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James Whitham: There are four genuine contenders for the title

This weekend sees the WorldSBK battle start for real at Jerez and the question, as usual, is who can beat Jonathan Rea to another world title? The assumption being he is going to be beaten.

I’m not sure about that even following an indifferent performance in Australia when the star performers were Scott Redding, Toprak Razgatlioglu and team-mate Alex Lowes who now leads the title race by 12 points.

Phillip Island now seems like a lifetime ago because of what we’ve been through and, anyway, it has never been an accurate barometer for what the rest of the season holds.


Watching cracking racing down there has left us all disappointed we didn’t get to see more of it. But I think this year, more than ever, it will be the forerunner for the sort of racing we are going to see at Jerez and the rest of a short season.

Lowes ended up coming away from Phillip Island leading the championship, with Rea challenging but not where he would like to be. I think he lies fourth in the championship now. Lowes, Toprak, and Redding were the riders that to me looked like they’re going to be strong contenders as the season continues.

I think Toprak is on the rise. He knows all the circuits, he’s getting to know the bike. Lowes really seems to be a different person to me. He looked like he had more of a seasoned sort of mindset as opposed to a race-by-race, win-at-any-cost mindset that we’ve seen from him.

And Redding? I think he’s just slid into that team and that paddock really well. He looked good all through the pre-season and at Phillip Island.

So yeah, Rea faces real opposition in the same way, for a time at least, he did last year. But he was always up close and when the pressure got to Bautista he was right there. But this is a different season, not like any we’ve had before. It’s very condensed, it doesn’t take much of an injury at all for somebody to miss three or four races and then the championship.

So in that respect, who can win it isn't an easy call but what we have seen over the last few seasons is that Jonathan Rea has been difficult, almost impossible, to beat because of his consistency and because of his mindset of doing what he can, when he can and where he can.

He’s a bigger-picture man. I do think he’s going to be the man to beat over the season, but I don’t think it’s going to be a whitewash by any means.
Alex has, of course, got to cope with Jonathan on the other side of the pit box. And yes, some have said that he was the favoured son and got everything first.

That kind of mindset is normally from by riders who are on the receiving end of what they think is sub-standard equipment.

So you never, ever get the most successful rider saying, “Well, I got the best parts". What you do get is a disappointed number two rider, if you like, in a team, or a less successful rider in the team, saying that he didn’t get the best parts.


But for me, that’s just a product of the fact that if you’ve got a rider who has a cracking start to the season, the team then gets developments that genuinely make the bike better, easier and faster to ride, who is the first one that’s going to get those parts?

It’s going to be the rider that you think has the best chance overall in the championship. It is not in the team’s interest to give a secondary rider the better equipment unless there is some unseen politics.

They’re paying both riders a heap of money, so why would they hamstring the faster or better-placed one by keeping parts that they have away from him? I do believe that the fastest rider, the best rider, the most successful rider is likely to get any improvements first because that is just how you’d do it and I’d do it.

That’s how all these things got to work. It’s always the sort of under-performing rider that says this: “I didn’t get the tyres. I didn’t get the parts.”


I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I don’t think it happens routinely, and especially not in a team like Kawasaki. Alex proved at Phillip Island that there’s nothing wrong with his actual spec. He leads the championship. So, we’ll see.

It’s going to be an interesting because there are four genuine contenders. But I’ll stick with Jonathan because of his consistency and he doesn’t tend to jump off when he doesn’t need to. He looks at the bigger picture. Doesn’t panic. We saw that last year.

A lot of riders would have actually caved in, being 120 points behind after half the season but not him. He sort of chipped away and carried on working. That’s difficult to beat over a full season. That said, this isn’t a normal season. It’s not a whole season, so we’ll see.
And what about the championship itself? For the first time since I think 1988, when the first World Superbike Championship race was held at Donington, we’re not going to have a race in this country, presumably because spectators aren’t allowed and there’s not much other money becoming in.

Same I assume with MotoGP at Silverstone. What does that say for British racing and how we’re regarded in world championship status? Or is BSB just too successful, unlike any other country, because the fans here are getting a good dose of it anyhow?
Well, if has to be recognised racing at that level is, however we want to look at it either as a sport or a hobby or anything else, actually a commercial enterprise and if the numbers don’t add up, what are you going to do with it?

This is one of the problems that BSB has got now, in that they rely more or less on people paying their hard-earned at the turnstiles for income. There are no massive TV rights going the way of the BSB championship, so they make money from people in the old-fashioned way: paying money at the turnstile and going to watch.

That’s why it’s been successful, because the racing has been good and we’ve had typically between 25 and 40 thousand people a weekend watching BSB, and that’s brilliant, but if they can’t run with a crowd, and they’ve got to run behind closed doors because of COVID, they can only do that for so long because they’re losing money.

They and the circuits can’t make money without the crowd. BSB have an advantage in terms of running a championship because they haven’t got all the international travel involved that’s sort of hamstrung MotoGP and WorldSBK, which is why we’ve seen both championships mainly run in Spain, Italy and France due to travel restrictions.
But back to the racing which, at the end of the day, is everything and this year despite the pandemic looks like producing a cracking finish. And plenty of stories with one of the best riders, Dutchman van der Mark, being stolen from Yamaha by BMW!

Looks to me liken the way it happened and the maybe it was announced that a lot of politics was involved, not the friendly parting of the ways you normally get in the paddock. When I was doing my deals they always wanted to know if I could go back to the team I was just leaving. There were no hard feelings. But this looks like something else to me.

BMW seem to be the only manufacturer running the team directly. Any  team in the paddock would be delighted to have van der Mark and it must have been his choice to go there but why would he go from  a successful bike, and one that’s still on the up, to one that I don’t think anybody is sure will make the top five?

It’s a brilliant road bike but whether it’s going to be a WorldSBK winner remains to be seen. So, his motivation seems to be something other than getting his ass on the best bike - money or politics.

The other million-dollar question is who stays at BMW - Eugene Laverty or Tom Sykes? Well, so far Tom has been the most successful and certainly, early on, Tom and that bike looked to be the perfect match and reasonably competitive.  

It doesn’t seem to have made much headway after that. You would think they would want to keep their most successful rider but maybe he has been looking round.

Finally, a word about Leon Camier one of our most talented riders who has suffered the most horrible bad luck. He will certainly not be riding again this year and there must be a question about his continuing. He will almost certainly want to but one injury after another has ben a real handicap. Good luck Leon.

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