New bikes, new pilots and a rider roster which arguably sees one of the most competitive fields in WorldSBK history are what awaits in 2019, and it all starts this weekend in Australia, at the magnificent Phillip Island circuit.
Not many series’ are able to claim that the first track on their calendar is best in the world, but the Superbike World Championship has that luxury, and has enjoyed it since 2009.
Phillip Island’s high-speed front straight sets the tone for the whole circuit, which sees riders dip below third gear on only three or four occasions, depending on gearing.
Not only is Phillip Island a favourite with the riders for the enjoyment found in lapping it alone, but also for the racing it provides. The high-speed nature of the layout means the rider can make more difference here than anywhere else. Additionally, the front straight is long, and the exit from the final corner onto that front straight is fast, meaning the slipstream can be very powerful.
Group races, then, are to be expected. Or, they are if you are optimistic.
From the final preseason test, it is possible to assume that Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) may just disappear this weekend, in all three races. The 2006 125cc World Champion and WorldSBK rookie dominated this week’s test in Phillip Island, topping each of the four sessions across Monday and Tuesday, and setting three times as many laps in the 1’30s as any of his rivals. It is not a coincidence. Bautista’s ‘grand prix’ riding style, which utilises the side of the tyre and uses high corner speed, is one which works well in Phillip Island thanks to the long, sweeping corners. At the same time, however, it uses the rear tyre less efficiently than the more ‘stop-start’ style of the riders with more experience with Pirelli rubber and Superbike machinery. Bautista might have Sunday’s sprint race in the bag, but the two longer races on Saturday and Sunday afternoon should see the Spaniard in more trouble – unless he can solve his issues on Friday.
Bautista’s steed for this year is the Ducati Panigale V4 R, the latest edition of Ducati’s superbike, and the first one in their history to have four cylinders. The V4 R is one of four new bikes on the grid this year, essentially, with BMW returning the WSBK with a full factory effort. The Kawasaki bringing an updated model of the ZX-10RR. Whilst Honda have – in theory – the same bike as last year in the new Moriwaki Althea setup, but in reality the CBR1000RR for 2019 is completely different to the one of last season, as this year’s package is derived from the Suzuka 8 Hour and Japanese championship bike of last year.
But it is the new Panigale, nonetheless, that has – with its MotoGP-derived engine pumping out a reported 234 horsepower and the front wheel being planted by the grand prix-style winglets – attracted the most attention, and Bautista’s speed on the bike has only heightened that. However, in comparison to the Spaniard, the other Ducati riders have been struggling, especially with rear grip. Neither Bautista’s Aruba.it Racing teammate Chaz Davies, nor GoEleven’s Eugene Laverty or Barni Racing’s Michael Ruben Rinaldi could get within one second of Bautista’s times in the test this week, and Bautista has been consistently the fastest Ducati rider throughout the winter. Clearly the V4 R is not an easy bike to master, but once its pace has been unlocked, as Bautista has shown, it has the potential to be a formidable challenger to Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) and Kawasaki.
And, ultimately, that is the biggest question coming into this season: can anyone stop Jonathan Rea? The Northern Irishman has won over half the races he has competed for Kawasaki since he joined them in 2015, and won all four world titles in that time. Phillip Island is not one of his strongest circuits, statistically at least – indeed he did not win a race in Australia last year. He has, however, won five races at the Island, and did the double-double in 2016-17. It seems, though, that Rea is perhaps not yet completely comfortable with the new Kawasaki, and that makes this first round increasingly important for his rivals.
In comparison, Rea’s teammate, Leon Haslam, is something of a Phillip Island specialist – when he has a competitive package, he will be fighting for the win in Australia. Haslam’s history of podiums at Phillip Island stretches back to 2009, when he finished third in the second race, and since then he has scored five further podiums at the Australian track, including two wins: 2010 race one; 2015 race 2.
Marco Melandri has a similar affinity with Phillip Island to Haslam, and won both races last year on his head-shaking twin-cylinder Ducati. Melandri has now moved to the GRT Yamaha squad, who have moved up from World Supersport and brought 2018 Supersport World Champion Sandro Cortese with them. Both riders have been impressive in preseason, but especially Melandri was very quick this week at Phillip Island. With the Yamaha’s well-known ability to save a tyre, Melandri could be well in the mix in the two full-length races.
As for the full factory Yamaha riders, Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha WorldSBK) and Michael van der Mark (Pata Yamaha WorldSBK), they have had differing winter campaigns. Lowes’ speed in the winter was matched with consistency, especially in Jerez and Portimao earlier in 2019. Van der Mark’s preseason, on the other hand, was initially marred by an injury picked up at the final round of the 2018 season in Qatar. The pair of them, though, have been quick in Phillip Island over the last couple of years, and Yamaha have definitely made a step over the winter, so expect to see them in the front this weekend.
BMW’s new S1000RR is giving up a lot of speed on the front straight. This is to be expected, since the bike is brand new, and the motor isn’t from MotoGP. The time, however, that the bike is giving up on the straight, Tom Sykes (BMW Motorrad WorldSBK) is making up in the rest of the lap. Sykes demonstrated fantastic pace throughout preseason, and this year it is going to be interesting to see what he can do with a fresh start and without Jonathan Rea on the other side of the garage.
Instead of Rea, Sykes has Markus Reiterberger, the last ever Superstock 1000 champion, as his teammate in the BMW Motorrad WorldSBK squad this year. After one-and-a-half seasons out of WorldSBK, Reiterberger will be anxious to show his full potential on this, his second chance in the premier class of production-based motorcycle racing.
Featured image courtesy of Ducati