Marco Melandri's decision to switch series has paid off handsomely for the Italian. Melandri went from struggling to score top 10 finishes in MotoGP to regular winner and championship contender in World Superbikes, the factory Yamaha rider now challenging Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa for the 2011 WSBK title.
So it comes as no surprise that Melandri has extended his contract with the factory Yamaha World Superbike squad for another year, according to GPOne.com. The agreement will see Melandri remain alongside Irish teammate Eugene Laverty for another season, Yamaha's WSBK team remaining unchanged for the first time since 2008. It is also the first time since 2007 that Marco Melandri will be staying with the same team and riding the same bike for two years in a row.
Melandri's contract extension is the first move in what could be a long and very late World Superbike silly season. The Yamaha team is now set for 2012, but just about every other team is likely to see a radical shakeup. At Aprilia, it is still unclear whether Max Biaggi will stay on to serve the second year of his two-year contract, while Leon Camier is widely rumored to be heading for the door.
With the Brno round of World Superbikes the 8th out of 13, the lines of both the World Superbike and World Supersport championships are starting to become clear. In WSBK, three men have a realistic shot at the title, while in WSS, the championship leader took a big step towards consolidating his first title. Though it is too early to start handing out trophies, we can already start scrapping a lot of names from the list.
The two World Superbike races turned into a rather pleasing allegory for the current state of the championship fight. The three title rivals were the main protagonists in both races, the Italians Marco Melandri and Max Biaggi taking a race win apiece, while Carlos Checa limited the damage by taking two 3rd place finishes. Despite having given up 13 points to both of his rivals in the title race, Checa came away content: at Biaggi's favorite track, and a circuit where horsepower is crucial - and which the Ducati is crucially lacking - the Althea Ducati man still has a 30 point lead over Biaggi, and a 53 point lead over Melandri. He had been able to stay close to the two Italians in both races, and most importantly, he hadn't suffered the kind of punishment he had at Monza, where he gave away points by the bucketload to his rivals.
There is a rather pleasing symmetry to Max Biaggi's victory in race two at Aragon: it meant that Biaggi's win rate in the first half of the season was 0%, but is 100% in the second half of the season. Of course, the second half of the 2011 World Superbike season is exactly one race old - the 13-round WSBK season has 26 races, and race two was the 14th race of the season - rather flattering his 100% win rate, but that won't diminish the psychological impact of the reigning champion's first win this season coming right in the middle of the season.
Press releases from the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after qualifying on Saturday at the Motorland Aragon ciruit near Alcañiz in Spain:
Sometimes the pundits are right: the race weekend at Miller Motorsports Park turned out exactly as predicted, with a convincing double victory for Carlos Checa. The Spaniard put in a repeat performance of last year, with the crucial difference that on Monday, he avoided the technical problems that left him stranded by the wayside in both races. Checa was a little slow off the mark in race 1, taking all of 6 laps to take over the lead and run away with the race, the Althea Ducati rider treading carefully in the still chilly and uncertain conditions. Race 2 was a different matter altogether, Checa taking the lead into the first corner and out of sight by the end of the first lap. The Spaniard barely put a foot wrong all weekend, his only mistake being to slip over in the mud while trying to pick up a Ducati flag from a fan to celebrate victory in race 1.
But while Checa's record is impressive - six wins out of ten starts, with two more podiums thrown in for good measure - his 61-point championship lead is down to more than just his own dominance. Number 2 in the championship is Marco Melandri, who had a very mediocre weekend at Miller after a strong outing at Monza. In 3rd place is Max Biaggi, who seems determined to do everything in his power to lose his #1 plate in the most heartbreaking way possible this year.
A drop or two of rain always adds an extra dimension to motorcycle racing, and Sunday at Miller saw more than a drop or two of rain. That rain had a pretty big impact on the order, with riders such as BMW's Leon Haslam, who had struggled in the dry, suddenly finding themselves near the very top in the morning downpour, then dropping back as the conditions improved a little.
In fact, the rain may have inadvertently highlighted BMW's problem: In the dry, Corser was going strongly while Haslam struggled. In the wet, Haslam positively flew while Corser dropped down the order. As the conditions improved, the fates of the two men reversed, Haslam knocked out of Superpole 2 - crashing while trying to push - while Corser secured a spot on the second row of the grid. The settings of one appear not to suit the settings of the other, and that may go some way towards explaining why the development of the S1000RR has been erratic. The electronics, especially, have been the BMW's bugbear, with the complex system that BMW has developed in-house causing the riders, team and engineers plenty of headaches.
Carlos Checa picked up on the first day at Miller where he left off after last year's race: running at the front but plagued by technical problems. The Spaniard dominated here last year, but was forced to pull out of both races when his Althea Ducati packed up. So it was a little bit worrying for Checa when, after blitzing straight to the top of the timesheets in FP1, Checa's 1198R packed up on him, with what was apparently diagnosed as an electrical problem. Going out on the second bike, Checa continued to dominate, until his bike packed up a second time in the same session, this time reportedly with gearbox problems.
Despite the painful echoes of 2010, Checa was back out in the afternoon, this time ending the first session of qualifying without any technical dramas, but with an advantage of nearly eight-tenths of a second over the nearest competition. The Spaniard was merciless from the start: his first flying lap during qualifying was faster than any other rider had managed during FP2, and he got quicker from there, eventually getting to within a couple of tenths of the race lap record. If the bike stays in one piece, it's going to be hard to beat Checa at Miller - if the weather stays dry, of course.
Yet another press release, this one from Yamaha's World Superbike and World Supersport teams previewing the Assen round:
John Gardner, the communications chief for the Miller Motorsports Park facility, spoke to Marco Melandri recently, and sent the resulting interview out as a press release. Here's what Marco had to say:
Miller Motorsports Park Presents: Five Questions with Marco Melandri
A chat with World Superbike's newest race winner
TOOELE VALLEY, UTAH (April 4, 2011) — Miller Motorsports Park will again host the USA Round of the FIM Superbike World Championship on The BigM Weekend, May 28-30. Leading up to the round at Miller, we will visit with race winners and other notable riders participating in the championship after each race during the 2011 season and bring you a new chapter in the "Five Questions with" series.
What a strange and interesting weekend the World Superbike round at Donington has given us. That Carlos Checa should win at least one race at Donington was to be expected, but the strong results from the Yamaha camp - in both Superbikes and Supersport - was a bit of a surprise, while the complete meltdown by Max Biaggi was shocking.
To Biaggi first. The Alitalia Aprilia rider started off well, sitting on provisional pole after the first qualifying session on Friday, and joking about how it was both unusual and nice to have people talking about him on a Friday. It all went downhill from there: an on-track run-in with Marco Melandri saw a furious Biaggi stalk into the Yamaha garage, issue a couple of comedy slaps on Melandri's cheek (both meant and received as an insult), getting himself hauled in front of Race Direction and issued a fine (for the slap) and a warning (for blocking Melandri on track, a punishment Melandri also received).
After the second day of practice at Donington Park, we should be talking about the way that Carlos Checa blew everyone away on the Althea Ducati. About the way that Checa got perilously close to posting a lap of 1'27 round the revised Donington track. About Leon Haslam's strong 2nd spot on the grid after qualifying, or Tom Sykes' outstanding 3rd fastest time. Maybe we should even be talking about Eugene Laverty's narrow escape when he had a huge crash at Craner, writing off his Yamaha R1. But we're not.
Tonight, all the talk is of a minor scuffle in the Yamaha pitbox, when Max Biaggi strode in to complain about being balked by Melandri during superpole and issued his fellow Italian with a light double tap, before stalking back to the Aprilia garage:
Press releases from the World Superbike and World Supersport teams after the first day of practice at Donington Park:
Lowes front running at Donington
At Imola last year, shortly after Ducati had announced it would not be entering a factory team for the 2011 World Superbike series, hardcore Ducatisti and WSBK adepts hung a range of banners along the front straight, with such messages as "Senza SBK, Ducati Vale Meno" and "Ducati-SBK, the 46 reasons for pulling out." The withdrawal of the factory team was widely regarded as a terrible betrayal by Ducati, which had built its reputation and much of its brand on the success of its World Superbike team, creating legends such as Carl Fogarty, Giancarlo Falappa and Troy Bayliss along the way.
Yamaha today unveiled the livery of their World Superbike team for 2011, and though the color scheme is similar to last year's there is one major, and rather worrying difference. For where there should be the large logo of a title sponsor, instead there is Yamaha's R1 logo, signifying that Yamaha have failed to pick up a title sponsor for the 2011 season. Despite the presence of Marco Melandri, an Italian who should be popular in their home market, Italian dairy giant Sterilgarda have chosen not to extend their sponsorship deal, which ran through 2009 and 2010.
Yamaha are putting a brave face on it, underlining the return to corporate colors. But it is a worrying sign of the state of racing sponsorship that a team as successful and competitive as the Yamaha WSBK team is unable to secure a title sponsor. The fear for Yamaha must be that the factory will also be unable to secure a sponsorship deal for their MotoGP team as well, after Fiat pulled out at the end of 2010. Yamaha's MotoGP machine is to be unveiled at Sepang on Monday night. We shall see then whether Jorge Lorenzo and Ben Spies will also be running in Yamaha corporate colors.
Below is the official press release from Yamaha:
Yamaha World Superbike Team unveil 2011 livery