8 Things We Learned From WorldSBK Australia

WorldSBK fired into life last weekend with the first round in Australia. Here’s what we learned, and whether what we learned was actually real

Andrea Iannone, Toprak Razgatlioglu, Alex Lowes, 2024 Australian WorldSBK. - Gold and Goose

Phillip Island is the best circuit in the world for motorcycle racing, so it was no surprise to see it produce three excellent WorldSBK races last weekend when the Australian Round kicked off the 2024 season.

From star rookies to debut disasters, there was plenty going on at Phillip Island and, with four weeks until the second round, there’s plenty of time to chew over everything we saw down-under.

THAT race winning overtake

It feels impossible to start this anywhere other than the end, weirdly, and it’s all thanks to Alex Lowes.

Well, about 99 per cent of the thanks go to Lowes, anyway, and the remaining one per cent to a combination of Alvaro Bautista and his rear tyre. Because to pull a move as Lowes pulled on the final lap of Race 2 in Phillip Island requires a little bit of help from the victim.

In this case, it required Bautista to not decide to put both their race at risk by letting the brake off on the entry and running Lowes to the outside, and it also helped that the Ducati rider’s rear tyre was, contrary to the WorldSBK norm of recent years, in worse condition by the 11th-and-final lap than that of the man on the Kawasaki.

But, of course, what the move required most was a willing rider with the spare brain power to understand that he had more rear edge grip than the rider he was trying to overtake, the vision and creativity to see that the move was possible once he and his target arrived at Lukey Heights, a slight bit of madness to decide to commit to the move, and a fair chunk of bike skill to execute the move without making contact with the rider being overtaken or run wide and off into the grass on the outside. 

In short, Alex Lowes’ pass on Alvaro Bautista around the outside of Lukey Heights showed that the 2013 BSB Champion is just as capable of producing memorable moments of motorcycling as any other rider on the grid, whether it’s Razgatlioglu, Rea, or the reigning champion himself, Bautista.

Maximum impact from minimum weight?

2023 was a season saved in several moments by Toprak Razgatlioglu, and his ability to overcome the corner exit traction and straight line deficits he felt compared to Alvaro Bautista to, on occasion, challenge the factory Ducati rider.

While it wasn’t Bautista’s only advantage, the ease with which he could blast by other riders in the straights of more or less any track - even the relatively short straights of Donington Park - meant that riding against him in a battle was almost impossible, because, by the time the braking zone was reached, Bautista was already out of attack range.

Although officially it would never be labelled as such, the minimum rider weight rule that has come in for this year is effectively an ‘anti-Bautista’ rule, in that it’s a rule designed to create parity in the wake of one party’s (Bautista’s) dominance. However, what was undesired from the rule was for it to make Bautista, or any rider under the minimum weight of 78kg, uncompetitive. Certainly, during the winter, these fears were present. Bautista, who injured himself in the first 2024 test in the week after the final round of 2023 at Jerez, struggled throughout the preseason and was put in the shade by his rookie teammate, Nicolo Bulega, from as early as the Jerez test at the start of 2024, when the Italian was under the lap record of the Andalusian track.

Then, in Phillip Island, Bulega took pole position, while Bautista qualified ninth, and the #11 won his first race, while Bautista crashed and finished 15th.

But, in the Superpole Race and Race 2, Bautista was able to show that he could still be competitive with the new rule, but it was also clear that he didn’t have anything like the advantage he had in previous years in a straight line. From Phillip Island, it seems that, essentially, all of the bikes are similar in top speed, apart from the Yamaha which is slightly down. 

Therefore, it appears that the new rule has created parity, which was the whole point and can thus be considered a success.

Bautista Still the Favourite?

Yes, probably. A two-time World Champion who has not changed teams between seasons is always going to be a favourite before the start of their title defence, but the extent to which Bautista could be considered the favourite for the 2024 WorldSBK crown before the first race was limited, such was his preseason.

The Australian Round was certainly a step forward, though, and going 4-2 in Sunday’s two races after qualifying ninth on Saturday shows there is still potential in the Ducati-Bautista partnership.

Bautista’s difficult winter means that there is still progress to be made in terms of his feeling with the Ducati Panigale V4 R in its new, heavier form, and therefore he can be expected to grow through the remainder of the year. 

Brilliant Bulega

Nicolo Bulega has been brilliant since the third round of the 2023 Supersport World Championship. He won 17 races on his way to the middle-class title under the WorldSBK umbrella last year, his only ‘off’ weekend being Indonesia where he crashed in the first race and finished third in the second.

Bulega carried his strong form from the Panigale V2 last year to the Panigale V4 R this year, lapping faster than the all-time record at the preseason Jerez test, and then showing strong pace in Portimao.

Come the race weekend, and Bulega was the fastest again, winning Superpole on his first attempt with the first-ever sub-1:28 lap of Phillip Island in WorldSBK, before dominating Race 1 on Saturday afternoon, becoming the first rider to win on his WorldSBK debut since Alvaro Bautista in 2019.

Unfortunately for Bulega, his Sunday was derailed by a crash at turn three in Warm Up. Two fifth-place finishes followed in Sunday’s two races, but the pace the #11 showed late on in Race 2 will be of concern to his rivals because after the preseason and one race weekend, Bulega seems to have already figured out how to make a tyre last. Admittedly, it was over a reduced distance due to the high wear placed on the Pirelli rubber by the new Phillip Island asphalt, but the initial signs from Bulega are promising.

Maniac on the attack

‘The Maniac' is back, and on the attack. Andrea Iannone made an immediate impact on his WorldSBK debut, and returned to World Championship competition after four years of drug ban-enforced absence, by qualifying in second place on the grid and finishing the first race (complicated by the mandatory pit stop) in third place.

Iannone was always strong at Phillip Island in MotoGP, fighting for the win throughout the infamous 2015 race, and having the pace to win on the Suzuki in 2018 but leaving his late charge a little bit too late.

So, in that way it was not a surprise to see Iannone back at the front at the Australian Round, but, on the other hand… the guy hadn’t raced in four years! 

Races at Phillip Island are always chaotic, as fast corners and a significant amount of time spent spinning the rear tyre make it a circuit where the rider makes a real difference and where riding flat out simply isn’t a viable strategy in the race (ask Jorge Martin). Those conditions create incredibly close racing, usually, and that was certainly true of this year’s WorldSBK races, but Iannone - who would’ve been forgiven for being a little rusty - gave as good as he got in both long races, and probably would have in the Superpole Race, too, if he hadn’t had an early bike issue that dropped him out of contention.

Iannone might not prove to be a title contender, but he seems capable of causing frequent problems for the riders who most likely will do.

A Difficult Start for Rea

After nine years on a Kawasaki, Jonathan Rea jumps to Yamaha in 2024. But, at the same time, Kawasaki just got all its revs back (that it had lost as a result of Rea’s dominance under the previous performance balancing system that adjusted rev limits and which preceded the new weight limit rule) and some new engine internals as a result. 

That means the Ninja is now fast, as proven by Alex Lowes who was not blitzed in a straight line by anyone or anything throughout the weekend.

For Rea, Kawasaki’s first dry wins since 2022 could hardly have come at a more coincidental moment, as the #65 himself struggled to extract pace from his new Yamaha R1 due to rear chatter. And then, just when Rea was beginning to find some feeling with the new bike in Race 2, he high-sided and was carried away on a stretcher, although he later confirmed he was fine after the crash.

Certainly not the start Rea was after, then, and he leaves one of his best circuits on the calendar with zero points, which is also indicative of the depth of field in WorldSBK this year.

Round two is in one month, and as much as it is hard to see how it can get worse for Rea and Yamaha, the signs of progress during the opening weekend of the year were not clear, either.

Loka’d and loaded

Andrea Locatelli was the best rider in Phillip Island.

Lowes had a great Sunday, Bulega was fantastic on Saturday, but start-to-finish Locatelli was among the riders contending for victory in every race. In fact, late on in Saturday’s Race 1 Locatelli was able to close in on Bulega (who had made good time in the pit stop) after coming from fifth and one second off the podium battle when coming out of the pits to establish himself in second place.

Then, in the Superpole Race, Locatelli came from 10th to second in 10 laps, which is a remarkable performance. He might have even had a shot at the win in the sprint race had Lowes not been able to make a break with a couple to go.

Finally, in Race 2, the #55 put on yet another late charge to catch Bautista and Lowes on the final lap, only to high-side off-throttle when passing the latter at turn four.

It’s quite frankly astonishing that Locatelli is still without a WorldSBK win, but surely that wait will be over soon.

Rescued by Razgatlioglu? Or Same Old Story for BMW?

Toprak Razgatlioglu had a mixed start to life in the black, red, and blue of the ROKiT BMW Motorrad team. He qualified fine enough in fifth, finished in the same fifth place he started in in Race 1 after breaching the minimum pit lane intervention time, and then finished third in the Superpole Race, even out-dragging Alvaro Bautista on the Ducati at one point.

But then, Razgatlioglu got a true Bavarian welcome, by having his BMW let go on him early on in Race 2, crucially on the lap before the red flag was thrown, meaning he didn’t get to take the restart. 

According to Razgatlioglu’s social media, it was not a mechanical issue that caused him to retire on lap three in a cloud of smoke so thick it dropped Alex Lowes from second to seventh, so perhaps he had a few too many habaneros on his burrito the night before. But, whatever happened, the reality is that an issue with the M1000 RR prevented Razgatlioglu from finishing the race, and the #54 is far from the first rider to suffer race-ending bike problems.

Will this be a theme throughout the rest of the year? It’s impossible to tell, of course, but it is true that, while the speed and pace for Razgatlioglu were both acceptable, at least one of BMW’s historic problems remains problematic in 2024.

In fact, it might be two, because Razgatlioglu is a rider who seemed to run out of rear grip faster than anyone else in both Race 1 and the Superpole Race. In the closing stages of both, he lost his corner speed and lost his drive grip, and it doesn’t matter how many horses you have in the engine if the rear tyre hears the sirens, and the screaming of the iron, and its heart still says “no” when you try to let those horses loose. Again, an issue which is not new to BMW. Anyway, at least the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where round two will be held in a month’s time, is easy-going on rear tyres…

A Disclaimer

Phillip Island is a weirdo track and the races that happen on it are subject to that and are therefore to be considered weirdo races. As such, all the above extrapolations made from the WorldSBK Australian Round in relation to the remainder of the 2024 season need to be taken with a pinch of salt. So, we still don’t really know anything that’s going to happen, which is about as much as you can ask from live sport.