Why is Alvaro Bautista (probably) joining Honda in WorldSBK?

Ducati says Alvaro Bautista has accepted an offer to join another manufacturer, set to be Honda. These are reasons why it actually makes sense...

Alvaro Bautista

Roll back only two months and the mere prospect of Alvaro Bautista ducking out of his Ducati contract seemed about as believable as him relinquishing his grip on the 2019 WorldSBK title trophy.

Of course, anyone even casually following WorldSBK will know the latter point has gone from odds-on to long shot following his slump in form – or rather, composure – but now it seems a clean break is also now a strong probability following Ducati’s own assertion he has accepted an offer from another manufacturer, largely known to be Honda.

Indeed, whilst Bautista has continued to smile through increasingly clenched teeth, the evident alarmof his devastating run of wins being followed by the damaging regularity of his crash-induced non-scores – six in the last nine races to be exact – has taken its toll. He is Ducati’s golden boy no more.

Despite this, he remained ‘Plan A’ in Ducati’s immediate WorldSBK future but it seems the (unnecessarily) long summer break has given the Spaniard time to think and consider an alternative. The fact Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti went public with claiming Bautista hasn’t returned its calls makes it fairly clear relations are tenuous as best.

Why would Alvaro Bautista leave Ducati?

Alvaro Bautista’s (still to be confirmed) decision to leave Ducati might seem unfathomable at first glance but delve deeper and there is arguably method in any perceived ‘madness’ here… and the rider rigmarole that occurred during the Austrian MotoGP last weekend – in which Ducati found itself in the middle – is likely to have vindicated his decision to take his commitment elsewhere.

Indeed, however content Bautista may have been competing in WorldSBK (especially when he was winning) it doesn’t overcome the fact he was a begrudging convert in the first place and had made it fairly clear WorldSBK was a stopgap towards a return to MotoGP, preferably with Ducati.

Happy though he may be at Ducati though, it was always hard to see how the Italian marque could offer him a direct path back to MotoGP, not just in 2020 but in 2021 and beyond even before it emerged Lorenzo was being touted as a possible replacement for Jack Miller at Pramac Racing next year. 

The ensuing fracas that ensued in Austria with talk that the three-time World Champion could potentially usurp Miller – serious or otherwise - in effect demoted Bautista in the queue. Miller may be staying put and Lorenzo’s interest quelled but it doesn’t exactly send out the signals Bautista is looking for.

By contrast, this new HRC-endorsed Honda operation is the only other manufacturer to offer a clear route from WorldSBK to MotoGP and do so sooner, in theory…

The case for Bautista joining Honda for WorldSBK 2020

On paper, joining Honda – which has managed just three top ten finishes this season under the Moriwaki Althea/Mie Racing banner In 2019 – makes little in the way of sense. However, Honda is essentially in a holding pattern right now and it is what is on the horizon that has stirs interest.

Though Honda has attempted to keep its intentions under wraps, the reality is HRC – the operation behind its dominant MotoGP effort – is now turning its attentions to WorldSBK to stimulate a manufacturer that hasn’t developed a title-challenge in more than ten years. 

In effect, WorldSBK is about to be re-entered by the biggest factory team in the world and it is doing so with a new Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade, which is being developed behind closed doors even if – officially speaking – it doesn’t exist.

Beyond the intrigue this premise alone generates, Honda is unlikely to approach a big name without writing in the contractual obligation of a return to MotoGP should they reach their targets. Given Honda’s shaky form of the last few years, it’d be difficult to imagine any high-profile rider taking such a risk without some kind of guarantee on the other side.

What could stop Bautista signing for Honda?

Bautista isn’t the only rider Honda has taken its proposal to. Indeed, it is understood there has been an ambitious scouting mission going on in both WorldSBK and MotoGP.

Even so, the Spaniard is surely top of the list (or at least close to the top of it) but the recent availability of Johann Zarco could pose a dilemma.

It is understood Zarco was approached back in May, though it didn’t get beyond the first contact stage. With the Frenchman’s options dwindling in MotoGP and Moto2 representing a fairly large step back for a rider that has already won that title twice, he may be more compelled to return those calls.

Like Bautista, any deal is likely to include a clause that would return him to MotoGP on Honda machinery in 2021 and there is nothing stopping Honda from putting both riders on its bikes in some kind of perceived ‘super team’.

However, both will likely want said clause tied into any deal, which could bite off more than Honda could chew if it indeed finds both riders fighting over the same future. 

Bautista may have some WorldSBK credentials now but Zarco arguably achieved more in two years of MotoGP than Bautista did in nine.

Of course, this all remains conjecture for now, more will become clear once WorldSBK returns from the summer hiatus. Who knows, maybe Ducati has pulled its own power play on Bautista and calling him out on his negotiations with a rival could be just a call to arms… or rather, a call to pick up the phone.