OPINION: Steve English’s Storylines for the Phillip Island

Thursday, 23 February 2023 07:13 GMT

Ahead of the opening round of the 2023 WorldSBK season, commentator Steve English looks at five storylines that he’ll be keeping an eye on Down Under

There’s plenty of hype, expectation and eagerness for the 2023 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship and it gets underway this weekend at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit. The iconic Australian venue is back to its usual curtain-raising slot on the calendar and that means that we get our first glimpse of some answers to pre-season testing questions. What are the stories to follow?

RED HOT: the disappearing Ducati...

Alvaro Bautista ( Racing – Ducati) might well be nicknamed “The Magician” because if his testing pace is anything to be considered, it could well be a case of a disappearing Ducati at the weekend. The reigning World Champion has looked incredibly relaxed all winter but this week, despite crashing, he has been able to set a relentless pace on the Panigale V4R, also the same for Michael Ruben Rinaldi, with good podium pace and just missing a little on his teammate. The updated for 2023-spec machine has been built with Bautista in mind. The seating position is closer to the front of the bike, so the diminutive Spaniard can get more of his body and his weight over the front of the bike. Last year he felt like he was sitting on the back of the bike but with his weight moved forward he will have more feel on the bike.

This has led to issues for some other Ducati riders with Phillip Oettl (Team GoEleven), top five on the opening day of testing here, having said that it took him most of testing to feel comfortable on the bike. For the taller Axel Bassani (Motocorsa Racing) and Danilo Petrucci (Barni Spark Racing Team), this has been a more pronounced issue. With high temperatures forecast for this weekend, Bautista is going to be exceptionally hard to beat. He has consistency and the tyre management to ride into the distance just like he did on his 2019 debut.

CAUTION: dampen the expectations for Petrucci

Danilo Petrucci is a two-time MotoGP™ Grand Prix winner. His speed and talent are beyond doubt, but he will be a slow burner in 2023 as he adapts to WorldSBK and Pirelli tyres. The changes Ducati made to the V4R are also going to take time for him to adapt to. At the Jerez test, on last year’s bike, he was immediately able to set fast times but didn’t feel as comfortable on the bike when he was gunning for a qualifying time.

With the introduction of the 2023 machine, he has spent the Portimao and Phillip Island test days complaining about a lack of feeling when he pushes hard. On Tuesday he said that his fastest lap, a second shy of Bautista, was filled with risk and on the absolute limit. It will take time for him to click with the bike so the opening rounds will be about gaining experience and seeing where he stands.

TROUBLING TIMES: Kawasaki and Rea

Crashes have marred the winter for Kawasaki. Whether it was Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK) – two crashes already this week – or teammate Alex Lowes at Portimao or Tom Sykes (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) at Jerez and Phillip Island, the ZX10-RR has proved a handful throughout the winter. The bubble has burst on KRT over the last few years and with Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK) and Bautista having claimed the title in the last two years, it’d be longer odds than you’d expect for Rea to get back to title-winning form.

The Northern Irishman is the greatest Superbike rider of all-time, but it counts for little when you have to ride on the absolute limit at all times. The introduction of an updated engine spec for this year offered hope to Kawasaki but when Rea was asked for his thoughts on the new engine and whether it would offer enough progress to their rivals, he was only willing to offer a firm no comment on the situation. It’ll be a long uphill road for Rea this year, but you always know that he’ll offer his maximum every time he’s out on track.

ON THE SEARCH: Toprak needs to find something

Yamaha has had plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into the opening round but their talisman, Toprak Razgatlioglu, has not looked as fast as had been expected. Phillip Island is a fast, flowing circuit that doesn’t lend itself to Toprak’s heavy braking style and during testing, we have seen teammate Andrea Locatelli and Dominique Aegerter (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team) set faster times. When we get to Indonesia next week, we can expect normal Toprak service to be resumed but as it stands the Turkish star is still searching for what he needs in Australia.

CHASING BEHIND: work needed for Honda and BMW

After a winter filled with discussions about upgrades and tweaks, it was tough for Honda and BMW as they struggled during testing. A big crash for Xavi Vierge (Team HRC), at the fast Hayshed, has left him slightly on the backfoot but Honda will know they need to make more progress if they are to challenge at the front. Given that the pace of the race is expected to be about maintaining speed and tyre life this might still be a weekend that they can scrape some good results; Iker Lecuona (Team HRC) has been inside the top ten, but there’s clearly work to be done. Having said that, Honda have been happy with the step they’ve made with their end-of-race pace, so keep that in mind.

The same can be amplified for BMW. With Michael van der Mark (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team), Garrett Gerloff (Bonovo Action BMW), Scott Redding (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team) and Loris Baz (Bonovo Action BMW) setting the 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th fastest times on Tuesday, it was clear they were getting what they can from the just needs more performance. WorldSBK has an incredibly deep field in 2023 so if your ducks aren’t in a row it will make for a difficult weekend. This weekend has the hallmarks of that for BMW. The races being dominated by tyre management will give them and others a chance but it’s just a crutch, and Honda and BMW will know that they need to make a step forward as the season progresses.

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