Before the 2015 World Superbike season gets underway, just seven days from now at Phillip Island, the WSBK and WSS riders get a final chance to prepare their bikes for the flag drops next Sunday. For the first time this year, all of the riders and bikes will be on track at the same time, and we will get a hint of the season to come.
As intriguing as it is likely to be, a note of caution should be sounded. Phillip Island is arguably the best track in the world for motorcycle racing, but all the reasons that make it such a great track for racing mean it is very far from being a very good yardstick to measure performance by. The track flows beautifully, a succession of high-speed corners demanding the utmost of the skill and courage of the rider.
But precisely because it flows, it levels the playing field a little. Bikes with less outright top speed, or which are down on horsepower and acceleration, can go just as fast as a bike which is a rocket ship out of corners. A brave rider can carry more corner speed through the turn and drive smoothly out, ending up just as fast as the rider on the quicker bike.
This lesson was all too evident last year. The Suzukis made a very strong impression both at the first test and the first race, Eugene Laverty winning one race and being unlucky not to get a podium in the second, and Alex Lowes showed promise despite a broken foot. But come the next race at Aragon, the Suzukis were much further back again. They would not have another weekend as strong as at Phillip Island all year.
With new technical rules for 2015, reading the test at Phillip Island is likely to once again be difficult. Reducing the amount of tuning which is possible has cut power from some bikes – most notably the Aprilia – while the Suzuki and Honda are now less further back from the rest. With Phillip Island being a great leveler, it will be hard to see where each manufacturer really stands.
Yet we will get a good look at how the riders have fared so far. Jonathan Rea has made a strong impression since switching to the Kawasaki, but the ZX-10R is one of the bikes hardest hit by the new regulations. Tom Sykes has been a dominant force in WSBK for the past couple of years, but the rule changes and the arrival of Rea as his teammate could see that come to an end. Rea vs Sykes is going to be the story of the year, and how that rivalry withstands the first test and first race will be crucial.
Ducati has been a benefactor of the rules, the Panigale 1199R suffering against the greater tuning freedom granted to the fours last year. Now, with less modification allowed, the V twin should be able to hold its own. Fast, flowing Phillip Island is made for the Ducati, and Chaz Davies and Davide Giugliano get their first chance to make an impression on the championship.
At Aprilia, Leon Haslam has been anointed at standard bearer, and so far, the Englishman has not disappointed. Though the Aprilia has sacrificed power, it is still fast enough, and Haslam is keen to prove that Pata Honda was wrong to let him go. Teammate Jordi Torres still has a lot of work to do to adapt to World Superbikes, after having spent the last couple of years in Moto2.
Pata Honda have two world champions in their employ, but the season will not be easy for either Sylvain Guintoli or Michael van der Mark. Guintoli has not had it easy in the preseason, then suffered a huge crash during testing at Jerez. This will be the first time Guintoli has ridden again since that crash, the test giving him a chance to ease into riding, without facing the tension and stress of a full race weekend. Van der Mark has adapted well to his new category, but the young Dutchman still has a lot to learn.
But speculation will soon come to an end. In a few short hours, two days of testing will get underway, ahead of next weekend's WSBK season opener. The 2015 motorcycle racing season is about to commence.