WorldSBK commentator Steve English looks back on championship changing Misano
When the WorldSBK paddock left Assen ten weeks ago, Alvaro Bautista (ARUBA.IT Racing - Ducati) looked invincible. The Ducati star had been able to win at the fast and flowing Phillip Island. He was imperious in the stifling heat of Buriram. Returning to Europe with a target on his back didn’t faze him at Aragon. The snow of Assen? An inconvenience but nothing to worry about. 53 points ahead, he was comfortable. Starting his WorldSBK career with 11 consecutive victories, there was nothing stopping him maintaining such form.
Imola was next and was always going to be a real test. The technical Italian circuit is tough to learn, and it seemed inevitable that if Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) was to have a chance of beating Bautista, it would be here. And so, it played out, but the Spaniard only conceded ten points that weekend, and still held a healthy advantage.
A second home round in Spain was next on the calendar, and back on familiar territory we saw Bautista’s normal service resume. Winning the opening race and the Tissot Superpole outing, he was back to his best. The ship had been righted and he was back winning races after the speed bump of Imola.
Holding a 61-point advantage, Bautista was rewarded for his consistency. What’s happened over the last 16 days? That gap has shrunk to 16 points because of mistakes from the Spaniard. The first crack came in Race 2 at Jerez, at the start of Lap 2. Rea didn’t have the pace to win that day, but he managed to claim 20 points. This meant that over the course of a weekend where he struggled, he was still able to edge two points closer to Bautista in the standings.
Jerez was a blip though. Bautista was dominant in Spain. He was sure to be back to winning ways in Misano...that’s what we thought going to the Adriatic Coast. Misano is a tough circuit; it sits just a couple of kilometres from lengthy beaches. That means that there’s a combination of high summer temperatures and a cooling sea breeze, which brings with it a lot of salt in the air. The track surface has been developed to deal with heat, humidity and the concentration of salt in the air. As a result, it can be quite slick and lack grip.
On Saturday it looked like Bautista’s luck had turned. The heavens opened and with a drenched track, he’d have to learn how the Pirelli tyres worked in those conditions. The 34-year-old took a cautious approach and was keen to avoid making any mistakes. He took advantage of the chaos that ensued around him to eventually find his way onto the podium, and on a day when he could have conceded a massive haul of points to Rea, he only lost nine.
Under blue skies on Sunday morning, Bautista romped to the Tissot Superpole victory and was able to get back to square one in championship terms; a 39-point lead after Rea crashed in the ten-lap race. Bautista was looking comfortable again and was the short-priced favourite for the final race of the weekend. Converting pole position, it was clear that the race was the championship leader’s to lose.
Losing is exactly what he did. Caught out by the increased track temperatures and the balance of a bike with a full tank of fuel on a slick track he crashed on Lap 2. It was a repeat of his Jerez crash and asked the question of what had happened to Bautista?
At the time it’s always hard to understand what has happened in a crash. In the Tissot Superpole Race, Rea had a strange crash, but it came from pushing too hard. He wanted to stay with the race leader Bautista and simply ran out of grip. Bautista’s crash in Race 2 though has meant that it’s impossible to not try and find a trend.
Full fuel tanks mean that the weight transfer under braking can be very severe. It can load the front forks and get to the bottom of the stroke quicker than expected. For a rider with so much MotoGP™ experience, it might seem remarkable to have made such an elementary mistake in those early laps, but his experience on other motorcycles might be a negative. The stiffness and feel from a MotoGP bike gives them their incredible performance. It also could have been a factor for Bautista, where he has been caught out by surprise in two heavy braking zones with full tanks of fuel.
Suddenly, from a 61-point lead in the standings, the gap is 16 points and Bautista, despite having been the unquestioned fastest man in 2019, has seen his title lead squandered. The pressure is on the Spaniard to right the ship. Bautista is still the favourite, but Donington Park and Laguna Seca could be territories belonging to Rea. Nothing can be taken for granted following Bautista’s mistakes and how he reacts next time out could define his rookie campaign.
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