Alvaro Bautista maintained his 100% record in the 2019 Superbike World Championship, with two more wins at a freezing cold TT Circuit Assen this weekend.
The wintery weather in the Netherlands played havoc with Saturday’s schedule, with heavy snowfall postponing Saturday’s race until Sunday, with the Sunday morning sprint race being cancelled.
Pre-race, much of the talk was about whether or not Bautista could continue the form that had seen him win all nine races out of nine in 2019. Unlike the three previous tracks, the flowing Assen circuit has no real long straights for the powerful new Ducati Panigale V4 R to stretch its legs. With world champ Jonathan Rea usually untouchable around the Dutch track, and Ducati handed a 250rpm rev limit cap, expectations for closer racing was expected – and although the Rea took it to the Spaniard in race two, the results remained the same.
Rea’s weekend was made more difficult by a chaotic qualifying session that was red flagged in the closing stages after a three rider crash. With the four-time champ among the riders forced to abandon their fast lap, the Kawasaki rider found himself a lowly eighth on the grid, with Bautista on top despite struggling through Friday’s practice sessions.
Race one saw Bautista lead from start to finish, taking the flag three seconds ahead of Rea and local star Michael van der Mark on his Yamaha YZF-R1, while the second outing saw Rea make a jet propelled start from the third row to hit the front and lead for the first five laps.
In a thrilling race, Bautista was able to take the lead and ease away to win by nearly five seconds, but behind him there was an intense battle between Rea and Van der Mark, which the Dutchman won despite a strong last lap challenge from the champ.
“I’m very happy because I won two races at a circuit which was maybe not very favourable for us, and where the Kawasakis had always won in the past,” said Bautista. “The weekend didn’t get off to the best start on Friday, but in any case we managed to be consistent and competitive. Today we did two full-distance 21-lap races and I can tell you that I used up all my energy, but my training helped me a lot. In the first race in the morning there were very cold conditions, but I tried to get a good start and set my own pace right from the start. I was able to open up a bit of a gap on my rivals and manage the situation well to go on to win race one. In race two to be honest I didn’t expect to see Rea ahead of me at turn four because he was on the third row, but he made an incredible start. In the early laps I was taking it easy, trying to stay up and study him well but I could see that his pace was a bit slow so I decided to pass him. I always tried to give my all, in fact we also improved on the circuit record, so it was another wonderful weekend.”
Despite being unable to add to his record setting 71 world superbike race win, Rea was in high spirits after his intense battle. “I felt good in the fight and my team gave me a good bike to fight with and keep the gap quite stable for a while,” he added. “I enjoyed today and it was like good old superbike, two long races in one day. I feel like the only difference today was that I had a shorter time to take lunch and prepare for race two. But it was not anything extraordinary. I really feel like we maximised our potential with the bike this weekend. I felt good with the bike and we were stronger in some sectors and weaker in other compared to Alvaro. Even in the cold conditions I felt like the grip level was really, really good but at the end when the tyres were dropping, I lost a lot of grip. The bike became more physical to ride. Apart from that I was very impressed with the potential of the tyres and I was able to run quite consistently in the start to middle of the second race. I am pretty content.”
“Today was proper old school superbike, with two long races in one day,” added Van der Mark. “This morning we had to go with the harder rear tyre because the track was quite cold. It made the bike difficult to ride because the rear was spinning quite a lot and there wasn’t so much feeling, but we knew this would be the case and it was definitely the right choice for the race. In the second race the temperature had risen enough to go with the soft option rear, but the pace at the start of the race wasn’t as high as I’d expected. I could see Johnny in front of me, but I was battling with a few riders and trying not to lose position, so I couldn’t chase earlier in the race. I tried to stay calm and, once clear of the battles, I managed to close the gap to Johnny and was planning to make the move with two laps to go. But then the opportunity came to go around the outside of him in a fifth gear corner a lap early, so I took it. After that we had a good battle, I think we touched at least once around the back part of the circuit, but we were both struggling for grip at that point. The team did a great job with the bike this weekend, so thanks to them, and a big thank you to the Dutch fans for their support, in what were very cold conditions for anyone sat in the grandstands. I’m happy we could repay them with two podiums today.”
It was a mixed day for the other British contenders. Alex Lowes bagged a pair of fourth places on the second Yamaha to retain third in the championship, behind Bautista and Rea, while Chaz Davies took a fifth and a seventh on his Ducati. Tom Sykes was 10thand seventh on the new BMW S1000RR, while Leon Camier took an 11thand 12thon his Honda.
British champion Leon Haslam, team-mate to Rea at the official Kawasaki squad, had a tough weekend with tyre issues, but still salvaged fifth and eighth in the races. “In both races, with about eight laps to go in race one, the front tyre grip just went and it was even worse in race two, with about 11 or 12 to go,” he said. “I was happy to keep the bike upright and not lose the front. I feel we easily had the pace for podiums but we didn’t, so we have to reassess the problems.”
The championship now takes a one month break, resuming at Italy’s classic Imola circuit on the weekend of 10-12 May.