In front of 32,000 adoring Spanish fans, Bautista lived up to pre-weekend predictions of being the favourite, securing all three wins in effortless fashion. It means he’s now won 11 of the 12 races so far held in 2023, and has given him a healthy 69-point championship lead.
Bautista is always keen to explain that success is never guaranteed but the more time that passes, the harder it becomes to take his pronouncements seriously, especially considering the way he is able to play with his opponents aboard his Panigale V4 R.
It’s never good for the health of any series when one driver or rider wins all the time, and WSBK is no exception. If Bautista continues his dominant form, it’s conceivable he could wrap up a second title by WSBK’s return to Spanish soil at Aragon in September.
This is bad news for series promoter Dorna amid signs that fan interest is dwindling. True, the championship survived a six-year run of dominance by Kawasaki man Jonathan Rea, but even then compelling rivalries with the likes of Tom Sykes, Chaz Davies, Scott Redding and even Bautista himself helped keep the fans at least somewhat engaged.
Bautista’s current form is likely to be giving Dorna some serious headaches, whose options to rein in the Ducati man’s dominance currently appear limited.
Prior to Barcelona, it was announced that Ducati would be subject to a 250rpm rev limit cut, but this had no discernible effect on Bautista’s performance. It was instead the customer Ducati riders that suffered the most, because adapting to a new rev limit requires changes to gear ratios and electronics that are easier for the factory to manage than smaller teams.
Perhaps the rev limit change may have an impact at other tracks, but it appears Bautista’s margin over the opposition is enough to absorb a minor reduction in performance.
Now a further rev change is off the table, what else can Dorna do? After all, while the Ducati is the best package on the grid, it’s clear Bautista is able to extract so much more from it than any of the other riders in the Italian marque’s stable.
Michael Ruben Rinaldi came away with just a single podium finish at Barcelona, while satellite riders Danilo Petrucci (Barni), Axel Bassani (Motocorsa) and Phillipp Oettl (GoEleven) all failed to crack the top 10 in the second full-length race.
The combination between Bautista and the Panigale V4 R is so perfect that it’s hard to see what else the organisers can do. Even the idea of a combined minimum weight for both rider and motorcycle, which was talked about a lot last year, has been shelved for now.
And let’s be honest — it’s not just down to weight, as evidenced by Bautista’s struggles during his two-year stint at Honda in 2020-21. Who back then was calling for WSBK to urgently adopt a minimum combined rider/bike weight?
Speculation about Bautista’s future was gathering pace prior to the Barcelona round, and certainly if the 38-year-old had decided to call it a career — as he was strongly hinting at — he would have been doing Dorna a big favour. Instead, at a special press conference on the Thursday of race week, he revealed he had signed to stay on at Ducati in 2024.
Just after the press conference, this writer had the chance to briefly speak to Bautista, and it was evident just how comfortable he feels at this stage of his career. Everything is fitting together perfectly in a way it often didn’t earlier in his career. All too frequently, he found himself on the wrong bike at the wrong time.
It’s impressive just how focused Bautista is, and how much joy he derives from the sacrifices he makes to stay on top of his game. On Sunday afternoon, after securing his third win of the weekend, he proudly told the assembled journalists that he would be awake at 6.30am the following day to start training. That’s what is giving him fulfilment at the moment.
It’s hard to see an end to Bautista’s dominance. Donington Park has never been a good circuit for him, but besides the British track it’s hard to pick any other venue where he wouldn’t be the favourite to win. Even the wet is hardly slowing him down these days, as demonstrated in the opening weekend of the year at Phillip Island.
The mistakes Bautista made in 2019, when he made a similarly dominant start to the season, won’t be repeated. Back then, he was a rookie on a brand-new bike, and amid the pressure he and Ducati went astray in terms of development and set-up. Now he knows how to handle the bike and the Pirelli tyres, and he’s comfortable with the WSBK format.
That’s bad news for his rivals, and for Dorna as they watch the fan interest built up from a thrilling past few seasons slowly drain away again.