The latest in the long line of World Superbike riders to be interviewed by the assembled press in the run up to the US round of WSBK at Miller Motorsports Park at the end of May was Max Biaggi. Unfortunately, MotoMatters.com was not able to participate, as we were on a flight to Qatar at the time the call was scheduled. We weren't missed, and the people who could attend came up with some pretty interesting questions for Biaggi to answer. In the interview, Biaggi talks about his two wins at Portimao, evaluates the relative strengths and weaknesses of the top teams in World Superbikes, explains why he decided against switching to F1 despite having had a test in a Ferrari, and admits that he still misses the two-stroke 500cc Grand Prix bikes. Well worth a read:
Moderator: Good morning, everybody. I'm John Gardner, the Media Manager at Miller Motorsports Park. This is the fourth in our series of teleconferences with riders in the HANNspree World Superbike Championship leading up to the Utah USA round, which will take place here at Miller Motorsports Park on Memorial Day weekend, May 29th to the 31st.
We are very pleased today to have with us Max Biaggi, who rides for the Alitalia Aprilia team and swept both rounds of the recent race in Portugal. He's currently second in the championship and is a legend in this sport. We're very honored to have you here, Max. Welcome.
Max Biaggi: Hi. Thank you.
Moderator: It was a big weekend for you in Portugal. How are things looking for you coming into Valencia this weekend?
Max Biaggi: Well, first of all, I'm very, very happy with the result we did in Portugal. And Valencia, I think, is going to be a good weekend for us. We'll be competitive with everybody there and possibly in the top three all the time. So, I'm quite confident for that.
The news has been leaked, announced and reported for the last couple of weeks, but finally today Aprilia announced its partnership with Alitalia, to act as title sponsor for the Noale factory's World Superbike squad. At the bike launch - held rather spectacularly at Rome's Fiumicino airport - Aprilia's new head of Product Development and Strategy, Maurizio Roman, unveiled the Aprilia's new livery, flaunting the Italian tricolor red, green and white as used by the Italian flag carrier. The actual financial details of the deal were not discussed, though as both Alitalia and the Piaggio Group are owned in part by Italian tycoon Roberto Colaninno, it is hard to regard the deal as outside sponsorship of the industry.
After yesterday's instalment of Scott Jones' fantastic images from Qatar, today we have more, from the heart of Utah's stunning landscapes. The World Superbike paddock went to Miller Motorsports Park, and Scott Jones captured it all on film. With such a breathtaking backdrop, Scott is at his best. Savor round 7 of the World Superbike series all over again, and remember that you can help out by supporting MotoMatters.com in 2010.
2009's Nearly Man: Nitro Nori, and Mr March in the MotoMatters.com 2010 Racing Calendar
Testing concluded at Valencia for the World Superbike riders today, and it was Max Biaggi who finished the test on top of the timesheets. Biaggi broke Noriyuki Haga's existing lap record by some eight tenths of a second on his final lap of the test, before climbing off the bike and heading off to the airport to fly back home. Biaggi finished ahead of yesterday's fastest man Leon Haslam, the young Briton confirming his excellent pace on the Alstare Suzuki. Third fastest was Sterilgarda Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow, just a tenth off Haslam's time. The reigning World Supersport champion has taken no time at all to adapt to the World Superbike machines, and continues to be very quick.
Crutchlow finished ahead of both Johnny Rea and James Toseland, the Ten Kate Honda man working on new suspension, while Toseland concentrated on electronics and chassis setup for his Yamaha R1. Reigning British Superbike champion Leon Camier finished some way off the pace, after crashing a couple of times during the day. He was joined in the gravel by Ten Kate Supersport rider Michele Pirro and James Toseland, though all three riders walked away uninjured.
Unofficial times from day 2 at Valencia:
Alstare Suzuki's Leon Haslam was the fastest of the World Superbike paddock on the first day of testing at Valencia. The young Briton was quickly up to speed on the new Suzuki GSX-R1000, taking two tenths of a second off Noriyuki Haga's race lap record at Valencia. That was exactly the same margin by which Haslam was faster than Max Biaggi, the Aprilia rider continuing his development of the RSV4, the bike continuing to show potential.
James Toseland had a strong outing at his second test of the bike, and pronounced himself pleased to be riding at a track he knows so well, after initially making his debut on the Yamaha R1 at Portimao, a tough track to master, without also having to get to grips with a new bike and tires. Toseland and his team mate Cal Crutchlow spent their time working on a new electronics package, the necessity of which was demonstrated by an early crash for Toseland. The Englishman locked the rear of his Yamaha up on a cold tire, while changing down between Turns 4 and 5.
Johnny Rea set the 4th fastest time of the day, just ahead of Crutchlow. Crutchlow was 0.7 faster than the second Ten Kate Honda rider Max Neukirchner, Aprilia's Leon Camier and Aprilia's test rider Alex Hoffman.
As has been widely supposed here on MotoMatters, and nearly everywhere else in the racing press, 2009 BSB champion Leon Camier has signed to race alongside Max Biaggi on the Factory Aprilia Racing Team in 2010. Aprilia's recent withdrawal with extreme prejudice from Moto2 to concentrate on WSBK and the proposed 1000cc 2012 MotoGP regulations, leaves open the possibility that the Noale based manufacturer will field a satellite team in WSBK in 2010 with MotoGP refugee Alex de Angelis as a possible rider next to Guandalini Ducati/Aprilia's Jakub Smrz.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
A variety of sources are reporting that 2009 British superbike champion Leon Camier has or will shortly sign a deal that will see him ride alongside Max Biaggi on the factory Aprilia team in the World Superbike championship. Camier will test with the team at Misano Wednesday and Thursday and some sort of announcement may be made by the team at that time. The young Brit has been considered a front-runner for the vacant seat after riding for the team at Magny Cours and Portimao. At Portimao, Camier finshed a creditable 6th and 7th after mechanical issues sabotaged his French appearance.
San Marinan Alex de Angelis had also been considered as a leading candidiate for the ride but his reportedly high salary demands allegedly tipped the balance in Camier's favor. de Angelis is a contender for a ride on an Aprilia satellite team that will reportedly be a mash-up of the Guandalini and Sterilgarda Ducati teams but his ability to bring funding to the team is thought to be a prime factor in whether he gets that ride.
Althea Ducati has announced that Shane "Shakey" Byrne will team with Carlos Checa on the squad in the World Superbike championship in 2010. Althea ended a relationship with Honda at the end of the 2009 season that had lasted the last two years in favor of the Bologna based manufacturer. Byrne brings extensive experience with the 1098 Superbike to Althea, having won the 2008 British superbike championship and placing eighth in the 2009 WSBK season astride the Italian machine. Byrne had been previously thought to be in contention for a factory ride with Kawasaki and Aprilia, but Kawasaki opted to sign Chris Vermeulen and Tom Sykes. Aprilia is thought to be considering Leon Camier and Alex De Angelis to team with Max Biaggi.
With Shinya Nakano returning to the fold at Portimao after an injury plagued rookie season in World Superbike, Aprilia Racing will dig deep and field a third bike for newly-crowned British Superbike champion Leon Camier. The ride for Camier is a second audition for a seat on the team after his debut with the squad at Magny Cours showed flashes of promise but was marred by technical difficulties. Nakano, who has had difficulties both with injuries and a self-admitted problem adapting his 250 based style to superbikes, is widely believed to be on his way out of the factory squad.Alex DeAngelis had been linked to the second seat but rumors are increasing that the San Marinan will take a ride with Scot Honda in MotoGP. Sterilgarda Ducati's Shane "Shakey" Byrne is also considered a contender for the Aprilia ride.
Motorcycle racers, journalists and fans tend to talk about the sport in terms of a physical struggle. Riders and teams are always fighting or battling for the lead, championship or what have you. To be sure, there are parallells between the sweet science and racing; fighters and racers both spend endless hours training to be in top condition and both have to ply their trade hurting as often as not. Strategy is important too, as the combatants look to defend their position or deliver a knock-out blow that will defeat their opponent. The two men that are left in the ring in the 2009 World Superbike series championship, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga, came into the next to last round at Magny Cours, nearly too close to call on points, each looking for the advantage that would KO their rival or serve to let them live to fight another day.
Race 1: Don't Look Back, Something Might be Gaining on You
It's been an awfully busy week for Ben Spies. If one admires anything about the young Texan other than his blinding speed, it's the the forthright, no worries way he goes about conducting his business. One imagines that he has a list of tasks to be accomplished and then checked off when done, rather like shopping for groceries or some such other mundane task. This week those tasks have included fielding enquiries from hundreds of journalists, finally being able to talk about his appointment to the Tech Trois Yamaha MotoGP team and making sure that his travel plans to Valencia are changed to a few days earlier than anticipated so that he can participate as a wild card in the season-ending MotoGP race. On top of that extracurricular stuff, Spies still has his day job to do, which this weekend involves qualifying well, winning two Superbike races in France and regaining his lead in the World Superbike championship.
Friday started out sunny and clear, but by the end of the day we had huge clouds and even some lightning in the distance. Fortunately, no rain arrived before the final session, but there is a chance of thundershowers tomorrow. Miller is set in a valley surrounded by mountains, and even in late May some snow remains on the highest spots. As the clouds gathered in the distance, the setting grew more and more spectacular.
Several riders from the AMA Pro Superbike series are here on wild card rides. Jake Zemke made his WSBK debut last season, but now is filling in for injured Stiggy Honda rider John Hopkins. Hopper is here this weekend and looking pretty fit. He should return soon.
Another notable AMA rider is Melissa Paris, wife of Josh Hayes, who recently ended Yoshimura's 55-win streak at Infineon Raceway. Paris is competing in the Supersport class and making a respectable showing so far.
The World Superbike season has barely started, and already the controversy has started. The first blow was landed before the first race had even started: Alstare Suzuki team boss Francis Batta complained to the Italian press that the Aprilia RSV4 that Max Biaggi used to grab the runner up spot in Superpole was illegal. "The Aprilia is a prototype, and as such, is not allowed to race here in SBK. We will wait until after the race to make a formal complaint," he told the Italian broadcaster La7.
In the hours since the race, word of any official protest being lodged is yet to emerge, and so the statements made by Batta should probably be put down to the flamboyant Belgian's hot temper, rather than a genuine statement of intent. And given the results of Sunday's two Superbike races, where both Max Biaggi and Shinya Nakano finished outside the top 10, Batta may have decided to keep his powder dry, and wait for a more opportune moment.
But even if the Alstare boss does go ahead with his complaint, it is likely to fall on deaf ears. The Aprilia RSV4 1000 Factory has been homologated and approved by the FIM, making them officially legal in World Superbikes. According to Twowheelsblog.com, Batta's complaints center around the Aprilia's fuel injection system, which Alstare mechanics are claiming is the system as homologated. According to the FIM rules, the race bikes must use the same fuel injection system as used on the homologated machine. But any violation would be immediately apparent once the scrutineers get their hands on the machines at the technical inspection.
The brand new Superpole format adopted by World Superbikes for the 2009 season threw up a great many conundrums at Phillip Island on Saturday, as well as a few surprises. But perhaps most of all, it also threw up confirmation of what some had suspected, and many had hoped.
The format is relatively simple, and borrowed from Formula 1:
- The 20 riders who set the fastest times during the two ordinary qualifying practice sessions go through to the new Superpole;
- At the end of the afternoon, Superpole is run, consisting of three 12 minute sessions, with a 7 minute break between the sessions. The riders are given two qualifying tires, which they can use at any time during any of the three Superpole sessions. But only two super-soft qualifiers spread over three sessions means that they will have to use race tires only in at least one of the sessions;
- At the end of the first Superpole session, the 4 slowest riders are excluded, and grid positions 17 through 20 assigned in order of time;
- At the end of the second Superpole session, the 8 slowest riders are excluded, and grid positions 9 through 16 are awarded in order of the time set in the second session;
- In the third and final Superpole session, the 8 remaining riders compete against each other in a straightforward fight for grid positions, with places awarded based on the times set in this third and final session.
Easily understandable, but the subtleties and difficulties arise in the interplay between the number of qualifying tires and Superpole sessions. And those subtleties claimed their first victims in the very first session: both BMWs failed to make it through to the second session, after gambling on a soft race tire, and saving their qualifiers for later on. As it happened, neither Ruben Xaus nor Troy Corser ended up using them, the race tires leaving them just short of making the cut. They were joined by Roberto Rolfo and Tommy Hill, Hill victim of an earlier blown engine, and not enough laps to set a fast time.
After MotoGP went four stroke, there was never any doubt about which was the premier class of motorcycle racing. Coinciding with the flight of the Japanese manufacturers from World Superbikes, the combination of Valentino Rossi's charisma and roaring, smoking, sliding 990cc bikes solidified the series' position as the pinnacle of two-wheeled racing which would brook no competition. But as the Japanese manufacturers started to slowly creep back into World Superbikes, and MotoGP switched to an 800cc capacity, the balance of power has started to shift.
During the off-season, that movement has started to snowball: The combination of 35 entries in World Superbikes and Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP has switched the spotlight from the Spanish-run series to the Italian-based championship. Once jokingly referred to as the Italian Open Championship, the ten nationalities which fill the 2009 World Superbike paddock has laid that old chestnut very forcefully to rest. World Superbikes are in the ascendancy, and with the might of the marketing organization which runs FIFA behind them, the Flammini brothers are preparing to take on the pomp of Carmelo Ezpeleta's Catalunyan power base.
They have everything going for them: While Kawasaki was pulling out of MotoGP, two new manufacturers, BMW and Aprilia, were joining World Superbikes, with KTM warming up their RC8R in the supporting Superstock class. What's more, and probably more importantly, this season looks like being one of the most open contests there has been for a very long time. Ask one WSBK fan who they like for the title and they will give you a long list of favorites, and ask a couple more fans and you end up with a list of possible champions almost as big as the entire MotoGP field.
But force them to make a choice, and you soon whittle it down to a manageable list of names in with a serious chance of lifting the title this year. The bookies' favorite and heir apparent to Troy Bayliss' throne is Noriyuki Haga. The Japanese veteran is after all on Bayliss' bike, and as Haga came surprisingly close to preventing the Australian from running away on the factory Xerox Ducati last year, now that he's on the 1098R, he is surely a force to be reckoned with. The only problem with this scenario is Haga's undoubted ability to beat himself. Always fast, and always spectacular, too often Haga is also prone to throw the bike up the road, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If Haga is to finally secure the championship he has been chasing for so many years, he will need to be a little more considered, and a little more consistent.
For Haga has some very serious competition, from rookies and veterans, young riders and old. It is unusual for one rookie to be tipped for the title, but for three of them to be in the mix is truly remarkable. And it is a remarkable crop which will be entering World Superbikes this year. The newcomer whose name is generating the most debate is Ben Spies. The triple AMA superbike champion is revered in the US for beating the relentless Mat Mladin three years in a row, while elsewhere around the world, there is much scepticism about the depth of Spies' talent. Such doubts are understandable, as the AMA series gets very little exposure outside of North America, and it is perceived as a two-horse affair between whoever happens to be aboard the field-destroying Yoshimura Suzukis.