Gordon Ritchie |
Picture: GeeBee Pictures
Absolute Superbike rookies Iker Lecuona and Xavi Vierge, drafted into the full HRC Honda WorldSBK squad for the 2022 season, would have seen Assen as a gamble, whatever the season.
But after two tough years on the “new” Fireblade RR-R, and few podium finishes even for an experienced rider like Alvaro Bautista, at first glance the dual rookie strategy seemed like a last-ditch sedan when you didn’t. had more other options.
Last year Honda was far from out of options, with strong potential signings everywhere for their comprehensive and well-funded factory effort. All had more production-derived racing experience than two MotoGP products like Lecuona and Virgo.
Assen was hardly a potential podium festival for Virgo, who is still carrying injuries, but for Lecuona even a huge accident at the start of the weekend could not prevent him from having a good weekend in the top five that culminated in his first WorldSBK podium after just six races.
Had Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu not fallen in race two, Lecuona and all know he would have finished in the top five, but nothing can hide the fact that in the early days of their combination, Lecuona plus Honda equals at 99% competitiveness.
It didn’t look like it on Friday, as Lecuona explained during her surprise appearance at the Assen Media Center on Sunday afternoon.
“In FP1 I finished second, in FP2 I had a big crash,” he said with a slight grimace. “I had a lot of pain in my leg all weekend. At that point, I feel like I have little potential not to fight for the podium, but to fight for P4, P5 maybe, because I feel very, very strong. In the first race I was P5. In Superpole too I had a very good time and again finished P5. So I know it’s a good choice to try to break away with the best drivers because it’s the best result on the grid, P5. I know that the first laps I use a little more tires. I can take a bit of a gap with the other guys in the second group, and maybe try for the podium and maybe try to fight for P4.
After the Jonathan/Toprak incident, Lecuona even led a bit. “I said, now is the time to try to attack because I know the yellow flag is not for me, because it is right in front of me. So I can overtake because I was the crash, but I’m not looking at any yellow flags. So, I overtake Alvaro and Locatelli. I tried to push. I tried to take a little distance. But in the end, I know that Alvaro is very fast, so I tried to follow for a few laps to gain some distance. I can do it, but Locatelli also went really fast in the end.
“The last four or five laps I struggled with the rear tyre. I have zero, zero grip. I just wanted to manage it. The next ones, the group behind me, were almost four seconds away, so I know the last three laps that I need to stay calm and finish the race. I did it and finished on the podium. I didn’t expect it, but for sure, I’m very, very happy to finish on the podium.
The WorldSBK paddock didn’t know much about Lecuona when he signed, but from the start he showed he had quality – as you would expect from a rider trained through the MotoGP system. and with the right approach to life a lower level.
“When asked how much the 2022 bike has been improved over the 2021 version, to achieve such a result so early, Lecuona said: ‘Of course the bike has improved step by step. We need more time. I know if everyone stays on track maybe my position is P5, to fight for P5. But, ultimately, I’m here and if a runner goes down, I can take advantage of it. For me, the bike is a bit better, but we have to develop it more.
“But it’s true that I come from MotoGP. Two years with the KTM and it’s not an easy bike. Everyone can check now – they struggle a lot, runners. I’m still in the top ten. Maybe not always, but I fight for a podium once or for the top six. So I’m a rider who likes to adapt to the bike and I try to get the most out of it. I try to do it with the bike. Also my father said last night that he believed in me more than anyone, more than my mother, for example, because he knows it very well. He always comes with me. He said if I’m focused and put my 100% on the bike I can fight for the podium and the moment I check the group I say it’s the day. It’s time to focus and put everything on the bike, and I can do that.
Lecuona was another driver just behind the Rea/Razgatlioglu crash, and he said: “A strange crash. It happens sometimes. I think it’s a racing incident. Rea goes inside and Toprak goes too close. When he crashed, I also overtook Locatelli and I overtook Alvaro. I hit Alvaro. It happens sometimes. I think it’s nothing crazy. But also, I watch from the bike and from behind. It’s also difficult to see everything that happened in the area.
When asked if they touched and then fell, Lecuona replied, “Yeah, from what I checked, it’s just Rea going inside and Toprak going outside and the two crashed. But it sometimes happens in fast corners like this. But I’m late, so I can’t say 100%. It’s just my idea.
After a strong start at Motorland on the first lap and a strong recovery from a tough start at Assen, another real test for Lecuona is coming. The third round, at Estoril, is the first round of the year that does not take place on a recent MotoGP circuit. Honda has not done winter testing there, and no 2022 HRC rider has ever raced there.