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World Superbike Championship is back!

Published: March 9, 2023

Bautista makes early running

The opening two rounds of the World Superbike Championship, held these last two weekends in Australia and Indonesia, threw up plenty of action, drama and even a bit of controversy but it’s reigning champion Alvaro Bautista who’s stolen an early march over the rest of the field.

WSBK action Image Credit Yamaha Racing

Ominous signs

Bautista won 16 races on his way to winning last year’s World Championship and the signs are already looking ominous for the rest of the field for this year too with the Ducati rider taking five wins from the first six races.

Only a crash in the second race at the Mandalika circuit in Indonesia prevented the Spaniard from taking a potential clean sweep of all of the races and although it could have been higher, he heads back to Europe with a healthy 37-point lead over the chasing pack.

Alvaro Bautista Image Credit Aruba Ducati

Much has been said about the weight advantage he enjoys but speed trap figures, from both circuits, often showed him to be in the middle of the top ten – and not way quickest at the top of the charts – so he has to be commended for the way he’s riding, in terms of both his pace and race craft. The combination of him and the Ducati Panigale V4R is clearly working in perfect harmony.

Bautista hasn’t been the only Ducati rider to shine with team-mate Michael Ruben Rinaldi taking two podiums, which should have been more had he not crashed in race one at Mandalika and then faded to fourth in the final race after leading for two thirds race distance. Leading independent rider Axel Bassani has also impressed once more, four top five finishes coming his way in the first six races.

Yamaha lead the chase

The only other rider to win at the first two rounds was Yamaha’s Toprak Razgatlioglu and it’s the Turkish rider, along with his Pata Yamaha team-mate Andrea Locatelli that lead the chase behind Bautista.

2021 champion Razgatlioglu has finished on the podium five times already and took victory in the Sprint race in Indonesia but having dominated at the latter as recently as last November, the advantage Bautista had over him will have caused considerable concern, to say the least.

Toprak and Locatelli Image Credit Yamaha Racing

Indeed, the Turk was moved to say ‘Ducati are impossible to beat at the moment’ and whilst everyone says things will be different once the European season gets underway in earnest at Assen, Holland next month, the two tests planned between now and then will be crucial for Yamaha, as they will for Kawasaki (see below).

Locatelli, meanwhile, has started stronger than before and whilst previous seasons have seen him the best of the rest behind Bautista, Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea (with no less than 18 fourth place finishes across 2020 and 2021), he looks a different prospect this time around. He’s already taken three podiums to sit just five points behind his team-mate.

Disaster for Rea

If Razgatlioglu has found the going tough at the early rounds, then it’s been doubly so for six-time champion Rea and his Kawasaki team. Just one podium from six races is a far cry from what we’ve been accustomed to and, instead, we’ve seen him languishing down the order in eighth and ninth.

Plenty of work went into the Kawasaki ZX-10RR over the winter months with engineers confident of bridging the gap to Bautista, a sentiment that looked true in pre-season testing. That hasn’t been borne out at all so far though with tyre struggles in the races holding them back.

Tough times for Rea Image Credit Kawasaki Press Service

Traction, or a lack of it, has been the issue with both the front and rear causing Rea problems and he’s faded in a number of the early races with literally no tyre left to race with. Nowhere was this more evident than in Indonesia which the Northern Irishman described as one of the worst weekends of his career, clearly having to ride on the edge just to give himself a chance.

That resulted in a crash in the third and final race in Indonesia and Rea sits in sixth overall in the early table, some 68 points behind Bautista. You can’t afford to give anyone that kind of advantage let alone someone so strong as Bautista.

New names make early impression

This year’s championship has seen an influx of new names, most notably Danilo Petrucci at Barni Ducati and the GYTR Yamaha pairing of Dominique Aegerter and Remy Gardner and all three have shown glimpses early doors.

Remy Gardner Image Credit Yamaha Racing

Former MotoGP winner Petrucci was particularly strong at Mandalika although he’s yet to fully adapt to the rough and tumble WSB series, particularly the Sprint races where it’s hell for leather for ten laps. He made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Kawasaki’s Alex Lowes forceful riding in the early laps, stating; ‘I don’t understand his behaviour and don’t understand why he wasn’t penalised’.

Aegerter leads the way Image Credit Yamaha Racing

Double World Supersport Champion Aegerter already has a front row start and fastest lap to his name so his one lap pace isn’t in question although he’s yet to convert that into a really strong race result, seventh his best finish so far.

The signs look promising though as they do for team-mate Gardner, the 2021 Moto 2 World Champion also having a best finish of seventh. Taking out Aegerter in the second race at Phillip Island was far from ideal but with tests to come at Aragon and Catalunya, he should be in a good position by the time we get to Assen next month.

Honda start strongly, BMW less so

Coming into the first two rounds, Honda and BMW looked to be the two manufacturers with the most work to do and the biggest gap to close to the pace setting Ducati – and that’s how it’s panned out.

Loris Baz Image Credit BMW Motorrad

However, Honda look to be in a better place than their German rivals with Iker Lecuona enjoying a strong round at Phillip Island where he took a brace of top six finishes. Crashes and a lack of confidence kept him down the order at Mandalika but team-mate Xavi Vierge duly stepped up to the plate with third, sixth and seventh in the three races, the third place in the final race of the weekend being his maiden WSB podium.

BMW, on the other hand, were still off the pace with all four riders – Scott Redding, Michael van der Mark, Loris Baz and Garrett Gerloff – often circulating together at the bottom end of the points. Redding’s mood has noticeably deteriorated, punching the tank in frustration when he retired from the opening race in Indonesia.

Michael van der Mark Image Credit BMW Motorrad

There was a glimmer of hope in Indonesia though with van der Mark having two strong rides, especially in the opening race when he worked his way through the field to sixth. The Dutchman got stronger as the race wore on so there’s clearly potential within the M1000RR, more of which we’re bound to see when the season resumes in late April.

On and off-track problems at Mandalika

The trip to Mandalika threw up several problems, with some riders struck down by gastroenteritis. Tom Sykes pulled into the pits in all three races with Gardner dragging himself out of bed for Sunday’s races. Gerloff and Rea were also under the weather whilst Eric Granado missed both long races.

On track, the main issue was grip, or lack of it. Unlike many other circuits on the calendar, which see plenty of two-wheel action in the shape of national races and track days as well as four-wheel races, Mandalika is barely used and that meant the circuit was very dirty when everyone arrived.

World Superbike Championship Image Credit Kawasaki Press Service

Practice helped clear some of the dirt away but that meant only a narrow racing line existed come the races and overtaking meant going off that line and back on to the dirty part. There were many spills across the three days in both WSB and the World Supersport Championship with Bautista, Rea, van der Mark and Rinaldi all high-profile casualties.

The biggest casualty though was Baz who suffered breaks to his leg when Lowes clattered into the side of him heading into turn three. A common trend of late for riders under braking is to dangle their leg off the side of the bike (initiated by Valentino Rossi) and when the Frenchman did it on this occasion, Lowes, who was attempting to overtake on the inside, hit him hard. Baz was clearly in agony and had to be lifted off the bike when he returned to the pits.

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, Classic Racer and Road Racing Ireland, as well as being 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 PBM Ducati, 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

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