WorldSBK 2023 hasn’t got off to the strongest of starts for KRT’s Jonathan Rea leaving two rounds of competition with just one podium to his name.
James Whitham explains how the six-time world champion is hoping that test sessions between now and the next round at Assen will give his Kawasaki the extra poke it needs to compete with Ducati.
“I don’t quite know what’s going on with Jonathan,” Whitham told Bikesportnews.com as he attempted to analyse the great man’s attempt to make history with his seventh title. “But I’ve actually thought for two or three years, like I’ve told you, that the bike isn’t the best in the championship.
“Over the last few years, and with no disrespect to Alex [Lowes] who is a bloody good rider, he is more the benchmark of where the Kawasaki is. And I think everything else that Jonathan has done has been mainly because of Jonathan’s riding, his work ethic and the way he is able to ride round and not be on the most competitive bike.
“The Yamaha and especially Ducati have moved on and the bar has been pushed up a little bit,’ he continued. “You can tell by the way riders like [Axel] Bassani and [Michael] Rinaldi have raised their game and, of course, [Alvaro] Bautista. I know he fell off at Mandalika but that one seems to be the most treacherous circuit - with grip on line but no grip offline - that I have ever seen. It is a place which will catch people out really, really easily.”
BSN:”But going back to Jonathan, in the last couple of years he has been riding more aggressively than ever, certainly last year.”
Whitham:”But I think he’s had to, because of the difference with that bike. He’s had to raise his game and raise his game. They’ve come up with little solutions to make the bike better but I don’t think they are going to be able to make it that much better. And for me, now of the three we chose, Ducati, Yamaha and Kawasaki to be at the top in the hands of Bautista, Toprak [Razgatlioglu] and Johnny, it looks like, is going to be third in line.
“I wouldn’t give up on Jonathan, we know what he’s like and can reinvent himself when he needs to but I do think the bike simply doesn’t look good enough for him at the minute.”
BSN: “And what about the other Kawasaki’s in the game, particularly the one ridden by Tom Sykes. I’ve never known Sykesy have such a bad time. Is it also down to the bike or what do you think is going on there?”
Whitham: “I honestly don’t know what is going on as, on this occasion, I wasn’t there.
That team has always been a good team, Manuel Puccetti is a good bloke who runs a tight ship and his bike has always been the best of the rest of the Kawasakis. Part of the reason, possibly, was Tom not being very well, something I can only describe as being the equivalent of Delhi belly. I’ve actually had something similar when I’ve been in the Far East. Nothing wrong with being there it’s just different food etc.
“What I was left with after watching everything from Mandalika was a treacherous circuit but beautiful. And even though he slid off and got clobbered by his bike in one race, Alvaro Bautista bounced back in race two, won that from way back, although he had a little bit of help when the race was stopped, and he’s looking like the man for the season.
“Now I know there are a couple of tests coming up. Kawasaki has arranged two and I believe Honda are piggy-backing on one and everybody else on the other. One is at Aragon and one at Barcelona. I think Barcelona, which is coming up in a couple of meetings, will be critical for everybody because of what happened last year - Bautista just cleared off.”
BSN: “And do you think Kawasaki are going to get the extra 500 revs we were talking about last week, they obviously didn’t have it this time.”
Whitham: “I assumed they would be getting that and anybody who was watching would have concluded ‘Yes, they need a little bit of a leg up.’ We seem to be in a position now where everybody seems to be getting concession parts, concession rules, one bike has this and another has that. If they’re going to do it individually and level the rules individually then to me it surely needs some levelling up. If you’re gonna make the rules exactly the same for everybody then that’s a different thing but that’s how it used to be. It was down to you to arrange your game but now it seems to be that people, for example, Honda is running with a lot of concession parts and can alter the chassis which has helped them.
“It seemed to me at the end of last year that Kawasaki were going to need a bit of a leg up and the extra 500 revs they wanted would have been sensible. Especially given what we all knew off season, that Ducati were getting another four or five brake horsepower making a bike better that was already very good. I don’t know how these things work.”
BSN: “But James, it seems to us that World Superbike is moving more and more towards MotoGP. Aren’t these bikes supposed to be based on road bikes but they’re miles away and changing all the time?”
Whitham: “I think there’s a bigger picture and the bigger picture here, and has been for a couple of years, poses the question ‘Should Superbikes go down the route of backing off to become more like road bikes - should we be running more like Superstock rules? Superstock bikes have 210 brake horse power, isn’t that enough to have exciting racing?’
“Yes it is! Exciting racing doesn’t come from seeing a bike with 250bhp instead of 230bhp. Exciting racing come from five people together having exactly the same power and similar speed round the track. It’s a big question but what we don’t want is for it to slip back to the days when certain bikes, because of the rules, seemed to have an advantage. By the same token, what you don’t want to do is handicap engineers who have done one helluva good job, and I am talking here about Ducati who are brilliant at interpreting the rules in their favour. They seem to have some very talented and lateral thinking engineers - in MotoGP as well - that make the difference and you don’t want to penalise that.”
BSN: “It is remarkable because they are up against much bigger manufacturers, although they are now owned by Porsche, and this year we can see that it might be Ducati one, two and three can’t we?”
Whitham: “It’s a possibility but I have to say that I wouldn’t want that simply because you don’t want a championship dominated by one manufacturer. But there again should you handicap somebody for doing a brilliant job and this sport is as much about engineering as riding, we’ve always said that. It’s why there’s a manufacturers championship as well as one for riders. “
BSN” “Making the assumption that Bautista is headed towards a second world championship who do you think the main threats to him are now if not Toprak or Jonathan?”
Whitham: “I say don’t give up on Jonathan yet. Toprak is the man who, over a season,
will push Bautista for wins but I wouldn’t write off the other two Ducati favourites, Bassani and Rinaldi. They have real speed and may be top three contenders, without forgetting [Danilo] Petrucci who rode really well at Philip Island.
“The next round at Assen will be very interesting because I think the Ducatis seem to have less advantage there and Toprak and Jonathan have done well.
“Assen, over a month away, will have increased interest in the form of our British newcomers to the series. Rumour has it Taz Mackenzie will have a much improved Honda Supersport, Harry Truelove has done well on his Triumph and Brad Ray’s introduction to WorldSBK will be on a circuit he knows well via BSB. Finally, good wishes to Loris Baz who will be out of action with a broken leg for some time.”