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Jonathan Rea at the 2017 World Superbike Acerbis Dutch Round

No rest at the test to be the best: Kawasaki get primed for 2018 WorldSBK

Feb 012018

It doesn't feel like a motorsport circuit. No hubbub of people, no cheers, no colours, no sense of occasion. There is the familiar howl of bespoke racing motorcycles and those distinctive noises of a throttle being closed, a popping and swoop into the turns. Grandstands that are normally full hypnotise with the seemingly endless rows of vacant identical seating.

This is a (vital) stage of motorcycle racing that very few see: testing. The post-and-pre season periods where teams and factories dissect analyse and prepare for the next competitive campaign.

The first FIM World Championship to switch off the red lights in 2018 will be WorldSBK in just under a month with the opening round of thirteen taking place at the phenomenal Phillip Island in Australia. The all-conquering Kawasaki Racing Team – a Barcelona-based crew that have claimed four of the last five WorldSBK titles thanks to current riders Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes – have set about their work away from public eyes to ensure they are in a position to be top dogs once more.

Testing seems a fairly mundane exercise. A unit of people and technical experts, an ethos and collection of equipment that has one purpose - to win races – functioning in a largely non-competitive environment. For Kawasaki though the tweak to WorldSBK regulations means curbing some of the potency of the ZX-10RR and some extra emphasis on optimising their ‘package’ for 2018. The winter has arguably been one of the most crucial periods for record-setting Rea (MBE and BBC Sports Personality of the Year runner-up) with a view towards a fourth championship in a row and an even bigger profile for the soon-to-be 31 year old who is already regarded as one of the finest motorcycle racers.

At Jerez, Spain KRT are fully engrossed in a careful testing plan for the week that balances examination of different areas of the motorcycle. “Testing is essential, and this year we have it bang-on,” Rea says in the second floor of the Kawasaki hospitality and armed with an espresso at the end of another day of activity. “We’ve come to Jerez for five days in the past and get to a point where we are so fast and then just crash: we ride for the sake of riding and waste tyres and fuel just to make laps. This season I’ve kept my motivation up by taking days off and letting things sink in and letting Pere [Riba, Crew Chief] and the mechanics look at the data. It is a bit of a different philosophy.”


Testing might not be the most stimulating part of a race team’s job but each member of Rea’s set-up is unequivocal on the role it plays. “It is one of the most important moments of the year,” stresses Riba. “During the races you simply cannot test some parts of the bike. The weekend is short and you have to concentrate on set-up, to understand the tyres and work with the rider to make him 100% comfortable with the package at that circuit. If you suddenly want to use a new swing arm then you can do it but it is risky and you can lose time; the lap-time might be good on Friday but the durability for the race isn’t. There are thousands of parts on a bike. So these few days are for us to try some ideas that we have to develop the bike for the following year.”


“We don’t enjoy it so much but the moments when Johnny tries something and likes it and he improves are satisfying,” offers Arturo Perez, Rea’s mechanic. “But it’s hard because there is no sporting goal, no competitive element. It is a full day and when it’s finished then we prep the bike for the next day.”


“This is a very interesting time technically,” comments Chief Mechanic Uri Pallarès. “At this test we’ve been here for five days, but have worked for three: less laps but at high quality. There hasn’t been a single lap run without purpose.”


The dynamics of a motorcycle are more complicated and convoluted than that of a car. There is a delicate chemistry between machine and rider to forge a winning combination. Riba is able to offer some insight into the process: “The engine character is different for 2018 so the way to ride the bike will be also as we lose a little bit of power, so we need to make more corner speed and this means a change to the frame. We’ll use the power differently and the rider has to be accustomed to this. We have to understand the direction we’ll take for the year. If we need to build and make parts then this winter period is the best time for the factory to do it.”

“I would say that it is not like other sports where you are constantly practicing,” the reigning champion muses. “You are trying to improve yourself a little bit but it is more about going through a list of new items for the bike. In a way, it is like a football player playing in new boots all day or kicking different kinds of footballs. It is a necessity for us.”


“It means 90% effort for all laps,” he continues. “You try one swing arm, then another and do back-to-back runs with different forks; a standard and then two variations to find a certain feeling. These are things you need to do because on a race weekend you are focussed on performance and it is difficult to analyse components. At a test, and without too many time constraints you can work calmly and methodically to achieve the best results.”


The rest of the WorldSBK grid and race fans around the globe have more than a good idea of what ‘best results’ means for JR and his merry band. If their winter labours are as effective as the previous three years then the series will remain in this talented athlete’s grip for a while longer.