Three months after the final round took place last year, the World Superbike Championship returns this weekend and it’s back at the same venue with Phillip Island in Australia hosting the opening round of the new season. And what a season it promises to be!
Bautista the man to beat
With 16 wins and 31 podiums in the 33 races, Alvaro Bautista and Ducati were deserving champions in 2022 as they defeated 2021 victor Toprak Razgatlioglu by some 72 points and that makes them favourites for success again this time around.
It was a triumphant return to Ducati for the 38-year old after two low-key years at Honda and pre-season testing suggests he’ll be picking up from where he left off at the opening round this weekend.
Bautista put his success down to his mental and physical preparation, much of which was required in full as he did battle with Razgatlioglu and six-time champion Jonathan Rea, week in, week out. The Spaniard had to call upon everything in his armoury to come out on top and he did just that.
With a new Ducati in 2023, the former 125cc World Champion will have some slight tweaks to make to his race weekend but he’s been rapid in testing coming out on top at Portimao. If he can do that right from the word go, he has every chance of adding to his impressive five WSB race wins at Phillip Island and, despite the stiff opposition, he has every chance of repeating his 2022 title success.
Razgatlioglu and Rea were the other two parts of the fantastic trio in 2022 and between them, the three riders took 90 of the 108 podiums available which highlights just how dominant they were.
Three different riders, three different nationalities and three different bikes with three different engine configurations, going hard at it all season. There’s no reason to suggest that it won’t be the same three riders contesting the title in the year ahead.
Pata Yamaha’s Razgatlioglu, back with his familiar number 54 as opposed to the ‘heavier’ number one, suffered a heavy crash in testing at Jerez and whilst under the lap record at Portimao, that was four tenths slower than Bautista and good enough for only fourth. Testing’s only testing though and with determination second to none, expect to see him at the sharp end every weekend.
Rea, meanwhile, and teammate Alex Lowes have an upgraded Kawasaki engine spec at their disposal which is evolution rather than revolution and designed to reduce the deficit to Bautista and Ducati along the straights.
The Northern Irishman was clearly having to ride over the limit at times last year so will be hoping that’s no longer the case and he’s desperate to reclaim the title he last won in 2020. Testing has gone well so he’ll be confident heading into round one.
One man who could prevent it being a three-horse race is Bautista’s teammate Michael Ruben Rinaldi. He’s been on the pace throughout testing, even topping the opening day at Portimao but whilst he’s been a race winner before, in both 2020 and 2021, consistency has been his downfall.
Indeed, he could consider himself fortunate to still be in the official Ducati seat given the form of youngster Axel Bassani last year when Rinaldi could only manage four rostrum appearances but he looks to be a reformed character in 2023. He now has the same trainer as Bautista and former MotoGP star Andrea Dovizioso, and this new approach could see him reap the rewards once the season gets underway.
Honda expect strong season
Ninth and tenth overall with two rookies, Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge, in 2022 was a solid enough year for HRC Honda but there’ll be looking, and expecting, to improve upon that in the new season.
Lecuona, a top six finisher in MotoGP, had the edge over his fellow compatriot last year but there wasn’t much to choose between the duo and pre-season testing has followed a similar pattern with the pair placing sixth and eighth fastest overall at the Portimao tests.
Lecuona had the edge on the timesheets though with an advantage of four tenths of a second, but he was still three-quarters of a second adrift of Bautista and Rea and that shows the gap they have to try and bridge if they’re to get amongst the podium finishers.
The team, led by team manager and former WSB podium finisher Leon Camier, have made several improvements over the winter including having torque in the right places with the engine, better acceleration, a new swingarm and a small step with the electronics which should help over race distance.
Having struggled in the second half of the races, Lecuona and Vierge will be hoping all of the above will help address that situation whilst no longer having to learn some of the circuits will also help. Race wins may be a bit too far, but more podiums – certainly more than the one they had in 2022 – are definitely on the cards.
Still work to do for BMW
BMW have their strongest line-up for many a year with a four-pronged attack featuring Scott Redding and Michael van der Mark in the factory Rokit BMW Motorrad team and Loris Baz and new signing Garret Gerloff at the Bonovo Action squad.
But if pre-season is anything to go by, they still have plenty of work to do if they’re going to win races again let alone challenge for the championship. The four riders had an all-new look to their M1000RR at Portimao with a new aero package featuring larger front wings whilst brake covers were seen for the first time in WSB.
There’s also been a switch from Brembo brakes to Nissin but the quickest rider at the Portimao test, Baz, was some 1.6s adrift of the pace being set by Bautista. A fully fit van der Mark will certainly help Redding in the official team, in terms of development, with Gerloff having a point to prove after a disappointing 2022 for Yamaha.
Marc Bongers, BMW Motorrad Motorsport Director, says the expectation is to win in the third year of the M1000 RR, so there’ll need to start closing the gap to the leaders fast if that aspiration is to become a reality.
After a disappointing single season in the British Superbike Championship, save for a double victory at Donington Park, 2013 WSB Champion Tom Sykes returns to the WSB fold and does so for the satellite Puccetti Kawasaki squad.
Sykes won his title on the ZX-10RR and re-joins Kawasaki for the first time since 2018 and whilst few would expect the 37-year old to be challenging for the race wins, the Huddersfield rider will be aiming to have a strong season nonetheless.
Times in testing haven’t been spectacular, far from it, but Sykes has been looking at the bigger picture and using testing for exactly that, rather than going for single lap times
“In the winter tests my first goal was to settle in and get to know the team,” said Sykes. “An objective achieved, as I feel very comfortable with them, and also for this reason the tests went well. There is still some work to do but we have laid the foundations for a good season.”
Rookies aim to make their mark
Without doubt, it’s one of the strongest line up of rookies in WSB for some time with World Champions, MotoGP and Moto2 race winners and a British Champion amongst their ranks.
Double World Supersport Champion Dominique Aegerter has, arguably and, perhaps, not unexpectedly, made the biggest impression in testing closely followed by GYTR GRT Yamaha team-mate and 2021 Moto 2 World Champion Remy Gardner.
Fellow debutantes Lorenzo Baldassari, runner-up to Aegerter in last year’s Supersport Championship, and reigning BSB Champion Bradley Ray will also be Yamaha-mounted although Ray will frustratingly miss the first two rounds with his MotoX Racing team only contesting the European rounds, which get underway at Assen, Holland in mid-April.
Former MotoGP race winner Danilo Petrucci will also be a WSB rookie in 2023 and, given his long tenure for Ducati in MotoGP, could well prove to be the pick of the bunch this year. He rides for the consistent Barni Spark Ducati team.
No minimum combined weight
Weight was a hot topic in 2022 with some riders complaining that Bautista had an unfair advantage due to his relatively low height and weight. This led to larger stature riders like Redding calling for a minimum combined weight for rider and bike, as seen in other classes but organisers have ruled this out ‘to ensure the continuity of this category and to maintain the technical rules that have made its current success.’
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