After four years of domination by Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki, World Superbike organisers – and neutral observers – were hoping there might be a challenge to their reign in 2019 but if the first two rounds are anything to go by, the combination of one dominant rider and manufacturer has simply been replaced by another with Alvaro Bautista and Ducati’s scintillating start to the season continuing in Thailand.
Six from six for Bautista
MotoGP refugee Bautista has arrived in World Superbikes with a point to prove and after taking six wins from six starts, he’s already gone a long way to doing just that. Clearly at home on the V4 Ducati, Bautista has simply blown the opposition into the weeds and the signs are already look ominous.
What’s of main concern to the rest of the field is the manner in which Bautista is winning and just how quick the Ducati is, its top speed advantage along the straights clear to see – no one can get close.
The little Spaniard is taking full advantage of the situation he’s in and whilst other Ducati riders have yet to get accustomed to the characteristics of the V4, after years of the Bologna factory making V-Twin motorcycles, he’s spent the last two years riding a V4 albeit in MotoGP, prototype form.
At the Buriram circuit in Thailand, his winning margins were again in excess of ten seconds and Rea had barely got onto the straights before Bautista was at the end of them, which must already be disheartening for both him and the series organisers whose hopes for close racing haven’t come to fruition at the first two rounds.
Of course, the season still has a long way to run with 11 rounds and 33 races still to go and the first two circuits of Phillip Island and Buriram have played to the strengths of Bautista and Ducati with their long straights.
The same will probably apply at round three at Aragon in Spain next month, where the length of the back straight is considerable, and even if the rest can get close through the twisty stuff, it will simply be a case of mirror, signal, and manoeuvre for Bautista once he gets onto the straight.
However, after that, the likes of Assen and Imola should make it a lot more of a level playing field, particularly if the organisers enforce a reduction in revs for the V4 Ducati after round three, something that is clearly outlined in the rules if they feel a manufacturer has an unhealthy advantage over the rest.
It’s also worth pointing out that only Bautista is making the Ducati work – in the six races held so far, the next best finish for a rider on one of the Bologna bullets is a seventh in Australia for team-mate Chaz Davies. Maybe Bautista isn’t getting the credit he fully deserves and is simply a better rider than anyone else on the grid – at this point in time, at least – and the combination of man and machine is working in perfect harmony.
On winning four world championships in a row, and becoming the most successful World Superbike Championship rider ever, Rea has had a phenomenal four years and, deep down, knew it wouldn’t last for ever.
His dominance saw the rest of the field battling it out over second place but he’s in unfamiliar territory in 2019 as he’s been on the end of the punishment being dished out by Bautista and it’s now him that finds himself disputing second.
The Kawasaki ZX-10RR is an all-new machine for 2019 but testing went well and the team have probably been taken aback by just how much Bautista is winning by. They knew he’d be a formidable opponent but maybe they weren’t expecting to be finishing so far behind.
The series now returns to mainland Europe so there’ll all be putting their heads together to see what they can do at round three in three week’s time.
Strength in depth
Yamaha’s decision to double their efforts from two bikes to four already looks to have paid dividends with all four riders already regular top seven finishers and comfortably in the hunt for podium positions.
In Australia it was Marco Melandri who did just that but in Thailand it was Alex Lowes who stood out as he not only took three third place finishes but also finished closer to Rea than what he did for much of last year.
Although they clearly still don’t have the package to win races, Yamaha look to have improved from 2018 where they only ran at the front at certain circuits and, more often than not, finished in fourth and fifth with Lowes and team-mate Michael van der Mark.
In Thailand, Lowes pushed Rea all the way to the end, especially in race three and if all three riders can maximise their potential in qualifying – van der Mark was only tenth last weekend – they will all give themselves a much better chance.
Weekend of woes
Whilst Rea and Lowes had strong weekends with podiums in every race, it was a tale of woe for the five other Brits on the grid with only Leon Haslam coming away with a half decent set of results.
Three fifth places was a solid effort for Haslam but he would have been hoping to have been a lot closer to Rea compared to where he was and he struggled with the front end for much of the weekend.
He fared a lot better than Davies, Eugene Laverty, Tom Sykes and Leon Camier though. Davies came away from round two with just three points after a crash in race one saw him remount 15th before mechanical failure put him out of race three when part of the battle for fourth.
Camier’s points haul was the same as a crash in race two brought his weekend to an early finish whilst Sykes and BMW were again down on speed more than anyone and although he qualified in sixth, a solitary tenth in the first race was all he had to show for his efforts.
The worst hit though was Laverty whose bad luck in Thailand continued when he brakes failed going into the final turn early in race one. The Ulsterman bailed off his Ducati at 120mph, fortunately without injury, but the V4 careered into the barriers and was pretty much written off.
He failed to make it out for either of the other two races and although it certainly could have been a lot worse, it wasn’t the St Patrick’s weekend he’d have wished for.
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.