The title may well have been a done deal but Alvaro Bautista had one more bit of magic up his sleeve, although he perhaps needed to do some convincing…
The sun has set on the 2022 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship and the winter off-season has started, with everyone packing up and going home to enjoy time with family, friends and loved ones. However, as true Champions often do, they take a risk and they put it all on the line; they all have a signature race where nothing is left on the table. Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) saved his until the final race day of the season with an incredibly bold tyre choice, something that would reward him massively.
Rain lashed down at Phillip Island before the start of the Tissot Superpole Race but had stopped before riders headed out on their sighting lap. Whilst the majority of the field was on rain tyres or intermediates, Bautista had gone bold; the 2022 World Champion opted for slick tyres, front and rear, even though the spray was huge around the track. Known for fast-drying, Phillip Island was about to witness a treat. Bautista dropped to P16 on Lap 1 and come the end of the opening lap, was 6.364s behind the race leader after starting on pole; at the end of Lap 3, he was 9.982s off.
Slowly but surely though, he was picking off the opposition and was tenth by the start of Lap 4. He hit the top five halfway through Lap 7, before taking a podium place on Lap 8. Two laps remained and Bautista was less than a second from the leader. On Lap 9, he passed both Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) and then leader Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha with Brixx WorldSBK) to take victory in astonishing circumstances by 3.285s.
Talking about his stunning comeback to the media in his Sunday debrief, Bautista told the story of how the decision came about to gamble on slick tyres after talking with long-time crew chief Giulio Nava: “I’m so proud about my choice in the Superpole Race; it was my choice! For sure the team thought I was completely crazy, but I have a lot of experience about this kind of weather at this track from MotoGP™. I knew that after the rain, in a few laps, it would be dry and in fact, that’s what happened. You have to have big ‘cojones’ (balls) to start like I started! Sincerely, I thought when I left the pit box, there was less water but I followed Rinaldi and I saw all of the spray and I just thought, ‘oh s**t’.
“Before I left the box, I told Giulio when we arrive to the grid, to put a completely dry setup. He said, “are you sure, it’s super wet?” and I replied, “believe me, put the completely dry setup”. So, I arrive to the grid and he asks me which tyres to use – wets, slicks or intermediates – and I’m thinking ‘s**t, I don’t know because I was expecting less water on the track’. Giulio recommended wet front and intermediate rear as it was safer, and at least I could finish – especially now. But with the intermediate tyres, I don’t go fast in the wet or the dry. I saw the track drying in the middle of the straight, and I said, “OK, I’ll take a gamble, put the slicks”. He said, “are you sure” and I went, “yes, slicks” and he replied “OK”. For sure, they were thinking, ‘this guy is crazy’.”
Every World Champion has that one ride that makes everyone sit up and applaud; in 2021, Toprak Razgatlioglu dazzled with an outrageous opening two laps at Donington Park in Race 1, when he went from P13 on the grid to P2 halfway through Lap 1, before hitting the front on Lap 2 and easing to victory. Jonathan Rea’s six world titles have a massive array of calculated risks that have paid off hugely, although it was this weekend’s Race 1 where he was the first to blink of the leading group to come and change tyres in a flag-to-flag thriller, whilst he also shone in 2016 at Assen in Race 1, another flag-to-flag race.
Continuing to talk about the decision, Bautista stated that the gamble, whilst unlikely to be made if the title race was still open, was useful for experience for any future races with such similarities: “You have to be strong and to have good luck; this year, I had that so I tried again! Also, the confidence I have with my riding and my bike; maybe, if the Championship wasn’t finished for me, I would have taken the safe option. I didn’t have anything to lose so I thought, ‘why not?’, it could be more experience for next year and for the next situation like that.”
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