- Peter MacKay
World Superbikes: Back at last or just the Phillip Island factor?
Updated: Mar 11, 2020
After a long winter hibernation, 'expert' race fans are desperate to occupy their favourite racing armchair. From this hallowed throne, they profess their own lap record pace and advice to Jonathan Rea to find that last tenth in turn seven. So, come February, the traditional curtain raiser of the World Superbike Championship (WSBK), is always warmly received.
Phillip Island, the venue for the opening encounter of WSBK, sparks vital interest into what has become a stale category. Every year, memories of dull, processional races of the previous season are eradicated. Such is the magic of the world’s finest motorcycle circuit.
Most normal human beings think of the adorable huddles of penguins when asked about Phillip Island. Bike racing fanatics? We marvel over the near 200mph entry into turn one, the fifth gear slides at Stoner’s and the terrifying blind crest of Lukey heights.
In the post Casey Stoner dominance era, we have been treated to hair raising bike racing at Phillip Island. Moto GP’s visit in 2015 remains etched in my memory as the zenith of motorcycle racing action.
Over in the World Superbike paddock, predictability has stifled on track excitement and audience figures. For five seasons, Jonathan Rea has relentlessly ridden towards the title of the greatest of all time. All aboard his all-conquering Kawasaki ZX10. None of his teammates have asked any questions of the Northern Irishman. Ducati rider, Chaz Davies, has injected some spice, with sporadic bursts of form. However, Rea’s residence at the top of the series has been constant.
As impressive as Jonathan Rea’s performances have been, they haven’t been conducive to building interest in the series. Chaz Davies occasional spikes in form always created instant friction with Rea. However, these episodes were brief and mundane normality would return.
By mid-season, with Rea out in the distance, any interest in WBSK sparked at Phillip Island is lost for another year.
Thanks to its flowing layout and opportunity for gaggles of riders to compete at the front, Phillip Island provides the unpredictable encounters of the WSBK season.
In 2014, Eugene Laverty won the opening race of the season, at Phillip Island, on the highly unfavoured Suzuki GSXR. He finished 10th that season. Derbyshire ace, Leon Haslam, won race two at Phillip Island in 2015. His steed? The ageing Aprilia RSV4. Haslam would have to wait to the final round in Qatar for his only other win of the season.
Fast forward to 2020, we were spoiled with action at Phillip Island once more. All three races were encapsulating. Impossible to call a winner at any moment. Que the fanfare. World Superbikes are back! This will be the best season ever etc. However, we’ve been here before, only to be slowly disappointed throughout the rest of the season.
Yet, here is why WSBK 2020 has all the ingredients to return to its very best.
Cause for optimism number one: A happy and confident Scott Redding
After a string of challenging seasons on uncompetitive machinery, Scott Redding left the MotoGP paddock at the end of 2018. Gloucestershire’s brightest star spent 10 years striving at World Championship level, culminating in a valiant crusade for the Moto2 title in 2013. Although Scott fell at the final hurdle in 2013, his performances earned him promotion to the premier class in 2014.
Five years on, Scott Redding was left on the grand prix scrapheap, with no ride for 2019. World Superbikes, Moto2 and even retirement were all proposed as options for the future. However, along with long time manager, Michael Bartholemy, the decision was taken to step back and join the British Superbike Championship (BSB).
Although of British origin, Scott Redding cut his teeth in the Spanish championship from an early age. Therefore, his exposure to Great Britain’s national level circuits and production motorcycles, was nil.
Many grand prix hot shots have been destroyed in the BSB piranha pool. Great Britain’s quirky circuits and the basic electronics of BSB motorcycles, present a complex challenge for those accustomed to grand prix racing.
Scott Redding conquered the BSB conundrum immediately. Riding the brand-new Ducati V4R, the ex-grand prix star quickly found his feet in the BSB paddock. After a stern challenge from BSB stalwart, Josh Brookes, Redding held firm under intense pressure, to clinch the title at the final round. Ducati had seen enough, Scott was heading back to the World Championship level. Only this time, in the World Superbike paddock, as a factory rider.
At round one, Redding immediately outpaced teammate, Chaz Davies. Displaying instant pace in both wet and dry conditions, the gangly Gloucestershire lad proved he deserves his seat in WSBK. Despite a few seasons floundering at the back of the Moto GP grid, Redding showed he has lost none of his close combat skills. Amid the chaos of three hostile races, Redding is the only rider to hold a 100% podium record so far.
All initial signs point to Scott Redding becoming a constant irritant for Jonathan Rea as he pursues an unprecedented sixth world title.
Cause for optimism number two: Toprak Razgatlioglu at Yamaha
Protégé of the great Kenan Sofogulu, Toprak is arguably WSBK’s brightest rising star. In 2019, riding for Pucetti Kawasaki, the Turkish rider established himself at the top of the series. As top performances continued, Toprak’s place alongside Jonathan Rea in the factory Kawasaki team for 2020, looked assured by mid season. However, events at the prestigious Suzuka 8 hour race, abruptly diverted Toprak’s career path away from Kawasaki.
A race run in near 40 degree heat and stifling humidity, a relay of three riders is customary. Rivals Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki all adopted this established strategy. But, not Kawasaki. In desperation to win their first Suzuka 8 hour since the early 1990’s, Kawasaki fielded an all star rider line up. Most notably, not fielding a Japanese rider. Highly unusual for a Japanese factory at the race of the season.
Instead, Kawasaki ‘Team Green’ brought over former Suzuka 8 hour race winners; Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam. In a promising display of faith, Toprak Razgatlioglu would complete arguably the fastest trio in the race. Selection for this significant race in Japan traditionally indicates endorsement for a future factory ride. Or, so it seemed.
As the titanic battle blazed on through a typically unbearable Japanese summer’s afternoon, Kawasaki went toe to toe with their bitter rivals, Yamaha and Honda. Throughout the opening stints, Suzuka stalwarts Rea and Haslam were entrusted with riding duties. Toprak then expected to hop on board in the latter stages of the race and deploy his devastating pace. Sadly, this never transpired.
Understandably incensed by this snub from Kawasaki, Toprak returned to Europe open minded to alternative options for the 2020 season. Kawasaki’s loss would be Yamaha’s gain.
Poaching Toprak Razgatlioglu provided further momentum to the ever improving, Yamaha World Superbike team. Paired with former World Supersport, Michael van der Mark, Yamaha’s rider line up is enviable. Combine this with a new upgraded engine for their R1 and Yamaha look set to be a constant challenger in 2020.
Reason for optimism number three: A fast Honda-at last!
Can you remember when Honda last threatened to fight for the title in the World Superbike Championship? James Toseland in 2007. Yes, it really has been that long.
Over the past few seasons, Honda riders have slogged along, struggling for top ten finishes. An ageing Fireblade and lack of interest from the factory has left Honda as the least favoured bike in World Superbike competition.
Every year, the promises of an all conquering new Honda Superbike remained unfulfilled. With Marc Marquez dominating for Honda in Moto GP in the meantime, the struggling WSBK effort sat far down the priority list.
Although Honda appeared to accept defeat in WSBK, one stage they cannot afford to be humiliated on is at the Suzuka 8 hour race. As the most successful manufacturer in the race’s history and owners of the Suzuka circuit itself, defeat is unthinkable. So, when rivals Yamaha rampaged to four wins in a row, the order was sent down from the top to stem this embarrassment, immediately.
One shudders at the thought of the atmosphere in the Honda boardroom on the Monday following a Suzuka 8 hour defeat.
For 2020, Honda return to World Superbike with a fully backed Honda Racing Corporation outfit. A clear signal from HQ that enough, is enough.
Unquestionably, the old Honda Fireblade’s Achilles heel, was power. Compared to Ducati’s new V4 rocket in the hands of Alvaro Bautista, the deficit in speed was vast. With the aforementioned Spaniard now riding for Honda, the new Fireblade is already flying through the speed traps faster than any rival. Clear proof that Honda really do mean business for 2020.
With Honda looking set to finally feature at the front for the first time in years, yet another delicious layer of unpredictability is added to WSBK 2020.
Listen to all the coverage of the 2020 World Superbike Championship season by subscribing to The Peter MacKay Motorsport Podcast via: https://geqvgm.podbean.com/