Titanic Trio sunk on Friday? Heavyweights struggle: ‘It could be the hardest race of my life’

Friday, 23 February 2024 06:58 GMT

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing them at the sharp end but Friday was one of the days which left plenty to be desired for WorldSBK’s benchmark riders

The 2024 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship is as wide open as we’ve ever seen it, with new names, line-up changes and more making it a melting pot of unpredictability and excitement. The Titanic Trio – Alvaro Bautista ( Racing – Ducati), Toprak Razgatlioglu (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team) and Jonathan Rea (Pata Prometeon Yamaha) all have new challenges for 2024 but Friday wasn’t quite as easy going as they’d have hoped for, with only Toprak scraping into the top ten in P10, albeit with not much of a gap to the front-runners. For Bautista and Rea, headshaking was seen on their way to P12 and P16 respectively.

REA AT A LOSS: “Fundamentally, something’s not right”

Jonathan Rea’s long-awaited and highly-anticipated round debut with Yamaha got underway but it wasn’t the brightest of days. He was down in 16th come the end of the day and reported a vibrating issue during the session. Again, he was shaking his head, with plenty of work still to be done for the #65 to feel at ease with his new steed.

Like Bautista, Rea set 18 laps and both improved a lot compared to the morning. At the end of the day, Rea explained Friday away: “It’s been a super difficult day; as you can see, I didn’t do many laps on track. I didn’t know with the weather to be honest but we suffered some issues straight away this morning, probably continuing on from the test. We struggled to pinpoint exactly what it is; the bike is very difficult to ride. We’re trying to rule out the problems and we’re changing the setup of the bike quite a lot but not touching on it. Fundamentally, something is not right and it’s not exactly how I imagined day one of the season to start but we are where we are and I have full confidence in the team to find the root of the issue and try to be stronger tomorrow. We’re so far away to be thinking about a chance. First, we need to have a good feeling with the bike and then nail the pitstop and see where we are. Hopefully, we can start in the right way.”

SOLUTION NEEDED: “We need to find the issue otherwise it’ll be the hardest race of my life.”

Talking in his media debriefs, Rea explained further: “We’re working as a team through the items, trying to eradicate it. Right now, it’s unacceptable; something’s not right and we need to find the problem. I’ve been told I can’t say too much but it’s frustrating for me as well as I’d love to say the full story… it’s been a difficult day, one of the most difficult. I have full belief in the guys that we’ll find it but it’s not how I dreamed of starting the World Championship. We’re really on the backfoot; I knew that when I was running out of time, I had to register a lap time. Maybe they were the sketchiest three laps I’ve ever done! Even with the issue, I’m not riding the R1 in the best way, but I need to get the bike close enough to me to exploit my strengths. We need to find the issue otherwise it’ll be the hardest race of my life.”

DENNING’S WORDS: “Our responsibility to improve and give him the package”

Speaking in pitlane on the World Feed, team principal Paul Denning commented on Rea’s struggles and his big testing crash at Turn 11 on Tuesday: “Physically, he’s not bad, he’s better than expected. He’s got restricted movement in one of his legs, his left leg, and it’s quite hard to move his foot back and forwards for the left handers around here but it’s actually better on the bike when the adrenaline was flowing than it was statically. He did three timed laps but he still didn’t have confidence and feeling with the bike. The R1 itself is working great when you look at the performance of Locatelli, and Gardner and Aegerter were fast in FP1. The bike’s got all the potential, a six-time Champion’s got all the potential as well, we’ve just got to match Jonathan’s confidence with the bike. It’s obviously hereditary from the crash on Tuesday.

“He has a history of being a very different animal when the lights are on and it’s time to actually race. We need to rebuild his confidence; after nine seasons with different people, team and philosophy and bike, it’s not easy. His first test and feeling with the R1, going second quickest at the Jerez test in November, we’ve just not quite translated that through Portimao and Phillip Island. A few problems have got in the way to make that more difficult. That’s our responsibility to improve and give him the package that helps him use 100% of his talent.”

TOPRAK SHRUGS OFF FRIDAY CONCERNS: “I think we can fight for the podium…"

Starting with Razgatlioglu, who set an all-time WorldSBK lap record during the Official Test earlier in the week, he spent a lot of time on track with teammate Michael van der Mark and featured inside the top five at times but didn’t stay there. He slipped down the order to finish P10, although for all riders, difficult weather – which isn’t expected to continue – means you can’t read too much into the placings, especially given the #54’s pace from the tests.

Speaking at the end of the day, the Turkish star said: “We started not very strong as today’s conditions were completely different and everyone pushed for a lap time. The wind was very strong and the bike wasn’t working or turning. I tried to adapt to the situation. In P10, I’m not thinking about this because Saturday is a different day and I’ll try my best to improve the bike a little bit. Tomorrow morning, I think we can start strong to do a different setup. We’ll need to do a good Superpole and then in the race, I think we can fight for the podium. It looks like we’re strong but it was my first time riding the BMW with the strong wind today and I was fighting a little bit, it felt a bit heavy. Tomorrow, the weather looks a bit better.”

Talking about following Andrea Iannone (Team GoEleven) and Bautista in FP1, Toprak said: “I wasn’t pushing, just following them to understand some corners. The Ducati sometimes uses a different line and I was looking at that; I’m working for the race as I need to see who I’ll be fighting with. I forgot this morning to do a good lap time but it’s only FP1 and FP2; on Saturday, I think we’ll start strong.”

“I STOPPED A LOT OF TIMES” – electronics issues and setup dramas limit Bautista

In the red corner – and with extra kilos on his bike to contend with – Alvaro Bautista was seen shaking his head and gesticulating when he was entering the pitlane in the final quarter of the session. The reigning double Champion comes into the season without an ideal testing experience, having been injured and unable to really push to his usual limit. He’s won eight of the nine races he’s took part in for Ducati on ‘The Island’ but, in his own words, isn’t the favourite for success.

Setting just 18 laps across the two sessions, Bautista commented on his first Friday of the season: “It was a very special Friday for everyone as in both Practice sessions, it started raining just before, so we didn’t do a lot of laps. Then, in FP2, we found issues with the electronics parts and we also tried a different setup to try and improve my feeling and it didn’t work. I stopped a lot of times and didn’t do a lot of laps. However, in the few laps I did with the setup in the morning, I was happy as I was good and consistent. My physical condition is good and I feel more flowing on the bike. My feeling is coming and that’s the important thing of today. About the position, everyone is going very fast and the times are very close, so I’m not worried about it. I can say it’s been a short but positive Friday.”

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