The hardest thing in the world for a professional sports star is to retire. When the thrill and drive of competing falls away, sportsmen and women in every discipline tend to fall into a black hole, and spend a long time thrashing around trying to find new meaning in their lives.
Former World Superbike star Troy Bayliss seemed to have his retirement already planned out. His future, he had decided, would lie in Australia's extremely popular V8 Supercars series, and he would channel all of his considerable talent and drive into that sport, and forget all about motorcycle racing.
But according to leading Italian magazine MotoSprint, Bayliss just can't forget about two wheels. MotoSprint is reporting that Bayliss told them at Imola that he wanted to come back to World Superbikes. His outings in V8 Supercars had been a disappointment to him, he told MotoSprint: "The car and the team are good for twentieth place, no more."
And so he had set his mind to World Superbikes again. "I want to race in Superbikes again," he told MotoSprint. "I'll be looking around here at Imola. It's a shame that Ducati have already signed two riders for 2010, I feel that I could have done well next season."
Ducati team boss Davide Tardozzi confirmed that Bayliss had approached him about racing. "Troy asked me if he could race when he landed, last Tuesday. But how could we satisfy his request? We don't have the resources for three riders," Motosprint quotes Tardozzi as saying.
Lately, the flow of racing endorphins has dried up for motorcycle junkies. There hasn't been any bike racing on the world scene since Labor Day weekend (OK, so there has been BSB and *yawn* endurance racing). The sight of once-proud motorcycle journalists posting trivia like a list of the ages of racers as news items is a pitiful one and the most heated topic of discussion is the silly season. Cold Turkey is an ugly experience indeed.
Luckily for us, the drought is nearly over and the World Superbike series will resume this weekend at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, near Imola, Italy. When we last met at the Nurburgring, American rookie sensation "Big" Ben Spies had wrested the lead in the series from Xerox Ducati's "Nitro" Noriyuki Haga as a result of the Texan's win in race one and second place in race two while Haga
was knocked went down as a result of contact with Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea. At the end of the day, Spies found himself atop the leader board, 18 points ahead of Haga.
With 6 races left in the season, the championship has become Spies' to lose. The Yamaha Italia team tested at Imola last July and Spies was at or near the top of the time sheets most of the time. Spies was also fast at the season-ending Portimao test last year on a bike he'd never seen before. That leaves Magny Cours as the only track that the American has no prior seat time at, not that lack of track knowledge has been much of an impediment to his meteoric rise to the top.
Nori looks to have mostly recovered from the broken wrist and shoulder blade incurred at Donington Park in June. Haga finished a close second to Spies in Race one in Germany and was running at the the front before he was taken out. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate, Michel "Mr. Fabulous" Fabrizio hasn't provided much of an assist to Haga, other than his failed pass in race 1 at Brno that sent both himself and Spies into the kitty litter.
With barely time to recover from the shock news that reigning 250 World Champion Marco Simoncelli was testing an Aprilia RSV4 World Superbike machine at Mugello, with an eye to competing in this weekend's WSBK round at Imola, motorcycle racing fans have more to deal with. Aprilia and Simoncelli have confirmed today that Simoncelli will indeed be racing on Sunday at Imola, according to GPOne.com.
The news was almost inevitable: After posting times within six tenths of a second of the times Michel Fabrizio was posting on the factory Xerox Ducati 1098 F09, Simoncelli was always likely to want to race. A conclave this morning of all of the senior figures inside of Aprilia's racing program, including Gigi Dall'Igna and Giampiero Sacchi, as well as Simoncelli's current Gilera team boss Luca Boscoscuro and - rather surprisingly - his team boss next year, Fausto Gresini, made Simoncelli's participation a near certainty. Added to this were Simoncelli's statements to MotoSprint, telling the Italian magazine "When Sacchi offered me the bike on Monday afternoon, I asked for an hour to think it over, but in my heart I decided instantly: I will race!"
After getting off the bike at Mugello, Simoncelli told GPOne.com that he felt pretty comfortable on the bike, much better than the first time he had ridden the Aprilia RSV4 at Valencia at the end of last year. The team had worked on finding a setup that worked for the Italian, and given the times Simoncelli was posting they had obviously found one.
Marco Simoncelli's future may already be fixed, the Italian 250 star having decided to move up to the MotoGP class with Gresini Honda, but the Piaggio Group hasn't quite given up on the Italian yet. Before Simoncelli announced his future, Aprilia had tried to keep him within the fold by persuading the Italian to switch to the World Superbike series, allowing him to test the RSV4 Superbike during the winter in the hope that this might persuade him.
Though Simoncelli's decision came down on the side of MotoGP, he isn't quite done with World Superbikes. For according to the Italian websites GPOne.com and MotoSprint.it, Simoncelli is testing the Aprilia at Mugello alongside Mattia Pasini who is currently testing the Ducati Desmosedici. The point of the test is to see whether Simoncelli believes he is capable of being fast enough on a relatively unknown bike to compete in Sunday's round of World Superbikes at Imola, as a substitute for the injured Shinya Nakano.
GPOne.com reports that the official argument is that Simoncelli is too far behind to have a chance at the 250cc title, conceding a 40 point deficit to Hiroshi Aoyama with 4 races to go, and that therefore the risk to Simoncelli's title chances are minimal. But according to GPOne.com, the pressure to race is coming from Aprilia rather than Simoncelli, for though Simoncelli is very happy to be testing, he is less keen on racing at Imola, a circuit which has attracted criticism for still having a couple of very dangerous spots around the track, despite the changes made recently. Simoncelli and Aprilia are due to make a decision on whether to race or not at the end of Wednesday, once the test has been completed.
Kenan Sofuoglu made strong progress during the second day of testing for the World Supersport field, to finish the test on top of the timesheets. Sofuoglo took over 2 seconds off his time from Wednesday to just edge out Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow. Crutchlow's main title rival, Eugene Laverty, closed the gap with Crutchlow from the first day to just under two tenths of a second.
Overall times after two days of testing:
The second day of testing saw more drama than had been hoped, with Max Neukirchner highsiding off during practice and suffering fractured vertebrae. But it also saw surprises in the timesheets as well. At the end of the day, it was not Michel Fabrizio who was fastest, as on the first day, but Jonathon Rea, the Ten Kate Honda rider getting faster throughout the session, taking over the lead as the end of the test approached. Rea's resurgence saw Fabrizio forced into second place, ahead of the Texan title rival Ben Spies. But Spies had to rely on his time from Wednesday for his standing in the times, as the Yamaha rider had been unable to improve on his time from the first day of testing.
Spies was beaten on Thursday by Lorenzo Lanzi, the Italian who has taken over the DFX Corse Ducati of Regis Laconi who was seriously injured in a crash at Kyalami, but Lanzi's time on Thursday was not good enough to edge out Spies' faster time from Wednesday.
John Hopkins finished the day sixth fastest, but the American was in some trouble. A near highsider on Wednesday afternoon left the American in pain during the night, and after riding in pain during the Thursday morning session, Hopkins decided to have an X ray done to see if he had caused any more damage to his leg. The X ray revealed that calcium was not building up correctly around the bones injured in his hip, and his doctors in the US diagnosed osteoporosis after receiving the X rays by email. The injury leaves Hopkins in doubt for next weekend's Brno round of World Superbikes: If Hopkins decides to ride and crashes, the consequences of a crash could be much more severe.
Overal times from both days of testing:
Max Neukirchner started the 2009 World Superbike season full of hope, and widely tipped as a potential title candidate. But 2009 has been uncommonly cruel to the Alstare Suzuki rider, and his season has been plagued by injury. A horrific first-corner pile up at the Monza round in May saw the German break bones all the way down his leg, and after a lengthy recovery, Neukirchner made a return to riding at the official Imola World Superbike test this week.
His return was not to be long-lived. Neukirchner crashed heavily on just the second day of testing, losing control of his Brux Alstare Suzuki as he exited the Tamburello corner and highsiding on to his back. Neukirchner was examined at the Clinica Mobile, then taken off to a local hospital for further examination. At first he thought he had escaped relatively uninjured, saying "that was a proper crash, but nothing like Monza." But X-rays revealed fractured vertebrae, further endangering his season.
According to the UK's Motorcycle News, Neukirchner's injuries mean that he will be out for either a month or for the rest of the year, depending on the treatment. Given that Neukirchner has already missed over half the season, it may make more sense for the German to have surgery to correct the problem fully, without risking further injury. But riders being riders, he is more likely to want to return to racing as soon as possible, and get back into racing rhythm.
Cal Crutchlow continued his dominance of the World Supersport class in the searing heat of the Imola test. The Yamaha rider set a time over 6/10ths faster than the second fastest man, Ten Kate Honda's Kenan Sofuoglu. Crutchlow's main title rival, Eugene Laverty was a tenth behind Sofuoglu, and another tenth ahead of Crutchlow's Yamaha team mate Fabien Foret.
Testing continues tomorrow.
Michel Fabrizio topped the timesheets after the first day of testing for the World Superbike field at Imola, edging out Yamaha's Ben Spies in the final laps. Fabrizio and Spies were followed by a brace of Hondas bracketing a BMW, Johnny Rea finishing the day ahead of BMW's Ruben Xaus, who was in turn just a few thousandths faster than Rea's Ten Kate Honda team mate Carlos Checa.
The test took place in searing conditions, as the typical summer heat of the lower Po valley took its toll on men, machinery and the tires which Pirelli have brought along for testing. Slightly cooler conditions are expected for tomorrow, for which the Superbike riders will be most grateful.
While most of the attention this week will be on the 9th round of the MotoGP championship at the Sachsenring in Germany, the World Superbike paddock will also be back in action, though on a much more modest scale. This week, the series will be holding its official test at Imola, as part of the familiarization process for the return of the classic Italian track to the calendar.
The track is not completely unchanged, however. A new chicane has been put in in front of the pit garages, the New Variante Bassa, replacing the fast left kink which was there before. Further alterations are expected after the test has completed, moving fencing back and creating extra run off.
The first day of the test on Tuesday will be given over to the two Superstock classes, the Superstock 1000 FIM Cup and the European Superstock 600 Championship. The World Superbike and World Supersport field will be in action on Wednesday and Thursday. So should you happen to be in the vicinity of the Imola circuit, it will be worth your while to drop in and see just how hard the teams and riders have to work outside of race weekends.