Honda is back on the podium in WorldSBK; are they now ready to step forward and consistently battle at the front? WorldSBK commentator Steve English looks for the reasons behind Alvaro Bautista’s step forward
As soon as Honda announced the return of a full factory bike to WorldSBK, the pressure was on them to perform. After seeing Alvaro Bautista dominate the opening four rounds of 2019, the Spaniard was the hottest property on the rider market. Deciding to sign for Honda, and more significantly leave the Ducati Panigale V4 R that he was looking so assured aboard, was a risky move that shocked the paddock.
Last weekend at Motorland Aragon saw the first fruits of their relationship starting to blossom. The Spaniard claimed Honda’s first WorldSBK podium in four years after a superb performance on Sunday. Starting from seventh for the ten lap Tissot Superpole Race he was able to finish fourth after a late race dice with Alex Lowes (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) and Chaz Davies (ARUBA.IT Racing – Ducati). It was a strong performance from Bautista but there were question marks about whether he could repeat that performance in the afternoon 18 lap race.
Starting with the SCX Pirelli tyre he gambled on his tyre management. The tyre was originally designed for the Superpole Race to give a burst of grip and up and down the pitlane it was reckoned to be worth up to four tenths of a second per lap at Aragon. Bautista would need every advantage he could find to put himself into a position to fight. A good start was critical.
“I struggled in the first laps [of the Superpole Race] because I had to ride aggressively,” said Bautista. “Starting fourth on the grid for Race 2 meant I didn’t have a lot of riders in front of me so I could stay in my riding style. I knew that I would have to manage the tyre because it’s a long race and I had crashed on Saturday.
“To manage the tyre I’d have to go slowly but I had to push to stay at the front of the group. At the end of the race the tyre was starting to drop so I had to manage the gap to the riders behind. I used the SCX tyre because it was the best tyre for me. With this tyre I feel good. It drops more than the other tyres but I could gain more with this tyre than the others.”
What he gained was 16 points and an all important podium. For the first time since Magny-Cours 2016 a Honda rider was spraying Prosecco and celebrating a well earned result. It was a fantastic achievement and one that Honda desperately needed. Having spent eight days testing at Aragon, they had placed their eggs firmly in the basket of the Spanish track hoping for good results.
“We have a lot of references for the bike at this track because we have tested here. This result is for all of the work we are doing. We had some problems in practice and a crash in Race 1 so we can be happy with this result and know that we’re on our way to our real target of winning. We’re making steps forward.”
What more can Honda and Bautista do? This was surely the first of many podiums for Team HRC but don’t expect the floodgates to open. The temperature was cooler than expected, and certainly cooler than this weekend’s round, and that allowed Bautista to take advantage of the SCX tyre. Would he be able to use it in the hotter conditions? Maybe. Maybe not.
The performance step offered by the tyre was significant and obviously played a role in Bautista’s podium but so does his ability to get the most out of himself at MotorLand. His style works well here-don’t forget last year he was one second per lap faster than his rivals at times-and when it’s combined with so much testing here it offered a real chance of a strong result.Now he has to build on it and Honda has to show they’re making steps forward. Aragon can’t be a one off for Bautista and Honda.
Watch all of the action from the Pirelli Teruel Round with the WorldSBK VideoPass!