It is normal, at this time of the year, to be speaking in awe of Jonathan Rea’s race simulation pace during the final test and then wondering how many races it will be before everyone gives up because the Irishman and his Kawasaki package are just too good. Again.
But, in the year of our Lord 2019, it is a rookie who has stunned with his speed. OK, so Alvaro Bautista is only technically a rookie having been a tiddler-class GP world champion and had top line MotoGP rides in the past but this is is first season in WorldSBK.
After a test getting used to the new Panigale V4 – which isn’t dissimilar to the Desmosedici he rode in 2018 – then a test learning the Portimao track, Bautista arrived on a bike he knew at a track he knew and demolished all-comers both in terms of one-lap speed and race pace.
There were no qualifiers available for the Phillip Island test, so Bautista’s best lap of 1’30.326 was on race rubber. He was two-tenths up on Tom Sykes’ new BMW, three on the returning Leon Haslam and four-tenths quicker than Rea.
Which is all well and good. But when you delve a little deeper into the times, you find that on day two, Bautista knocked off 16 laps in the 1’30s bracket. 16. Sykes did three. Haslam did two. Rea did five. That is some achievement.
If this were a race, Bautista is your clear winner by some margin. And this is music to Dorna’s ears as WorldSBK needs a season where someone, anyone, can take the fight to Rea. Through no fault of his own, Rea has been untouchable for the past four seasons. The bike/rider/team combination has been second to none.
But it hasn’t brought the crowds flooding in to the circuits or had anyone on the edge of the sofa. Regulation twiddling from technical director Scott Smart wasn’t able to dampen Rea’s winning formula, so Dorna took the next option. Hire a MotoGP rider. Or at least encourage/facilitate/subsidise Ducati to do so.
This is, of course, only testing. And Phillip Island is a peculiar track which promotes peculiar results. Remember Eugene Laverty won his first race for Suzuki there in 2014 and then only ascended the podium once more all season.
Rea will relish the chance to thump a MotoGP rider at every opportunity he gets but it’s going to be a stellar year in WorldSBK. Alex Lowes, too, has been fast and consistent in winter testing, so by the time the European rounds come, er, round, there might be a queue at the ticket gate…