World Superbike Ducati Vs. Kawasaki Showdown At Laguna Seca

Championship comes to legendary California circuit with a new point leader.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki, Laguna Seca, World Superbike
World Championship point leader Jonathan Rea (1:23.419) was quick on Friday at Laguna Seca, finishing first and second in the two 50-minute practices. Former teammate Tom Sykes (1:23.797), now riding a BMW, was second in the first session and fourth in the second.Courtesy of Dorna

The extraordinary first half of the 2019 World Superbike season has seen Ducati rider Álvaro Bautista first appear invincible on the new V4 R, pulling away from the Kawasaki of four-time series champion Jonathan Rea, only to have the order reversed by crashes that leave Rea now leading by 24 points. It was therefore a privilege at Laguna Seca to separately interview Bautista, Rea, and experienced Kawasaki crew chief Marcel Duinker, who spent years with Kawasaki-turned-BMW rider Tom Sykes, hearing their views of these dramatic changes of fortune.

Until this year, World Superbike has been a contest among machines essentially designed by the marketplace. They offered competitive high performance but at a level limited by price. The Ducati, with its MotoGP-inspired bore and stroke of 81.0 x 48.5mm, raises the level by infusing Ducati’s MotoGP experience into what is frankly a homologation special designed more to win races than for marketplace competition. This is certainly not improper, for the other makers have offered limited editions of their literbikes at premium prices with suspension and power upgrades; think of Yamaha’s YZF-R1M, with its fracture-split titanium connecting rods. Ducati’s V4 R simply takes that trend straight to MotoGP-replica level. That could be seen in the Ducati’s nearly 2,000-rpm advantage over Rea’s Kawasaki in homologated redline.

Chaz Davies, Ducati, Laguna Seca, World Superbike
Chaz Davies (1:23.387) was the fastest rider on Friday afternoon after posting the sixth-best time in morning practice. Factory teammate Álvaro Bautista (1:23.650) was seventh and third, respectively.Courtesy of Ducati

Bautista has come from MotoGP, where he rode mainly the quite stiff and “peaky” Bridgestone tires—grip goes very high but ends with only limited warning—to World Superbike, whose Pirelli spec tires are intentionally kept more similar in behavior to that of production tires. Bautista adapted quickly, saying he found the Pirellis’ progressive warning behavior confidence-building. He said also that although Ducati’s two V-4s—one in MotoGP and now another in WSBK—seem superficially similar, on the track they are very different in the ways you would expect. The chassis of the production lacks the focus of the pure racer and the engine, though its initial 16,200 redline is radically unusual for a production 1,000, it cannot and does not deliver MotoGP power.

That didn’t make it any less demoralizing for Rea, who said those first races in which Bautista pulled away so fast that the Kawasaki couldn’t stay in its draft made him question the sense of what he was doing. Being the consistent performer we have seen him to be, Rea nevertheless prepared for and rode each race at maximum. Duinker noted the very high level of energy that Rea is bringing to his pursuit: “He is giving 110 percent.”

In later races, Bautista’s winning margins decreased, and then he lost his impressive point lead in crashes caused by loss of the front. Bautista said he had come to rely on a certain front-end feel that gave him confidence, and that in the events in which he crashed this feel had for unknown reasons been absent. This, of course, made me remember Casey Stoner, 2007 MotoGP world champion on a Ducati, who in following seasons suffered loss-of-front-grip crashes that occurred without warning. When I described this to Bautista, he countered that when his bike’s proper front “feel” is present, he has the confidence to push to the limit. But when that feel is absent you must push anyway, but then you may go too far. He noted more than once that when you are at the limit, even very small things can make the difference between a normal lap and a crash.

Other observers have speculated that Bautista has succeeded in the races he’s won on tracks with which he is familiar, but has crashed on those where he has less or no experience—where the limits are less well-known to him. As Laguna Seca is one of these (he hasn’t ridden at the California track since 2013) and because some venues coming up after the series’ summer break are less familiar to him, this theory will shortly be either confirmed or denied.

When I proposed to Rea that it must be somewhat daunting for Bautista to know that an implacable rival is always close behind and working hard to close the gap, Rea said essentially, “That may be, but I can’t consider such things. It’s up to me to ride each race in the best way I can.”

People who knew Freddie Spencer well during his relentless pursuit by Eddie Lawson in 500cc Grand Prix racing during the mid-1980s said that Lawson’s ever-present and gathering challenge was always on his mind.

Loris Baz, Yamaha, Laguna Seca, World Superbike
Loris Baz (1:23.925) was the quickest Yamaha on Friday. JD Beach (1:24.973) is the lone American competing in both World Superbike and MotoAmerica Superbike. The Washington native is riding a YZF-R1 in Attack Performance/Estenson Racing colors.Courtesy of Dorna

When I asked Bautista about the championship that seemed earlier this season to be coming to him, he gave the answer that professional racers most often give: That it is a distracting waste of time to give brain space to such thoughts. The only way to win races is to concentrate fully on that work. You do everything as perfectly as you are able and, in the word used by both Bautista and Rea, the championship will be a consequence of that work but must have no role in it.

Duinker praised both Bautista and Ducati, the one for making the transition in series, bike, and tires so well, and Ducati for producing at a first try the machine qualities that have been so important to this first season.

And for next year? It was clear to see on Duinker’s face that Kawasaki will reply in kind to Ducati’s game-changing V4 R, but for now what that reply may be is for him to know. The rest of us will have the pleasure of anticipation. It is Duinker’s view that, “The Kawasaki has the strongest [performing] chassis in this paddock.” Now means must be found to close the “rpm gap” that homologation of the Ducati has produced. More than one manufacturer can play that game, but Japanese manufacturers have thus far taken care to keep changes affordable within their traditional business model.

We also anticipate this weekend’s next revelations of this exciting season. Which man will prevail, or could the result be a surprise upset from one of the newly quick Yamaha riders? Or from the very respected Turkish rider Toprak Razgatlıoğllu, described by Duinker as “brilliant”?

The men seem very different. Bautista is compact, giving an impression of alertness, his eyes constantly flicking about him. Rea radiates a calm, interested purpose, almost devoid of facial expression. We await this weekend’s outcome.