Ducati’s Nicolo Bulega scores WorldSBK test hat-trick – is he the real deal?

“It’s difficult to say, it’s only testing”

If you had a nickel for every time these words were uttered by a professional racer during pre-season testing time, then you’d be a rich person… in the United States, anyway.

Point is, this is the mantra trotted without the merest hint of wry grin each and every year we come to the business end of pre-season preparations in WorldSBK before the teams and riders jet off to Australia for the opening round of the season.

It’s very frustrating for us commentators and fans who have been starved of results, timesheets and data to pore over for a few months now. Experience tells us that this cut-copy-paste response from riders generally proves to be both [obtusely] right and wrong.

That said, while in MotoGP the unpredictability means you can easily have a rider in first place for one session, only to be outside the top fifteen the next, in WorldSBK the hierarchy is more defined among the manufacturers and then within that the satellite and factory entities.

It all conspires to make Nicolo Bulega’s eye-catching form in three days of unofficial-official testing at Jerez and Portimao all the more intriguing. 

On the one hand, seeing a factory Ducati atop the timesheets is not unusual but while Bulega arguably has the fastest package underneath him, to be so metronomically quick out of the box with zero Superbike experience is still surprising.

Granted, we haven’t seen the best of Alvaro Bautista yet as he dials himself in slowly following a winter of respite through injury, while his usual competition – Jonathan Rea and Toprak Razgatlioglu – are busy getting used to their new respective Yamaha and BMW packages.

As such, it does present an opportunity for Bulega to go about things the opposite way around by grabbing the initiative while he can at the start with some headline-writing performances.

The natural heir to Alvaro Bautista’s WorldSBK throne?

To an extent, this is a great litmus test for Aruba.it Racing. Bulega is the first product of its young rider development programme, bringing the ex-VR46 Academy rider through WorldSSP before placing him straight on a factory Superbike. 

It’s not been without risk since many would have placed Axel Bassani as a more tried and tested alternative to replace Michael Ruben Rinaldi. At the same time though, Ducati have been busy preparing Bulega behind the scenes with private tests at Misano at various stages in 2023, while the switch from V2 to V4 Panigale is more seamless that, say, a Yamaha R6 to Yamaha R1. 

Literally, the seamless power delivery – the Panigale V4’s strength – operates in a similar way, giving Bulega great experience of deploying his bike’s biggest weapon.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised as Bulega’s lap times for this is a transition that didn’t begin with post-season testing at Jerez in November. Plus, with Bautista holding off on setting fast lap times for now, Bulega is having to do much of the heavy fast lifting.

That said, pre-season testing is indeed sometimes a misnomer. Bulega was always strongest in qualifying in WorldSSP and it remains to be seen where he will factor in gnarlier race conditions against the likes of Razgatlioglu, whose comes on strong over a race distance.

Plus, this time last year at Portimao, it was Bulega’s predecessor Rinaldi lighting up the timesheets and look how that ended up…?

Regardless, Bulega does seem the real deal, and certainly Aruba.it Racing would like him to be the natural successor to Bautista’s throne if the Spaniard makes good on his suggestion that 2024 will be his final WorldSBK campaign.

Either way, after years of having the same two or three riders duking it out at the front, Bulega – if he can sustain this pace – is a breath of young, fresh-faced air.


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