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Motorcycle racing

Six things we learned from World Superbike's 'new era' opener

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
10 min read

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Across 2022 and 2023, World Superbike's frontrunning trio of Alvaro Bautista, Toprak Razgatlioglu and Jonathan Rea - the three riders who account for every WSBK title since Sylvain Guintoli won in 2014 - scored all but a single win.

That's 72 races and only a single non-'big three' win amongst them. It wasn't necessarily bad or dull - particularly not in late-2023 when Razgatlioglu and Bautista engaged in some genuinely breathtaking blow-for-blow duels - but it certainly established a formula.

The absolutely seismic recent off-season was always going to mean that formula changes a little bit. But after only one 'big three' win in 72, it was still quite something to step into WSBK's 'new era' with a Phillip Island weekend on which none of them won any of the races.

And though Phillip Island is its own very particular beast, it does potentially set the stage for a new WSBK that, at least over a season, is nothing at all like the WSBK we have come to know.

The fact file

Saturday main race: 1. Bulega (Ducati), 2. Locatelli (Yamaha), 3. Iannone (Ducati)
Sunday sprint race: 1. A Lowes (Kawasaki), 2. Locatelli (Yamaha), 3. Razgatlioglu (BMW)
Sunday main race: 1. A Lowes (Kawasaki), 2. Bautsita (Ducati), 3. Petrucci (Ducati)


1 Alex Lowes - 50
2 Nicolo Bulega - 41
3 Andrea Locatelli - 29
4 Andrea Iannone - 29
5 Alvaro Bautista - 27

Bautista's got his work cut out

In his second stint as a Ducati WSBK rider, Bautista - who is pushing 40 - consolidated himself as the series' Mr Inevitable. This was true for the last two title races and particularly the full-distance races (which are split by a sprint contest in which he was more fallible). But it was especially true at Phillip Island.

In nine WSBK starts there with Ducati, Bautista won eight times. His sole defeat was a wet-dry race.

So even when he'd spent all the build-up talking down his chances and qualified a lowly ninth, when a good start put him right in the thick of the lead fight on the opening lap it looked like normal service resumed.

And then he got passed by team-mate Nicolo Bulega and roughed up by another newcomer in Sam Lowes, before crashing while trying to pass Axel Bassani down the hill into the MG corner.

Bautista at Phillip Island 2024

Race 1 - Grid: 9th Race: 15th
Race 2 - Grid: 9th Race: 4th
Race 3 - Grid: 4th Race: 2nd

Bautista didn't have the optimal pre-season - he had been hamstrung by a compression nerve injury that you will remember as having wrecked his much-anticipated MotoGP wildcard last year. He also may not have gelled as well as the others with the repaved Phillip Island surface.

But there's also the spectre of a big off-season regulations change - a reference rider weight of 80kg which requires riders under that figure (which Bautista so obviously is) to add 0.5kg of ballast per every kilogram below.

Bautista has not appreciated that rule in the least, feeling singled out by it - but at Phillip Island he told WorldSBK.com he was overall appreciative of the new competitive balance.

"I think it's really good, what's happening to the championship. More rivals, more competitors, faster. Everything is more difficult - it's also a good motivation!"

And that was before the two races on Sunday in which Bautista fared considerably better.

The Maniac's back

Let the record show that Andrea Iannone is historically quite handy at Phillip Island - the site of his best result in an underwhelming two years in MotoGP at Suzuki and by far his best performance and result in his ban-curtailed stint at Aprilia.

Let the record also show that you're generally not supposed to be this competitive after a four-year doping ban that has taken you to age 34.

Iannone has hit the ground running in his new gig as a satellite Ducati rider for Go Eleven and reminded everyone that, for all the excessive curtness and mercurialness (and, uhh, yeah, the doping ban) there was and still remains an absolutely monumental talent there.

He qualified on the front row and led big chunks of laps on Saturday and Sunday. The win was a plausible outcome on both occasions - especially in the 'Superpole' sprint race, until a sudden grip drop-off and a resulting moment that inflated his airbag.

Even so, it was basically a dream return.

Iannone's WSBK debut

Race 1 - Grid: 2nd Race: 3rd
Race 2 - Grid: 2nd Race: 14th
Race 3 - Grid: 10th Race: 4th

"Not completely happy, I'm happy at 70% - but in any case it was an incredible comeback," Iannone told WorldSBK.com.

"Third, fourth. At the end it's impossible to think in a negative way."

The new boy is a big deal

No disrespect to Michael Ruben Rinaldi - who's actually had a pretty credible weekend in his new surroundings at Motocorsa Ducati - but during much of Rinaldi's stint as Ducati's dutiful number two rider at the works team, it was easy to feel WSBK (more so than Ducati itself) was really missing out on a true superstar on that bike - say, a Johann Zarco to partner Bautista and give him a big headache in the 2022 and 2023 title races.

Well, Zarco ultimately didn't fancy it - and Nicolo Bulega has a lot of work ahead of him to prove himself a Zarco-calibre rider, or a consistent frontrunner. But what a start.

A former hot-shot prospect in Valentino Rossi's VR46 Academy, Bulega petered out both as a rider in the grand prix racing paddock and a member of said VR46 Academy - but his Ducati-powered walkover in World Supersport last year tapped into that early-career potential.

So did his first pre-season as a Ducati works rider in WSBK, in which Bulega's laptimes were reliable eyebrow raisers. And so did pole with a lap record on his debut.

There will be the argument that the debut win that followed was a little fortunate.

Bulega's WSBK debut

Race 1 - Grid: 1st Race: 1st
Race 2 - Grid: 1st Race: 5th
Race 3 - Grid: 4th Race: 4th

With the track resurfaced for 2024 (and always a very particular beast anyway) WSBK implemented a mandatory pitstop for the full-distance races to ensure no issues with the rear Pirelli tyre and, though there was a minimum set time for the stop for teams to hit, smooth operation by his crew still gave Bulega a bit of a help.

Truthfully, though, even before those pitstops he'd very much looked like winning the race.

Comparatively, the rest of the weekend was nothing to write home about. It added up to a good start, but the starts sure weren't good - every time it came to lights out, Bulega would sink like a stone while team-mate Bautista went the other way.

That obviously can't be an Achilles' heel if he's to seriously contend this year. But the speed is there - and the dream of a spectacular intra-Ducati dogfight looks very, very real.

BMW's getting its money's worth

The two most memorable moments of Razgatlioglu's first race weekend in BMW colours were a time penalty for breaching the aforementioned impromptu pitstop rules in race one and his BMW's engine expiring in a huge, throwback-style puff of smoke in race three.

But... whatever. He was great. He was so obviously great.

Already in such good form in late-2023, in which it did for the briefest of moments looked like he was 'on fire' enough to even threaten runaway leader Bautista's title, Razgatlioglu proved pretty quickly in testing that his shock move from Yamaha - with which he'd won the 2021 world title - to BMW was no fool's errand.

And at Phillip Island he was just consistently up there - maybe not quite threatening for a win, but never too far. It was unusual to see him so competitive on the straights and getting a bit beaten up in the corners, as that was obviously not the case with the nimble but Ducati-outmatched Yamaha, but if anything it's even more credit to how quickly he's adapted to what is clearly a different proposition.

Razgatlioglu's BMW debut

Race 1 - Grid: 5th Race: 5th
Race 2 - Grid: 5th Race: 3rd
Race 3 - Grid: 3rd Race: DNF

While rumours continue to circulate about a potential future MotoGP dalliance for BMW, for now the signing of Razgatlioglu and the 'abundance of riches' test rider line-up of Guintoli and Bradley Smith is simply strong evidence that BMW is very serious about getting to the summit in WSBK.

In Razgatlioglu, who due to the engine failure is only marginally ahead in the points of some of his more BMW-experienced team-mates but looked clearly a cut above already, the manufacturer clearly has the rider for the mission.

Rea needs a rebound

Before this weekend's round at Phillip Island, the last time Jonathan Rea went score-less over a full WSBK weekend was back in 2013. A Honda rider still at that point, he broke his leg and missed the back half of the season.

In the time since, he'd accrued 108 wins and six WSBK titles - making the sight of Rea with a zero next to his name in the points column ever-more jarring.

Rea's Yamaha debut

Race 1 - Grid: 11th Race: 17th
Race 2 - Grid: 11th Race: 10th
Race 3 - Grid: 11th Race: DNF

Now, this wasn't a one-to-one reflection of the performance on his Yamaha debut. Rea was already beaten up after a bad crash in pre-season testing at the Australian track, got held up by a race-ruining pitstop problem on Saturday and exited Sunday's full-distance race with a crash when he was on course to pick up a decent points haul.

But that will all be secondary to the fact he just wasn't fast. Still adapting to a Yamaha R1 that is a considerable departure from the Kawasaki ZX10-RR that Rea had run riot on, he was aghast at a rear chatter issue and massively outmatched by team-mate Andrea Locatelli - who was out front all the time while Rea was barely in the shot.

He'll get to a decent level soon enough - again, Phillip Island can be a weird one - but Rea didn't break with Kawasaki just to be 'there or thereabouts' with Yamaha, and a start to a season like this almost suggests 2024 might be most important as preparation for 2025.

It's good!

Now, let's be clear here - for all the 'big-three' dominance and the championship walkover by Bautista in 2023, WSBK was actually quite good already last year. MotoGP had the variety of winners, but WSBK had the mesmerising, dance-on-the-limit duels between Bautista and Razgatlioglu that don't really seem possible under the current MotoGP formula.

Still, WSBK could absolutely improve - and it really looks like it has.

Again, it's Phillip Island, a track that will flatter most racing series in terms of entertainment value, and the year-to-year comparison is skewed by the pitstop rule (and by the fact that race three was anyway split in half by the red flag for Rea's crash).

But the early-2024 return of seven podium finishers in three races - compared to five in last year's Bautista hat-trick - is cause for celebration.

The top 15 in the sprint were split by 18 seconds last year. The corresponding gap was 8.5s this year. And generally, the feeling was that of a closer pack.

Two riders who are historically good at Phillip Island, Locatelli and Alex Lowes, shone brighter than they ever have.

Locatelli - now working with ex-Suzuki and Yamaha star MotoGP engineer Tom O'Kane as his crew chief - had phenomenal late-race pace and should've posted three runner-up finishes at worst if not for a last-gasp highside in race three, which he said was a consequence of the bike ending up in neutral gear on corner entry.

Lowes - who has inherited long-time Rea crew chief Pere Riba at Kawasaki - was in the process of being overtaken by Locatelli when that highside happened, but recovered to then put his own pass on Bautista, a wonderfully brazen round-the-outside sweep up the hill into Lukey Heights, for the win.

Both will need to prove they can mix it at the front at a more consistent range of circuits, but there's at least proof of concept there for Yamaha and Kawasaki. And BMW has Razgatlioglu. And Ducati is still Ducati.

Of the five brands represented, only Honda now looks truly 'mired' - Iker Lecuona hurt himself in testing and missed the round, but team-mate Xavi Vierge, usually a good match for Lecuona in performance, was anyway anonymous. Honda was already last in the manufacturers' standings here in 2021, 2022 and 2023 - but each time it was at least close or close-ish to BMW, which really doesn't look the case this year.

But as for what's going on out front, Phillip Island is truly appetising. And while there will certainly be walkovers and boring races and maybe even stretches of dominance in WSBK this year, there's also the real, tangible possibility of a season for the ages.

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