The fifth round of this year’s World Superbike Championship at the iconic Imola venue saw Alvaro Bautista and Ducati’s stranglehold on the series finally ended as he was beaten not once but twice to bring his 11 race unbeaten run to a halt.
The man to do it was, unsurprisingly, four-time and reigning champion Jonathan Rea, the Kawasaki rider capitalising on the Spaniard’s lack of circuit knowledge and combining that with his own step up in pace.
Rea of sunshine
Set in parkland on the outskirts of Imola town centre, the spectacular circuit has an old-school feel to it and is only 25 miles from Bologns, the home of Ducati, thus making Rea’s success all the more significant. He was also well aware of the advantage he possessed and was keen to make the most of it right from the word go.
Using the new rear tyre Pirelli brought to the circuit, the two races saw the Rea of previous seasons come to the fore and whilst his disappearing act each time denied the neutral of the head to head battle between the two they’d hoped for, it at least looks like the championship won’t be one-sided.
Time will tell if there’s been a shift in power particularly as the next three tracks at Jerez, Misano and Donington Park are one’s Bautista knows well from his Grand Prix days but it will, at the very least, have given Rea and his Kawasaki team a terrific boost to their confidence which, undoubtedly and understandably, took a hit during the first 11 races of the season.
Back on form
Another rider to get back to his form of previous seasons was Bautista’s team-mate Chaz Davies who, for the first time this season, beat the Championship leader. If truth be told, Imola was the first time Welshman Davies has got anywhere near Bautista and although a technical issue forced him out of the first race, where he started from pole after a superb run in qualifying, he bounced back perfectly on Sunday to claim second place behind Rea.
Injured over the winter, Davies missed valuable track time with the new V4R Ducati and it’s subsequently taken him longer than he would have liked to feel comfortable with the bike. A test at Imola prior to race weekend was a step in the right direction and he continued on that upward trajectory to be in contention for podiums all weekend.
The next tracks on the calendar will offer new challenges but he’s confident a corner has been turned and he’ll be running at the front more often than not in the rounds ahead.
Toprak makes his mark
Turkish rider Toprak Razgatlioglu has long been tipped as a potential World Superbike star and whilst his progress perhaps hasn’t been as rapid as some thought, he is slowly beginning to fulfil that promise.
Protégé of former World Supersport legend Kenan Sofuoglu, Saturday’s excellent third place finish was his first podium of the season and came from a lowly 11th place in qualifying on the Puccetti Racing Kawasaki ZX-10RR.
Already drafted in to the official Kawasaki team for the Suzuka 8-Hour later this year, rumours are circulating that Razgatlioglu is set to replace Leon Haslam as team-mate to Jonathan Rea in 2020. However, whilst Haslam’s return to the world stage hasn’t gone as well as he would have liked, he currently leads his younger rival by 43 points in the championship standings.
22-year old Razgatlioglu undoubtedly has promise but he needs to be challenging for the podium positions more often than he is at present with 7th-9th place his most regular finishing position. It’s only his second full year in WSB though so he’s certainly heading in the right direction.
Imola proved to be a bruising weekend for two of the seven-strong British contingent with both Eugene Laverty and Leon Camier being eliminated from the race action, Laverty’s meeting ending before it had truly got going.
The Irishman crashed in Friday’s opening free practice session sustaining two broken wrists whilst Camier fell the following morning when Sandro Cortese crashed in front of him. Not for the first time this season, the Honda Racing rider was the innocent victim of someone else’s crash with the end result being a damaged arm.
Both riders are unsure when there’ll be returning but Laverty’s misfortune opened the door for Tommy Bridewell who flew to Italy late on Friday evening. Despite never having seen the GoEleven Ducati until the final practice session on Saturday, the current joint leader of the British Superbike Championship did a superb job, further highlighting how well he’s riding at present.
The WSB-spec Ducati Panigale is vastly different to the Oxford Racing one he campaigns in BSB, but he got quicker with each outing and after taking 12th in Saturday’s race, he progressed to 11th in Sunday’s Sprint race. A top ten finish was most definitely on the cards for the final race of the weekend before the weather intervened.
Rain stops play
For the second round in a row, one of the races was cancelled due to inclement weather with the sleet and freezing temperatures of Assen replaced by torrential rain at Imola. Sunday was initially feared to be a complete wipe out but both the Sprint race and World Supersport race were able to take place in relatively dry conditions.
However, the heavens then opened just after lunchtime and although numerous track inspections took place, the general consensus amongst the riders was that it simply wasn’t safe to go racing. The undulating nature of the Imola circuit can sometimes see standing water remain but whilst this was cleared, the heavy spray was a problem and with the close proximity at some corners of the barriers and walls – far enough away not to cause an issue in the dry but too close in the wet – the sensible, and only, decision was made.
Of course, some riders were prepared to race, including some of the Brits who are well used to such conditions, but sporting director Gregorio Lavilla was fair to all concerned and with similar conditions in the past having resulted in countless injuries, and worse, he stood firm particularly when coming under some hostile questioning from Eurosport reporter Charlie Hiscott.
Trackside fans and TV audiences always have to be considered but ultimately, rider safety is paramount and what matters most.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News and Classic Racer, having also been a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including Smiths Racing, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information.