While the line up for the 2019 MotoGP season was settled surprisingly early in the year, the opposite has been the case for WorldSBK. With just two weeks to go to the first full test of 2019, there are still a whole range of seats open, and questions going unanswered.
One of the reasons for the delay became clear at the EICMA show in Milan last week. While the manufacturers were presenting their newest bikes, including some of the key machines that will star in World Superbikes next year, a couple of manufacturers also presented their racing programs for 2019.
Perhaps the biggest story came from Honda, where HRC presented Althea and Moriwaki as their new partners in running their WorldSBK program. After a partnership of three years, and a relationship going back nearly two decades, Ten Kate are out, with the Italians and Japanese taking over.
It wasn’t just Ten Kate: title sponsor Red Bull were also out. The energy drink firm had signed up when Nicky Hayden was with the team, a big name draw for sponsors, and a rider with a long connection to Red Bull.
It was Red Bull who brought in Jake Gagne, the American who never really found his feet in the WorldSBK championship. After two years of poor results, Red Bull withdrew.
HRC + WorldSBK
The idea behind the switch is to have much more direct involvement from HRC in the project. Moriwaki is to focus on developing the Honda CBR1000RR SP2, while Althea is to handle the logistics and management of the team.
Japanese rider Ryuichi Kiyonari has been brought in to ease communication with Moriwaki and HRC, while Leon Camier has been retained with the objective of chasing results.
The direct involvement of HRC marks a major change of tack. The Japanese factory has been absent from WorldSBK since 2002, the year in which Colin Edwards became world champion on a Honda RC51. Since then, Ten Kate has been left to hold the fort with the aid of Honda Motor Europe, the European headquarters of the Japanese manufacturer.
In the past, that support was always resented by HRC in Japan. A former Honda team member once said of the previous HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto, “he sees every euro spent on World Superbikes as one which should have been spent on MotoGP,” they told me.
It seems like HRC decided they could no longer stand idly by and see a Honda get beaten in a racing series.
They have won just about every other major championship in recent years: Marc Márquez in MotoGP, Joan Mir and Jorge Martin in Moto3, Tim Gajser in MXGP, and Kevin Benavides was runner up in the 2018 Dakar Rally.
The last time a Honda won a World Superbike title was in 2007, when James Toseland took the title for the Ten Kate team.
Merely increasing the level of support may not be enough. As HRC found to their cost at Suzuka, the Honda CBR1000RR is being outperformed by its rivals, even with full factory backing. The latest iteration of the Fireblade may have had extra electronics aids to help with corner entry and throttle response, the fact is that the bike is still listed as producing 190 horsepower.
That is 11hp down on the Kawasaki ZX-10RR, which produces 201hp, 14hp down on the new BMW S1000RR, which is listed at 204hp, and a whopping 27hp down on Ducati’s latest weapon the Panigale V4 R. With the technical regulations restricting any major changes in pursuit of power, it is hard to see how HRC can make much of a difference.
Honda weren’t the only manufacturer making a presentation at EICMA. BMW were there, announcing they are partnering with Shaun Muir’s SMR Milwaukee Racing for the 2019 season. SMR is to switch from Aprilia to BMW, and compete next year on the new BMW S1000RR introduced at the EICMA show.
BMW and SMR also announced two new riders: gone are Eugene Laverty and Lorenzo Savadori, moved to make way for Tom Sykes and Markus Reiterberger.
Reiterberger has a long association with the Munich factory, having bounced between the WorldSBK series, the German IDM championship, and the Superstock 1000 championship aboard a BMW, winning the Superstock title in 2018.
Sykes had left Kawasaki disillusioned, feeling that Kawasaki had favored Jonathan Rea and developed the bike in his direction, rather than for Sykes. As first Kawasaki rider to win a title since Scott Russell in 1993, Sykes felt overlooked.
VVT comes to SBK
The new BMW S1000RR is an interesting prospect for the 2018 WorldSBK season. The bike has been completely redesigned, including radical change in chassis and BMW’s new ShiftCam variable valve system.
The frame now features much lower forward engine mounting points, allowing the use of longer forward struts. This follows contemporary thinking on managing chatter and cornering, and is a design pattern which has been used in MotoGP since the class switched to four stroke engines.
The ShiftCam technology will also be an interesting development. The system features two inlet cam lobes – a mild lift one for lower engine speeds and more torque, and a high lift one for full power – which are shifted using a selector drum.
An electric motor inserts a steel pin into a slot, which physically moves the camshaft sideways along its rotating axis. Although it is a mechanical system, the timing of the shift between the milder, torquier lobes, and the sharper, higher power lobes is electronically determined based on engine speed, gear, throttle opening, etc.
This will become one more variable to be managed inside the electronics, and should in theory offer an advantage in providing smoother power delivery on corner exit, as well as more predictable back torque on corner entry.
Testing Season Opens
We will have to wait until the end of November to find out just how much of an improvement the new BMW S1000RR is over the old bike. The WorldSBK paddock will assemble at Jerez on November 26th and 27th, with all of the teams currently entered set to test.
Ducati and Kawasaki will be getting an earlier start, with Chaz Davies getting his first taste of the Ducati Panigale V4 R alongside Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam at Aragon on the 14th and 15th, Wednesday and Thursday of this month.
Yamaha was the last manufacturer to make an announcement at EICMA last week. As had been widely expected, the GRT Yamaha team announced they would be stepping up to the WorldSBK class in 2019 aboard Yamaha YZF-R1Ms.
The rider lineup was a little more of a surprise: Sandro Cortese got the call to move up, reward for lifting the 2018 WorldSSP crown. Marco Melandri, discarded by Ducati, was picked up by GRT Yamaha, in a move which had been rumored for a while.
Those might have been the announcements that have already been made, but there are still plenty of questions still left unanswered. There are some big names left unsigned, and some manufacturers still uncertain of competing.
There are perpetual rumors about Aprilia’s intention for 2019, rumors that span the gamut from a complete withdrawal to fielding a factory team. There is talk of Suzuki being interested in WorldSBK, though their involvement would only extend to supplying bikes, and little else. The Suzuki GSX-R1000R produces 202hp, and has been competitive in British Superbikes.
Riders left without a seat for 2019 at the moment include Eugene Laverty, WorldSBK runner up in 2013 and multiple race winner; Xavi Fores, who had five podiums in 2018 and was often ahead of the factory-backed Aruba.it Ducatis; Loris Baz, double race winner on a Kawasaki as teammate to Tom Sykes; Lorenzo Savadori, regarded by Aprilia as the future of their program; and Jordi Torres, an immensely popular Spaniard and race winner for Aprilia.
Also out of WorldSBK is Laguna Seca. The US circuit announced their 2019 schedule last week, which included a curt statement that World Superbikes would not be part of the MotoAmerica round in July, as is tradition.
Where WorldSBK will be racing in 2019 is still not entirely finalized. A calendar has just been released, but it appears that some details may still need to be finalized. Kyalami in South Africa is set to be one of the stops on the calendar, while the German language website Speedweek is reporting that the Sokol circuit in Kazakhstan could join the calendar.
Below is the 2019 WorldSBK line up as it stands so far.
|Chaz Davies||Ducati Panigale V4R|
|Alvaro Bautista||Ducati Panigale V4R|
|Alex Lowes||Yamaha YZF-R1|
|Michael van der Mark||Yamaha YZF-R1|
|Marco Melandri||Yamaha YZF-R1|
|Sandro Cortese||Yamaha YZF-R1|
|Kawasaki Racing Team|
|Jonathan Rea||Kawasaki ZX-10RR|
|Leon Haslam||Kawasaki ZX-10RR|
|Michael Ruben Rinaldi||Ducati Panigale V4R|
|Moriwaki Althea Honda|
|Leon Camier||Honda CBR1000RR|
|Ryuichi Kiyonari||Honda CBR1000RR|
|Tom Sykes||BMW S1000RR|
|Markus Reiterberger||BMW S1000RR|
|Toprak Razgatlioglu||Kawasaki ZX-10RR|
|Gabriel Ruiu||Kawasaki ZX-10RR? Aprillia RSV4?|
|Roman Ramos||Kawasaki ZX-10RR? Aprillia RSV4?|
|Alessandro Delbianco?||Honda CBR1000RR|
Photo: © 2018 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – All Rights Reserved