World Superbikes kicks off the 2023 series this weekend, the 35th anniversary of WorldSBK, posing one of the great questions at one of the greatest and fastest circuits - Philip Island.
Who is going to have the power or courage to outpace three world champions - Northern Ireland’s Jonathan Rea, Turkey’s Toprak Razgatlioglu or current champion, Spain’s Alvaro Bautista, described by the promoter as the Titanic Trio in what, never short of adjectives, they promote as being the Golden Era?
Bikesportnews.com’s resident clairvoyant, one Mr James Whitham, - not a betting man - cleverly sidestepped the question with the response: “For me [who else?] one of the most interesting things this year is that the series has four really good rookies, ex Moto2 and GP rider but newcomer to the class - Remy Gardner, [Dominique] Aegerter, [Lorenzo] Baldassarri and, er what’s his name, yes [Danilo] Petrucci. He’s just finished second in America and he’s won MotoGP races. He’s a top six or eight man I think. Depending how he gels with the Ducati he’s got real potential as does Remy although it will take him a little while to get into the Superbike swing of things and I rate both of the others. They also have the potential to be Superbike riders. Not every Supersport front runner has that potential but I think all four of those are quite interesting.”
BSN: “But they’re not going to be winners are they?”
Whitham: “No, no. But if you’re asking me who’s gonna battle for the title this year you cannot look beyond the top three from last year. Yes, Bautista, Toprak and Jonathan Rea. One of the interesting things is that there are quite some changes allowed to be made to the bikes. I cannot tell you exactly but I know, for instance, that Kawasaki are trying to homologate a new model to get the extra 500 revs that they wanted in ’21 but didn’t get. If they can use those extra revs with reliability it is going to help them a lot.
“Of the three makes - Kawasaki, Ducati and Yamaha - it was undoubtedly Kawasaki who were least competitive last year and I think it was Jonathan and a brilliant team that made that bike as good as it was. I think with a bit more power they are going to be somewhere thereabouts. It’s gonna help a lot.”
BSN: “But have they got the extra 500 revs?”
Whitham: “I don’t exactly know but I know they were trying to get the new model homologated and I think it would be very good for the championship if they did and closed the gap with Ducati. However, I don’t think that even with the extra revs it will be the quickest bike but it will be better.”
BSN: “If I were the owner of another team I would protest about that. Why should they give Kawasaki favouritism? I know it’s making the racing more competitive but wouldn’t you be a bit pissed off?”
Whitham: “Well no, because the way they work the revs out is a calculation based on the rev limit of the standard road bike versus the homologated model. This is where the argument started last time - the organisers didn’t let them have the 500 revs that the road bike revved extra because they saw it as a sidestepping of the rules. They thought it had been done to do just that. It depends on how much difference this new bike has got. It has certainly got more revs so it should give the race bike a little bit more but I don’t know yet whether that has been allowed or not. I think they deserve it because it’s not that they’ve got a quick bike anyway, nowhere near as quick as the Ducati.
“Yamaha, in terms of rideablity and rider friendliness, is probably the bike to have and it seems Toprak has no bogey circuits, he’s competitive everywhere. Again it’s not as quick as the Ducati which is likely to be at least as fast as it was last year and they will have made some tweaks, and although it’s not a brand new bike they’ve obviously listened to their team and it will be at least as competitive.”
BSN: “Jonathan, it seems, is absolutely dying for an improved performance because he was being made to ride harder than he has ever had to before. He said he enjoyed that and he probably did but he doesn’t need to go through that again does he?”
Whitham: “No he doesn’t and both he and Toprak need slightly more power to be competitive, at least at some of the circuits which favour a fast bike. On two or three of them we just saw Bautista clear off last year. Not taking anything away from him, he rode the bike brilliantly but it took a little bit more power from the others to make it a better race on those circuits. What it meant was that Jonathan and Toprak had to raise their game and they were both quite prepared to take risks to do that.
“All his outbraking and their roughing him up a little bit was brilliant to watch.
“It made some of the most exciting racing in the championship just because the Ducati was so quick and we’ve got to be careful when we condemn the Ducati and the rider because it made great racing.
BSN: “So those guys are going to finish one, two and three. Is there anybody likely to upset that?”
Whitham: “No I don’t think there is. The BMW is brand new which means they’ve lost their super concessions so at least for now they’ve got to go without any concessions. But this bike will be a lot better than the old one which everybody struggled with and although [Scott] Redding and [Michael] van der Mark are brilliant riders I don’t think they are going to be in the hunt until they find their feet, at least in the early part of the season.
“I think [Andrea] Locatelli needs to step up although he had his moments last year. But the front three will have moved on a little bit. [Axel] Bassani? Good but again he needs to prove himself. I thought he was there or thereabouts last season and I was surprised he didn’t get a shot on the factory bike.”
BSN: “Just to go back to Redding, I thought he has been quite cautious in what he has been saying so far - ‘taking it step by step’ - which is most unusual and quite a pity. It’s not like the Scott we knew and loved but perhaps he is being told what to say by BMW?
Whitham: “Well, maybe but it’s more of a brand new bike than any of the other bikes on the grid and even if it is a brilliant bike and it’s exactly what they need to turn it into a winner, it is going to take a bit of time to do that and I don’t think they’re going to be competitive right from the off.
“To repeat the answer to your original question, nobody is going to touch those front three and I have to confess that my heart would wish Jonathan or Toprak to win it. But my head says that with a bit of confidence from his championship win last year, and an improved bike, then over the season Bautista would get my tenner if I had to put money on it. But I would love to see either Jonathan or Toprak get it.”
BSN: “What about rookie British riders like Tarran Mackenzie or Brad Ray. How will they perform?”
Whitham: “Well, Taz is in World Supersport and Brad Rea is confined to European meetings for WorldSBK. I think Taz is a brilliant rider and is as good as anybody in there. It will suit him but it is whether they will have the bike to do the job. It is a development of the existing Honda model and it simply depends on how good the bike is. The rules last year worked perfectly, each bike was looked at individually and just about every one was competitive. Triumph winning a race, Ducati and Yamaha obviously competitive with Kawasaki getting a bit of help. On paper it should be as good as it was last year but I don’t know how good the Honda is going to be.
“I’m very interested to see how Brad Ray will perform in his first WorldSBK meeting at Assen. He has tested reasonably well. It will be very frustrating for him not to be in Philip Island for the season opener or Indonesia a week later but that’s the deal for him and one or two others who have not got the travel allowance for the flyaways. The full championship would have been better but he knows most of the European circuits well, he’s a good rider and he’s steady. I think he’ll do well.
BSN: “What about this proposition of the introduction of weight limits which now appears to have been kicked out? Do you think it had any merit or was it one of those crazy ideas which deserved to be dropped.”
Whitham: “It’s an odd one. When you are talking about smaller classes, like 125s or Moto3, you get some super light riders and on a bike which is only producing 50bhp that makes a massive difference. It’s when you have got 230 or 240 horsepower on tap the weight doesn’t make as much difference. In fact there’s an argument which says you want to be fairly strong to be able to wrestle these things around and you can make back what you lose on a bit of acceleration due to your weight.
“I actually thought there would be a minimum weight limit for rider and bike brought in for this year. It hasn’t happened but I didn’t think for a minute that it was going to be for everybody on the grid and having a combined weight that would be exactly the same. They’re just not going get the heaviest rider who might be, say Scot Redding, together with his bike and make everybody else put on weight of bike and rider to that amount. You can’t do it. Some of the lighter riders would be putting 20 kilos on. It isn’t going to work for the lighter riders because they’re going to be wrestling the heaviest bikes around. So I don’t think it was ever going to be an absolute in terms of weight anyway.”
BSN: “One or two team managers have been heard to put Bautista’s success not just to having the fastest bike but probably being the lightest on the grid. It probably helps cornering speed but somewhat unfair nevertheless.”
Whitham: “I’ve nothing against the idea of minimum weight but how are they going to do it?
“It can work in the smaller classes I guess but it’s the ‘How’ which intrigues me. I’d like to know the exact formula they were going to use.
“Manufacturers spend a lot of money getting weight down and they might not appreciate being told more is required. What and why can be easy - it’s the ‘how’ which is often the difficult bit. And difficult to be fair. However you did it, there would be some people who would be disgruntled. That’s how I see it.”