WorldSBK: Dealing with the pressure

by | Feb 28, 2020 | Latest News, WorldSBK | 0 comments

WorldSBK has a dozen riders on the grid confident of winning races, so 2020 will be full of make or break pressure

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What goes up must come down. Pressure has the force to break pipes, so when pressure starts to build it searches for a path to allow the system to return to its normal state. It’s the same in motorcycle racing, but on track there are two states; applying pressure and being on the receiving end.

How a rider deals with this pressure is what marks out the best. It’s also what consigns the rest to their roles as lesser players on the racing scene. In 2020 almost half of the grid will line up for the season opener at Phillip Island feeling that they have a realistic chance of winning a race. Failure to live up to that expectation could be damning for their careers. For some this is their last chance. For others this is their best chance. Racing is a “what have you done for me lately” world when riders are in a contract year. For most of the grid that’s the situation they face in 2020. The pressure keeps ramping up throughout the year.

In Australia riders will talk about a long season, but for some the season can come down to the early moments of the year. With the MotoGP rider market already filling out, as factory seats are being filled before a wheel even turned in pre-season testing, it showed just how short a time frame riders have to impress.

Early and often

For some WorldSBK riders Imola – the fifth round of the championship in early May – is the round circled on their calendars. Ducati’s home round is always a pressure packed weekend. With MotoGP exiles on the market and the majority of the WorldSBK grid available at the end of the year, that weekend could be key for Ducati to developing a clear idea of who they want on their bike in 2021.

For the riders – Scott Redding and Chaz Davies – the goal is to have won races and be title contenders. That way they make the decision easy for Ducati to re-sign them. What happens if they struggle? Last year it took until the summer for Davies to understand the Panigale V4R, and a repeat of his early season form from 12 months ago would surely bring an end to his factory career in Bologna. The pressure is on for him to hit the ground running in 2020 from the opening round of the campaign.

Imola might be a key round for Ducati but it’s clear that the pressure starts a lot earlier than the home round. Riders face this pressure every day. The media increase the pressure, social media ramps it up too and that’s even before the internal need to win is taken into account.

The 35 minutes on the bike on race day are amazing for riders. It’s what gets them up in the morning, but the pressure is what keeps them awake at night. Riders are built to win and built to compete. That internal need to prove themselves is what makes them special. Ego drives them but it can also drive them around the bend. In a contract year all of this is amplified. It’s not an easy situation but the only way to ease the strain is to win.

The long wait

The longer you go without winning, the more the pressure valve tightens. Eugene Laverty has finished runner-up in world championships on three occasions but he’s now six years removed from his last win. The Irishman looked to have the world at his feet midway through 2013, but since then bad decisions and bad luck have left him on the outside looking in. The wins have dried up and the injuries piled up. For a rider of his calibre it’s been incredibly tough, but as much as the scars have left a mark for Laverty it’s the mental pain of not winning that hurts most.

Can he still win? BMW certainly think so and have backed him to the hilt since he rejoined the Shaun Muir Racing run operation. Reunited with his Aprilia crew chief Marcus Eschenbacher from 2013, and the team has been giving him what he needs as he leads the development throughout the winter. This is the best opportunity Laverty has had in years.

Being saddled with uncompetitive bikes for a few years can have different effects on riders. Will it blunt a rider or will it instead reinvigorate them if they’re suddenly back at the front? Laverty will make an interesting case study but this is his last chance to show that he’s still the man that pushed Cal Crutchlow, Kenan Sofuoglu and Tom Sykes for world titles.

Like Laverty, it’s been six years since Loris Baz was winning races but the Frenchman looks to be riding the crest of a wave heading in to the 2020 season. As the lone rider with the Ten Kate squad, he is the centre of attention for a team determined to prove their worth. Last year, particularly in Superpole, Baz was too fired up to prove his worth. This winter he’s focused on building up towards Round 1.

In testing he looked strong and confident. Ten Kate have taken the development of their Yamaha R1 down a different path to the manufacturer’s factory squad. It will be interesting to see if the Ten Kate path is better in the long run. At times in the past manufacturers have gone down blind alleys with parts because of the cost of developing them and forced teams to persevere with them. If something doesn’t work for Ten Kate they throw it out and move on. That flexibility can make you a very dangerous dark horse.

Baz certainly enjoys playing the role of the underdog. A lot of athletes like to play the “us against the world” card, but Baz can lay it on the table with good cause. This time last year he was sitting on the sidelines watching on the television. Suddenly he was catapulted back into action at Jerez with minimal testing when Ten Kate returned. They acquitted themselves well but now with experience of the Yamaha they’ll certainly feel an opportunity has presented itself to them.

If you can’t win, beat your teammate

If you can’t win you have to beat your teammate. It’s the oldest adage in racing for a reason. When you see Jonathan Rea and Alvaro Bautista winning all but four races in 2019, it creates precious few opportunities for the rest of the field to show their full potential. Those opportunities were slim pickings last year and it meant that being able to beat your teammate was crucial.

In Superbike racing the regulations are set out so that any team can buy almost all the parts of the factory squad. If you run a Kawasaki you can have basically the same bike as Rea and Alex Lowes. The same goes for the Ducati, Yamaha and Honda squads. This means that if you hire the right riders and engineers, you can compete at the front. It’s why last year Puccetti with Toprak Razgatlioglu and a Kawasaki were able to become regular fixtures on the podium.

The beauty of Superbike racing is this accessibility. It also means that while the chances to win races last year were slim there was always lots of comparisons to be made. Want to be top Yamaha rider in 2020? There’s four other bikes on the grid with the same kit as you. It means that comparing riders is easier and that there’s always competition down the field.

Riders can jump onto a factory bike by proving their worth and at Yamaha in 2020 this will be crucial. Razgotlioglu, Michael van der Mark, Baz, Federico Caricasulo and Garrett Gerloff all have other riders to compare themselves to. For the GRT Yamaha squad it’s a little different, because with two rookie riders the team opted to run their 2019 bike rather than the newer model, but there’s still plenty to be gained for their riders.

To be the top Yamaha rider at each round this year will be highly competitive. If any rider can consistently do this they will have distanced themselves from the pack. Even if you can’t win every week this will be something to keep an eye on. The same can be said for Xavi Fores. The Spaniard comes back after one year racing in Britain and will race for Puccetti on a Kawasaki and he can be compared to Rea, Lowes and Sandro Cortese. Again, if you do well you can find a new opportunity on your horrizon for 2020. The pressure to perform will be omnipresent throughout the year.

Controlling the controllable

The dozen riders that think they will have a realistic chance of winning races in 2020 will know that nothing can be taken for granted in racing. You control your destiny to an extent but random events force you into detours. A technical failure, bad weather or an injury can change the course of a weekend. All that a rider can do is train hard and work hard with the team to put themselves into a position to win as often as possible.

It’s about knocking on the door enough times in the hope that it finally opens and lets you walk through. Getting the win out of the way early doors is key for any rider because as the season wears on the pressure to win only grows. Maximising your opportunity is key for anyone. You can almost take it for granted that Kawasaki and Ducati will win at least six races through the year. The opportunities start to dry up quickly if the dominant factories keep winning races. If you find yourself in a position to win you have to grab it with both hands. The pressure to do so is massive when a rider finds themselves in this situation. How they deal with it is what will define their seasons.


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