WorldSBK: Points make prizes
With only one round of the WorldSBK championship run so far ‘we’ are in a luckier position than most other championships. Doesn’t feel like it of course, under global lockdown still and with race weekends being cancelled and rescheduled all over.
But, admit it, we were particularly fortunate to have had such a fierce and frantic opener in Australia, even if it all happened well over two months ago.
We could talk all year about the in and outs of that puckish and ruck-ish round but it did feature one aspect that may have drifted away out of radar range since very early March.
Only the races themselves matter.
The championship leader after that first weekend, Alex Lowes, is already a fully experienced and seasoned campaigner, as well as being BSB champion once upon a time. He also had 20 WorldSBK podiums to his credit before touchdown in Aus.
And now he has two race wins instead of one and the championship lead, no less.
As a new KRT rider this year, his first not inside the warm embrace of the Crescent Racing team, there were a few quite understandable question marks against his overall opening round prospects before he went and put himself on top of the early points pile.
Not least of his issues was a relative lack of winter testing time on the Ninja ZX-10RR, even if the bike itself is relatively unchanged from its previous season spec (for the first time in many years, in reality). It has racked up five World Championships for Jonathan Rea, and a previous title for Tom Sykes. But it was an all-new challenge for Lowes.
Poor weather had undeniably dogged Alex’s off-season preparations and added some pressure to his schedule as the opener in Australia drew on.
We all know from most previous campaigns – although notably not last year – that starting well has helped Rea and co. control the season from the front, which has helped him stay there until the end.
But lack of track time is where Lowes’ potential problems only started, in some respects. And of course, let’s acknowledge right away that joining the proven best set-up in the championship for several years is exactly the kind of ‘problem’ ambitious riders dream of.
Even so, a competitor with the experience of Leon Haslam could not get the bike set-up to work in his direction enough to win a race in 2019, despite taking six podiums. Rea had regularly seen off the former ‘Mr. Kawasaki’, Tom Sykes, long before Haslam arrived with a fresh BSB title in his back pocket.
No disgrace to either rider. Rea is, after all, the statistically greatest of all time on a Superbike and utterly established as the number one rider for Kawasaki. Anybody coming in nowadays faces a daunting task attempting to make a big mark on arrival with that winning combination in the adjacent pit box.
That was, however, the immediate main challenge facing Lowes as he began his approach to the big green planet.
Having been let go by Yamaha, even though Lowes had enough consistency and basic gumption to be the one who finished overall third last season, KRT made a logical choice to some (and a risky choice to others) to take a rider who had only won a single race up to the start of the 2020 season.
After so many years on a Yamaha and then facing the challenge of a fortified WorldSBK grid, Lowes needed a perfect testing season… it seemed. But he was still playing catch up before the final official outing of the pre-season in Australia against all his peers. Even after all the practice and Superpole qualifying at the first round of the year, he looked in far from competitive shape.
It was a subject of much pre-race discussion and here’s why.
Lowes was just 12th after the end of the official Dorna Monday and Tuesday tests at Phillip Island. In regular practice, he was only 11th on Friday. Eighth in Superpole was hardly the best way to launch from the startline in your first two races of a new personal era. Row three is a long way back with the fast right-hander of turn one looming over the horizon, framed by the relentless Aussie surf.
Lowes’ crew chief, the hugely experienced Marcel Duinker, was a busy man working out the final preparations for race weekend. Every indication about Lowes’ lap times and what was not quite right with bike set-up was eventually ended by a shrugging of shoulders and an assertion that things were in better overall shape than the one-off lap times suggested.
And race results proved that theory to be correct. Lowes’ team, playing the hand the weather-affected testing programme had dealt them, worked him hard on old tyres and on a race set-up above all in the final approach to PI’s races.
With Lowes then putting his own best foot forward in those three races, it was a great start – far in excess of what most had expected. One of four or five top men involved in every scintillating race, Lowes raced to second, then fourth (but only 0.205 seconds from victor Rea) and then he became a race winner for the second time in his career in the final PI contest. His first weekend on a Kawasaki and he was – is – leading the ‘lockdown championship’, no less. Others had no scores or other problems, so we have to take that into account, but Lowes was fully competitive and his is the name highest up the ranking, 12 points above triple podiums scorer Scott Redding.
Competitive to the final corners of each race is where every rider wants to be, and Lowes was that and more. His practice times and other indicators – the virtual reality – proved meaningless to the actual reality.
What Alex, Kawasaki and his crew had proved was an old racing adage that testing is testing, racing is racing. Same goes for practice at each round. Much greater rewards await those whose only focus is making things work ‘just so’ in races rather than chasing a lap time in practice.
No points for qualifying, as another old idea goes.
After PI, Lowes probably understands this reality more than he ever did. He owed much of his instant success in his new career move to the work done under the radar in the pits, despite the limited one lap pace and some doubtful external mutterings echoing their way under the garage doors. It is a lesson for all potential championship challengers in any form of racing. Work on the races; don’t sweat the rest.
Whether Lowes’ PI levels of consistent potency over full race distance can be kept up all season or not? We will have to wait and see, of course.
With emphasis on ‘the wait’.