Laverty’s Lowdown: What can we expect in WorldSBK 2020?
Is there a busier man in racing than Michael Laverty? Pitlane reporting in MotoGP, working with Chaz Davies in WorldSBK and then a coffee taster Down Under. The former MotoGP and Superbike racer certainly has a full calendar!
I always love coming to Australia for the opening round of WorldSBK. I’ll be working with Chaz again in 2020 and combining that with my work in MotoGP with BT Sport. It’s a lot of fun, but it is busy! That being said, it’s great to wake up in the morning down here on Phillip Island with the sun shining. I’m not the best man for getting out of bed early, but it’s certainly easier to do that here!
We came down early to spend some time in Melbourne, and went surfing for a few days. I really enjoy it, but man it’s tough! During the Portimao test I went surfing for the first time with Chaz, although he’s got a lot more experience. I had a few test sessions down in Bristol at a wave pool to try and get my head around it all, which was well spent because here I was finally feeling like it was beginning to click and I could actually surf. There’s something about coming down here and being able to train in the sunshine before the first round, drink nice coffee, eat great food and just get everything ready for your racing season.
What can we expect in WorldSBK this year? I really think that we’re going to have some great racing, because there’s ten or eleven riders who will all believe they can win races. We’ve not said that for a long time! It’s very exciting, but now is the time for riders to get the most from their bikes and we’ll see a clear pecking order develop in Australia, Qatar and Jerez, showing us what we can expect for the season ahead. Phillip Island and Losail are very unique races, but you can pick up something from them both about where everyone is stacking up.
In Australia I’ve been impressed by Johnny (Rea) on the Kawasaki and Scott (Redding) on the Ducati but, for me, the performances of the Yamaha is the most impressive thing. They’ve made a big step forward from what was already a competitive bike, and standing on the inside of Turn 1 they were amazing.
It’s hard to separate Toprak, Michael van der Mark and Loris Baz. All three have been fast at each test during the winter and look very confident with their bikes.
The entry speed they can carry is amazing and their roll speed into the fast turns is unreal. How do they do this? They do it with faith and confidence in the bike. The Yamaha in WorldSBK – like in MotoGP – allows them to pick up the throttle on the edge of the tyre, and it’s on that initial crack of the throttle that they make up a lot of ground. They all steer with the rear, but because the bike loads up both tyres together as they lean into the corner it provides a lot of confidence to commit on entry with higher speeds in those faster corners. That corner speed makes them all a potential race winner, and I fully expect all three to win races this season.
That’s the beauty of it all right now; there are so many potential race winners. With Kawasaki you know Johnny will win races, and I’ve been impressed by Alex Lowes in testing too. Phillip Island doesn’t naturally suit the Kawasaki, so this could be a tough weekend for him.
Alex impressed me at the November test in Jerez, because he was riding it halfway between the Yamaha and how Johnny rides it. In January he had adapted to the hard braking style and pivoting onto the rear, so it was already coming. Phillip Island is a very different circuit with fast, flowing corners that aren’t the Kawasaki’s strong points, Qatar has a similar character. But I expect by Jerez he’ll be very strong. He may find it tough in Australia then less so in Qatar because of the required style. This could be a difficult start, but he’ll get there.
On the Ducati, Scott Redding is the most impressive in Australia, his high corner speed style works well around Phillip Island. Throughout the winter Chaz and Scott have been closely matched on race pace, but Rd 1 suits Scott’s style better. I think that they’ll be well matched over the season, though. Scott’s style makes it easier for himself at this type of track, but both will be in the mix. Camier is still not fully fit, and he’s learning at the moment, but the bike can suit his flowing style.
I’ll obviously be interested in the BMW this year because Eugene has moved there, but I’ve also ridden BMW’s in Britain a lot so it’s good to see how the bike performs. The chassis allows them to turn well, and Tom looks to be riding really well here in Australia. I’m pretty sure that Tom will out-qualify Eugene but they should battle in the races this weekend. For Eugene, it’s all about getting the electronics to work better to give him what he needs, so he’s able to get off the corner better. They’ve got the most work to do and are flying under the radar, but they don’t need to make a massive step.
Whilst BMW has kept a low profile, Honda haven’t! They’ve dominated the headlines in the winter with reports of stunning pace in their private tests. Leon Haslam looks very strong here in Australia and Alvaro Bautista looks to be finding his feet.
I think that Alvaro will quickly realise how lucky he was to have a bike that aligned so well with his style at Ducati. It’s a big risk to move from a bike that fits you so well because the electronics, engine character and even the bigger profile Pirelli tyre all came at the right time for him to jump to WorldSBK, where he didn’t really have to adjust.
Now? It looks like he’s riding a Superbike for the first time. The Honda is doing things that he doesn’t expect. It spins up in the wrong place for him, it wheelies when he’s not expecting it and it doesn’t allow him to open the gas on the side of the tyre the way he could on the Ducati. The electronics don’t yet work with this bike, nor his style as well as they did with the Ducati.
In January he struggled with a lack of feeling from the front end and the rear end wasn’t too his liking due to the power delivery. This weekend though he’s adjusting the bike to his style. He’s still cracking the throttle open at lean, but he’s finding some traction now. The team are using the electronics very aggressively to let him open the gas early with a big lean angle. Comparing power delivery of the in-line 4’s, the Kawasaki and BMW split the throttle bodies, delivering 2 cylinders initially, the Yamaha’s cross-plane crank softens that initial power delivery whereas Honda, at the moment have all 4 cylinders delivering power on the side of the tyre so their traction control system is having to be quite intrusive to allow Alvaro to use his naturals riding style. His race pace wasn’t too bad in the cooler sessions, so maybe he can make a step and fight in the top five this weekend, but that’s very a far cry from twelve months ago.
Phillip Island never paints a true picture of the season to come, but between here and Qatar we should start to have some understanding of what to expect. It’s easier to keep your composure and stick to your programme in testing, because the times don’t matter. But once we’re into a race week you need to make that step. It’s a lot harder to be calm when it’s all on the line.