Like BSB and MotoGP before it, the World Superbike Championship is currently enjoying its summer break, disappointment for race fans all around the globe after what’s been an exhilarating start to the season.
Bautista leads the way
With little to choose between the leading protagonists Alvaro Bautista, Jonathan Rea and reigning champion Toprak Razgatlioglu, fortunes have ebbed and flowed at each round but it’s Bautista who currently leads the way with the Spaniard enjoying a 31-point lead over Rea.
After two average years with Honda, it’s been a dream return to Ducati for the former 125cc World Champion as he’s taken full advantage of the Panigale’s top end speed to rack up seven victories so far. Together with his diminutive stature and impeccable race craft, it’s been a formidable combination.
His only mistake came in the opening race at Donington Park in July when he crashed out of a potential podium finish and that, along with fourth in the Sprint race at the Leicestershire venue, is the only time he’s finished off the podium.
Of course, he’s been in this position before when he dominated the first half of 2019, his first year in the series, only for the wheels to come off in the second half of the season. They look a different proposition this time around though and more equipped to deal with any setbacks but there’ll still be looking to improve, particularly in the early stages of the races where he’s had to work his way up to his rivals.
As expected, the most successful World Superbike racer in history, Rea, is right in the middle of the fight for this year’s title with the six-time champion currently sitting in a close second place overall.
After six straight titles between 2015 and 2020, the Northern Irishman lost out to Razgatlioglu last year and made no secret of his desire to continue racing and reclaim the title. Remaining with his close-knit Kawasaki team, three wins in the first five races made it an excellent start for the now 35-year old.
However, since then it’s been a lot more challenging with his last victories coming at Estoril in May and, in particular, the longer races have seen him not exactly struggle but not able to extract the most out of the ZX-10R either. The Sprint races, where he’s finished on the podium in each race, have been less of an issue but being able to sustain his pace over the longer race distances has presented problems.
Maintaining grip levels has been no easy task and when you see Rea finishing in fourth, you know it’s not all plain sailing. Recognising the need to keep ahead of Bautista for as long as possible, particularly in the twistier sections to nullify the Ducati advantage along the straights, he’s also looked a bit desperate under braking at times as he’s looked to replicate the style of Razgatlioglu.
However, he’s only failed to finish one race and the fact remains he still sits in a more than healthy second overall, 31 points behind Bautista and now just seven ahead Razgatlioglu.
For reigning champion Razgatlioglu, it was a slow start to the season and whilst his one lap pace on the Pata Yamaha was exemplary, he wasn’t able to sustain it for full race distance. Indeed, for many of the opening races, he was able to lead in the early stages before dropping back.
That ultimately resulted in no less than five third place finishes in the first nine races and it wasn’t until Misano in June, and race number 11 that he took his first win, victory coming in the Sprint race. With both he and the team working tirelessly, he’d finally found a setting he was comfortable with and that allowed him to ride, and race, the R1 Yamaha in the manner he wanted.
Arriving at Donington with renewed vigour, the Turk took all three race wins in England and then added two more in the Czech Republic two weeks later. Five wins in six races suddenly turned a 79-point deficit to Bautista to just 38 and anyone who witnessed the races at both Donington and Most will know it’s very much game on.
Razgatlioglu, Rea, Bautista and, to a lesser extent, Scott Redding were quite literally knocking lumps out of each other, and the races were some of the best we’ve ever seen in the 35-year history of the series. Toprak will no doubt have preferred the racing to continue rather than go on its summer holidays but if he hits the ground running when racing resumes, he has a great chance of making it two titles in a row.
Have BMW turned the corner?
With Michael van der Mark breaking his leg in training when the season was in its infancy, it was far from the start the official BMW Motorrad team had hoped for and their issues were compounded further with new signing Redding having what can only be described as a miserable start to his time on the M1000RR.
The Brit registered just one point at the opening round with the following meetings seeing him only just scrape into the top ten. However, in the month break between Misano (June) and Donington Park (July), the team went testing with a new Kalex swingarm with Redding and Bonovo BMW rider Loris Baz excelling its virtues.
The promise showed there was borne out in the results at Donington with Redding taking third in the Sprint race and fourth and fifth in the longer races. And Most a few weeks later showed it was no fluke with third and fourth his best finishes of the weekend.
Changing the handlebar angle and gear shifter position has also helped Redding and we now have four riders and four manufacturers disputing the race win, exactly the sort of reputation upon which the WSB series was renowned for. With van der Mark now back to full fitness and back on the grid at Magny-Cours next month, the future’s suddenly looking a whole lot brighter for the German manufacturer.
Whilst Bautista has, understandably, been grabbing all the headlines for Ducati, one rider who’s continually impressed this season, as he did at times in 2021, on the Panigale is 23-year old Axel Bassani.
Making his debut in the series last year, the Italian finished in a strong ninth overall with nine top six finishes, which included a second in the damp at Catalunya but he’s on course to better that this time around.
Currently sitting in seventh place in the title standings, Bassani has a factory-spec Ducati at his disposal but rides for the satellite Motocorsa Racing team and has outshone factory rider Michael Ruben Rinaldi on more than one occasion. He’s already taken seven top six finishes.
The duo will be remaining with their respective teams in 2023 but surely it’s only a matter of time before Bassani gets promoted. If, and when, he does, there’s no reason why he won’t become a regular podium finisher.
Whilst Bassani is still in the early stages of his career, one rider at the opposite end of the racing spectrum, Eugene Laverty, has called time on his racing with the Irishman hanging up his leathers at the end of the season.
Instead, he’ll become part owner and team manager of the Bonovo BMW squad he currently rides for and he’s sure to excel, just as brother Michael has with his Moto3 GP team. Having competed in MotoGP, World Superbike, World Supersport, 250cc Grand Prix and British Supersport, the now 36-year old has a wealth of experience and knowledge to call upon to help the team develop.
With 13 wins and 35 podiums, and a best finish of second overall in 2013, he’s enjoyed a fine WSB career whilst he also finished second overall in the World Supersport Championship in both 2009 and 2010. But the last few years haven’t been so kind with numerous spills and numerous injuries and, with his last podium coming back in 2018, he knows the time’s right to call it a day. He can look back on his career with a great deal of satisfaction.