Does Bautista's treble signal a new dawn for WSBK?

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Does Bautista's treble signal a new dawn for WSBK?
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Feb 25, 2019, 4:33 PM

Ducati's Alvaro Bautista cleaned up on his debut World Superbike race weekend, but was it just a one-off or the start of a sustained challenge to Jonathan Rea and Kawasaki dominance?

MotoGP convert Bautista dominated both feature races last weekend at Phillip Island aboard the brand-new V4 R, as well as coming out on top against four-time champion Rea in a no-holds-barred sprint race.

Ducati was expected to be a major threat with its new machine, but not quite so dominant so early. So does Bautista's domination signal a new dawn for WSBK?

It's no secret WSBK has been in a state of decline since the Rea/Kawasaki juggernaut began its stranglehold on the series back in 2015. No-one has offered any credible challenge over Rea's four-year golden run.

Ducati was close with the 1199 Panigale V2, but could never quite close the gap to the bulletproof ZX-10RR, ultimately become the Bologna marque's first-ever WSBK model to be retired with no title wins to its name.

After an intensive year of testing, it was still unclear if the V4 R would be ready to fight for the title in its first year – not least in the hands of a series rookie. But there is a reason Ducati was keen to secure Bautista's services.

The 1199 V2, the V4 R's predecessor, was a radically different machine and one sharing little in its DNA with Ducati's MotoGP challenger. The V4 R, on the other hand, is a direct descendent of the of the Desmosedici, something most clearly seen in its explosively powerful engine.

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

Beaten to pole by KRT duo Rea and Leon Haslam, Bautista was a class apart in the 22-lap main encounters, while his razor-sharp duelling capabilities allowed him to put Rea in his place in the inaugural 10-lap Superpole race.

What was evident about the V4 R was its straightline speed. It does have 1,600 more revs than the Kawasaki, and was 10km/h faster on the run along the Gardner Straight. As Rea pointed out at the end of the sprint race, “there's no substitute for horsepower”.

But to put Bautista's stunning debut weekend down solely to a simple advantage in power would be unfair.

The Pirelli tyres used in WSBK are wildly different to the MotoGP Michelins, while electronics in the series are more sophisticated. Bautista spent two years on Ducati machinery in MotoGP, and though the Desmosedici and the V4 R are not identical, they share nuances, especially in engine characteristics.

This undoubtedly allowed Bautista to transition smoother, and he was able to transfer his vast experience into managing elements of WSBK new to him.

In MotoGP, the Ducati is famed for its horsepower and its ability to be kind on tyres, and tyre conservation was an issue for all in the high heat around the rubber-punishing Phillip Island.

Bautista's opening flyer in race one was a 1m30.8s, and he lapped within a second of that up to the penultimate lap. Second-placed Rea, by contrast, was unable to set any 1m30s laps. The story was the same in race two, with Bautista generally lapping four-six tenths faster than Rea in both contests.

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

So, does Phillip Island point towards a red dawn and the toppling of the green giant?

The majestic Australian circuit is arguably the best place on the planet to go motorcycle racing. But it's so unlike any other track on the calendar, and what happens on the Island can often skew the true picture of reality.

Ducati did the double with Marco Melandri in Australia last season, but the Italian failed to add another win to his tally all year and didn't even make the to three in the standings at the end of the campaign.

Bautista himself is wary of the Thailand round throwing up a much closer affair, while Ducati general manager Gigi Dall'Igna does not believe the V4R is ready to be a consistent winner.

Dall'Igna highlighted turning as an area of concern, which is an interesting comment. Phillip Island is all about cornering performance; if Bautista was struggling, he had a funny way of showing it.

However, he did race the works GP18 to fourth on a cameo for the Ducati MotoGP factory team just four months ago, so was hardly ring rusty compared to the rest who hadn't been at the circuit since last February.

And teammate Chaz Davies – who is admittedly not at full fitness due to a back issue – found front feeling in the turns an issue. He was 16th on the grid, and was 10th and seventh in the feature races.

Phillip Island has also typically never suited the Welshman, who has yet to win at the circuit. Adjusting from the V2 to the V4 will also take time, but these issues aside, Davies' plight does suggest the new Ducati isn't quite perfect yet.

Looking at Rea's weekend, three seconds and a 13-point deficit in the standings at a track where he typically struggles was – as he put it - “massive damage limitation”.

Last year in Australia he was fifth and second on a weekend he was suffering from flu and the after-effects of a hand injury, but that hardly put him on the back foot for the rest of the season. But, on the other hand, Rea has a new enemy within the Kawasaki camp to contend with this year.

Leon Haslam, Kawasaki Racing, Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Leon Haslam, Kawasaki Racing, Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

The returning Haslam, last year's British Superbike title winner and a five-time WSBK race winner, was adamant in the winter he won't be making up the numbers at KRT, he proved to be a real threat to Rea in Australia. Before tipping off in race one he pushed Rea hard as the battled for second, and did so again in the second feature race.

Third in the end, two things stood out about Haslam's run: he was the only rider other than Bautista to lap in the 1m30s, and he was also adapting to Rea's challenges. Rea spent the opening half routinely countering Haslam's runs into Turn 1 by braking super-late. Haslam began to catch on, and was soon repaying the favour.

Rea hasn't had a teammate as reactive and as strong at KRT. Tom Sykes, now at BMW, suffered on the ZX-10RR with each regulation change and has also struggled over the last 18 months with personal problems off-track.

It would be foolish to assume now simply because Rea has fresh challenges to his dominance, all of a sudden his reign will come to an end. You don't win four titles on the bounce without being ruthlessly brilliant.

But what is clear is 2019 will be his toughest season yet. For starters, he now has a teammate capable of giving him a hard time. And even if the events of Phillip Island can be misleading, the way Bautista navigated his rookie WSBK race weekend is proof enough he and the V4 R will be an immensely potent combination this season.

Rea might win end up winning the title again, but there's no denying that for the first time in five years, WSBK has a truly competitive season on its hands.

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

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About this article

Series World Superbike
Event Phillip Island
Drivers Alvaro Bautista
Teams Ducati Aruba.IT
Author Lewis Duncan
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