PREVIEW: WorldSBK 2023 takes flight on ‘The Island’ – what are the key stories for Round 1?
Pre-season is officially over and now, points are up for grabs – what are the biggest headlines coming into the year?
The talking has stopped, it’s time to bring the action; the 2023 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship is ready to ignite a brand-new title fight as the Grand Ridge Brewery Australian Round kicks off the latest instalment of the golden era. The Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit: steeped in history, with WorldSBK’s closest finish occurring there in 2010, whilst across four decades, we’ve seen endless battles until the chequered flag. This year’s line-up is one of the strongest ever seen and the list of potential winners and podium contenders definitely stretches into double figures. But after all the testing in the pre-season, what can we take into the opening round of the season? We put all the stories you need to know about in one place.
THE TITANIC TRIO: together again in 2023, even fiercer than ever
Three different World Champions from three different countries, representing three different manufacturers with three different engine configurations… WorldSBK really is unpredictable of late. Reigning World Champion Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) arguably starts 2023 as favourite, with the #1 on the front of the Ducati. However, he’ll be chased all the way by 2021 Champion Toprak Razgatlioglu (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK) and six-time Champion Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK). One of motorcycle racing’s fiercest three-way rivalries will continue in 2023 and with all three having won at Phillip Island in the last two visits to the circuit, it is anyone’s guess as to who will shine come the big moment. Testing form points towards Bautista, with his rivals from 2022 needing a step – but it can always change. When Race 1 starts, Rea will become the WorldSBK rider with the most starts as he continues setting records, and he’ll hope that an updated engine spec will help him too.
MAKING GAINS: testing suggests that the titanic trio are a fantastic four… or more
A constant top three rider throughout testing and even topping sessions and pushing his teammate, Michael Ruben Rinaldi (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) has been something of a revelation in pre-season. With a new training approach, he looks like he has blended his electric outright pace on his day from 2021 and his consistency from 2022 to become a far more complete package. Ducati’s factory team have been all-conquering throughout testing, but will it continue? Don’t just count on Rinaldi either, Andrea Locatelli (Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK) is also right there. A very strong Portimao test preceded a staggeringly solid Phillip Island, where the 2020 WorldSSP Champion was consistently top Yamaha. Is there a new order on the horizon? Besides the Italian duo, the Phillip Island test also showed us that Philipp Oettl (Team GoEleven) continues to grow in stature and may have a say in the top six throughout the course of the weekend.
RACE DEBUTS AWAIT: welcome to WorldSBK for Gardner, Aegerter and Petrucci
In what is a season of fast rookies in the WorldSBK field, none are much more decorated than 2021 Moto2™ World Champion Remy Gardner (GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK Team), his teammate, double WorldSSP Champion Dominique Aegerter and multiple MotoGP™ Grand Prix winner, Danilo Petrucci (Barni Spark Racing Team). Starting with Gardner, the Australian flies the flag at home and will feel the weight of a nation, in the spotlight for his WorldSBK debut. Aegerter has been fast in testing, finishing P2 on day two’s test at Phillip Island and was a winner in WorldSSP at the circuit in 2022. Petrucci also has past experience but needs to find some performance to keep up with his rivals. Italian Lorenzo Baldassarri (GMT94 Yamaha) and Brazilian Eric Granado (MIE Honda Racing Team) also debut, with the aim of solid points.
FACTORY RIDERS WITH A STEP TO MAKE: big names playing catch-up
Despite a variety of updates brought to the team, Iker Lecuona (Team HRC) and Honda struggled to find a sweet spot in the test, with Lecuona also acclimatising to the Superbike at the circuit for the first time after missing the round with injury last year. Teammate Xavi Vierge was also behind and outside the top ten, whilst Lecuona finished eighth. However, there was no representation in the top ten for BMW, as their best rider on the combined test times was Michael van der Mark (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team) in 12th, as teammate Scott Redding was 14th. All four BMW riders have the new aero and a variety of other upgrades, and don’t forget that Loris Baz (Bonovo Action BMW) has a new teammate in Garrett Gerloff for 2023, with the American the second-fastest BMW in the final test. One factory rider perhaps not expected to be so far down the times at Phillip Island was Alex Lowes (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK). In fact, his teammate Jonathan Rea was the only Kawasaki inside the top 14 positions, with Lowes P15. A race winner in Kawasaki green in Australia three years ago, Lowes hopes for a step forward to pick up from where he left off last year.
THE REMAINING RIDERS: enigmatic potential
The highest-placed rider after the Phillip Island Official Test yet to be mentioned is Axel Bassani (Motocorsa Racing). The likeable Italian will have the 2023 Ducati for the year ahead but had a quiet pre-season as he got back on track, and a crash with Petrucci on the final day of pre-season testing won’t have helped. Then there’s Tom Sykes (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) who returns after a year away and is back on a Kawasaki ZX-10RR. The charismatic Brit has had a few crashes during testing and hasn’t featured too far up the order… yet. Discount the 2013 World Champion at your peril. Oliver Konig (Orelac Racing VerdNatura) has plenty of potential and has made gains in the off-season as he looks to start his year with points, as does Malaysian rider Hafizh Syahrin (MIE Honda Racing Team), with both back for a second full season.
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