OPINION: Steve English on Bulega rivalling Bautista in Barcelona, Kawasaki and BMW potential

First off, Phillip Island was a spectacular reminder of how fantastic WorldSBK can be in 2024. We have a depth of riding talent that surpasses anything in the history of the series. We have four manufacturers that are all capable of race wins this year. Australia was the perfect way to start a campaign that has been heralded as one of change and excitement. Seven riders on the rostrum, five riders leading laps and two surprise winners. This was exactly what we wanted to see but Phillip Island is Phillip Island: it’s a unique circuit and a unique set of circumstances for the opening round. That meant that there were some riders out of position that should be more competitive this weekend. It also meant that some riders were more competitive than they were expected to be.

BULEGA VS BAUTISTA, MASTER VS APPRENTICE: a new dynamic to watch out for

This weekend should be a bit more reflective of the pecking order and where the field stacks up. Montmelo might be a circuit on the doorstep of Provec Racing’s factory but this is Ducati country not Kawasaki country. The red bikes have won seven in a row and Alvaro Bautista (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) is unbeaten on the Panigale V4R. This year will be more of a challenge for the reigning World Champion. His teammate, Nicolo Bulega was lightning fast at last week’s two-day test whilst Bautista struggled. Bulega, pole sitter in Australia, will be a short-priced favourite for Superpole once again but it was his pace that will have worried Bautista more than his raw speed. 

During the test, Bautista seemed to do longer runs than his teammate but the balance of the Ducati wasn’t what he needed. A crash on his time-attack showed where his form was during the test but race weekends are a different animal. Catalunya is one of the most demanding tracks on the calendar for tyre consumption so high 1m41’s are the times to beat during a race. Being consistent around this mark for as long as possible will be key to winning races. Bulega, who also suffered a crash, had a small step over Bautista for these but race conditions bring out the best in the Spaniard.

KAWASAKI AND BMW: tougher times in Barcelona for Lowes and Razgatlioglu?

Alex Lowes (Kawasaki Racing Team WorldSBK), Championship leader coming into this weekend, focused on tyre wear and longer runs in the test. Single lap pace won’t be what keeps the Englishman close to the front so crew chief Pere Riba was focused on making sure they worked to their own strategy rather than focusing on anyone else. The improvements from Kawasaki over the winter allowed Lowes to have the best weekend of his WorldSBK career last time out but Montmelo will be better circuit to judge the ZX-10RR on. Progress has been made but has it been enough?

BMW’s progress over the winter has been well documented. They shocked everyone at Round 1 but with a high grip track surface, the issues they expected to have in Australia didn’t materialise. In testing, Toprak Razgatlioglu (ROKiT BMW Motorrad WorldSBK Team) was stunning last week and narrowly missed out on topping the times despite a fall. When the grip is there, the BMW M 1000 RR is a weapon with the Turkish rider. When the grip isn’t there, it’s been more of a struggle. This weekend will be a real test for BMW to show where they’ll stack up throughout the season. Toprak will win races over the next few rounds but the feature length races this weekend will be tough.

YAMAHA’S EFFORTS: Rea to respond, Locatelli still strong

In the blue corner, Jonathan Rea (Pata Prometeon Yamaha) and teammate Andrea Locatelli are two of the most interesting riders to keep an eye on. During testing, their times were remarkably similar. There’s not a lot to choose between them but Rea will be much more competitive this weekend. After a non-score last time out, it goes without saying he’s hit rock bottom because in Barcelona, he’ll be in the fight again. The chatter issues at Phillip Island could be very circuit specific but this weekend, it’s up to Rea to prove that and put the doubters to bed. Round 1 was a disaster but with a pitstop issue in Race 1 and the crash in Race 2 his Superpole Race was probably more reflective of where he was; P10. Not good enough for Rea and Yamaha but this week, the top five would show plenty of progress even if a podium is their stated aim.

DUCATI THE FAVOURITES: Barcelona is their happy hunting ground

The reason for that goal being so modest is that Ducati are going to be so tough to beat this week. Bulega, Bautista, Andrea Iannone (Team GoEleven), Danilo Petrucci (Barni Spark Racing Team), Sam Lowes (ELF Marc VDS Racing Team) and Michael Ruben Rinaldi (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) will all expect to have moments in the sun. During testing it was Rinaldi that was at the back of the Ducati train but he’s a four-time podium man and a race winner here. If he’s not competitive, you can expect to see some fireworks in the Team Motocorsa Racing pit box.

FINAL THOUGHTS: a classic venue ready for a classic race

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya was built as part of Barcelona’s Olympic bid in 1991. Like the Olympics, it’s about having an all-round package if you want to challenge for the win. Ducati has the most complete bike in WorldSBK and it would be a shock if they don’t walk away with the wins this weekend. That being said it’s a roll of the dice as to who will be standing on the top step.

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Source: WorldSBK.com

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