The final event of the 12 round 2022 FIM Motul World Superbike Championship, the Grand Ridge Brewery Australian round at Phillip Island, took place last weekend.
This venue has a reputation for providing great racing, often with issues surrounding tires given the demanding nature of the ten-turn layout by the ocean. This year, unpredictable ‘down under’ spring weather provided the surprises.
The first race of the weekend started on a drying track, with some difficult underlying questions – when to change tires, who makes that decision, and what tires to fit?
In tricky conditions, the usual top three ran at the front, with Ducati’s newly crowned World Champ Alvaro Bautista, Yamaha’s outgoing ‘number one’ Toprak Razgatlioglu and six-time Champ Jonathan Rea on his Kawasaki leading in the spray.
Winless since early in the season, long-dominant Rea was expected to be a factor, and his pit decision proved perfect. Unlike MotoGP where racers switch the entire machine on the fly, World Superbike is old school, and the teams swap wheels and tires, and adjust suspension.
The rules require a minimum stop time of 65 seconds, and Rea took exactly that amount of time. Rea emerged mid-pack at a pace that suggested he would win easily, while Razgatlioglu took five seconds longer, ending his best chance to challenge Rea.
Bautista pitted two laps later, and as it turns out, two laps too late. In at the same time was number two Kawasaki man Alex Lowes, who had been close to the top three in the initial, wet portion of the 22-lap opening race.
Rea won by 6.2 seconds from Razgatlioglu, Lowes a further three seconds back to complete the podium. Satellite Pata Yamaha’s Andrea Locatelli was fourth, just ahead of Bautista.
“There were a lot of things going on in the race and that’s what makes the win a little more special,” stated Rea post race. “My team was involved in our Pit Stop, and I knew we could be strong in wet conditions and also in the dry, and we made the perfect decision on when to come in for slicks.
“I guess that, potentially, we could have been maybe a lap too late. I could have come in the lap earlier, but I made a deal with my team that I had to give them a signal on the pit straight. I thought that I hadn’t given them the signal yet, so I came past so then it was one more lap.
“I quickly checked to see who else was coming. I knew it was the perfect time. I saw that Toprak was coming too, so I thought the last ten laps would be with him. I had a much better stop then Toprak and from there I could just ride to my pit board.”
So ended Rea’s longest winless streak since he left the Ten Kate works Honda team for Ninja duties in 2015.
“It’s nice, it’s really nice more than anything, to win,” reflected Rea. “It’s not something I have really been dwelling on since the beginning of the season since the season has been so challenging. Alvaro and Toprak have been so good so there is no point in me getting disappointed or feeling sorry for myself.
“We are getting beaten now by guys who are riding really well and manufacturers that are pushing really hard. It’s motivating, keeps us working, keep following them and keep challenging myself and the team.”
After complaining that he was “old and careful” in the opener, fast qualifier Bautista gambled for the shorter, middle SuperPole race, starting on slicks when almost everyone opted for Pirelli wets. Fourteenth after the first lap, Bautista marched steadily forward, taking the lead with just over a lap to go, passing (see if you can guess) Rea and then leader Razgatlioglu.
Bautista won by just over three seconds from Razgatlioglu, Rea just .1 of a second back to net third. Lowes earned fourth from Locatelli, while BMW’s Scott Redding was resurgent for sixth.
“With the switch to dry tires in the first race, I didn’t have too much confidence,” confessed Bautista of his decision to go for a no-stop Sprint race strategy.
“With a tire change it takes me five or six laps to feel some grip from the rear. I think my light weight is a disadvantage because the bike started to move and jump a lot, and it was like riding on ice.”
While Bautista questions the advantage of his light body weight, the v-4 Ducati continues to post impressive top speed trap numbers. In race one, he was quickest of the leaders at 323.4 kilometers per hour, followed by Lowes (Kaw) at 319.5 and Locatelli (Yam) 317.6.
Quickest of all in a straight line was Honda’s HRC factory tester Tetsuta Nagashima at 327.3. He placed tenth in his series debut, subbing for the injured Iker Lecuona.
The final Superbike race of 2022 got underway on a just-dry track, as potential top racers Garrett Gerloff (Yam) and Xavi Vierge (Hon) ran off mid-pack and fell in the turn two gravel.
For Gerloff, strong earlier in the program, it was a sad end to his long-time Yamaha relationship as the American now heads off to ride for a satellite BMW squad in 2023.
Rea took the lead from Bautista with an aggressive move on the opening lap and works BWM racer Scott Redding next took over second. Next, Lowes pushed from sixth at the start to demote Bautista to fourth.
Eventually Redding started to fade, and Bautista, Razgatlioglu and Lowes pushed to catch leader Rea. By lap 7, Bautista caught Rea and took the lead, setting the fastest lap in the process. Gradually, Razgatlioglu faded from the lead pair to settle in third.
Late race attention was focused on the expected heroic effort for a lead pass by Rea, but it wasn’t to be. The race had to be red flagged early due to a serious incident involving Eugene Laverty (BMW).
Scheduled to retire after Phillip Island, 13-time WSBK victor Laverty fell in the path of Xavi Fores (Duc), in a battle for a points position that also included Michael van der Mark (BMW). Laverty suffered pelvic and hip fractures but praised Fores for helping trackside.
Alvaro Bautista dons the now traditional gold leathers to celebrate his World Superbike Championship for the factory Lenovo Ducati team following the penultimate event of the season at Mandalika in Indonesia, November 13. Note Ducati’s MotoGP guru Gigi Dall’Igna to the right with goatee. Photo: Ducati Media House.
Victor Bautista finished his campaign with 16 wins, followed by Razgatlioglu with 14 and Rea at 6. Razgatlioglu’s fourth in the final race meant he took second in the final standings, ahead of Rea.
Finishing his second season at Kawasaki without a title, Rea confirmed that “I gave everything. I think we can be satisfied going 1-3-2 this weekend. The conditions were like nothing I have seen in my career – tire decisions, pit stops, red flags.”
- Colin Fraser