Becoming Champion is one thing, defending it the next year another but Alvaro Bautista achieved it and put his place in history – whilst he could be on for something special in 2024
“Winning a title is difficult but to defend it is even harder” were the wise, winning, World Champion words from Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) as he addressed an enormous Jerez crowd from the Paddock Show on the Saturday of the Prometeon Spanish Round. The Circuito de Jerez – Angel Nieto hosted an epic final weekend of racing for the 2023 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship to go into the off-season in style. However, Bautista’s achievement of successfully defending the crown is not uncommon, although it’s not exactly regular either. So, which exclusive club does he join and who already holds membership?
THE FIRST ONE: Fred Merkel brings false illusions as WorldSBK ignites in 1988
Fred Merkel was the first-ever World Superbike Champion; the American rode for Honda and snatched the title away from Davide Tardozzi and Bimota in New Zealand, 1988, during the final race day of the season. Whilst he’d eventually finish 5.5 points clear of runner-up Fabrizio Pirovano, he’d repeat his success in 1989, again grabbing the Championship lead after Race 1 of the final round, again in New Zealand, this time beating Belgian rider Stephane Mertens and Ducati. Straight off the bat with two titles, this wasn’t a trend that’d continue.
DOUG POLEN’S DOUBLE: 1991 and 1992 for Ducati
Alvaro Bautista is one of just three riders who have won the WorldSBK title in back-to-back seasons for Ducati. Britain’s Carl Fogarty did it twice: the first in 1994 and 1995 before doing it again in 1998 and 1999. However, the first rider to achieve it was American Doug Polen in 1991 and 1992. He absolutely smashed the opposition in 1991, beating outgoing Champion Raymond Roche by 150 points and setting a new record for number of wins in a single season at 17 – only to be beaten by Bautista in 2023 – whilst in 1992, he beat Roche again but only by 35 points this time. Polen was a rarity in the list of Ducati’s back-to-back World Champions; he dominated both seasons and whilst ’92 mathematically went to the last round, it was unlikely he would be beaten. Sound familiar?
KING CARL: two separate occasions cemented history
After his first race win in 1992, Carl ‘Foggy’ Fogarty moved to Ducati in 1993, narrowly missing out on the title to arch-rival Scott Russell. However, 1994 wasn’t going to be a repeat and he wrapped it up at Phillip Island in Australia after Russell seemingly conceded in the final race of the year. With the #1 proudly displayed, ‘Foggy’ romped clear in 1995 with a certain invincibility about him. Crowned Champion in Race 2 at Sugo, Japan, with three rounds to go, he was in a class of his own.
However, breaking up a winning combination is something the Brit has spoken negatively of since, having learnt from a torrid 1996 campaign where he took just four wins and finished fourth overall in the Championship. 1997 was spent getting back up to speed with Ducati before a wide-open 1998 season saw him take just three race wins but surrounded by huge inconsistencies by his rivals. As low as sixth in the standings at one point, Fogarty pulled together after tough love from team boss Davide Tardozzi to take the title in the final race of the season, again at Sugo, becoming the first triple Champion in WorldSBK. In 1999, it was reminiscent of his 1995 campaign as he smoked the opposition, being crowned Champion at Hockenheim, taking his last race win. Four titles in groups of two, ‘Foggy’ would remain the last to do that for a long time.
REA ENDS THE WAIT FOR #1 TO STAY: a new era sweeps in to master the art of defence
Between Fogarty and 2015, four riders took multiple titles: Colin Edwards (2000 and 2002), Troy Bayliss (2001, 2006 and 2008), James Toseland (2004 and 2007) and Max Biaggi (2010 and 2012). Troy Corser also added to his 1996 crown with a title in 2005; the one common them? None could defend it the second season. So, in 2015, when Jonathan Rea signed for Kawasaki – at the time, the best package on the grid – it was hardly surprising that after the first title, he’d defend it successfully; 2016 was tight in the end at Lusail but he got the job done. However, to go on and win the next four season was something quite remarkable. In that time, he’d become the rider with the most wins in all of WorldSBK, win 84 races in his title-winning years alone and achieve 143 podiums in the same period. All with the #1 too; a rare sight to dominate year on year, let alone do it with the pride and confidence of a #1 slapped on the front of the bike. Even though the stats continued climbing from 2021 to 2023 – years he wasn’t Champion – the golden era in green is one of WorldSBK’s most iconic.
THE HISTORY BAUTISTA CAN MAKE IN 2024: could it be a third of many firsts?
So, after #TheReturn in 2022 and #TheDefence in 2023, what could 2024’s theme be? Well, whilst we wait for whatever concept it is, the 39-year-old stares down the barrel of making history. No Ducati rider has ever won three World Championships in consecutive years. In fact, the last time they won three titles in a row was in 1994, 1995 and 1996 but that was with two riders: Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser. As for Champions who have won three straight titles, Jonathan Rea is the only one – and he won six consecutively, which is a long way away from being beaten, of course all with the #1 too. Bautista became the first Spaniard to defend the title, thus eyes up history to become the first rider to make it three on the bounce. So, whether he becomes #TheMagician, #TheHeavyweight or the obscurely named #TheGrandfa from his MotoGP™ wildcard at Sepang, if he goes on to make it three on the spin, his place in history is secured.
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