Alvaro Bautista and Honda are continuing step by step to build up the confidence needed to fight at the top in SBK in the debut season for the new CBR 1000 RR-R. The Spaniard ended the first day of free practice in Phillip Island with eighth quickest time in the combined sessions that gives him hope, because the gap to leader Redding is less than eight-tenths of a second, the smallest since Alvaro stepped onto the Japanese bike.
The steps forward are evident, and session after session the confidence of the Spaniard increases. As he pointed out, at the moment he feels much more relaxed about race pace rather than outright performance and this can only be a good sign in view of his debut with the bike, on a track that puts a strain on the tyres and the rider’s strategy. Bautista may not be able to fight for pole, but the feeling is that he can be a difficult customer for the others in the race.
You seem to have used the tests to put the package together in view of the race, a bit like you did in 2019. Are you ready now?
"It’s more or less like that. Of course, the conditions are different from last season - said Bautista - as I said after the tests, we collected a lot of data and we had some ideas. It was a pity that the weather was not good this morning We made a big modification to the bike to check how much confidence I could have, but in the morning, it was virtually impossible to understand how things were. In the afternoon we kept that set-up and we certainly found something positive. There are some negative points to work on, but at the same time we collected more data on the behaviour of the bike when you make some changes. If it had been dry this morning, I would have had some ideas to use in the afternoon, but we will do it tomorrow morning. We will try and improve".
This bike is very different to the V4. Laverty, who rides the BMW that has an inline 4 like your Honda, said that to ride it you need a completely different style.
"The engine is something else for sure. This engine is closer to a two-stroke in the way it behaves. You have to be more aggressive, but you also have to manage it well, because you have less room to make mistakes. You have to be more precise with the throttle. At least that's what I feel at this stage of the bike's development. We are certainly working a lot on electronics to make it easier to ride. At the moment I honestly don't yet know how to ride this bike, I'm trying to be more aggressive in some areas. but smoother in others. I don't know what the key is to interpret it, I still don't feel very comfortable on the bike. I agree to a certain extent with what Eugene Laverty says".
Today, however, you finished with the lowest gap to the leader since you got on the Honda.
"Yes, this morning was the session with the smallest gap since I got on this bike and this is important. At the moment for me the most important thing remains the sensations on the bike, and we are certainly not at the top, not yet. But I'm happy, because after today I have some ideas to experiment with tomorrow that can help me find the right confidence ".
Have you already developed a strategy for the race, do you have a plan?
"Honestly, I am not yet thinking about the race right now. I am focused on FP3, because I want to improve my confidence on the bike more and try to get to our maximum possible performance this weekend. The race here is always a question mark, because tyre consumption remains a key issue. I think considering everything I am more ready from the point of view of the race pace rather than over one lap. Let's see how it will go tomorrow, every day is different, and I always have higher expectations. But at the moment I am still not focused on the race, but on the FP3 because I want to use it to improve ".
You are very fast in the middle sectors of the track and slower in the other two. What does that depend on?
"I think the second and third sectors are less connected to the top speed and they are also two points on the track where, despite not having the best confidence, you can push more. In the first and last sector, on the other hand, with the aggressive braking and long curves, maybe we suffer more. Today with the set-up we used we felt better in that area of the track. As I said, today we found some positive and other negative aspects".
In the other half of the Honda garage, Leon Haslam confirmed that he really likes Phillip Island, a track on which he has picked up splendid SBK victories in the past. The Briton ended the day today with a great 4th position, exactly half a second behind Redding. An excellent result and a good injection of confidence in view of the race.
"Of course, I like this track very much. We missed a bit of work this morning because of the bad weather - said Haslam - I had intended to concentrate totally on the work for the race, maybe do a simulation with the race tyres. In any case we did what we had to do, and we have the information we need to make the right choices. "
There are a lot of riders in less than a second. Will the race be spectacular?
"This is a unique track, fast and smooth in its design. Usually the races here are spectacular and hard-fought. I think that right here I had closest ever finish in my career. It's always exciting to race at Phillip Island, you have to know how to manage the tyres, you have to have a precise plan also as regards your riding style. It is a race where you have to think a lot. "
You seem faster this year with Honda than you were in 2019 with the Kawasaki.
"Honestly this project is completely new, and we don't know many things about it. Last year I raced with Kawasaki, we knew very well the set-ups and I had a teammate who was always ready to race for the victory. We had much more information right from the start, while now we are using each session to learn something, and we feel that we are getting closer and closer. This is really a great thing for me. We still have a lot of things to try and at the moment we are building up all the information, there are no benchmarks we can use ".
Reckon you can get on the podium?
"We are close enough to fight and I know that tomorrow when we are all on the grid, we will concentrate on trying to win. I think we still need a few more sessions to really get the bike set up well and certainly this will help us a lot for the race. When you are on the track, you always want to win on the track, but it certainly won't be easy. Last year the Ducati was very strong with Bautista and this year it will be very strong with Scott. Rea will always be up at the front and the Yamahas have also improved, so it won't be easy at all ".
What are you focusing on in the development of the bike?
"The main aspect we are working on is improving riding confidence. We are trying many things to find it and both Alvaro and I are working in this direction. Each of us brings back the information to the pits to improve. Right now, they are giving us more things to try than the time we have to try them. We are taking it one step at a time ".
How is it going in the box, what’s the harmony like with your new team?
"For us it is the first race from all points of view. The bike is new, the team is new. It is not just about the development of the bike, but also about the development of the relationship between everything, between me and the team, the relationship with Honda. That's why the development is going well even without putting any new components on the bike and I feel very excited about how much we are improving."
Audio recording by Riccardo Guglielmetti