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Is the World Superbike title slipping from Bautista?

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Is the World Superbike title slipping from Bautista?
By:
Jul 4, 2019, 10:05 AM

A run of 11 straight wins should've all but assured Alvaro Bautista of the 2019 World Superbike title, but Jonathan Rea's relentless points-scoring means the contest is far from over.

After the first four rounds of the 2019 World Superbike Championship, it looked almost impossible that Alvaro Bautista and Ducati would relent its stranglehold on the series. The MotoGP convert won the first 11 races on the all-new V4 R, most in dominant fashion, and still looked impervious after an Imola round where he could manage just a second and third-place finish.

Yet in the space of two weeks, the solid ground from which Bautista stood has given way underneath him, as two crashes in feature races at Jerez and Misano have seen his championship lead scythed from 61 points to just 16 by Jonathan Rea.

Just as his run of nine race wins at the start of the year had shades of Troy Bayliss's dominant start to WSBK's hallowed 2002 campaign, so too does his recent missteps ape the Australian's reversal in fortunes as the championship pendulum ultimately swung towards eventual champion Colin Edwards.

With history seemingly beginning to repeat itself at Misano, is the title beginning to slip from Bautista’s grasp?

Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards

Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

Bautista freely admits he has given away 50 points with his fumbles. Having just taken the lead at Jerez in the second race, he was primed to sail into the distance before falling at Turn 1 on lap two. In the same race at Misano, comfortably set to repeat his dominant Superpole race success, he did the exact same thing at Turn 4.

After a dominant win in the earlier Superpole race on Sunday at Misano, Bautista blamed his race two crash on an over-confidence in himself and the Ducati on a track which had changed substantially between both outings.

“When you have a lot of confidence in the bike, maybe you cannot understand very well how the condition is in that moment,” Bautista said on Sunday afternoon. “So maybe I have to work on that to stay always wary, even if I have a lot of confidence in this bike. I have to work on myself to be always wary and ready for everything, especially to understand better the track conditions and to not make these mistakes.”

It is easy to forget Bautista is a rookie in WSBK. He has adapted so well to the V4 R, the fact that almost everything in this championship is different to what he has been used to for the last nine years in MotoGP has been overlooked. While the V4 R does share its DNA with the Desmosedici he rode in Aspar/Nieto colours in 2017 and '18 – which has ultimately allowed him to adapt to the bike better than most series debutants – everything from tyres, brakes and electronics greatly differ. The most obvious change is the race weekend formats in WSBK, which proved to be the main factor in his Misano crash.

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

“The first few races in Australia, there was more or less not a big difference in track conditions [between races],” he explained. “Thailand was hot in both, so no difference. Also in Aragon was more or less same temperature in the morning and afternoon. In Assen it was cold [in] both, so I think these two races has been where the difference in track conditions was bigger.”

Mistakes, as rare as they have been for Bautista this year, should be expected. But how he reacts will determine how the rest of his title challenge will unfold.

Rea knows this. On his way to his 2016 coronation, the Kawasaki rider held a 70-point lead when the series reached Laguna Seca. A mechanical issue, followed by a crash in race one at the Lausitzring next time out saw his lead cut to just 26. He recovered this to 47 with a dominant win in the wet in race two in Germany, but his confidence had taken a battering, and he would not win again until Australia the following February.

“I noticed in '16, when I had a mechanical at Laguna with a 70-point lead, then I went to Lausitzring and headbutted the hairpin, and I lost a 70-point lead to 26 in a matter of two races,” began Rea. “And for the rest of my season that had a knock-on effect on my confidence, I never won another race after the wet race at Lausitzring. Chaz Davies won eight at the end of the season. So mentality is important; just important not to let the dark moments put you down, because there's another opportunity coming along.”

Chaz Davies, Ducati Team; Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Chaz Davies, Ducati Team; Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing

Mental resolve is especially vital when facing against Rea. The Ulsterman has been extracting every ounce of pace from his ZX-10RR in what has largely been an extended exercise in damage limitation. As Bautista won the first nine races, Rea ensured he was runner-up. When the Ducati rider was off the pace at Imola, Rea tallied up two wins. He relented a futile attempt to stop Yamaha's Michael van der Mark from winning the Jerez race Bautista fell out of in order to consolidate a vital 20 points, and capitalised on a lack of wet experience and Bautista's second race tumble at Misano to add a further 50 points to his haul.

Even when he was sliding out of second in the Superpole race, he had the presence of mind to let his “motocross instincts” kick in and grip the bike as it rolled over. He rejoined to finish fifth.

In effect, Rea has spent 2019 demonstrating the intelligence that – as much as his raw talent did – led him to four straight WSBK crowns. Any more mistakes from Bautista around someone as ruthlessly relentless could prove fatal to his title hopes.

The coming back-to-back events at Donington and Laguna, then, could well prove to be a pivotal week in the championship. Arguably, both circuits shouldn't favour the Ducati man or his machine as much. Bautista hasn't raced at Donington since his 250cc days in 2009, and last rode at Laguna in 2013. It was a lack of recent track experience which hindered him at Imola – the scene where Rea put an end to his unbeaten run in 2019.

This won't be a fact lost on Rea. Though he refuses to be drawn into commenting on his prospects of a fifth world title, reminding us that the season is long, him pointing out at Misano that Bautista's mistakes prove he's not “invincible” suggests a little bit more hope has developed within.

After Misano, Bautista stated he doesn't see himself as title favourite right now. It was a comment easy to make having watched a healthy advantage decimated in 14 days through his own errors, and it is unlikely we won't see him on top of the podium again this season.

However, what the last fortnight has proven is that despite his stark disadvantage in machinery and lack of results relative to Bautista, Rea is still the man to beat in the this WSBK championship.

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing, Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing, Alvaro Bautista, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images

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About this article

Series World Superbike
Author Lewis Duncan