WorldSBK: Inline for a change?
Alvaro Bautista left more than a perfect situation when he moved to Honda; he left his perfect bike. What made the Ducati so good for him? To understand this RacingLowdown.com took a dive into engine characteristics…
The WorldSBK regulations are quite clear, that a four cylinder machine shall be limited to 1000cc. The regulations leave it open for manufacturers to opt for various configurations, with the majority using an inline four cylinder engine. Last year Ducati introduced their brand new Panigale V4R and immediately won the opening 11 races of the campaign, all in the hands of Alvaro Bautista.
It was a match made in heaven. Bautista, a MotoGP exile, out to prove his worth to the world once again was inspired. His form and style on the bike was breathtaking, and he was winning races by 10 seconds. Now, the goal is simply to finish inside the Top 10 at the opening round of year.
A switch to Honda was met with widespread shock, and that hasn’t dissipated after a disappointing winter. The biggest cause of Bautista’s woes? The change of engine configuration to an inline four.
For ten seasons all he has known has been a V4 configuration. In MotoGP with Suzuki, Honda, Aprilia and Ducati he had to adapt to bikes and tyres, but not different engine configurations. The difference between the configurations is night and day, with one requiring high corner speed and the other an aggressive riding style.
“I’ve ridden both but the inline four is more front heavy,” Eugene Laverty told Racing Lowdown when asked about the challenge facing Bautista. “You have to understand how to ride one, because you have to point and squirt the corner a lot more and then get the bike upright and punch it out. The V4 is more flowing. Alvaro was riding the bike here last year like a 750, whereas you look at Johnny with the inline four and he gets the bike stood up on the exit.
“Alvaro is going to have to learn how to do this. He’s always ridden with this style, whereas now it’s very different for him. The Honda is clearly good, you can see that from Haslam’s performances, but he has to learn a totally different style of riding. The bike that he had last year wasn’t a conventional Superbike and that’s what he’ll have to learn. He doesn’t look comfortable on the bike and looks wooden, but it’ll come with time. It’s just about getting your head around it.”
How much time Bautista is granted before the top Honda brass will be interesting to follow.
Will Mohammed go to the mountain?
Traditionally HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) has been very regimental about their racing projects; it’s our way or the high way. The MotoGP bike is hard to ride? Marc Marquez can win on it. The Superbike is struggling? It’s good enough to set the pace at Suzuka, so the base of the bike is good. It’s up to you to make it work. That Marquez is the greatest rider of all-time, or that the Suzuka bike uses Bridgestone tyres can be irrelevant to some higher management. Now Bautista needs to adapt, because it’s more likely that Mohammed go to the mountain rather than the other way around.
Being able to adapt is a key skill for a rider. It’s been a calling card of Bautista’s teammate Leon Haslam. The Englishman has spent a career jumping around different bikes. Moving from a 125GP bike to a 500 in his early career, or riding almost every Superbike on the grid over the last 15 years has given Haslam this ability. Bautista has changed bikes, but hasn’t had to adapt to a different philosophy to the same extent, because the bikes were always designed around the same tyre and the same engine configuration in MotoGP.
“The riding style is very different between a V4 and an inline four,” commented Haslam. “With the inline four the natural style is ride it harder because you don’t have the sheer power. With the V4 you try and use the power better by carrying corner speed. You use the inline four by attacking more on the entry and you try and find any area you can improve on. You need to be adaptable with the inline engine, whereas with the V4 you can use the torque to focus on the exit. Alvaro did that so well last year but the strength of the inline four is different.
“The inline four has less power so you need to ride it more aggressively, because the power is more peaky. When you miss out on the lower torque it means you have to attack more in the corner so that you can still reach a good top speed. With the V4 you can be calmer with your riding because you know that you will always have the power available to you. Every bike, every manufacturer is different but now the electronics are so important. With fly-by-wire or traction control or anything else you can build in the characteristics that you want.”
MotoGP vs WorldSBK: Polar opposites
Even the sheer conversation of this is quite unusual for Bautista. In MotoGP, the inline four is all about carrying the corner speed and riding like Bautista does. The Yamaha and Suzuki? All about corner speed. The snarling V4 of Ducati and Honda? All about being strong on the brakes and firing out of corners.
For Michael Laverty – who is working in both paddocks again this year – the contrast is stark between the two series.
“It’s interesting to compare the inline fours in MotoGP and WorldSBK,” said the former British Superbike rider. “In MotoGP, the Suzuki and the Yamaha are all about high corner speed and being fast and flowing. In WorldSBK it’s the opposite! The inline fours here are all about stop and go. That comes down to the character of the engine, because the V4 configurations in WorldSBK have always been smoother.
“The Aprilia and the Ducati always had good electronics and the engine would spin up smoothly from the bottom. The stop and go style of the Honda and Kawasaki are very different to the inline fours of MotoGP. Leon is riding it well because he will just manhandle the bike if he has to, whereas Alvaro doesn’t seem able to do that yet because he wants to carry his roll speed. He’ll have to adapt or Honda will have to adapt.
“The V4’s in MotoGP make more horsepower so the inline fours have always been at an advantage in certain areas. They carry the corner speed and turn easier. In MotoGP we saw that the Ducati V4R was a perfect bike for Alvaro and his style of riding. He had a big top speed advantage because of his style and his size, and that’s carried over to setting the fastest speeds on the Honda now, but he’ll have to adapt.
“In WorldSBK the Yamaha is an inline four that is the closest bike to the MotoGP style of ‘big bang’ engine. The crossplane Yamaha doesn’t have the outright top speed but it has the corner speed. It’s very interesting to see those differences because each manufacturer in WorldSBK tries to adapt.”
Compromise is key in Superbike racing
For Bautista, one of the biggest challenges will be keeping himself positive and working towards the goal of getting to the front and winning races. This will be hard for him given how he started his rookie campaign, but it will be key. While we’re now accustomed to seeing Jonathan Rea winning races and titles for fun, the Northern Irishman has also had hard times in racing. His Honda years were seasons where he showed his speed and talent by winning races, but never quite had the package underneath him to win enough.
“In racing you have to always be optimistic that tomorrow it will all improve,” said Rea. “The unfortunate thing for a Superbike rider is that you can be the best rider in the world, the cleverest engineer and crew chief, but you’re restricted to a production based bike. There are only certain parameters you can change, so it’s hard to suddenly magic a solution. You can’t have a new chassis or swingarm.
“You have to build a bike that works for Pirelli and one that has an engine configuration that works for the rider. With the limited number of engines we have you can’t just go to the factory and find something different. It’s all about compromise. You have what you have in WorldSBK. The good thing for Kawasaki is that our bike is mature, so we understand a lot and now try and make changes to our geometry and electronics; and these changes can make a big difference but only once you understand the package.”
Can Bautista understand the package? He’s a talented rider who showed an unbelievable turn of speed on the Ducati, but this was a perfect storm of man and machine. His size and style were a perfect match with Ducati, they were instantly the package to beat in WorldSBK. The switch to Honda was always going to bring a lot of challenges with it, but throughout the winter it has looked like a fundamental shift is needed for either Honda or Bautista to get the most from the bike. Now we have to wait and see who blinks first between them in terms of adapting.