The World Superbike Championship rolled into England and Donington Park at the weekend and whilst it was a weekend that saw numerous talking points, the end result was that Jonathan Rea took a brilliant hat-trick to grab the lead in the title chase for the first time this season.
Johnny be good
That shouldn’t be surprising in itself given Rea has won the last four Championships but it looked like a lost cause not so long ago as series newcomer Alvaro Bautista won the first 11 races. However, Rea was simply superb at his home round and having opened up a 24-point lead now over the Spaniard, the tides may well have turned.
The Northern Irishman never gave up hope in the early rounds despite having to watch Bautista disappear into the distance in many of those first 11 races and the value of finishing second each time can clearly be seen as it always meant the gap was never insurmountable. The Ducati is clearly not the best bike in the wet whereas Rea is a master and the last few rounds have seen him slowly claw back the deficit.
He destroyed the opposition in the first, wet race at Donington and with Bautista crashing out he was finally back in the lead. He seized the opportunity and went on to take a clean sweep of the race wins despite coming under extreme pressure from fellow Kawasaki rider Toprak Razgotlioglu each time.
Rea now heads to Laguna Seca this weekend, another circuit where he should out-perform Bautista with the latter not having been there for more than decade and he’ll be keen extend his lead ahead of the summer break.
Challenge for Bautista
Those 11 wins helped propel Bautista into a 61-point lead but since then he’s only won three of the subsequent 11 races and crashed out of three of them so it’s clear he now has work to do if he’s to be the man to finally topple Rea.
Bautista is a former world champion so it would be unfair to say he’s cracked under pressure but the all-conquering Ducati Panigale we saw at the beginning of the season isn’t the same machine now and the rest of the field have certainly caught up.
Front end crashes at both Jerez and Misano came from simply pushing too hard, too soon whilst he was caught out by the rain at Donington in a vicious crash which could have happened to anyone given the conditions.
The different circuits compared to the MotoGP calendar are proving to be a big challenge and he hasn’t visited Laguna Seca since 2010, almost as long as his absence from Donington. Five rounds and more than 300 points are still available though so the season still has a long way to run.
Top performance from Razgatlioglu
Now in his second full season in WBS, Turkish rider Razgotlioglu has made a significant step up in 2019 as discussed before and although he’s still prone to the odd finish towards the bottom of the top ten, he’s now finishing in the top five on a more regular basis. Indeed, with three second places in the last five races, he’s been the rider to challenge Rea the most, each time finishing just fractions behind.
Having come close in the feature race at Misano, where he led on the last lap, Donington was almost a carbon copy as he stuck to Rea’s rear wheel, also leading on more than one occasion. Rea’s race craft and talent were again that bit too much for Toprak but he’s doing everything right and, if the rumour mill is to be believed, it’s only a matter of time before he’s team-mate to the reigning champion.
That might seem harsh on current incumbent Leon Haslam who was on the podium twice at Donington, just as he had been at the previous round at Misano but Razgatlioglu has got the better of him in six of the last ten races and at 22, compared to Haslam’s 36, he has age on his side if Kawasaki are to look at the long term.
Sykes and BMW show their worth
Tom Sykes and the BMW team have been getting stronger and stronger as the year has gone on and whilst top speed continues to be their Achilles heel, they’re bridging the gap and are more than a match for any of the other manufacturers in all other departments. With Sykes having dominated the races at Donington in recent years, winning no less than nine of the previous 12 races, and the track layout looking to be in their favour, the combination was expected to do well – and so it proved.
The Yorkshire rider took his almost obligatory pole position at the Leicestershire venue before taking a good second to Rea in the opening wet race. It looked like he’d taken another podium in Sunday’s Sprint race after ‘finishing’ second but he crashed out on oil after the race had been red flagged, ironically the spillage coming from stand-in team-mate Peter Hickman’s bike. Sykes was then removed from the results having fallen foul of the WSB ruling that states both a rider and his machine must be in parc ferme within five minutes of the race coming to an end.
Needless to say, he wasn’t best pleased with the verdict and it meant he had to start the final race from the fourth row as opposed to the front row and coming through from there was always going to be a difficult task. Seventh was the outcome but he set the third fastest lap of the race and the disappointment of the second race shouldn’t detract from what was a very strong showing by both Sykes and the S1000RR.
Mixed weekend for Yamaha
It was a mixed weekend for the Yamaha teams and Alex Lowes will probably have come away from his home round with a feeling of disappointment having not made it onto the podium in any of the three races.
He never truly recovered from a big off at Craner Curves during Friday’s opening free practice session though and although uninjured, he was on the back foot immediately having lost valuable track time. He did manage to claw some points back on team-mate Michael van der Mark who remains in third overall after taking eighth place in all three races but would have hoped for more.
The Dutchman did the double at Donington last year but arrived at the circuit this year not even knowing if he’d be able to ride after suffering a broken wrist in a horrible high-side at Misano just two weeks ago. He performed heroics to finish all races inside the top ten at a circuit that is notoriously hard on the hands and arms due to the heavy braking and regular changes in direction.
Another Yamaha rider to shine was Loris Baz in just his third meeting with the Dutch Ten Kate outfit. The Frenchman had taken fourth in the wet race at Misano and repeated the position in the first race at Donington, which also saw heavy rain. However, this was the first round where he was really at the sharp end in the dry too and fifth and sixth, just a handful of seconds off the podium, was a great effort. Indeed, he beat the official Yamaha of Lowes in the Sprint race and it certainly bodes well for both Baz and the team in the forthcoming rounds.
Conversely, the other satellite outfit of GRT had a weekend to forget with Marco Melandri continuing with his erratic, up and down form. Just two rounds after finishing on the podium at Jerez, his best finish was a lowly tenth, half a minute behind race winner Rea whilst team-mate Sandro Cortese scored just three points from the three races, the German one of the five crash victims of the aforementioned oil spill.
Honda’s woes continue
Number one Honda rider Leon Camier was again ruled out from the weekend by injury meaning it was the fourth successive meeting he was absent. However, on this occasion the Moriwaki Althea team chose not to replace him, a strange decision given the riders that could have been available to them, particularly the two BSB riders Xavi Fores and Andrew Irwin.
They both performed well at the BSB round at the venue earlier in the year, especially the Spaniard who took three podiums, but instead the team were solely represented by Ryucihi Kiyonari who continues to be a shadow of his former self, finishing more than a minute behind Rea in Sunday’s feature race.
Rumour has it, Honda are using 2019 as a development year with a view to coming back in full force next season with not one but two two-man teams with one, un-named rider said to have been offered a deal worth £1million. Given the brand’s performances this year, it’ll need figures like that to tempt any rider to move from their current team.
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 Triumph, Quattro Plant Kawasaki, John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Keith Amor. 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.