WorldSBK: The return of the Old Bull
For Alex Lowes the opening round of the 2020 championship offered more than a victory; it offered clear illustration of what he’s aiming for in WorldSBK
Patience is a virtue not normally associated with a racer. They want everything as soon as possible. In a world of instant reactions it’ hard to take your time and work through a programme. If you’re down the order the immediate assumption is that your struggling rather than asking what was the programme.
All the way through the Phillip Island race week Alex Lowes held a quiet confidence. The Englishman wasn’t necessarily touting his chances of leaving Australia as the championship leader but he was talking about a process. He wanted to focus on race tyres and making sure that he was able to control his tyre life. From Monday until Sunday this would hold the key.
Despite two crashes in testing he stuck to this plan. Despite being outside the top ten times during the test he stuck to this. It was impressive because the picture painted by the test was that of a rider not feeling confident and pushing too hard to find a quick answer. The reality of race week was revealed as a very different picture.
“After the race Marcel was peaking,” said Lowes. “He wanted us to stick to the plan whereas the rider is always pushing for a bit more. We did so many laps on old tyres, even on Friday we used one set of tyres in FP2, and it all paid off. It’s great to win early with this team but we know that it’s a long season and you can’t take anything for granted.”
During the races he was being given instruction by the pits with “old bull” displayed on the pitboard. The story of the old bull and the young bull is about patience and taking your time; this would hold the key to walking away as the title leader. Managing all three races and coming away with the championship lead was certainly an act of maturity but when you analyse the races and his approach it was telling how he approached things.
Phillip Island had a bit of everything. There was three different winners, bar banging racing and each race went down to the wire. Keeping a cool head would be key to taking the win and in the feature races we saw this from Lowes.. In Race 1 he missed out on the win by 0.007s but his last lap move on Michael van der Mark showed an intelligent rider who had saved his tyre.
“In Race 1 I knew that Michael and Toprak were struggling more with their tyre and you woul see them spinning up,” said Lowes. “Last year the same thing happened to me and Marco Melandri passed me on the last lap for the podium. He had more grip in his tyre and came from miles behind in the race. In Race 1 I had the tyre life at the end and I actually thought I could have gotten Toprak too!”
In Race 2 the 22 laps developed in a very different way. Jonathan Rea hit the front and controlled the pace. Afterwards Rea said, “I was the one doing the work and it didn’t look like anyone wanted to come past me.” The reason for this was, once again tyre management. Being able to control the race from the front gave Rea a chance of winning but he had been more marginal on tyre wear all week than his teammate Lowes.
With this knowledge in his back pocket it meant that Lowes could approach the final laps with confidence. It might have been two years since his last win but the old bull was now ready to let loose.
“The old bull and the young is a funny story but it’s important too. In racing you need to know when to attack and when to be patient. There’s a lot of things that we focused on this week but it was very important for me to keep calm. In the cabin before the rarce I was talking with Rocky [former Commonwealth boxing champion Dave Ryan] about how he used to approach a fight. Rocky kept telling me how important it was to stay calm.
“He had to stay calm when he’s getting punched in the face and you’re starting to panic. You’ve got to the stick to your game plan no matter how tempting it is to break out and be aggressive. You’ve got to be the Old Bull.”
In the race this approach was certainly tested. With Rea backing the pack up there was a huge group of riders. If you tried to conserve your tyre you were engulfed by the pack. At one point Lowes dropped to eighth position because of his strategy of trying to reduce stress on the tyre. The easiest areas of the Phillip Island circuit to conserve tyre life is Turn 3 at Stoner Corner. The fastest corner of the WorldSBK season places huge strain on the rubber but if you ease off through there you’re then easy prey into Turn 4. It’s a Catch-22 situation but one that you need to really focus on.
With the race fragmenting in the closing stages, Toprak’s technical issue also took Baz out of contention, it was turning into a real skirmish at the front.
“I saw there was a chance to get past Johnny with a couple of laps to go. He tried to attack straight back but it left the door open for Michael to get past him too. I knew that there was a chance for me to attack now so I tried to attack and break away.”
With a gap of over half a second it had appeared that Lowes had timed the move to perfection. The patience of the old bull was now replaced by the frantic, focused young bull. Knowing that the race would come down to his ability to push as hard as possible Lowes knew that he had been managing his tyre better than Rea all weekend and this would be crucial.
Armed with a bit more tyre Lowes pushed hard but Rea was answering back. On the final lap he pushed and was strong on the exit of Siberia to try and setup a move up the hill. With this blocked off it would come down to the last corner.
“I wasn’t going to give this one up. I wanted to win and I knew what we had done all weekend but I knew that Johnny was closing on me and I could hear him,” said Lowes.
Coming into the final sector the move into the MG Hairpin had been blocked off so now it would come down to the final corners. In the Superpole race earlier that day Rea had attacked Toprak into the last corner and used his extra grip to make the move. Could he do the same to Lowes?
“I closed right up on the last lap but it wasn’t enough,” said Rea afterwards. “I tried to have a run on him at the last corner but he was slower mid-corner and I almost touched his exhaust so it didn’t work.”
In that final corner Lowes, knowing that Rea was behind him but with less grip from his tyres, feathered the throttle so that the momentum from Rea would be negated by having to close the gas momentarily. That split second decision was the ultimate difference between the Kawasaki riders. To have the presence of mind to do this was very impressive for a rider that had been under pressure during the test, fielding questions about his struggles and one that was aiming for his first dry weather win in WorldSBK. The Old Bull certainly kept a calm head.
“The Superpole race was important because it meant that I could start from the second row of the grid,” said Lowes. “This is a great start with Kawasaki. I’m just going to enjoy the moment now. The race was tough. Johnny was checking the pace in the front and I was hit several times. I held back and forced myself to stay cool. In the end I just wanted to be in a position to fight for victory. My bike was very fast, I was able to overtake on the straight several times. I did my best and luckily that was enough this time.
“During the test I didn’t have a great feeling about the Kawasaki but it’s always a little different at a race weekend. Johnny has developed the ZX-10RR over the years and it obviously works really well. It’s up to me to adapt to the bike and not the other way around. With the Kawasaki it is easier for me in the race to overtake even in less good situations. That is the difference to the Yamaha and gives me more confidence to continue like this.”