaldi after his Sunday podium double. “I’ve had podiums in the rain so I’m not usually that bad but the feeling was really bad and even though I tried all the electronic maps and lots of things I couldn’t make it work. We need to understand why this happened for the next wet race and I was upset because I knew that I had the potential for a good result in the dry. In Race 2 I used a lot of tyre because I tried to go with Alvaro but he was very fast. I changed my strategy and focused on finishing second.”
Rinaldi’s performance on Sunday will also give the consistent Bautista reason for added confidence. While he was keen to stress that he could suffer a similar fate it was also clear that he expects this year to be a much closer scrap at the front because “this season is different to last year. Rinaldi, Locatelli and others will be at the front and if you have a bad day you will lose places to those riders rather than last year when we could have a bad day and still finish on the podium.”
Rea and Razgatlioglu both saw what can happen if you don’t have the bike underneath you as required. With Bassani, 14th on the grid from the Superpole session, able to come through to top five finishes in the wet and dry it was clear, once again, that the Motocorsa rider will be a thorn in the side for riders again this year. Afterwards he said that “if I had passed Toprak and Johnny earlier I think that I could have finished on the podium.”
There could well be times this year when we see three Ducati riders on the podium but for Danilo Petrucci his opening Superbike weekend was a humbling experience. The Barni rider claimed top ten finishes in the feature length races but afterwards said that the ten lap Superpole Race was “like a bar fight!”
In Australia, as at the Portimao test pre-season, Petrucci struggled for feeling with the front end of the bike. The team made big changes to the bike with GPOne reporting a 15mm change in wheelbase to try and make him feel more comfortable. With riders able to feel the most minute changes to the bike to make such a dramatic change shows the lengths they were going to in their attempts to find a solution. As he gains experience of the bike and Pirelli tyres Petrucci will be faster but he was the lone struggle for Ducati on a weekend of dominance where Nicola Bulega also claimed both Supersport race victories for the manufacturer.
Yamaha – Much to ponder after the opening round
A pole position, podiums in all three races and a rookie on the front row. On paper the opening round of the WorldSBK season was a success for Yamaha. As ever though, the headlines only reveal a portion of the story. For Toprak Razgatlioglu the opening round will be one he’ll be keen to forget despite claiming pole position and a wet weather podium. The Turkish superstar sits 39 points adrift ahead of Round 2 this weekend in Indonesia.
Upgrades to the YZF-R1 saw Yamaha focus on acceleration grip with a new swingarm, chassis upgrades and a new electronics package. Throughout the winter Toprak has said that it has improved the bike, but in Australia, a fast and flowing circuit, we didn’t see that come to the fore. Lombok and Round 2 will give us a better illustration of where Yamaha truly sit.
“With the softer tyre the bike felt really good,” assessed Toprak of his weekend. “It was more difficult with the harder tyre. I didn’t have the grip and the bike wasn’t turning. I just tried to save the rear tyre and follow Johnny but then I crashed with Alex. It wasn’t his fault but just a racing incident. He was in front and crashed and I was on the outside and his bike hit mine. It was bad luck. I think in this race we could have finished in sixth or maybe fourth but now we need to keep fighting.”
Without heavy braking zones and having to carry corner speed throughout the entire lap Phillip Island has never played to Toprak’s strengths, but even so it was a surprise to see how much he struggled at times throughout the week. During two days of testing he was not happy with the bike, but in the cooler conditions and when he could use the softer compound of tyre he looked much better. To have the Q-tyre and the X-tyre available this weekend will help him show his true potential once again.
“Phillip Island doesn’t suit my style. With the softer tyre it was good but with the harder tyre it just didn’t turn. Maybe I could have followed Loka, but we were in the group and he’s strong here. It’s only Round 1 of 12 but if Ducati is like this at all the rounds it will be difficult.”
The podium for Andrea Locatelli was certainly a bit positive for Yamaha. The Italian, the 2020 Supersport World Champion made a lot of progress over the winter but until we came to Round 1 the question was whether that would hold true when it mattered. With three top five finishes and a feature-length race podium on Sunday it was clear that he has made another step forward. For Andrea Dosoli, the project leader for Yamaha in WorldSBK, this was an important step.
A step forward
“For Loka the podium was the reward for all of his hard work. He’s matured a lot as a rider over the winter. Toprak make a good step from the test to the race weekend and in the Superpole and Superpole Race he showed his pace as well as a podium in the rain. We were disapppointed with Race 2 but it was the same as the tests where we struggled to find the perfect setting when the track conditions changed.”
Locatelli struggled in the Superpole session and had to settle for ninth on the grid but when it came to the races his top five finishes netted him the second highest total from the weekend.
“We have a gap to Bautista but we knew that it was going to be difficult here,” assessed the Italian. “I’m happy with our weekend because we made no mistakes in the races. I was struggling in the Superpole session and qualified ninth so it wasn’t an easy weekend but it the fifth place in the Superpole Race gave us a chance. I’m happy with the result and proud of our work because we’ve been working hard all winter at the tests for this goal.”
With the two Pata Yamaha bikes experiencing very different fortunes, it was interesting to see how the GRT Yamaha squad progressed. With two rookies, Domi Aegerter and Remy Gardner, there was a lot of focus on the pair. Both are world champions so talent is not a question but it was undoubtedly Aegerter who was the better performer.
A stunning front row start announced his debut Superbike weekend and then an exceptionally combative Superpole Race showed that he would hang it on the line against anyone. That included Jonathan Rea who he bundled out of the way on the opening lap of the ten lap race. It would ultimately end in disaster for Domi with Gardner collecting his teammate at Turn 4 halfway through the race.
Blue on blue
“It wasn’t a good day for me,” said Remy after Sunday’s Race 2 where he claimed a best result of the weekend with tenth at the flag. “But we showed that we had the speed to be there. I think that’s a positive but it was my mistake in the Superpole Race and it cost us both. I was braking at the same point as usual but some guys in the group braked earlier and that left me halfway underneath Domi and we collided.”
Remy’s redemption in Race 2 saw him finish tenth but seven seconds behind his teammate. There’s work to be done at Round 2 for Gardner but his Superpole performance will give some hope to him. For his teammate the biggest problem was top speed and being overtaken on the straights. In the corners he was able to ride well and make moves. His aggressive style into Turn 4 didn’t make many friends during the weekend, but if there was a gap, he was attacking.
The top speed issue is definitely a concern for Yamaha with Aegerter explaining that “we’re slower than BMW and Honda on the straight but faster through the corners. Everyone that came past me did it on the straight.” Ducati has another step on that performance too but overall it was a weekend were Yamaha showed enough potential with all four riders to give them all hope but inconsistencies that will also give them concern.
This weekend in Mandalika will be critical for Toprak but given that he claimed a hat-trick in Indonesia last year he’ll certainly fare better than in Australia.
Kawasaki – Off to a tough start
The best defence is a good offence. It’s a great “coaches quote” but in racing it’s not that simple. In racing if you’re on the back foot there’s not a lot that can really be done other than fight with every fibre to hold on to what you can. That was the story of the weekend for Kawasaki where, for the first time since Argentina 2021, there was no green bike on the front row.
Australia was a struggle for Jonathan Rea and his podium in the wet conditions of Race 1 was the only highlight. That was a stunning ride for Rea as he adapted to a bike that suffered a quickshifter issue in the early stages. He had to ride using his clutch for downshifts and with a rear brake lever also on the handlebar this was a tough adjustment to make. Unfortunately this was where the adaptability ended because on Sunday we saw the ZX10-RR exposed.
In the Superpole Race Rea finished seventh, as a result of a two place promotion following the Remy Gardner and Domi Aegerter crash, and eighth in Race 2. On pure pace Rea’s performance merited these results and that says all you need to know about Kawasaki’s Australian performance. Indonesia will obviously be a step forward for them but this was a startling outcome for Round 1.
A mixed bag
“There are some positives to take from Round 1,” said Rea after the weekend, “We were fast in certain areas and conditions but it was a mixed bag this week. Consistently we weren’t good enough. We struggled with settings when the wind changed and the tyre temperature rose on Friday. We were very strong in the cooler temperatures of FP3 but it’s hard to put it all together. At the end of Race 2 we fell off a cliff. I don’t expect Phillip Island to be our benchmark of the season and in Lombok we can do much better. We’ll try and understand what happened and then start from zero in Lombok.”
Indonesia will suit Rea better than Lombok and with the softer tyre options available he’ll hope to have a bike that allows him to ride more comfortably. His lack of speed on the exit of Turn 2 in Phillip Island meant that he was defending into the Miller Corner overtaking hotspot rather than in a position to attack and make progress. It was left to Rea, and also Alex Lowes, to attack at the fourth gear Turn 1 to try and use the one area of the track where they felt confident to attack rivals and, more importantly, hold them off.
On Sunday we saw Lowes put a big crash behind him to ride at the front of the second group in both races. His Turn 2 highside in the wet conditions saw him miss out on a top six finish and given his fourth place Superpole Race finish and his riding in Race 2 he would have left Australia with bitter sweet thoughts.
His defensive performance in the ten lap Superpole Race was very impressive and it was certainly heartening to see the Kawasaki duo battle it out on track on a lap to lap basis. For the Number 22 this is another important step to have made but for Kawasaki it would have acted as a stark realisation of where they were in Australia; both bikes fighting with everything they had to stay inside the top five.
Stuck in traffic
“Last year I heard Alex talking in his debriefs about how difficult it was when he was in traffic, and I can understand it now,” Rea explained Kawasaki’s problems. “Last year, when I was by myself I could exploit the bike but in this race I couldn’t. When you don’t have acceleration or power it’s so difficult to fight. I was losing so much time between Turn 2 and Turn 3 and that’s where you need to be able to attack but if you don’t have the traction or acceleration you just can’t do anything. In the Superpole Race I was faster than other riders but I couldn’t overtake them.”
A winter of upgrades to the Kawasaki show that they are pushing forward but also that there is a lot more work to be done. This weekend in Indonesia we will need to see progress for them and certainly it will be more reflective of where they stack up compared to their rivals.
Rea will expect to be fighting for the podium this weekend but he will also know that podiums aren’t enough to challenge for a championship. To do that he needs race wins and after Australia and a tough winter that seems out of reach for now.
Honda and BMW – Ups and downs for the Super Concessions manufacturers
After last year’s Super Concession announcement there was an expectation in some quarters that Honda and BMW would immediately make massive steps forward. That was never likely to happen but Round 1 of the Superbike season left Honda with considerably more optimism than BMW.
In his second season in the class Iker Lecuona has firmly established himself as the Honda team leader and a man that will no doubt be in demand when the rider market starts to spin. It was encouraging to see the Spaniard claim sixth place finishes in both feature-length races, in very different conditions. Over the winter Lecuona had said that Honda’s biggest challenge was to find race pace and maintain their consistency at the end of the feature races. In Australia we saw that this was the case and while it is only one round it was encouraging to see.
The Fireblade is a bike with a lot of potential and the changes made at the end of last year when the Super Concessions were introduced have allowed them to make a step forward. Obviously it is only one round but the resources are going to the Superbike programme and with tests planned for Aragon and Catalunya before the first European Round, as well as the Misano test in May that the majority of the grid will be at, it’s clear that more progress can be made for them to turn the bike into a more rounded package.
A solid start
“The Ducati was the best bike this weekend and we could stay with Bassani and Oettl for most of the race so this was a positive,” said Lecuona afterwards. “We’ve made a big improvement at the end of races now and are more consistent. It was a good start to the season because we were in the group fighting for fourth.”
With Lecuona battling closer to the front his teammate, Xavi Vierge, had a more subdued weekend. The Spaniard scored points in both feature length races but while he benefited from a stewards penalty in Race 1 that saw Danilo Petrucci lose a place for their last lap tussle it was Vierge who received a penalty on Sunday for overtaking under yellow flags. Afterwards he said that “in the wet I had a lot confidence but in the dry we’ve identified some areas to improve on going forward.”
Single lap pace is certainly something he’ll be keen to find given that he qualified 17th in the Superpole session.
A tale of B M Woe
For BMW the only highlights were from Michael van der Mark. The Dutchman was their lead rider all weekend and despite a big crash in the wet conditions on Saturday, where he joked that the crash was so big that “I could see Melbourne!” his performance gave some hope to their chances. In Race 2 he was able to keep a watching brief on the fourth place group but tyre issues meant that he had to restrict his pace and not join the fray.
Van der Mark was ten seconds up the road compared to the other BMW’s at that point, and while the gap would halve at the flag it was clear that for Scott Redding, Loris Baz and Garrett Gerloff this was a trying race. Redding said that it was a “difficult weekend” but Phillip Island was always likely to be a tough one for the M1000RR. It is likely that it won’t be until we return to the European rounds that we truly see progress from the manufacturer that is clearly the fifth out of five right now.
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interesting to see if Kaw…
interesting to see if Kaw and Yam can somehow gap the power/straight line speed deficit to the rest of the manufacturers
In reply to interesting to see if Kaw… by bduke01
It’s interesting when you…
It’s interesting when you look at the top speeds. I just randomly pulled up FP1: Bautista was P1 but Rea (P4) was faster through the trap, with Honda and BMW both quicker again. Topcat was only 3kph down on Bautista but down in P8.
Rea was 326kph in FP1, but only 315kph in Superpole for P4. Topraq was 316ph for P1, Bautista 322kph in P2. Argerter was just 312kph but stuck into P3, so he is going to be one to watch.
By contrast, Vierge on the ‘blade had the same top speed as Bautista but could only manage 17th.
If ever there was a best bike and best rider combination, it had to be this race. If the Duc has the improvements that Alvaro describes, then it looks like the fight is for second place in this championship. Whatever does happen I hope that Alvaro gets the respect he deserves.
Stark contrast to MotoGP races
I found it interesting (disappointing to be honest) that more often than not, with typical Moto GP races at Phillip Island racing is so close. We hear catch phrases such that it is a track where the rider makes the difference more than the bike setup.
This was certainly not the case for this SuperBike weekend. There was a fair degree of dogfighting from P4 to P9 in R2, but that aside Ducati was clearly dominant.
Why the stark contrast between the different bike classes. Would love to hear your hypotheses Mr English, Mr Emmett?