While Aruba.it Ducati’s Michael Rinaldi was an odds-on podium finisher as WorldSBK rolled into Mandalika, the weekend didn’t go to plan for the determined Italian.
What looked like a nailed-on Race Two win suddenly became a probable second when a red flag was thrown and his teammate Alvaro Bautista caught and passed him with two laps to go of the restarted race. A late slip-up under braking on the final lap and Rinaldi went from second to fourth, snatching even a podium-shaped defeat from the jaws of near victory.
It had been a strange Indonesian weekend for the 27-year-old, building on podiums from each dry race at Phillip Island just a few days earlier, to have more than one major disappointment at Mandalika despite being one of the pre-race podium favourites.
Harsh, when he led the first part, and then 12-laps of the final (shortened) Race Two?
Maybe not by Rinaldi’s new self-imposed standards, since he turned his training regime and overall approach to his day job around in the winter. Despite a clear set-up problem holding him over 50 seconds back from the race winning time in the very first (and very wet) race of the season at Phillip Island, Rinaldi was a podium finisher in the next two Aussie races.
Mandalika’s Race One was a disaster, as he fell at the first turn after going in too hot, then tagging the back of Axel Bassani’s MotoCorsa Ducati. A Superpole Race seventh was not in the script either (an engine braking problem did not help his cause) and as we now know his redemption in the lead of Race Two was only temporary.
Over winter testing it looked like Rinaldi would be ‘the’ rider to be able to split up the big three forces in WorldSBK, but the points table so far sees him behind Bautista, Toprak Razgatlioglu, Andrea Locatelli (on the second official Yamaha) and Ducati privateer, Bassani.
Rinaldi is, of course, ahead of Jonathan Rea in the standings but only by three points after the six-times champion’s unexpectedly disastrous start.
“Since Friday, as soon as I put a used tyre on the front, I did some laps then it drops,” Rinaldi divulged from Indonesia. “I lose grip and I cannot ride. This is what happened also in Race Two.”
Like most others, Rinaldi had no new tyre left to use from his allocation, so hard had the track surface been on tyres from the outset at the otherwise exceptionally good Indonesian circuit. “When we restarted the race, everybody doesn’t have new tyres. So, at the beginning, I feel OK with the bike and I push. I gained 1.5 seconds. Then happened what I said to you already. After a few laps with the used tyre, the front dropped. The same happened this morning in the warm-up.
“This morning I found the limit - because I crashed. So I knew where the limit of the front was. I said, OK. I tried to bring home the best position, but I cannot push anymore like I am able to, because I have no front grip. So Alvaro arrived, overtook me. In the last lap, I just tried to not crash in the front because it was really difficult.”
The reason Rinaldi ran on was unusual. “On the exit of turn eight, my bike shook really, really hard and tried to not crash. I looked at the handlebar and tried to control the bike. When I looked forward, the braking [zone] was already in my face. So I missed the braking point. This is what happened. So, it’s a shame.”
Even with a strange issue like this, and that unforced Race One fall, Rinaldi has obviously been rejuvenated compared to some previous seasons. What he understands now, however, is that he has to cut out certain aspects of his overall makeup to make the biggest leap forward to true competitiveness.
“We see compared to the last year, also with the Ducati engineers, that they like the numbers,” said Rinaldi. “If numbers say something, they like it. They said, ‘OK, we are very fast. Compared to the last year, it looks like there is another Michael’. So, I feel this, but I need to put all the points in line. At the moment, like yesterday I made a stupid mistake and I feel sorry for the team and for myself. I’m lucky I didn’t get injured, but was a stupid mistake. Anyway, today was another day. I said, ‘OK, I start and do what I can do because I saw on Friday I can be fast.’
“In the Superpole Race I had a problem with the engine brake, so as soon as I braked, the rear locks. I went wide twice and I lost there, I think, four seconds. Then I took off the engine brake, more or less, and I start lapping like the third one, but it was too late so I finished seventh.”
With a new front tyre on, he made a great start to the first attempted running of the final race of the weekend, so that red flag stoppage also did Rinaldi no favours.
“Race Two, I felt really, really good at the start,” he confirmed. “I didn’t push too much and start overtaking everybody and gained. When I see the red flag at two and a half seconds, I said, ‘fuck!’ Because I knew I had no new tyre front. I knew the problem that I will face. When start again the race, the feeling was good, but last four laps I can’t play. So like you said, the speed is there because when everything is okay, I was there. I was strong, fast, in a track where I was always struggling.
“Phillip Island was strong. Portimao testing was strong. Jerez testing strong. So, the speed is there, but we need to work a little bit better and I need to not make mistakes. I need to be smarter.”
The biggest positive that Rinaldi can take away from Mandalika’s unexpectedly tough weekend is that even just after the final Mandalika race had been completed, he knew exactly what had gone wrong and what not to do - as much as what to do - when the WorldSBK Championship rolls into Assen in a few week’s time.