After a run of nine-successive race victories, most in dominant fashion, for Bautista aboard the all-new Ducati Panigale V4 R in Australia, Thailand and Aragon, Motorsport.com wrote that he must be wary of history repeating itself and the turnaround which robbed fellow Ducati runner Troy Bayliss of the 2001 title befalling Bautista.
Two further wins at Assen, a circuit many thought would herald in Rea and Kawasaki’s chance to reclaim crucial lost ground, did nothing to quell the thought Bautista could have the title signed, sealed and delivered to Bologna not too far into the second half of the year.
Sure enough, however, the first chink in the V4 R and Bautista’s armour revealed itself next time out at Imola. Ducati General Manager Gigi Dall’Igna noted at the start of the year the V4 R had a long way to go to being a strong bike through the turns, and this coupled with Bautista’s inexperience at the Italian venue opened the door for Rea’s first wins of the season.
Despite this blip, the dramatic downfall Rea needed Bautista to suffer still seemed WIShful thinking. Even crashing out of the second feature race at Jerez looked merely to be a scratch to his hopes, despite his points lead taking a knock of 20 down to 41.
But crashes at Misano, Donington and a brace of falls at Laguna Seca have led to a monumental swing of 142 points in favour of Rea, who capitalised on Bautista’s misfortunes to streak clear in the standings by 81 points heading into the final four rounds.
Rea refuses to get complacent, though.
“No,” he replied when asked if the ZX-10RR could win everywhere now. “Ducati has such a huge advantage on the straight. I’m not very excited about Argentina or Qatar to be honest, to come and watch the sector times after FP1 will be ridiculous, especially in Argentina.
“But you’ve got to do what you can do, every dog has its day. I’ve just got to do the best I can. These tracks like Donington, Laguna, Portimao, maybe even Magny-Cours because we know the Kawasaki works really well there – albeit with the long straight, we can be strong.”
Jonathan Rea, Kawasaki Racing Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
With 62 points available each weekend now Portimao and Magny-Cours back-to-back is disastrous for Bautista.
As proven at Imola in May, inexperience at circuits has been a hindrance to Bautista, and it’s one which Rea has been able to exploit. Rea has done the double at Portimao for the last two seasons, and has won five times at Magny-Cours since joining KRT in 2015. Even if he is worried of Ducati’s horsepower advantage coming to the fore at El Villicum, his experience over Bautista will surely hold more value.
Bautista struggled immensely on his first visit to Portimao during pre-season testing January. His best lap of 1m41.934s was some 1.1 seconds outside of Rea’s test-topping pace. The Ducati rider felt happier on the bike at the circuit last month during a two-day test despite ending up 0.934s off the pace.
However, his lap count was less than most and he packed up early on the second day in order to continue recovering from a shoulder injury – a legacy of his tangle with Toprak Razgatlioglu at Laguna Seca.
Despite over two months on the sidelines, Bautista still feels he’ll need to approach his first Portimao race weekend with self-preservation in mind.
“I hoped to feel better than in this test,” he said. “It was the first time I’ve ridden since the injury, so now the muscle and everything has to remember the movements and effort on the bike.
“We have some days to recover and try again, but for sure we will have to work in a different way for the weekend. Maybe we have to do less laps on Friday to be fresher for the races on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll see, but I hope to be better.”
Yamaha’s Alex Lowes was fastest at the end of the August test, and Yamaha will certainly be a constant threat on the run to the end of the campaign. The new S1000RR BMW is ever-improving, and Tom Sykes has been knocking on the door of a breakthrough victory with it for some times.
Throw in a Leon Haslam invigorated by his effort to help Kawasaki to its Suzuka 8 Hours win and KRT’s renewed belief in him for 2020, a Razgatlioglu desperate for a debut win and, of course, the devastatingly consistent Rea, and Bautista’s below-par fitness could well be the final nail in the coffin.
Chaz Davies, Aruba.it Racing-Ducati Team
Photo by: Gold and Goose / LAT Images
Perhaps his saviour could come from within. Teammate Chaz Davies has endured a torrid season of struggle with injury and adapting to the V4 R.
But at Laguna Seca the ‘old’ Davies returned to form, as he eased to his first win since last year’s Aragon round. His confidence boosted and his pace on the V4 R now more solid, he could prove to be a vital ally for Bautista.
Unquestionably, Portimao represents Bautista’s last throw of the dice to salvage the championship challenge his implosion over the last four rounds has wrought.
A similar fate striking down Rea seems unlikely. He hasn’t crashed into retirement from a race since the second race at Brno last year, and that wasn’t even his fault; you have to go back to Germany race one in 2016 to find a DNF Rea was the sole cause of. Bautista’s confidence must also surely be lying in tatters following his spate of falls.
So, while a slim chance remains, a maiden WSBK title has all but slipped from Bautista’s grasp.