OPINION: Steve English’s big 2024 preview as Phillip Island closes in

Thursday, 22 February 2024 04:04 GMT

Picking a way through the winter headlines is a tough task as we look forward to WorldSBK 2024

Last season, WorldSBK came to a close with one of the greatest races I’ve ever seen. Alvaro Bautista ( Racing – Ducati) vs Toprak Razgatlioglu (then Pata Prometeon Yamaha) fighting it out for the win at Jerez was something that, frankly, I still can’t believe! The Turkish star may have lost his final race for Yamaha but it was more like a boxing fight that came down a judges card; we left wanting a rematch.
GENERATIONAL TALENT TOPRAK: “Can he win a title for BMW? He most certainly CAN!”
The rematch won’t happen. Toprak leaving for BMW has created a new dynamic. Arguably, it’s a more exciting dynamic. Can this generational talent do what no other rider in history has done? Can he win a title for BMW? Standing trackside at the Jerez and Portimao circuits throughout the winter the answer was clear; he most certainly can.
BMW has a lot of ground to make up but Toprak looks comfortable with the bike already. Winning a title in year one of a new project will be asking too much but he’ll be winning races very early in the campaign. The engine characteristics and power of the M 1000 RR has suited his style and now he’s fine tuning. Toprak is ready for battle.
NEW IN BLUE: Rea’s quest for title #7 continues… but with YAMAHA
Replacing Razgatlioglu is Jonathan Rea (Pata Prometeon Yamaha). It’s amazing to think that the six-time Champion may not have enough stature to fill the hole left by Toprak but that could be the case. Early testing has shown Rea to be comfortable with the bike on longer runs but needing to find some confidence for single lap pace. This weekend will be the first time he has to pull the pin and see where he stacks up on the grid. The Tissot Superpole session will be fascinating for that reason.
WEIGHING IN: New rules, a nagging injury and behind in testing, Alvaro Bautista
With Rea and Razgatlioglu moving to new pastures, it’s easy to think that Bautista will have it all his own way this year. The Spaniard, who is gunning for third title in a row – a feat only achieved by Rea in the history of WorldSBK – will start the year as the clear favourite. The #1 Ducati will bear the brunt of regulation changes for this campaign with Bautista set to carry approximately 6kg of ballast on his bike. A bigger handicap will be his physical conditioning after a serious injury last year. 
Bautista is gradually returning to full fitness but admitted to me that the calendar for this year is “perfect” for a rider recovering from injury: “We have Phillip Island and then a break until Barcelona. Then we have another break before Assen and then Misano. I have some time to get back to normal.” Getting back to normal is ominous for his rivals.
MORE THAN THE TITANIC TRIO: fantastic four or five, maybe six of the best?
The top three have dominated the series over the last two years but will anyone challenge them this year? It’s unlikely over the course of the full season but each weekend we can expect some challengers. Nicolo Bulega ( Racing – Ducati) has impressed in testing and the WorldSSP Champion has adapted handily to his Superbike. Partnered up with Bautista, he will expect to contend for podiums in the early rounds.
Yamaha has arguably the strongest stable of riders. Rea, Andrea Locatelli (Pata Prometeon Yamaha), Remy Gardner (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team) and teammate Dominque Aegerter are all World Champions. Bradley Ray (Yamaha Motoxracing WorldSBK Team) is a BSB champion and Philipp Oettl (GMT94 Yamaha) is a Grand Prix winner. The blue machines will have six riders all expecting to make a big step forward. Rea will obviously be expected to lead the charge but will one of the established Yamaha riders lead the way in Australia? Don’t sleep on Aegerter, a front row man here last year on his debut, despite being ill throughout 2024 testing.
At Kawasaki, the rubble left in the wake of Rea’s departure was cleared to allow Axel Bassani (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) to finally become a factory rider. The Italian has a lot of adapting to do so don’t expect much straight away. This will be a learning year for him whereas teammate Alex Lowes will be expected to do the heavy lifting. Lowes switching to Rea’s ex-crew chief Pere Riba has energised the off-season for Kawasaki. They have a new goal and for Lowes, it will be a new way of going about his business with a new crew chief. The ZX10-RR has an extra 500rpm, so we’ll see the impact that makes.
Over with BMW, Razgatlioglu has already established himself as the leader but there’s been tension simmering away behind the scenes. With teammate Michael van der Mark, Scott Redding (Bonovo Action BMW) and his teammate Garrett Gerloff all trying to prove themselves behind the Turkish star, we can expect fireworks. The trio are all competitive animals and know they have what it takes to win races and have been closely matched in testing. BMW have put in a lot of resources and all four riders will take advantage of their progress. Last year, Gerloff finished the year as the leading BMW rider in the closing rounds; he’s motivated to prove his worth again against Redding.
HONDA’S WOES: can they turn the ship around?
Honda are still the biggest question mark on the grid; another newly-homologated bike has lots of upgrades but is it any faster? Winter testing didn’t offer much encouragement to Team HRC. These early rounds look set to be difficult and until Honda start to find performance, they will be trying to push forward from the background. It’s a shame because resources are being spent and there are talented people within Honda. Unfortunately for Team HRC, they’ve been the proof of how competitive WorldSBK has become. With the field getting ever stronger – as shown by Andrea Iannone (Team GoEleven), Sam Lowes (ELF Marc VDS Racing Team) and Bulega all joining the grid as rookies – someone has to be at the front and others have be further down the order. This year, it’s harder than ever to predict the order going into any round.
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