The sinuous ‘old-school’ parkland circuit, flowing around inside the ancient city of Imola itself, brings many happy and some tough memories for all inside the Kawasaki family. The first Imola race win on a Ninja Superbike was earned by eventual world champion, Tom Sykes (KRT), during the 2013 season. He had a perfect weekend on the Ninja ZX-10R, taking two race wins on Sunday after scoring the Superpole win. It was a particularly poignant weekend for Sykes and KRT as his former team-mate Joan Lascorz had suffered life-changing injuries there in testing. After paying tribute to his friend and former rival Lascorz, Tom seized the championship lead after his Imola double and eventually was crowned 2013 WorldSBK CHampion.
After winning both races at Imola in 2014 for a rival manufacturer, Jonathan Rea just kept his momentum winning both Imola races in 2015, his first year with Kawasaki. He has gone on to score a total of six wins so far on the Ninja at Imola, including both events last season, even though one of the planned three races was cancelled due to weather conditions.
Rea, a five time world champion, can win anywhere, but Imola is one of these tracks he seems to have a particularly strong connection with.
“It is a special track,” said Jonathan, from his home in Northern Ireland. “I have won there numerous times and it is a circuit where the rider can really make a difference. There are undulations and areas where you can put your body in different places on the bike to make the lap work. I think having a motocross background really works there as well. You just get in the zone.”
Rea continued, “I think it is great that Dorna are still working hard to get a calendar underway, in 2020 rescheduling events with the circuits, and finding dates. For me it is definitely sad not to see Imola on the schedule. It is one of the most iconic circuits on the Superbike calendar, especially because of that last lap finale there in 2002 with Edwards and Bayliss.”
Jonathan offered some insights into what it takes to win at Imola – how that particular game should be played. “You have to have the bike set-up to be really stable,” he said. “While it is important to get the bike to change direction through the chicanes it is more important to be able to stop for them. So we always really focus on getting the bike to stop consistently from an engine-braking point of view and trying to keep the rear wheel on the ground as much as possible. A good start is very important at Imola as it is a hard track to pass on. Tyre wear is not a huge issue but track position is everything in the first laps. It is very hard to create a perfect lap, to be honest, as you are always in search of that. There is always something you could do a bit better. When you find your rhythm and that little groove you get in, and settle into it you can see the pit board gap going up and up to your nearest rival, it is a huge satisfaction I have enjoyed at Imola.”
Fabien Foret was Kawasaki’s very first Imola WorldSSP race winner in 2012, with Kawasaki Intermoto Step. He remembers it well, and Imola itself for other reasons too. “I remember the race win in 2012 but I also remember Imola even more as the place I won the championship in 2002. I have a good memory of 2012 and I saw my chance for the win there with Kawasaki. The track was always what you can call ‘old school’. Not the safest track to ride but it gives you a good feeling - and adrenaline. There are many ups and downs and also many blind entries. There are also so many elevations; it is a bit like Brands Hatch.”
Foret had already won two previous races at the Italian circuit, with the 2012 success for Kawasaki giving him an Imola ‘triple’ crown of race victories.
Foret is now Rea’s rider coach, helping him analyse his riding style, and like Jonathan, he appreciates Imola for more than its on-track aspects. “I also absorb the atmosphere in Imola in the springtime. It has nice weather most of the time and you have nice food in Italy. Even if you are focused on you racing you can still enjoy the Wednesday, have a nice dinner and enough relaxation before the weekend starts.”
Speaking of Imola… Who can forget the farewell made by the injured all-time WorldSSP great Kenan Sofuoglu at his Kawasaki Puccetti Racing team’s home circuit in 2018? But, it is worth remembering that Kenan won many races at Imola for Kawasaki.
In the three-year lifespan of the WorldSSP300 championship 2018 World Champion Ana Carrasco took a win on her Kawasaki Ninja400 at Imola, the same year she took her title.
And what a race win – a true ‘Ana Special’ – as she dominated practice and then the race itself. “I think that race was the perfect one for us,” she remembers. “All weekend we were very strong in every practice and I was on pole. The key was to be one second ahead after the first lap. More than one second means it is easy to try to go. After lap three or four Robert Schotman and another rider crashed trying to follow me, about three seconds behind. When they fell the gap was around seven or eight seconds from the group. That crash was the key for me to win with a 14 second gap.”
Ana, who became the first woman to win a full FIM World Championship against all comers, is not 100% clear why that race was such a display of front-running prowess.
“I am not sure why I was so fast there, it is not a circuit that normally suits me a lot,’ she confessed. “But from the first day I was fast, and it was easy for me. The bike was working well so every year I liked it a lot. On the 400 it is important to have a good bike set-up in the chicane, because after there is a long straight, and also after corner eight. So on the 400 it is important to go fast exiting the chicanes. The Kawasaki was good at that point.”
Although no longer a ‘live’ championship, being replaced by the WorldSSP300 class, the European Superstock 600 Championship (for very lightly modified road going machines and younger riders), saw five Kawasaki Ninja wins in nine years. It all began in 2006 Davide Giugliano, before Joshua Day (2011), Alessandro Nocco (2013), Marco Faccani (2014) and Toprak Razgatlioglu (2015) all took their Kawasakis to the top step of the Imola podium.
So, for this season at least, it’s seems that the parkland circuit of Imola will not echo to the sound of the Superbike paddock and Kawasaki fans will be denied their chance to see Ninja machinery fighting for podium glory. But for sure racing will return and Kawasaki riders will do their best to add to the impressive tally of race wins at this iconic Italian circuit.