Ex-MotoGP rider Álvaro Bautista won the opening round of the 2019 FIM Superbike World Championship at Australia's Phillip Island racetrack this past February, defeating reigning four-time series champion Jonathan Rea.

It was not a race.

Bautista, racing a Ducati V4 R for the first time, rode away at his own pace, winning the first 22-lap race by 15 seconds, then the 10-lap Superpole sprint race by a second, and pulling away in 22-lap race 2 to lead by 18 seconds, slowing to win by 12.

Journalists of the present era proclaim “the end of sport” when anyone wins a major race by 10 seconds or more.

Two theories seek to explain Bautista’s success. One notes that his Ducati had a 12-mph top-speed advantage over its competition—namely Rea’s Superpole-winning Kawasaki ZX-10RR—and that its 11 percent rpm advantage corresponds to a potential extra 27 hp. Useful stuff.

The other insists that a second-tier MotoGP rider simply outclasses the top talent in World Superbike; of the four riders on V4 Rs, only Bautista was up front.

Yet the rev limits for the seven makes in the series have been set at roughly the manufacturer’s redline plus 3 percent, something that has worked well in British Superbike, the birthplace of this performance-balancing system. Rev limits will be reconsidered after each three events and may be adjusted in 250-rpm increments.

Álvaro Bautista
Álvaro Bautista joined an elite group at Phillip Island. The 34-year-old Spaniard is the first rider to win both World Superbike races in his debut weekend since American John Kocinski doubled—likewise on a Ducati—at Misano in 1996. Bautista is also the first former Grand Prix rider to win his inaugural World Superbike race.Courtesy of Ducati

FIM Rule states: “The initial rev limit will be the dynamometer-measured rev limit of third and fourth gear averaged, plus 3 percent or 1,100 rpm above the dyno-measured max horsepower rpm of a production machine, whichever is lower.”

This is adjusted by use of the FIM/DWO (Dorna WorldSBK Organization) algorithm, which may include but may not be limited to the following signals: lap time relative to all other competitors; speed traps; number of riders per brand; and anticipated individual rider performance (per track and considering previous rounds).

Here are the present required rev-limiter settings:

Brand RPM Stroke (mm)
Aprilia RSV4 14,700 52.3
BMW S1000RR 14,900 49.7
Ducati Panigale V4 R 16,350 48.4
Honda CBR1000RR 14,550 55.1
Kawasaki ZX-10RR 14,600 55.0
MV Agusta F4 RR 14,950 50.9
Yamaha YZF-R1 14,700 50.9
Ducati 1199 Panigale R 12,500 60.8

What stands out in this list is the 16,350-rpm redline for the V4 R, a number that is 11 percent higher than the average of the other six four-cylinder designs.

This large difference signals a change in the design basis of World Superbike. In the years before the economic collapse of 2008, one-liter sportbikes were designed to compete for buyers in an active marketplace and were mass produced. Strokes remained on the long side because that allowed easy use of the high compression that gives the strong midrange acceleration that riders enjoy. Now that sportbike sales have all but disappeared, no Japanese factory can expect even to recoup the cost of tooling an all-new literbike, much less to earn a profit.

Ducati’s basis for building the V4 R is different. When I asked CEO Claudio Domenicali why Ducati would invest in a new 1,000cc model at a time of sportbike sales collapse, he replied, “Our buyers expect Ducati to define the leading edge of performance.” Ducati created a remarkable promotional system for limited sales of special bikes to feed buyer interest through a program of internet “teaser” announcements and then to sell out the entire production run in the first hours after its release.

Japan’s early experience with ultra-short-stroke production-based racing engines was difficult. Back in the 750cc era in Superbike (1983–2002), Suzuki’s 1988 foray into short stroke had to be reversed two years later. Kawasaki shortened up that same year and took two years to recover the performance lost. Yamaha’s five-valves-per-cylinder Genesis inline-four imposed a hard either/or between top speed and acceleration.

Ducati created its V4 R based on its MotoGP experience with a very similar engine.

Michael Ruben Rinaldi
Bautista was one of four Ducati V4 R-mounted riders in Australia. “Every day is a school day with my V4 R—learning all the time,” Bautista’s Aruba.It Racing teammate Chaz Davies said. Michael Ruben Rinaldi (Barni Racing Team) led the way in race 1 and the Superpole sprint, while Davies (7) bested Eugene Laverty (Team Go Eleven) and Rinaldi in race 2.Courtesy of Ducati

It remains to be seen what will happen as this season unfolds. Will Bautista continue to ride away from the field? Or will the variety of racetracks present problems that the other makes can solve better than Ducati?

Dorna believes its business improves when racing machines have closely equal performance, and has worked for years to achieve this in MotoGP. CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta finally succeeded in this by making every bike on the grid a factory bike, designed only for Grand Prix racing and employing spec rider-aid electronics.

Now rules makers face a quite different problem, that of equalizing performance between a field of bikes developed for a competitive marketplace against a new design that is closely based on the latest developments in MotoGP.

Some will say, “If the others want to win, they must do as Ducati has done and productionize their MotoGP bikes.” Yet the marketplace at present is not even capable of supporting existing designs, much less a six-manufacturer fleet of MotoGP-inspired homologation specials.

Ducati knew its long line of high-performance twins was reaching its limits. The racing 1,200cc V-twin revs to 12,500 rpm! If you want to imagine how difficult that is, consider that 1,200cc is the displacement of Harley-Davidson’s long-popular 74. Can you imagine making a 74 reliable at 12,500?

To remain competitive in World Superbike, Ducati had to go to four cylinders. Because of its great experience with V-4s in MotoGP, using that experience was just good business.

Ducati Corse General Manager Gianluigi Dall’Igna has said, “The connection with MotoGP is more important with the bike now than the past. The architecture of the bike is more close now with the MotoGP. So I think we can put on the Superbike more experience that comes from MotoGP. This can solve the problem, find the way, and speed up all the process to build up a good bike.”

Ducati’s V4 R is a near-MotoGP bike in a field of machines designed for a marketplace that no longer exists. The political dynamics of “performance balancing” in World Superbike will be fascinating to watch.