The wait is over. After a long winter, the 2019 racing season burst back into life at the weekend with the opening round of the World Superbike Championship taking place at Phillip Island, Australia and it saw a dominant display from newcomer to the series, Alvaro Bautista.
Many observers felt the introduction of a new challenger to Jonathan Rea, especially one with eight years experience in the MotoGP World Championship, was just what World Superbikes needed. Well, if the first round is anything to go by, they’ve got their wish as Ducati’s Bautista was simply brilliant.
The 34-year old became the first rider to win on his debut since Max Biaggi in 2007 and he promptly went on to take all three race wins to leave everyone in no doubt that he is a serious title contender. Not only did he win, he dominated with his race victories well in excess of ten seconds.
The combination of Bautista and the new V4 Panigale worked perfectly around the flowing Phillip Island circuit and it was clear for all to see the speed advantage he had but speed isn’t everything and his riding was faultless to get his season off to a dream start.
Of course, Phillip Island is a circuit the Spaniard knows extremely well so he was expected to have strong results but there aren’t that many on the calendar he doesn’t already have experience on. Rea and co were worried about Bautista’s capabilities before the season got underway and their thoughts won’t have changed one bit after his debut showing.
Rea’s best of the rest
One man who won’t have been surprised by Bautista’s performance is reigning and four-time World Champion Rea who proved to be the best of the rest at the weekend with three second place finishes.
The Northern Irishman would have expected Bautista to be a threat the minute it was announced he’d signed for Ducati although he may not have expected the margins of victory to be so great.
However, he certainly won’t be panicking and knows not only how strong he is himself but also how long the season is. The Ducati has traditionally been strong at Phillip Island, a circuit where tyre management is crucial, and it’s worth pointing out that Marco Melandri did the double there this time last year only to fail to win another race all season.
That’s not to say the same fate will fall Bautista but Rea isn’t a four-time champion for nothing and you can guarantee the results of round one will simply make him and his team more determined to get back on top at round two next month.
Disappointment for Davies
Having been Rea’s closest challenger for the last three seasons, the opening round spelt disappointment for Chaz Davies especially as he had to watch his new Ducati team-mate disappear into the sunset in each race.
The Welshman has been Ducati’s number one rider since 2014, having out performed the likes of Melandri and Davide Giugliano in the subsequent years, so having Bautista on the opposite side of the garage is a new situation.
An operation in the off-season saw him miss valuable track time in the build up to the opening round, even more crucial given the new V4 he had to learn and he’s been playing catch-up ever since.
Qualifying in 16th place for the three races didn’t help his cause so a best finish of seventh was very much damage limitation but it’s clear he still has a lot of catching up to do. And although Phillip Island is a circuit that doesn’t suit his style, the first race of 2019 will certainly have given him food for thought.
Baptism of fire for BMW
The brand new factory BMW team came away from under Phillip Island under no illusion as to where, and by how much, they need to improve with seventh place for Tom Sykes in the opening race their best result.
The German manufacturer have already intimated they have a long-term plan in place and have a lot of development work still to undertake and whilst Bautista’s top speed advantage was clear, equally obvious was BMW’s deficit in this area.
Sykes and team-mate Markus Reiterberger were some 12mph down along the start and finish straight at Phillip Island, a deficit that is practically impossible to overcome elsewhere around the circuit.
The Brit was singing the praises of the bikes’ chassis so when the speed comes, he should be a lot higher up the results sheets. New parts will certainly be forthcoming between now and the next round so expect BMW’s results to improve as the season goes on.
New Honda; same story
With an official HRC entry for the first time since 2002, much is expected of Honda this time around but whilst they’ve started with all-new machine compared to what they ran last season, it was the same old story at Phillip Island.
Whilst it’s true riders Leon Camier and Ryuichi Kiyonari have had a lot less track time compared to their rivals, they again found themselves disputing the positions at the wrong end of the leaderboard and tenth place for Camier was their best result over the three races.
Eyebrows were raised when Kiyonari was announced as being the second rider, rather than someone like Eugene Laverty, and the sceptics won’t be changing their mind just yet with the Japanese rider scoring just a solitary point.
The opening round also saw the new weekend format rolled out for the first time with a ‘Sprint’ race taking place for the first time on Sunday morning alongside the regular Saturday and Sunday afternoon full races.
For much of its 30-year life, World Superbikes saw practice and qualifying take place on Friday and Saturday before two races were held on Sunday; the two-race format on Sunday was its inherent appeal.
More recently the two races have been split across Saturday and Sunday with the intention of making it more attractive for fans to attend for the whole weekend. It hasn’t quite worked though with a number of meetings see attendance figures fall dramatically.
Therefore, the organisers have introduced the new ‘Sprint’ race with the first one of the season held over ten laps of the Phillips Island circuit. The racing was certainly hard fought although the end result was still the same so time will tell if it becomes a popular addition to the race programme.
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.