If the opening round of the 2012 World Superbike Championship taught us anything, it's that this looks to be a two-horse race. Assuming no major wrenches are thrown in the works. Aprilia's Max Biaggi and Althea Ducati's Carlos Checa had the pace of everyone else in the field covered. Handily. And each of the early championship-protagonists cruised to victory without having to worry about the other after a couple of off-track excursions.
Saturday’s World Superbike Superpole and World Supersport final qualifying sessions from Philip Island were cancelled after a serious accident in the Australian Supersport race resulted in the death of Australian rider Oscar McIntyre. The 17-year-old collided with fellow racers Luke Burgess and Michael Lockhart on the second lap of the Australian support race and died despite receiving immediate medical treatment at the scene. Because of the seriousness of the accident, the event organizers decided to cancel Superpole.
Despite the loss of the factory Yamaha team, the World Superbike series is still in relatively good health, considering the financial crisis. Though the days of 30+ rider grids are gone, grid size has stabilized at around the 22 rider mark, 1 up from last year, while there are still 6 manufacturers present, Aprilia, BMW, Ducati and Kawasaki in an official capacity, Honda unofficially via Ten Kate, and Suzuki absent, with Crescent working with Yoshimura on their own bikes.
The field has seen some changes, though most of the title favorites are staying with the teams they were with in 2011. Carlos Checa remains with Althea Ducati, though the effort expands to include 2011 Superstock champ Davide Giugliano, while Max Biaggi is in the second year of his 2-year contract with Aprilia, and Johnny Rea is staying with the Ten Kate Honda squad. Championship runner up Marco Melandri has been forced to move, joining Leon Haslam at BMW, while his erstwhile teammate Eugene Laverty has been paired with Biaggi in the factory Aprilia squad. The factory Kawasaki rider contingent is cut from 3 to 2, Chris Vermeulen losing his slot, while Tom Sykes remains alongside Joan Lascorz.
Provisional rider entry list for the 2012 World Superbike series:
Aprilia has finally confirmed that it will be running Eugene Laverty alongside Max Biaggi in the factory Aprilia WSBK team. Aprilia had already announced that the Irishman had been signed by the factory and would be racing a factory RSV4, but they had not yet announced whether Laverty would be riding in the factory squad, in a separate factory-backed outfit, or with the Pata Aprilia team.
Speculation that Laverty would not be riding in the factory team was fanned at the Portimao tests, where the Irishman tested Biaggi's factory Aprilia, but was run out of the Pata Racing garage. The results of that test - Laverty was the fastest man at the test, just creeping ahead of Castrol Honda's Johnny Rea - may have helped finalize the decision making, as yesterday, they announced that they will field a two-man factory team featuring Max Biaggi and Eugene Laverty.
It has been clear for some time that 2012 would bring a major shake up in World Superbikes. With Yamaha announcing their withdrawal from the series and Althea looking doubtful of continuing, all the way up until Sunday afternoon at Portimao, it has been very difficult to sketch the outlines of a rider line up for next season. But after the hectic round of negoiating at the final round of the 2011 season in Portimao, at least part of the equation has become clear, and a relatively healthy-looking WSBK grid is starting to take shape.
Phillip Island is the best circuit in the world, according to just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock. At least, that's what they thought yesterday, before they actually rode the circuit, and found out that the recent visits by the Australian GT series and the V8 Supercars have torn the track up and left bumps everywhere.
The verdict was unanimous, but as ever, Casey Stoner phrased it the best. "This year, the track's terrible," he told reporters. "It's always been a little bit bumpy into Turn 1, but this year, they're a lot more aggressive than they were in the past, and I'm not too happy with the condition of the track. I don't know what they've been racing around here, but it's made the track a lot worse." So bad was the surface that Jorge Lorenzo said he and the other riders would bring the subject up in the Safety Commission on Friday night, and ask for the track to be repaved.
Days like Sunday at Imola always remind me of what Nicky Hayden says after particularly poor qualifying sessions: "That's why we line up on Sunday; you never know what's gonna happen." Two championships were up for grabs at Imola on Sunday; one looked a dead cert to be wrapped up by Sunday night, while the most likely scenario for the other is that the race would still be open after the second World Superbike race.
It didn't quite work out that way. Sure, Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies are still the hot favorites for the World Superbike and World Supersport titles, but the dreaded "events" got in the way of seeing a double coronation in Italy. Every Sunday brings a surprise, and this Sunday was no exception.
Chaz Davies was the worst casualty of the weekend. The Welshman came into Imola leading by 59 points, and all that was required was for Davies to put it on the podium to bring home the title. But Davies was doing more than that: after a decent qualifying practice, he seized the race by the scruff of the neck and was dominating, as he has done so often this year. Leading the race by over 10 seconds, with less than 5 laps left to go, his engine let go in a big way, thick white smoke pouring from behind the fairing, a sure sign that something very major has failed. Davies cruised to a halt, any chance of securing the championship gone, and "completely gutted" as he described it himself.
It's on days like these that championships are won. In both the World Superbike and World Supersport classes, the championship leaders came in with differing expectations, met with wildly different experiences through practice, yet both Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies leave Silverstone with their lead nicely consolidated and comfortably in charge of their own destinies. They confronted the circumstances that crossed their paths and turned them to their advantage.
In the World Superbike class, Silverstone was supposed to be a tough track for Ducati. A couple of high-speed straights would favor the four-cylinders - especially Aprilia's brutally powerful RSV4 - leaving the Ducatis with too much work to do in the twisty sections to be able to match the fours. The best that Carlos Checa could hope for at the UK round was to limit the damage in both races and see what remained of his lead when he left here for the next round.