Denning in-depth on Rea struggles, Locatelli’s step forward and whether luck comes into it at all

The 2024 MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship has welcomed enormous change on the grid but it’s not been a dream start for Jonathan Rea (Pata Prometeon Yamaha). As teammate Andrea Locatelli holds the honour of top Yamaha overall, Rea has only had one points-scoring finish: last time out in Barcelona. We caught up with team principal Paul Denning to chat about that and more.

JR’S START TO 2024: “We haven’t achieved anything like we wanted to… adaptation to race situation required”

A rocky start to Rea’s Yamaha chapter, as Paul explained: “The start of the journey between Jonathan and Yamaha has been positive in terms of him fitting into the team, the working atmosphere and how he’s enjoyed the testing with the bike but unfortunately, the first two race events have been extremely disappointing. They’ve been coupled with a combination of factors, some of which were obvious to see including crashes but also factors which were unseen and hindered his performance quite significantly. This combination means we haven’t achieved anything like what we wanted to achieve in the first two events but the upsides are that he’s physically fit, very motivated after a solid Barcelona test. We have two years as a minimum to achieve what we want to achieve but as an alpha male competitor with the success he’s had, he won’t be wanting to wait too much longer before we’re fighting for the podium and achieving the results that he and the bike are capable of and we’re hoping we’ll be in a position for that to start at Assen.”

Managing the situation and the difficulties it has entailed, Denning’s experience plays a crucial part: “The motivation is the same as always and super high. The danger when you have challenges like we’ve had with Jonathan in the first rounds are to overreact and do the wrong things. The trick is to not start playing the blame game but to assess problems rationally and to stick to the process, making sure that we do the right things to recover the performance. It’s a challenge when things aren’t going in the right direction as you can find yourself wanting to do more and overcompensate for problems which then creates more problems than it solves. Clearly, there’s an adaptation in a race situation required from him as well and particularly – unusually for any rider – as he’s been on the same bike and in the same team for so long. The adaptation perhaps has been a bit more challenging than it might have been. I don’t think it’ll take too much more to grow that last big of confidence and to start having the confidence to over-extend himself and to start trusting the bike and to have the additional bit of performance to start challenging for the podium.”

CREW CHIEF CHATTER: Loka’s “very next step has to be to win”, Pitt-Rea working relationship

For Rea’s teammate Locatelli, he’s top Yamaha in the standings and made a big step forward: “Whilst there’s been frustrations on JR’s side of the garage, it’s a positive message for him that clearly, the bike is capable of running at the front. As his confidence continues to grow, the very next step has to be to win a race and to take that step of believing you can do it to doing it and repeating it. The level at the front of the field being more stacked than ever before in terms of talent. He’s enjoying working with Tom; he’s very close to Andrew Pitt and still is on a personal basis. Perhaps they came too close in their working relationship. If you’re too close to someone on a personal basis, then you can speak to that person in a certain way that you wouldn’t do at an arm’s length professional basis. Tom has a very clever and calm approach to the process and hasn’t been changing the bike too much at all, doing a super-detailed, quality job. I can’t say that it’s a better job than what Andrew did, it’s just different. He has responded very well to that difference but ultimately and genuinely speaking, the bike he nearly won on in Australia is the same in terms of the setting balance that Andrew gave him a year ago in Australia, with small refinements and detailed changes. Nothing has been turned upside down but Tom’s way of working in a very structured, step-by-step basis – always with significant engineering reasoning and knowledge behind it – seems to be suiting Andrea really well.”

With Pitt moving to work with Rea and the two being good friends, how is that dynamic working? “I would say really well despite the results, responded Denning. “Obviously, everyone had a super difficult test and race in Australia. When a rider has a big crash and then another at the same corner and things aren’t flowing that tensions are felt. However, AP has responded really well to it and during the test and the race, I thought he did a really solid job. The issues he we had in Race 1 and Superpole, Andrew could have done nothing about from his side in order to prevent or improve those situations. He’s doing his best in order to keep everything positive and calm. Jonathan has a really good trust with Andrew and his work ethic, the way he motivates the guys in the box and his desire to do well. For JR, his character is one whereby he really responds to that desire of everyone in the garage to do well and Andrew is very much a competitor. I think in a new team, the fact that they knew each other for so long and very well personally, gave Jonathan a level of trust and comfort which he may have otherwise not had. We may not have had a positive start to the story but if we keep working in a positive way, then we can have a good middle and end to the story.”

DOES LUCK COME INTO IT? “I’m always very wary of relying on that…”

With more than 25 years running high-level race teams, Denning’s seen almost every situation imaginable but how much is luck a variable in the outcome? “Good luck and bad luck does exist but I am always very wary of relying on that as any form of justification for a good or poor result, particularly in the case of a poor result, your not doing anything proactive to try and improve. Unfortunately, on JR’s side of the garage, on top of issues that we could have been on top of and done better with, sometimes when you’re in trouble, the world conspires to make it a little bit more difficult for you by throwing in more bad luck on top. Ignoring Jonathan’s travails, on Loka’s side of the garage, it would be easy to it was ‘bad luck to be ran off the track’ on the first lap in Barcelona but if we’d qualified better and he’d been in the first six, he’d not have been run off the track. So, qualify better – whether it’s use a better strategy or have more ultimate performance in the bike – whatever it is, to be further up the grid and then he’d not have been in that position. Luck does come into it but if you dig in, then there’s always something as a group you could have done to avoid it.”

YAMAHA’S RACING FUTURE: ‘Yamaha’s commitment in Japan and Europe is absolute’

Following the news that Yamaha’s R1 production would be halted for 2025 and beyond, Denning said on how that can be a positive for the racing side: “There are disadvantages to a bike that effectively, remains the same but there are also great advantages to that in terms of development, clear targets and knowledge of the engineers. The fact is that for 2025, the R1 is available in the European markets as a race/track day only machine and that it will be sold to customers in the same way a motocross bike is, as a leisure/racing machine. I don’t know any details at this stage but it’s logical that if a manufacturer isn’t having to invest in the emissions side of things and the continuous updates of the road legalities, there is the scope to make it more attractive as that racing/sport machine. Let’s wait and see and as I say, I don’t know any details but what I do know is that Yamaha’s commitment both in Japan and in Europe to the R1 is absolute and there are no intentions that the R1 remains anything other than the halo of the Yamaha range. From a racing perspective, that’s good for the ongoing specification upgrade.”

TOPRAK’S BMW WIN: “It was a painful watch from a team and Yamaha perspective”

Having won 37 races together – the most of any rider in Yamaha’s WorldSBK history – Denning spoke of how Toprak’s first win with BMW: “We never said at any time that he wouldn’t be competitive on whatever bike he was riding but honestly speaking, it was a painful watch from a team and Yamaha perspective, there’s no getting away from it. Toprak when he’s feeling it has a depth of talent that can do many things; he surprised me and us because Barcelona has always been a circuit that has been difficult to manage the tyres on. We’ll see. I think there’s a lot of racing still to be done and as we’ve already touched on, I don’t think we’re going to have either one, two or three riders that you can pick from that are going to be winning at a particularly track.”

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