With World Championships clinched, new race winners and rider boycotts, it’s been an eventful two rounds in the World Superbike Championship and whilst Jonathan Rea’s fifth consecutive title would normally grab all the headlines, it’s the events of San Juan Villicum, Argentina at the weekend that kick start this month’s round-up.
The San Juan 6
Last year saw the Villicum circuit used for the first time at world championship level and when the riders arrived, they were faced with a very dusty circuit but as the weekend wore on and more rubber was laid down, grip levels improved and the event was declared a success.
Over 80,000 fans attended the event but when the riders pitched up this year, they were met with exactly the same prospect, perhaps even worse, with the organisers having done nothing prior to the weekend in order to get it race ready.
Conditions were made worse this year with high temperatures which, opposite to the norm, saw lap times slower even with qualifying tyres. Riders were crashing when they were off-throttle and such was the discontent, a riders meeting took place in which it looked like a boycott of the opening race would take place.
However, when the time came, just six of the 19 riders stuck together and opted not to ride declaring track conditions as simply too dangerous to race.
The six were Chaz Davies, Leon Camier, Eugene Laverty, Marco Melandri, Sandro Cortese and Ryucihi Kiyonari with accusations, denials and finger-pointing afterwards not doing anyone – series, riders or circuit – any favours.
Right or wrong?
A lot of talk afterwards centred on who was right and who was wrong – the 12 riders who raced or the six that stuck to their guns and boycotted proceedings? In a situation like this, both sides to the story have their pros and cons but, ultimately, the only way the race wouldn’t have taken place is if the entire field had stuck together and agreed not to ride.
Personal decision, team pressure and contracts to honour may all have come into play but it’s also worth pointing out that all of the riders who started, finished and there were no incidents so, from that perspective, the track could be deemed to have been safe with no cause for concern.
Laverty’s description of Rea as being ‘spineless’ was particularly savage, not that the World Champion was going to lose any sleep over that and his arguments for racing were extremely valid and made perfect sense.
It’s not the first time this has happened and in the MotoGP World Championship, events in Belgium (1979), France (1982) and San Marino (1989) were all hit by rider boycotts whereby the factory riders boycotted the races and the privateers didn’t with the latter seeing it as an opportunity to make a name for themselves.
And that will always be the case and why it’s highly unlikely 100% of the riders will ever be in agreement in such circumstances. It’s the same at the Isle of Man TT when conditions are wet or patchy. Racing doesn’t take place in the wet anymore on the Mountain Course but when it did some riders saw it as their chance to shine. As recently as 2011, the leading riders didn’t want to start the second Supersport race but when the time came, they were all on the line with some doing better than others.
What’s clear in the case of Villicum is that the riders should never have been put in the place they found themselves in. Series organisers Dorna and FIM will rightly come under fire for their homologation policy, which clearly has flaws in it, and although neither the circuit layout or safety standards could be faulted, the fact that practice on Friday started with a layer of dust covering the entire track, both in length and width, was something that should never have happened. And nor should it happen again.
Rea delivers – again
Events in Argentina overshadowed another imperious weekend for Rea who, fresh from clinching the title at Magny Cours with a second race win, took two wins and a second at Villicum to further cement his status as the best Superbike rider of all-time.
His five world titles, the most ever in WSB, put him level with another Northern Ireland maestro, Joey Dunlop, whose titles came in the now-defunct World Formula One Championship between 1982 and 1986. Whilst Dunlop was a master of the roads, Rea has concentrated on the short circuits but, whilst some may disagree, he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his illustrious countryman.
That comparison would probably embarrass Rea who has remained humble and grounded throughout his success especially as he has a great appreciation and understanding of both his sport and the achievements and legacy of Dunlop.
Rea has confirmed that this title success is in many ways even more satisfying than the previous four given how unlikely another world crown looked to be earlier in the year when Alvaro Bautista took win after win in the first half of the season to open up a formidable looking 61-point lead.
However, whilst he pressed the self-destruct button mid-season with a succession of crashes, Rea never gave up and continued to believe he could do it and having already established himself as one of motorcycling and Northern Ireland sport’s all-time greats, he can surely go on to continue smashing the record books and create more history in 2020.
Toprak comes of age
Having sung his praises throughout the season, Toprak Razgatlioglu finally made his WSB breakthrough at Magny Cours as he took his first ever win – promptly following it up with another – before taking an impressive hat-trick of third places in Argentina.
Only Rea and Bautista have taken more podium finishes than the Puccetti Kawasaki rider this season and he’s been Rea’s most consistent challenger for the past few rounds on his similar Kawasaki ZX-10R which makes it all the more surprising that the Japanese manufacturer haven’t promoted him to the factory team for 2020.
Coached by former World Supersport legend and fellow countryman Kenan Sofuoglu, their loss is Yamaha’s gain (see below) but at the age of just 22, he’s done more than enough to indicate he could well be the rider to take the fight to Rea and, possibly, dethrone him next year.
Battle for third
With first and second in the championship already sewn up, a lot of the focus at the final round will be on the battle for third overall which looked to be the domain of the two PATA Yamaha team-mates Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark.
However, Razgatlioglu’s recent form has seen him rapidly close in on the R1-riding duo and there’s now just six points covering the trio ahead of the final round, Lowes leading van der Mark by one point with Razgatlioglu a further five points behind.
A betting man would put their money on the Turkish rider coming out on top given he’s had the measure of Lowes and van der Mark in recent rounds but the two Yamaha riders have taken six and eight podiums respectively whilst the technical Qatar circuit – with the exception of the long start and finish straight – should play into their hands.
But with eight podiums in the last ten races, including his maiden wins at Magny Cours, the momentum lies with Razgatlioglu and he’ll be keen to end his tenure at Kawasaki – before he, ironically, replaces Lowes at Yamaha to ride alongside van der Mark in 2020 – on a high.
Haslam out, Lowes in
It’s been a relatively disappointing season for reigning British Superbike Champion Leon Haslam and although his season started well, it’s gone gradually downhill so it came as no surprise to hear the Kawasaki Racing Team (KRT) wouldn’t be re-signing him for the 2020 season.
Joining KRT was a golden opportunity for the Langley Mill rider but for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out as he would have liked and whilst his current championship position of sixth overall is no mean achievement, the results haven’t been what he or the team would have expected.
In the 34 races to have taken place so far, he’s taken just six podiums compared to his team-mate Rea’s tally of 31 and although he’s up against the best Superbike rider of all time – in statistics at least – your results are always going to be judged against those of the rider on the same bike and in the same garage.
He’s been regularly outperformed by the satellite bike of Razgatlioglu and although it would have been the natural move to promote him into the factory team, it’s Lowes who will line up alongside Rea instead. He moves across from Yamaha where he’s spent four seasons and becomes the latest rider to try and get the better of Rea something that both Haslam and Tom Sykes before him failed to do.
Haslam turned 36 earlier this year and whilst it’s believed he still has opportunities to stay in WSB, none more so than with Razgatlioglu’s Puccetti Kawasaki team, the rumour mill suggests he may be reunited with his old Bournemouth Kawasaki team for another crack at the BSB championship.
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.