WorldSBK Donington, Friday: Rain complicates everything

The first day at Donington Park for the WorldSBK riders was a complicated one, partly for the new track surface, but mostly because of the rain.

Alvaro Bautista, 2023 UK WorldSBK. - Gold and Goose

“England is really… strange,” Axel Bassani said after Friday’s two free practice sessions in Donington for the UK round of the 2023 WorldSBK season.

Indeed, it was not a straightforward day. Rain in FP1 limited track time, and it did so again in FP2.

This is not something which is entirely uncommon in racing, and especially in the UK, but at Donington, this year in particular, it was of greater importance.

“It’s been a bit of a tough day, because I’ve really only done five proper laps,” said Jonathan Rea. The lack of track time was not only unfortunate from the perspective of understanding the track surface itself, but also from that of understanding how the Pirelli tyres react with the surface.

Rea continued, explaining the understanding of the track surface that the WorldSBK riders had been offered by Pirelli before the weekend thanks to the Italian brand’s presence as sole tyre supplier to the British Superbike Championship, which raced in Donington at the end of May. “We got a bit of a heads-up,” Rea said, “also, Pirelli knew that the track is very grippy, it’s very smooth, but it’s consuming the rear tyre.”

This information presented what could possibly be an opportunity for Kawasaki. Their issue throughout 2023 has been front tyre consumption, but the new surface at Donington is understood to be more punishing for the rear tyre. This bias towards the rear tyre, in terms of consumption, which seems to be a characteristic of the combination of Donington's layout and its new surface, could therefore benefit Kawasaki, theoretically, as it does not highlight the current ZX-10RR's major weakness.

However, “Honestly, I’m not sure [whether the new surface will benefit Kawasaki in particular] because I haven’t done that many laps, to be honest,” Rea said. “But I used the soft front this morning, which could be, normally, problematic for us, and we had no problems [today], and Alex [Lowes] used the harder front, and he didn’t seem to have any problems, either.”

Last year, after Alvaro Bautista crashed at the final corner in Race 1, he said that, not only did the final corner need fixing, but the entire circuit did. "They need to resurface, but not only the last corner," Bautista said at the end of the 2022 weekend. "Because, if you ride the track, it's too old and you have, I don't know, 40 different asphalts on the track. It's crazy. They need to [resurface the track]."

That has now happened, and the reigning World Champion was pleased about it. “The good thing is that the new [asphalt] is much better without bumps; at least you can ride safe, because, I remember last year, you cannot do the right line to avoid some bumps,” he said. “Now you can ride like a normal track, so this is good.” 

Bautista also echoed the thoughts of Jonathan Rea, though. While the new surface is an improvement, “we didn’t understand about tyres,” Bautista said.

“Especially, I think, [the] tyre life will be an important key for tomorrow, because it seems like- I don’t know if it’s because there is less rubber than another track, or something [like this], but it seems like the tyre drops a little bit quicker, especially in the morning, than [in] other tracks.

“Tomorrow, it will be the important key, to understand the tyre life. [...] Let’s see if the weather [on Saturday morning] allows us to understand something more.”

Bautista had come to Donington from Misano, where the track is smooth and the weather is warm. One of those was not true of Donington on Friday and, perhaps thankfully, that was in regards to the weather. 

One other thing was different between Bautista’s time in Misano and his Friday in Donington, that being his machinery. The current WorldSBK points leader was testing Ducati’s Desmosedici GP23 MotoGP bike in Misano, but the Spaniard would not be drawn on whether a wildcard is in his future. “For sure, [any MotoGP wildcard] it will have to be a place after my championship (WorldSBK) has finished,” he said. But, if he should do one, he would like it to be in either Thailand or Sepang. “I choose Thailand or Sepang because I like warm conditions,” Bautista said.

Ducati seems to be at the centre of contract speculation both in the WorldSBK paddock and in the MotoGP paddock at the moment. Perhaps that is a given, since Ducati has many of the best riders in each series, as well as the best bike. In WorldSBK, Axel Bassani is the rider about whom the future is most uncertain.

Kawasaki had been an option, but Alex Lowes has re-signed there. Lowes’ retention at Kawasaki is likely to also mean that Xavi Vierge remains at Honda, a brand which had also shown interest in Bassani in the past. The options for the #47 now seem to cover the factory Ducati team and his current Motocorsa Ducati squad, which, as Jonathan Rea pointed out, is perhaps not so bad. “Why would Bassani change from Ducati to Kawasaki? [...] He wants money, ‘ey?” Perhaps the same logic could be applied to the seat that will be left vacant by Toprak Razgatlioglu at the factory Yamaha team.

Bassani made his preference between ‘satellite’ and ‘factory’ machinery clear, nonetheless. “[My bike] is not the same [as the factory Ducati bikes],” Bassani said. “Just from the exhaust, is not the same - from there, the bike is different.

“My bike is a really nice bike, for me it’s a really good bike. But it’s not the same as a factory bike.”

When will we know Bassani’s destination for 2024? “At the end of July,” Bassani said, before the WorldSBK summer break.

All in all there was little to be learned on day one of WorldSBK’s UK round. There simply was not enough running to do so. On the negative side, that means the teams are unprepared, and going into tomorrow they and their riders face something of a lottery, especially if FP3 repeats the same kind of uncertain conditions as today. On the other hand, all of that should mean the racing is something of a lottery, which should be more entertaining than the kind of predictability that has become the norm for WorldSBK in 2023.

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