The hype has been continuously building this past week and the countdown is nearly over for the 2023 season to commence for the MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship, Grand Ridge Brewery Australian Round!
In less than 24 hours time, the lights will officially go green for the first time at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit for a season opening spectacular. The hype has been building over the past few months; teams have launched their 2023 livery, a new benchmark pace has been set, the titanic trio has been shaken up, a new rider holds the #1 plate for the first time in WorldSBK, and some new faces are making their way to the top of the timesheets.
While the 2022 World Champion Alvaro Bautista [Aruba.it Racing – Ducati] has the clear target on his back, the question to be asked is; can Jonathan Rea [Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK] take his seventh World Championship title? Will Toprak Razgatlioglu [Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK] come in fierce and win at Phillip Island? Can Australian rider Remy Gardner [GYTR GRT Yamaha WorldSBK] take his first podium in his maiden World Superbike season?
Alvaro Bautista has certainly proved why his Ducati Panigale V4 R machine is fronted with the #1 plate. While testing doesn’t always show the true potential of riders, it certainly gives us an indication as to who we can expect to see at the pointy end of field. Completing a total of 169 laps during the two-day Official Test at Phillip Island Circuit early this week, the World Champion came out fastest in the combined times of four Free Practice sessions with a 1:30.272.
Despite holding the #1 plate and topping the Australian Official Test, Bautista believes he isn’t the favourite heading into the Grand Ridge Brewery Australian Round this weekend.
“I don’t think I’m the favourite. There are a lot of very fast riders especially in the Championship. I feel like the #1 is a personal motivation, a personal challenge, so I feel strong to defend the title with the #1. Defending the Championship is more difficult. When you are fighting for a Championship, you go to beat the other riders. Now you are the one to beat.”
A frequent question arising is the possibility of a shake-up in the ‘titanic trio’ of Bautista, Razgatlioglu and Rea, and it may just be teammates who make the shake-up happen. Michael Ruben Rinaldi [Aruba.it Racing – Ducati] Andrea Locatelli [Pata Yamaha Prometeon WorldSBK] both impressed in the Australian Official Test early this week.
Locatelli was particularly impressive – completing 188 laps over the two days, including two long-run race simulations, to finish out the combined times with the second fastest lap of 1:30.344 – just 0.072s behind Bautista.
“I’m really happy about these two days because we were really fast from the first day, and I think we were fast in every session – so this is a good point. The feeling with the bike was amazing in all the sessions. Now we need to look forward to the race weekend. To be honest, I think we are close to being ready and we have a really good package, so we need to trust and to believe! In general, I have more confidence with the bike, we work very well during the winter tests and also here in Phillip Island, so I think we are ready to fight.”
Jonathan Rea ended out the 2022 season at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit with a podium in all three races, including one race win, but less than ideal mid-season results saw him finish the season out in third.
“The conditions we faced in November where we were very strong are much different to what we face now. Through the winter, we haven’t been able to test with more than 40 degrees on the track and that’s what we’re facing out there with internal tyre temperatures being even higher than normal, so we just need to see. I feel like I can be in the battle for the podium and if we can put a good weekend together, we should be able to at least fight for that, but we still have a lot of work to do, and I am looking forward to seeing where we actually are.”
When discussing Bautista’s 2022 and 2023 season, Rea mentioned that from experience, he “knows the #1 is heavy”.
“Alvaro’s a professional guy and managed 2022 very well. I know from experience that the #1 is heavy; I had a great season in 2015 and then 2016 was a disaster. Alvaro’s a lot older than I was and he has a great package, so he should be OK. The expectation is to be there; you’re ‘the guy’ and not the underdog and there’s a feeling that you have to keep being there. You’re at the top and the only way is down; that pressure is tough. It almost becomes about the fear of losing again. Sometimes, it can work for you or against, but I’m sure he’s got it all sorted.”