WorldSBK in 2024 is going to be a belter but with just one preseason test remaining Down Under, what can be deduced as Round 1 looms large?
We say it every year: ‘this season is going to be one of the best’ and let’s be fair, we’ve been pretty on the money. However, the 2024 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship is going to be off the scale as far as excitement, unpredictability, stories and memories are concerned. We learnt a lot in testing but it is just that: testing. Even so, we analyse the patterns that emerged from Jerez and Portimao before the flight cases are packed and shipped Down Under for the season’s start.
NEW COLOURS, SAME SPEED: Razgatlioglu and Rea as competitive as ever
We’ll start with Jonathan Rea (Pata Prometeon Yamaha) for this one; the first test last year at Jerez – just 48 hours after he stepped off Kawasaki machinery – was already a success but he improved again in a private test at the same venue. In the last two tests, again at Jerez before the most recent one at Portimao, he was once again right in the mix. However, outright speed is still lacking, even if he gets faster as the race goes on with used rubber and a lower fuel load, something he highlighted after Portimao. If one lap pace can be improved, Rea’s a genuine threat once more – not that he wouldn’t be once the lights go out anyway. A wide operating window, the YZF-R1 Yamaha is slowly but surely fitting the six-time World Champion like a glove.
Ahead of preseason, the other major transfer of Toprak Razgatlioglu (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team) to BMW from Yamaha was certainly one with a lot less guarantees. BMW, without a win since 2021 (without a dry one since – get ready – 2013 at the Nurburgring with Chaz Davies) and a whole 2023 season without a podium (a pole for Garrett Gerloff at Magny-Cours was the big highlight), were in need of a star signing to really propel them forward. The smile after his first test at Portimao in December said everything but his pace after Christmas at Jerez and Portimao has had heads turned. At the rollercoaster in particular, scene of heartbreak in last year’s penultimate round in a head-to-head fight against Bautista, saw him top a test with BMW for the first time.
Strong race pace, big updates to engine specs, chassis and constant work on electronics, BMW have pulled out all the stops so Toprak can prepare all the celebratory stoppies. A little more edge grip and turning – the constant complaint from all BMW riders over the years – is still a sticking point but Toprak’s making it work. He signed off the Portimao test – the last one before going to Australia – with a warning to his rivals: “The bike is starting to feel like my bike.”
BAUTISTA’S NIGHTMARE, BULEGA’S DREAM: Ducati’s form book out the window
All the talk of Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) adapting to the new rules, where he’ll need to carry an extra 6kg of weight in 2024, have been superseded by another challenge: the Spaniard’s injury. He crashed during the first day of testing for 2024 back in 2023, after the Jerez round, before heading to Sepang for his MotoGP™ wildcard. Perhaps, the injury was worse than everyone, including Alvaro, first thought. Three months later, he’s still struggling, with no training allowed until the start of January. Add on top of that the fact that he’s got to muscle more weight around than ever and with no big updates to the Ducati Panigale V4 R, it’s not been the easiest road to Australia for the defending double Champion. But did we expect him to be this far off the top? The competition level in WorldSBK is extraordinary but Bautista hasn’t been in the top ten at the end of either the Jerez or Portimao tests. Phillip Island awaits and he vows to get fit at home but as he admitted, it’s kind of out of his hands.
As one side struggles, a new Ducati star has emerged in reigning WorldSSP Champion, Nicolo Bulega. It’s been something rather astounding in testing and almost unbelievable; three days out of four have seen Bulega on top, only beaten by Razgatlioglu on day two at Portimao. Not just on top either but under the existing official lap record too. He had plenty of tests on the bike last year but to come in straight away and be this competitive is something rare. A total revelation, it’s important to remind ourself that it is only testing and, as Marco Zambenedetti – Ducati Corse’s Superbike Technical Director – said, “races will be different.” Bulega responded, saying “I’m not at 100%”, so maybe the races will be different but not how Marco expects.
THE NEW HONDA: strong start but work still to do
Initial feedback from Iker Lecuona (Team HRC) and teammate Xavi Vierge was positive after testing at Jerez in November, with then-team boss Leon Camier confirming split throttle bodies, a lighter crank and wings had been introduced for the new homologation. However, things turned sour as 2024 got underway, with Lecuona left frustrated at Jerez; just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, he crashed on day two at Portimao, lost time and then still couldn’t find a direction to work in, questioning whether or not they’ll be ready for a top ten challenge. Vierge has been calmer, insisting that whilst there’s work to do, he’s ready for the challenge and keen to develop. The big issue is rear grip; the engine is so powerful that the rear tyre is just spinning coming out of corners but not with traction. Honda lost two days of vital testing in December last year due to poor weather but it could be a matter of getting stuck in, biting the screen and seeing what happens for the first round.
HOW ARE THE ROOKIES PROGRESSING: Iannone, Sam Lowes and more
Besides the aforementioned Bulega, there are four more rookies on the grid in 2024. They don’t come much bigger than MotoGP™ Grand Prix winner Andrea Iannone (Team GoEleven), who lit up the timing screens at Jerez but spent most of his two days at Portimao adapting to the track, a place he’d never raced at. Everyone up and down pitlane was impressed with ‘The Maniac’ proving his speed and potential is still there. Sam Lowes (ELF Marc VDS Racing Team) has also been quick, with the new team settling straight into a solid testing schedule in WorldSBK. Lowes has been up inside the top ten throughout testing and with Phillip Island as a first track, familiar territory will only enhance his initial good feelings. The other two rookies are 2021 BSB champion Tarran Mackenzie (PETRONAS MIE Racing Honda) and teammate from WorldSSP last year Adam Norrodin, who moves up with ‘Taz’. Less testing than others and with a mix of 2023 and 2024 parts, the full-spec 2024 Honda is expected at Phillip Island.
OTHER NOTABLE MENTIONS: KRT’s preseason and BMW’s development
Alex Lowes (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) seems to be adapting to life as the number one rider within KRT well and working with Pere Riba also seems to bringing the #22 on too, as he finished P3 at the end of Portimao’s test. Teammate Axel Bassani is continuing his adaptation to the ZX-10RR and inline four machinery, with work on corner entry and riding style being his key areas to focus on. The other BMWs of Michael van der Mark (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team), Garrett Gerloff (Bonovo Action BMW) and teammate Scott Redding have also all had reason to smile throughout the preseason, with BMW looking one of the strongest manufacturers after huge investments and developments in the WorldSBK project. Remy Gardner (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team) has likewise been fast and competitive, although teammate Dominique Aegerter sat out both Jerez and Portimao tests with illness.
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