OPINION: Steve English on Australia’s harsh reality for Rea and Kawasaki
WorldSBK commentator Steve English looks back on the opening round in Australia and picks through a disastrous weekend for Kawasaki and Jonathan Rea.
Round 1 of the 2023 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship season is in the bank and for some, it created more questions than answers. After a weekend where Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) claimed the spoils, teammate Michael Ruben Rinaldi stepped up to the plate and Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK) struggled, there are many different storylines that are easy to focus upon and try an expand.
KAWASAKI’S GLORY DAYS: are they over?
Upgrades to the bike and changes within the garage had given hope over the winter but when we arrived on track in Australia it was hope rather than expectation that was powering Kawasaki. Six world titles for Jonathan Rea and ten consecutive years of title challenges for the squad make it difficult to come to the conclusion that the glory days are behind them but with Rea having been beaten for pace in both dry weather races he'll know how difficult it will be to race at the front this year. The immediate aftermath of Australia certainly paints a picture of the challenges facing them.
“We don’t have a new bike for this year but we do have some upgrades,” said Rea at the end of a long weekend in Australia. “The new engine spec doesn’t give us more top speed but it does give us more torque. We are trying to keep improving the bike but so is everyone else. To race against Alvaro and Ducati means that you have to ride on the limit at every corner for every lap.”
For 2023, Kawasaki homologated a new engine specification but the changes, which include the introduction of Variable Air Intake has been problematic. The winter was blighted by crashes for the Kawasaki riders with Rea having four crashes before the season had even begun Down Under. The introduction of a new electronics engineer, Sander Donkers, brings with it fresh insight and a new perspective but the basic architecture of the bike is now outdated and superseded by Ducati.
AUSTRALIA’S RACES: Kawasaki’s worst showing Down Under in a decade
In Phillip Island we saw this exemplified in the Tissot Superpole Race. Rea, punted off track on lap one by Dominique Aegerter (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team) was left playing catch-up. Having dropped to the midfield, the expectation was the Rea would carve his way through the field and still come away with a decent helping of points. However, as the remainder of the ten-lap race unfolded the reality was very different. Rea, so often able to overcome the shortcomings of a machine disadvantage, has been the master of adaptation throughout his career. So often he has been the margin of error for his teams. If the bike has a shortcoming, he can overcome it by his bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat. Last Sunday, for the first time in his Kawasaki tenure, he was unable to make any progress. From tenth on Lap 1, he only made it to seventh, with Philipp Oettl (Team GoEleven) just out of reach and having benefited from the GRT Yamaha clash of Remy Gardner and Aegerter from the proceedings.
In the afternoon’s 22 lap Race 2, we saw Rea and teammate Alex Lowes at the front of the huge scrap for fourth position. With a nine-rider group, the Kawasaki’s tried to stay at the front but were on the limit all the way through the race. Nothing was easy and nothing was being taken for granted. There was no quarter given or taken but, in the end, it would see Rea relegated to eighth at the flag and unable to fight with Axel Bassani (Motocorsa Racing), Philipp Oettl and Iker Lecuona (Team HRC) before being passed by Aegerter on the last lap. Rea was a lame animal being picked off by the lions in the closing stages.
IN CONCLUSION: is Phillip Island a true indicator?
“We made changes to the bike for this year and I’m responsible for the direction that we take with the development of the bike,” continued Rea. “It’s based on my feedback that drives the crew. I think that over the season we will do better and that in Lombok it will suit us better, but we have to understand what happened in Phillip Island.”
Understanding what happened in Australia will be critical for Rea and Kawasaki and we should see better form from them in Indonesia this weekend, but the glory days – at least for the time being are now in the past. However, don’t be surprised to see Rea, like the six-time World Champion he is, to re-invent himself – like all great World Champions do – to reduce any shortcomings further.
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