Ducati’s crimson cavaliers held the tide of potential race winners at bay in the first WorldSBK seaside weekend of 2023
The 2023 WorldSBK season got underway at its traditional starting point of Phillip Island, after a two-day test at the same venue. It all ended a short European winter of anticipation since WorldSBK was last here just four short months ago.
The quick reload and return to ‘normally’ didn’t disappoint, even if there was no variety whatever in the winners of all the main event WorldSBK and WorldSSP races. Bautista, the reigning champ, was almost back to 2019 levels of domination, but nothing much else went to plan for the other big stars. The variety came in other areas and it came thick and fast and sometimes coated in unexpected gravel.
In among the vast swings in weather conditions, red flags because of geese and the whole motophile world watching on at this first global weekend of two-wheeled racing, lots of truly talented Superbike riders arrived at PI in fear of not even scoring a single point. For some of them it was a harsh new reality. We can talk of the greatest talent depth ever, but really, this might be the high expectation/low-margin-for-error-of-all-time mark.
Friday was scorching, Saturday was dry then fully wet, and Sunday a bit changeable – so a typical PI weekend. Superpole qualifying was a close affair in dry conditions, with a whopping 13 riders within one second, and 19 within 1.514 seconds.
Pole was taken by Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK Team), who got very close to the all-time track best with his 1m29.400s. Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) was second in Superpole, but the sensation of the pre-race build-up was rookie WorldSBK rider Dominique Aegerter (GRT Yamaha) who was fast enough for third. However every rider’s Superpole pace in dry conditions was deemed meaningless when some serious rain arrived just in time for the start of Race 1. But it was no damp squib.
The chaotic WorldSSP opening race ran late, meaning that WorldSBK Race 1 started at 4.15pm, not 4pm. It was so wet that one of the reasons Bautista gave for passing convincing early race leader Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team), was to get out of the plume of spray pushed out by the lead bike’s full wet rear tyre option.
Bautista and Rea both had some big moments and lucky escapes from big slides or spins, but they dominated the rest, even with Rea losing his quickshifter mid-race, and having to use his awkwardly mounted high clutch lever (usually used once only, when launching from the grid spot). He had to use a lot of handfuls of throttle changing gears. It was fun he said, but not a definition most would use in the wet, at 300km/h, chasing the world champ.
The final opening podium place went to Razgatlioglu, who had already passed eventual faller Alex Lowes (Kawasaki Racing Team), who had a giant highside for reasons he could not fathom.
The 2022 ‘big three’ were at it again in Race 1, but in a very different way from their often titanic fights last season. Andrea Locatelli (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK Team) was fourth, and top placed Independent rider was Axel Bassani (MotoCorsa Racing Ducati) in fifth place – impressive from a 14th-place grid spot with all that spray sloshing around. Iker Lecuona (HRC Honda) was sixth on the improved Fireblade, 24 seconds from the race win.
The 10-lap Superpole race on Sunday was the property of Bautista from the early stages, and the Ducati celebrations continued apace, with Michael Ruben Rinaldi’s new, more-focused 2023 approach paying off with a convincing second place, even ahead of third-placed Razgatlioglu.
Rea had earlier been put off track by the over-ambitious Aegerter, and fought hard to finish seventh, never really finding a way past the riders in front. It was clear his latest set-up was not quite clicking – and it would get worse.
Lowes had a good shot at the podium early on but fourth was all he could do, and it would be his only finish of the weekend. Fifth was the clearly improved Locatelli, with privateer Philipp Öttl (Team GoEleven Ducati) sixth.
In the final race of the weekend, Bautista cleared off again, Rinaldi followed and pushed on to finish second – although over six seconds from triple victor Bautista. Locatelli was making a strong case to be the rider from last year’s ‘second string’ of talent, as his third place and first podium of the season pushed him up to second overall after a tricky first round. Rinaldi was of course second twice, but his 14th in the wet Race 1 means Locatelli is making the best overall ‘new guard’ push so far.
Bassani was fourth in the final race, held in dry conditions. His aggressive overtakes worked well into Turn 4, if crudely executed at times. He had to work hard in the final lap of the race, after seeing Phillip Öttl closing in via the circuit’s superscreens. Saved by a million LEDs, as it were.
Iker Lecuona was the top HRC Honda rider in sixth place; Aegerter top rookie in seventh, but Rea, on a set-up that was simply not working, had no grip left in the final laps, and went from fifth to eighth.
Lowes and Razgatlioglu went from upright to horizontal as the English rider fell entering T4, taking avoiding action as Bassani and Rea went a bit wide on entry. Toprak did not blame Lowes, it was just one of those things, despite his visible trackside despair.
Razgatlioglu’s no-pointer had great initial importance for the expected championship fight, as Bautista crammed a full 62 points into his first three-course feast of 2023. Locatelli is second with 34, Rea is a remarkable third (31 points) considering it was a disastrous weekend by his high standards. Rinaldi is also on 31 points in fourth with Bassani fifth on 25 and Razgatlioglu sixth on 23 – that’s 39 points behind after only one round.
The next bout will be held at Mandalika, Indonesia, this weekend.
Remy Gardner (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK) took a strong seventh in Superpole, but was a disappointed with 12th in Race 1, his first ever in WorldSBK. In the Superpole Race he was a non-finisher after crashing and taking out his teammate Aegerter. In Race 2 he was tenth, despite a long-lap penalty for his Superpole misdemeanour.
“Probably not the result we expected in the end. I made a mistake in the Superpole that cost us the race, and Dominique’s race as well, so sorry for that. And then grid position and a long-lap penalty. I absolutely did not outbrake myself. I did not expect Domi to be so fast into the corner. So not a good day, but I think we need to look at the positives, because we did have the speed to be there. If there was not that mistake in the Superpole race, we were fighting for the podium – which is maybe better than expected, to be honest.”
2023 WorldSSP Championship
Stefano Manzi (Ten Kate Racing Yamaha) took pole position in his first YZF-R6 race of his second WorldSSP season, but the mixed conditions in the first race favoured riders with full wets.
After a crash between Adrian Huertas (MTM Kawasaki) and Yari Montella (Barni Spark Ducati) ended the first attempted start, and then changing weather continued to add delay onto delay, the eventual 10-lap opener got underway very late.
Nicolo Beluga (Aruba Racing Ducati) would ease away to a clear lead and would turn that advantage into a win, celebrated wildly by bouncing his bike almost off the ground on its suspension as he approached the finish line. He was almost caught by the rapidly closing Nicholas Spinelli (VFT Racing Yamaha) as a result. This was both Bulega’s and Ducati’s first WorldSSP race win.
Most bizarrely of all, testing and practice struggler John McPhee (Vince64 Kawasaki) turned the track’s water molecules into liquid podium bronze. It would have been silver but for the late charge of Spinelli. He had been 20th – and last – of the riders to qualify in Superpole.
In Race 2, in fully dry conditions, everything changed except Bulega’s winning prowess, as he doubled up after failing to score a single race win last season.
Two unwanted Cape Barren geese wandered onto the track in Race 2, cutting it all down to 13 laps, not 18. Manzi was a very close second and Can Öncü (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) third, after a great three-way fight. In the championship, Bulega leads Manzi by 20 points.
Oli Bayliss (D34G WorldSSP), still on a Panigale V2 for his second full WorldSSP season, albeit in a very different team, was 10th on the grid but 16th in the short and chaotic wet Race 1. He was tenth in Race 2, despite a late clash with Caricasulo.
“Race 1 was the tyre choice. We tried to take a big risk and go with the slick option, as we thought there was no more rain coming. It didn’t pay off when it started raining again. In Race 2 we were having a fairly good race ,but Caricasulo had some problem with his bike and we were both in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had to just dodge him by going onto the grass. I lost a few seconds, and a couple of positions. I started my fightback but the red flag came out. I am happy with my pace and happy with the team.”
Report Gordon Ritchie Photography Gold&Goose