The second round of the 2019 Superbike World Championship saw Alvaro Bautista (ARUBA.IT Racing – Ducati) claim his first ever Superpole in qualifying, as the Spaniard looked to continue his 100% winning record in the championship after taking the first ever WorldSBK ‘triple’ in Phillip Island.
Despite an average launch, the world championship leader was able to use the power of his Ducati Panigale V4R to make the holeshot, but he ran wide, and after starting second on the grid, Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) was able to cut underneath him and get a good enough exit from the first turn to allow him to lead through the kink of turn two and into turn three. The reigning World Champion ran wide in the turn three hairpin, but was able to square off the exit and beat Bautista to turn four at the end of the uphill drag, which was important for the Kawasaki rider, as he would now have the opportunity to pull away in the section of track in which he believed he was faster.
If anything, though, Bautista closed onto Rea’s rear wheel, and Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha WorldSBK) was able to close onto the back of the leading duo through the twisty stuff towards the end of the lap as well.
Rea and Bautista soon engaged in a strong fight for the lead, Bautista of course having the advantage on sheer straight line speed, but Rea was doing everything, to try to counter-act the horsepower of the Panigale, focusing a lot – it seemed – on corner exit to launch down the straight. In parc ferme afterwards, Bautista commented that he felt he was losing out on corner exit, so whatever Rea was doing in this area was working well.
Not only was Rea impressive on corner exit, but he was demonic on the brakes. It became a notable feature of Rea’s riding last year, with the rev limits introduced for the Kawasaki limiting their speed and acceleration. Rea had to make the time on the brakes as a result, and he found himself in the same situation this season, and there was not a single braking zone at the Buriram circuit in which Rea did not appear on the limit.
In the early stages of this battle, Bautista passed Rea on the straight between turns one and three, and knowing he was missing out on braking compared to the reigning World Champion, the Spaniard pushed a little further on the brakes. He lost the rear, ran slightly wide, and Rea cut back on the inside. There was contact, and Bautista completely lost the front. It was a lucky escape for the Spaniard to stay on the bike, and to lose only one position to Alex Lowes was similarly fortuitous.
It took Bautista though, only one lap to re-pass Lowes, and then a few laps to recover the one second gap to Rea.
The Ducati rider was showing scintillating pace in that period of the race, in that one lap taking almost half a second out of his rival. When he caught Rea, and passed him, it was not without a fight that Rea let him go. The Northern Irishman pushed beyond the limit for several laps, locking and folding the front numerous times before his front tyre had finally had enough.
When Rea finally decided to conserve his second place and twenty World Championship points, Bautista was able to open up a large gap, and was still lapping in the low 1’33s as late as lap eighteen, slowing to ’33.7 on the final two laps. In comparison, Rea had dropped to 1’34s since lap sixteen (his final lap was a 1’36, but he slowed on the exit of the final corner).
Despite Jonathan Rea’s best efforts, Alvaro Bautista still came away from his fourth ever WorldSBK race with his fourth ever WorldSBK win, extending his championship advantage over Rea to eighteen points.
Whilst he was beaten again, there are positives to take for the reigning World Champion. Primarily, Rea was able to stay with Bautista for ten laps and more. The Superpole race on Sunday morning is ten laps, and so Rea has a real hope of taking victory in the sprint.
Alex Lowes was finally able to take his first podium of the season, probably one round late than he would have hoped, but to finish as top Yamaha for the second time this season will be a boost to him. Especially as the R1s of himself, his Pata Yamaha WorldSBK teammate Michael van der Mark and GRT Yamaha WorldSBK’s Marco Melandri were all so closely matched in race one at Buriram.
It was Van der Mark’s R1 which crossed the line closest to Lowes, in fourth place, just 0.468 seconds behind his teammate. Whilst Melandri lost time to his stablemate in a battle with Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK’s Leon Haslam, the Italian struggling with the same straight-line stability problems which dogged him last year on the Ducati. It was a sixth place for Melandri, a tenth behind Haslam in fifth, who in the end was three seconds from the Pata Yamaha riders.
Seven seconds back Melandri was his GRT Yamaha WorldSBK teammate and reigning Supersport World Champion Sandro Cortese, the rookie having another strong ride to seventh place, after beating Michael Ruben Rinaldi (BARNI Racing Team) to the line on the final lap. Rinaldi’s ride should not go un-noted, going from sixteenth on the grid it was perhaps his strongest race of the season aboard his “Showa-sprung” Panigale V4R (in comparison to the Ohlins suspension of his factory stablemates).
Tom Sykes (BMW Motorrad WorldSBK) came home in ninth place, struggling again with the lack of power of the S1000RR in the straights of the first two sectors.
Toprak Razgatlioglu (Turkish Puccetti Racing) rounded out the top ten, after struggling for setup all weekend.
Eleventh place went to Jordi Torres (Team Pedercini Racing), the Spaniard finishing two tenths ahead of fellow Kawasaki privateer rider Leandro Mercado (Orelac Racin VerdNatura) in twelfth. Leon Camier (Moriwaki Althea Honda Team) was thirteenth, struggling – not unlike the BMW riders – with the lack of power in the CBR1000RR, but ahead nonetheless of BMW Motorrad WorldSBK’s Markus Reiterberger, and Chaz Davies (ARUBA.IT Racing – Ducati) on the Panigale V4R after crashing mid-race and remounting.
Sixteenth place went to Thitipong Warokorn (Kawasaki Thailand Racing Team), the Thai wildcard, and Alessandro Delbianco (Althea Mie Racing Team) who was the final finisher in seventeenth.
There were two retirements: Eugene Laverty (Team GoEleven) and Ryuichi Kiyonari (Moriwaki Althea Honda Team). Laverty’s was by far the more alarming retirement, as he lost his brakes at 125mph into the final corner. Fortunately, the Irishman was okay after his fourth career brake failure.
Perhaps the most telling part about of the 2019 WorldSBK season is the gaps. Alvaro Bautista and Ducati have been very impressive so far, but arguably the step Jonathan Rea has made this year to try to challenge them has been even greater. Last year saw the top ten split by eleven seconds, yet Rea this year, had six seconds back to Alex Lowes; after destroying his front tyre and sitting up on the final corner which cost him two seconds. There will probably be people who are at the moment questioning the ability of Jonathan Rea – after four straight world titles with arguably the best bike for all four of those seasons, he is now finding himself incapable of getting anywhere near Bautista for a full race distance. However, to see a more accurate reflection of Jonathan Rea’s ability on a motorcycle, it is more relevant to look at the gap behind him, not the one in front of him.