Jonathan was staring at the prospect of losing grasp on WorldSBK, but he’s found a way to turn his fortunes around. WorldSBK commentator Steve English reviews the Portuguese round.
Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) took another step towards his fifth WorldSBK title at Portimao. The Kawasaki rider dominated the Tissot Superpole sessions and that set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Rea would have been disappointed to have been beaten by Alvaro Bautista (ARUBA.IT Racing – Ducati) in Race 2 but with his championship lead having been extended to 91 points, there was certainly a belief that Rea had achieved his goal in Portugal.
Rea and his crew chief Pere Riba have always tried to focus on round-by-round rather than race-by-race targets. Have you left the circuit on Sunday having taken more points than your rivals? That’s been the key question for Riba over the five years he’s been partnered with Rea. In Portimao, they did that for the fifth time this season. The relentless nature of Rea’s riding has been why he’s been able to overturn the title lead of Bautista this year.
The Kawasaki hasn’t been the bike to beat for most of 2019. Bautista was obviously the star of the early season and even at Jerez, the Spaniard won two races, but Rea has consistently grinded out results on bad weekends and punished his rivals when he’s felt good over the summer. It’s been vintage Rea over the last few months and he has his first chance to wrap up the title next time out in France.
Just to be in that position is remarkable for Rea. After Assen he said that: “Imola is the key. I have to win there to have a chance of the title.” His season hinged on beating Bautista at the technical Italian circuit and ever since then the momentum has turned his way. Rea’s turnaround has been as remarkable as Bautista’s fall from grace has been shocking.
The Spaniard fought through the pain barrier this weekend to win on Sunday. The shoulder injury he picked up in Laguna Seca was clearly still causing plenty of discomfort. In testing, he had to limit mileage and he did the same in practice. The Ducati rider struggled at times this weekend, particularly off the start-line, but came good during the races to pick his way through the field. A podium and a win on Sunday were his rewards.
It was good to see Bautista winning races again. With the news having broken over the summer break that he will leave Ducati, the final rounds of the season will end one of the most dramatic rookie campaigns in WorldSBK history. Coming into the season, Rea was the favourite and after the first couple of rounds of Bautista dominance the narrative switched to could anyone live with the Spaniard?
Of course, the story has since evolved to being one of “how has Bautista lost his way so spectacularly?” The simple answer is that he’s been on a knife edge all season. At some rounds this caught him out, at others his spectacular style was dominant. When the bike works like he needs it to he can be tremendous, and he alone seems able to take full advantage of the high revving engine that gives a significant top speed advantage.
In Portimao, this came from how he exited the final corner onto the straight. Armed with the wings of the V4 R, he was able to get the most from the bike in the final metres of the lap and setup moves down the straight. It was like taking candy from a baby for Bautista as he moved his way through the field. He’ll be able to do the same at Magny-Cours, but the rest of the lap will be a handful for the Ducati.
The fast chicanes won’t suit his riding style with this bike and that could be the difference between himself and Rea at the next round. If Bautista is to delay the inevitable, he’ll need to beat Rea in France and start closing the points gap down. At every round since Imola, Rea has taken more points than his rival. Winning races is great for Rea and Riba; the goal is the title and for six consecutive rounds, they’ve moved themselves to championship point with three rounds remaining.
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