As World Superbike and MotoAmerica converge this weekend on WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for their annual combined round at mid-season, the prevailing story line is the rout that wasn't.
Remember a few months ago when the WSBK season was already decided? Some people were ready to call the championship a foregone conclusion after the first weekend, but for sure, after the Motul Dutch Round at Assen in April, plenty of people thought Aruba.it Racing Ducati's Álvaro Bautista had the championship wrapped up. Bautista had stormed into World Superbike from MotoGP and reeled off 11 straight wins, some of them by more than 10 seconds, to build a 53-point lead. The skeptics pronounced WSBK dead again and changed channels.
Funny how things change. Four rounds later, four-time champion Jonathan Rea is not only back on top, but he also has a significant 24-point lead. Suddenly, the formerly unbeatable Bautista is looking like an underdog for the 2019 title. How did that happen?
Brilliance and consistency
Bautista's debut in WSBK was nothing short of incandescent. Pre-season conventional wisdom was that he would need some time to become accustomed to a different kind of race bike, different tires, different tracks, etc. Instead, he dominated, but those adjustments still had to be made. They just came at a different time than expected, in part because Bautista arrived at tracks such as Imola where he had little or no experience.
Meanwhile, critically, while Bautista was dominating, Rea was consistently finishing on the podium. In the 15 full-length races, Bautista has nine wins to Rea's five, but Rea has finished on the podium in 14 of those 15. In the last three rounds, Bautista has twice crashed out of the race while leading. It's an old cliché, but clichés take root because they contain a nugget of truth: You win championships on your bad days, not the good ones. Rea has minimized the damage on his bad days.
Most of the remaining races on the WSBK schedule take place at tracks where Rea either has more experience than Bautista or Bautista has none. Now that the momentum has shifted and Bautista has lost the front end of his Ducati V4 R a couple of times — the seed of a dangerous doubt for a racer — that disadvantage looms larger.
I'm not saying Rea is a cinch to win his fifth straight title, any more than I was ready to cancel the rest of the season after Australia and Thailand and hand the trophy to Bautista. But I do think Rea has gone from being written off by many fans to being the clear favorite.
In any case, I can't help but have flashbacks to the famous 2002 World Superbike season, when another guy on a Ducati dominated the first part of the season. Troy Bayliss had a 58-point lead after race one at Laguna Seca that year, but then Colin Edwards on his Honda began a comeback with a win in race two, launching an epic two-man title fight that went down to the final race. If we get even a weak facsimile of 2002 in 2019, it will be a great year in World Superbike.
Meanwhile, in MotoAmerica, another tide change?
The MotoAmerica EBC Brakes Superbike season arrives at Laguna Seca at the halfway point. Like World Superbike, it's a two-man race. It's between the riders who have won every championship since MotoAmerica took over U.S. Superbike racing in 2015: Monster Energy/Yamalube/Yamaha Factory Racing's Cameron Beaubier and Yoshimura Suzuki Factory Racing's Toni Elias. Elias has a 26-point lead with five wins to Beaubier's two wins, but the next two race weekends will be critical to the outcome of the series.
Elias may live in California these days, but Beaubier was born there and sometimes appears to own the place. He is strong at Laguna Seca and nearly unbeatable at Sonoma Raceway. Last year, Elias started the season strong and the tide shifted at Road America, with Beaubier launching a streak of wins and strong finishes to take the title. This year, despite crashing in the last corner of Sunday's race at Road America, Elias held on to his points lead in Wisconsin and extended it with two wins at the Utah Motorsports Campus. If Elias can escape the next two rounds in California with his points lead intact, he'll be favored to win his second MotoAmerica title. If not, he could suffer a repeat of last year's frustration.
"Toni is very motivated," said Yoshimura Racing Senior Vice President Don Sakakura. "He feels like last year was one that got away."
Postcript: Jiggy Dog does the wild card thing
Last year, Josh Herrin attempted to race both World Superbike and MotoAmerica races at Laguna Seca, an undertaking he later admitted was even harder than he expected. This year, the man who replaced him on what is now the Attack Performance Estenson Racing team, J.D. Beach, will attempt the same feat.
In addition to shifting from the Dunlop tires used in MotoAmerica to the Pirellis used in World Superbike, a rider faces intense physical demands, doing four full-length Superbike races in two days. Few racers anywhere are more fit than Beach, however. It will be interesting to see what he can do as a wild card rider at Laguna Seca this weekend.