Last week, I attended Ducati’s invitation event at a slick Toronto meeting space, the Brickworks. The Ready4Red event was a showcase for several new models, including Ducati’s latest electric assist bicycles.
Ducati North America CEO Jason Chinnock hosted. I was happy to hear the enthusiastic Chinnock mention in his opening remark that Ducati had homologated their v-twin Panigale for use in the Liqui Moly Pro Sport Bike category, as well as Scorpion Helmets Amateur Sport Bike, for 2023 in CSBK.
This was particularly pleasing since one of the racers planning to use the 955 cc Desmo in CSBK for 2023, Daytona’s “top Canuk” Elliot Vieira, was on hand working for Brooklin Cycle Racing. BCR supported Ducati’s series of tour events showcasing the new models, including shipping and set-up for the various exotic models.
During the event, several Ducatistas asked me about the recent Bridgestone tire test at the JenningsGP venue in North Florida. Specifically, they wanted to know about the impressive pace of Jordan Szoke. In his return to action after missing all of 2022 due to motocross injuries, the 14-time Canadian National Superbike Champion certainly attracted attention as the fastest rider at the test.
Given that Szoke is not fully fit, there was considerable doubt pre-test regarding his ability to ride his Kawasaki at peak pace. Szoke had made it clear that he wasn’t expecting too much, but in the end, the Szoke effort at Jennings really seemed like a return to “business as usual.”
I was standing in the pit lane Tuesday morning at sunny Jennings when Szoke came in from his second session, already quickest among the Pro entry. “Not bad for an old, crippled guy,” he quipped, grinning from ear-to-ear inside his new Scorpion helmet.
That Szoke might tough it out and turn some good laps was no surprise. However, his consistent efforts, and immediate comfort with the new Bridgestone slicks, was an eye opener for everyone on site and various fans at home via the internet and social media.
How meaningful were the test’s lap times? This is always hard to say during pre-season events, certainly at a venue CSBK hadn’t used since their Pirelli days. CSBK last used Jennings in 2011, when Szoke set the outright pace (against Brett McCormick’s BMW debut) in his third return to Kawasaki.
Not all of the anticipated 2023 front runners were on site at Jennings. For instance: Trevor Daley missed the test with his Suzuki, Yamaha’s Tomas Casas was busy with school and likely top rookie Pro John Fraser didn’t bring his ex-Daley Suzuki from the east coast. Also not on hand, and not confirmed for 2023, were 2022 fourth-in-points Seb Tremblay and Honda’s Steven Nickerson.
Maybe most telling of the outright pace at JenningsGP was the fact that the spread between the top racers was small, and the group included the usual suspects. Reigning CSBK Champ BMW’s Ben Young was 0.35 of a second behind from Szoke in second, while 2022 number one Alex Dumas was also close with his newly-painted “purple peril” Purple Skull/Liqui Moly/FAST Riding School GSX-R1000.
Of the top three, Dumas was perhaps, at least initially, least comfortable with the switch to Bridgestones, and tellingly turned the most laps of anyone in the busy Pro group. Famed tuner Patrice Goyette was busy considering his electronic options for the big Suzuki, and there is little doubt that Dumas will have made himself comfortable by the time the series opens on Victoria Day at Shannonville Motorsport Park.
This didn’t take the focus from Szoke, who was openly optimistic about the switch to Bridgestone, expecting the tires to suit his bike and his riding style. Engine builder and long-time Szoke tuner Scott Miller of Fast Company points out Szoke’s legendry versatility:
“He’s ridden so many tires, so many generations of tires, so many tracks, different types of bikes, fuel injection, flat slide carbs, traction control, TC turned off, every configuration of chassis design and suspension; plus, he rides off road, ice, so many different disciplines,” explains Miller.
“He has a remarkable feel, and knows what he is looking for to get a good lap time, to be able to race consistently,” continues Miller. “You could see at the test, right away he was comfortable with the tire, and how our Kawasaki worked with the tire. There was very little adjustment period.”
Also telling was the fact that Szoke’s new team-mate, reigning Liqui Moly Pro Sport Bike Champ Trevor Dion, had an effective debut on the big Kawasaki. Previously focused on the 600 cc class, Dion has raced BMW and Yamaha 1000s, but this was his start with the Szoke-bult ZX-10R Ninjas.
“I didn’t get that one lap that would be representative,” explained Dion at the end of the two days, nursing a sun burn from Daytona. “But everything went well, and I got on Jordan’s new bike at the end of the test, and I liked it right away.”
At Shannonville, Szoke’s team will have a full compliment of current generation Ninjas for their two “mean green” aces, and both racers will provide story lines: Szoke for his return from injury, and Dion as the most touted Superbike rookie since McCormick’s debut 15 year ago.
Szoke got some good news following the test. All winter, he has wondered about ongoing issues with his injured feet: one ankle has almost no mobility, and the other had obtrusive hardware that was a specific issue while riding.
Szoke wanted both items fixed pre-season, but that seemed unlikely. Then, he got word one of his feet could be improved. At the time I am finishing this blog, Szoke has confirmed that he got some delayed surgical attention on Monday, March 27.
Szoke explains via text that he will still require further attention to his injured extremities next fall, but should be more comfortable on the bike at Shannonville, compared to his status at the JenningsGP test. The new Kawasaki super team should provide plenty to talk about when the CSBK season opens up less than two months from now.
- From Colin Fraser