The times they are a changin’…

Thursday, 27 February 2020 04:52 GMT

12 months ago, Alvaro Bautista shocked the WorldSBK paddock with his domination. He couldn’t face a more different challenge a year on. Commentator Steve English previews the 2020 season

Man, and machine. They can be in perfect harmony or a perfect storm of disaster. Last year, Alvaro Bautista had found his ideal scenario; a WorldSBK bike that felt like a MotoGP™ bike. The engine character was the same and it left him in perfect harmony. A lifetime of Grand Prix machinery had left him with a highly tuned sense of what he needed from a bike and this fell in line with it.

Racing is all about confidence and experience. Riders at the top level know what it takes to win and get the most from themselves. Sometimes though, they don’t understand how to get the most from the package underneath them. The package of man and machine is key to winning. A decade of MotoGP™ experience had given Bautista a huge arsenal of V4 knowledge. For 2020, he’s having to adapt to a very different challenge.

The return of HRC to WorldSBK placed huge pressure on them to make the Honda Fireblade into a race winner. The decision to hire Bautista amplified that. A winter of struggle for Bautista has meant that as the WorldSBK paddock arrives in Phillip Island for round one, the magnifying glass is more intense than the Aussie sun.

A new bike and full factory support from Japan; what’s not to like? For Bautista, the answer is plenty at the moment. A career spent on V4 machinery has left him with a very defined style that may not work with his new bike. In WorldSBK, the V4 engine characteristics allow a rider to carry corner speed and focus on opening the throttle nice and early. Its advantage is the smoothness that a rider can take advantage of.

The inline four-cylinder machines – Honda, Kawasaki and BMW in particular – require a very different style. Brake hard, throw the bike in and stand it up on exit. The key is spending the least amount of time possible on the edge of the tyre. If you can do this, you can have tremendous success. Jonathan Rea is the perfect example of this style.

Bautista is the polar opposite. He wants to brake early so that he can carry speed from an early apex and open the throttle earlier than anyone else. At certain corners, he can be on the gas ten metres earlier than his rivals and in 2019 that meant he could carry that speed onto the straights because the Ducati allowed him to do this.

The Honda does not allow for him to profit from his greatest strengths. His confidence in giving a handful of throttle on the edge of the tyre is unique in WorldSBK but he can’t do that successfully with the Honda. Maybe this will come in time but for now, he needs to revert back to the drawing board and adapt.

His teammate Leon Haslam is a king of adaptation. Having ridden six bikes to podiums in Phillip Island, he’s proven a keen hand at getting the most from himself and his bikes in Australia. The key to succeeding here has a lot to do with riding style but more to do with managing the tyre. Last year, Bautista did this amazingly well and he dominated proceedings to run off into the distance.

Battling in the mid-pack won’t allow him to ride his natural style and he could be a sitting duck in the race. His only defence will be the top speed of the Honda where, despite changing bikes, Bautista is still the fastest man through the speed traps. His size and weight give him a clear advantage with this but now, it might be the only thing that gives him a chance.

In testing, Bautista has gradually improved but unless Honda can make a drastic step ahead of the first round, the Spanish star will have to get used to looking further down the timesheet than he did as a rookie.

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