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.
But while it is hard to overstate the dominance of the Yosh bikes, this view does serious injustice to both Mladin and Spies. Mladin has gone from winning AMA Superbike series almost at will to being forced to scrap for every point in trying, and failing, to hold off the storming Spies. The fierce battle with Mladin has taught Spies racecraft, speed, and bike setup skills. The fact that the American went to test at three tracks he had never seen before and ended up in the top three almost every day tells you something about his abilities.
Add to this the arrival of the new Yamaha YZF-R1, with a long-bang engine based on the lessons learned in MotoGP, and Spies' candidacy looks very strong. The new R1 should provide more grip out of corners, allowing the bike to act more like a Ducati. With the horsepower of a four cylinder and the drive of a twin, the Yamaha could be the bike to beat in 2009.
Two other English-speakers could contend with Spies for the title of top newcomer, and top rider. In testing so far, reigning BSB champion Shane Byrne has dominated the timesheets, outperforming the factory Ducatis on the Sterilgarda satellite bike. And coming off one championship and moving into another on virtually the same bike, Shakey is likely to be a serious threat. The Englishman also has the benefit of prior knowledge: previous stints in MotoGP mean that Byrne knows most of the tracks already. The only question mark over Shakey's chances is the amount of support the Sterilgarda Ducati team will continue to enjoy if Byrne is regularly beating the factory Ducatis. If development suddenly stops, the Englishman may find that the title is shifted just beyond his reach.
Byrne's compatriot Johnny Rea also has the benefit of experience. The young Briton came astonishingly close to becoming World Supersport champion at the first time of asking in 2008. Now having swapped places with Kenan Sofuoglu – much to the discontent of Andrew Pitt, who won the title and felt he had first refusal of a Superbike ride, Rea is a real threat. He has shown in BSB that he knows how to ride a Superbike, as well as in the final round of 2008 at Portimao. With the Ten Kate Fireblades now in their second year of development, and with a year of track knowledge, Jumpin' Johnny is an exciting prospect.
First, he'll have to beat his team mate. Gerrit ten Kate, joint owner of the Ten Kate team tipped Carlos Checa as the man to beat this year. The Spanish veteran simply oozes experience, and has throughout his career been incredibly competitive, but has always fallen short of expectations, and never managed to secure a title in the senior classes. If it's going to happen, it ought to happen this year for Checa. If it doesn't, there'll be question marks over his place next year.
Another rider to watch is Max Neukirchner. After struggling on underpowered machinery for several years now, Neukirchner finally got his chance to shine in 2008, a chance he seized with both hands. While Alstare Suzuki team mates Fonsi Nieto and Yukio Kagayama got the factory Suzuki parts, Neukirchner's bike was developed entirely by the Alstare team, a choice which worked out extremely well. The young German proved he is capable of winning, taking a brace of wins and finishing fifth overall. Now a fully integrated part of the Alstare Suzuki team, Neukirchner should make another step forward, and stake his claim for the title.
The Known Unknowns
While Haga, Spies, Checa, Rea, Byrne and Neukirchner as the main challengers for the title is an illustrious list, there are some big names missing. Both Max Biaggi and Troy Corser are former champions, and Biaggi is arguably the second biggest name in motorcycle racing, behind only Valentino Rossi himself. But both Biaggi and Corser, along with their equally impressive team mates Ruben Xaus and Shinya Nakano, are on new machinery. Biaggi and Nakano will ride the stunning Aprilia RSV4, while Corser and Xaus man the decidedly un-BMW-like BMW S1000RR. And new machinery usually requires a little bit of time before the teams find both the setup and the reliability that winning a championship requires.
But neither of these teams are exactly newcomers. Aprilia has a host of titles in the 250 series, and previously tasted some success in World Superbikes with the 1000cc RSV twin. And BMW may not have been involved in roadracing for the past few years – with the exception of the single make series which acted as a warmup for MotoGP a few years ago – but it would be foolish to doubt the German manufacturer, given the vast experience BMW have in just about every other form of motorsport.
For Max Biaggi, the question is just how stable the Aprilia is. After rumors of engines blowing up during the testing season, any fragility the RSV4 shows could be echoed by Biaggi's fragile temper. There are few people more focused on winning, but when things go wrong, the Roman Emperor can run out of patience very quickly. And when that happens, things can get ugly fast.
On the other side of the garage is a much more sanguine figure. Shinya Nakano was tipped for big things when he moved up to MotoGP from 250s, but a long stint on the mediocre Kawasaki, followed by a switch to Honda just when RC212V proved to be way off the mark saw Nakano's star waning. A move back to factory equipment could suit the Japanese rider, and we could get to see some of Nakano's ability once again. But the chances of him lifting the 2009 title have to be very slim indeed.
Troy Corser's chances are only slightly better. The Australian veteran has already proven himself championship material, by taking the crown in 2005 aboard the Alstare Suzuki. But after two winless years on the Yamaha YZF-R1 – a bike that Noriyuki Haga could win on almost at will – doubts have started to creep in about the Australian's desire. He is still fast, still fully deserving of the title Mr Superpole. But going quickly for one perfect lap is different to stringing them together for long enough to win a race. In 2009, Corser will be using his long experience to help develop the BMW S1000R. But if he could not win on the Yamaha, there have to be doubts that he can win on the BMW.
If Corser has a reputation for being smooth, steady and reliable, his stable mate is the absolute opposite. Ruben Xaus has been the butt of endless jibes about his influence on the price of carbon fiber, his reputation as a little crash happy not entirely undeserved. But beyond a shadow of a doubt, Ruben Xaus is fast – he must be, otherwise he wouldn't keep ending up in the gravel. He is also a joy to watch, the kind of rider you can only watch from the edge of your seat, as he looks on the verge of losing it altogether and launching into outer space at any moment. If you had to bet on the first rider to put the BMW on the podium, you would have to say Corser, but if the bet was about taking a win, you would have to go with Wreckin' Ruben.
The Unknown Unknowns
If BMW and Aprilia are unknown quantities because they are new, Kawasaki are unknown because they are familiar. In recent years, Kawasaki's fortunes in racing have been pretty dismal. Mid-pack, then tail-enders in MotoGP, and much the same in World Superbikes, Team Green have just not been able to put together a consistent, coherent challenge in any series. Now, the honor of defending Kawasaki's colors has been taken from the Italian PSG-1 squad and handed over to Britain's Paul Bird. Bird has a reputation as outspoken, and prone to blame poor performance on his riders, but his team is always immaculately run. Like Biaggi, Bird is quick to anger, and like Biaggi, there's usually a genuine reason for his ire.
Bird's riders are another unknown quantity. Makoto Tamada was entirely invisible last season, but is in the team at the behest of the Japanese factory. But to say he has his ride purely because of his nationality is to do Tamada an injustice. He is a former GP winner, and beat Valentino Rossi on equal machinery, not once, but twice. Nevertheless, rumors persist that Tamada's place is under threat, and with John Hopkins on the market, that has to be taken very seriously.
His team mate is a promising Australian, but Broc Parkes has been promising for a few years now. Fourth in last year's World Supersport championship, the New South Wales resident will need to step up to the plate and mix it with the front runners this year, and start delivering on some of the promise he has shown in the past.
Both Tamada and Parkes have one thing going for them. With Kawasaki now out of MotoGP, the tone of their media communications has shifted, and it is clear that the Akashi firm has decided to focus its efforts on one series, rather than trying to compete across the board. Kawasaki is providing PBM with more support than they ever did for PSG-1, and that should start to pay off.
Bring On The Brits
It's not just manufacturers who are invading the World Superbike series. There's a new wave of British riders which has washed over the series as well. Alongside their rookie from AMA, Yamaha will be featuring another new boy from the British Superbikes series, Tom Sykes. Sykes has had a couple of standout years in the British series, including second place as a WSBK wildcard at Donington last year. At both Brands Hatch and Donington, Sykes showed he was capable of matching the pace of the WSBK front runners, and in testing, the young Briton has been fast. He has a lot of new tracks to learn, but this talented young man could well cause more than the occasional upset.
Fellow Brit Leon Haslam is a famous name and a famous face in world championship paddocks, with both father Ron and Leon doing their stints in the 500 class, and Leon also spending a year as Noriyuki Haga's team mate in World Superbikes in 2004. But since returning to Britain, Haslam has mastered the craft of riding a Superbike, and was consistently a title candidate, though he never managed to win. But his consistency earned him regular trips to the podium, a tradition Haslam looks likely to continue in 2009.
The final British newcomer is the talented but injury-blighted Tommy Hill. After a few promising years in BSB, Althea Honda signed Hill to ride in the World Supersport series last year. After a horrific crash in testing, Hill missed much of the season while recovering. In testing this year, Hill has shown a consistent turn of speed, and aboard the well-developed Honda should be capable of causing more than a few upsets.
Another product of BSB is Ryuichi Kiyonari. Kiyo was very strong in the UK, winning back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007. His debut year in World Superbikes was largely disappointing, the Japanese Ten Kate rider struggling to get to grip with the Pirellis, but after mid-season, his results started to pick up, with the high point a spectacular double at Brands Hatch, followed by a win in a Donington downpour. Kiyonari is clearly capable of winning races, he just needs to start winning them outside of his former adopted home. The final mystery surrounding Kiyonari in 2009 is the color scheme of his bike. While Carlos Checa and Johnny Rea are wearing the lime green and black of Hannspree Ten Kate, Kiyo, despite being on equal machinery, will be racing in HRC's traditional colors, the first time that Honda have officially returned to World Superbikes since pulling out after the rule changes at the end of 2003.
With so many entrants of British stock, you could be forgiven for forgetting the very Italian nature of the World Superbike paddock, which feels very much like an Italian village. To remind you of the importance of Italy to the series, look no further than Michel Fabrizio on the factory Xerox Ducati. Fabrizio has shown flashes of genius, but also flashes of utter mediocrity. He was a regular sight on the podium in 2007, but he was just as often entirely invisible. 2009 is a make-or-break season for Fabrizio, the year that he finally has to deliver. He has the speed, he has the ability, all he needs now is the consistency. Otherwise, he will be pursuing opportunities elsewhere.
Along side this merry band of front runners, there is a motley crew of riders who are also capable of throwing up surprises on their day. Gregorio Lavilla may be a Spaniard, but he is another graduate of the British Superbike Series, and former BSB champion. Riding for the Italian Pro-Ride Honda team, his season will only start at Valencia, after a sponsorship deal fell through at the last minute. On his day, and with the right equipment, Lavilla can cause an upset or two.
Likewise Karl Muggeridge. The 2004 World Supersport champion has shown himself capable of being competitive since moving up to World Superbikes. The Australian has been competitive, but never quite delivered what was expected. He has the talent, and on his day, can get on the podium, but he needs luck to smile on him a couple of times.
There is also the most dangerous man in World Superbikes, Yukio Kagayama. Kagayama has multiple wins in WSBK, but he also has multiple fractures. Always fascinating to watch, but like Ruben Xaus, always right on the edge of traction, Kagayama frequently crosses the thin line we call the limit to find himself tumbling through the gravel. A proven winner, but also a sure bet for the Clinica Mobile.
Of the remainder of the field, there are one or two names worthy of mention. Roberto Rolfo was, like Michel Fabrizio, up and down while he was at Ten Kate, and the Italian is carrying an injured shoulder. If the shoulder heals properly he can certainly ride, but rumors are rife that Hopkins is primed to take Rolfo's Stiggy Racing Honda ride if Rolfo doesn't get results. An even darker horse is the enigma that is Jakub Smrz. Kuba is fast, but again lacks consistency. One week, the Czech rider can be off the score sheet, the next near the top of the pile.
And one final name to watch out for. In his year in the FIM Superstock 1000 cup, Brendan Roberts was deeply impressive. Admittedly, he had the outstanding Ducati 1098R to rely on, but that should not cloud anyone's judgment about his talent. Another Australian, on yet another Ducati, this time the Ducati Junior team, Roberts could well shake up a few big names this year.
Here At Last
As the clock ticks down towards the start of a new motorcycle racing season, everyone involved in racing will be glad to leave behind them the doom and gloom of the long dark winter, which saw the world of motorsports overwhelmed with terrible news. On Sunday, at one of the finest racetracks in the world, the World Superbike season gets underway. The sound of 31 bikes roaring off the line down towards the terrifyingly fast Turn 1 should be enough to dispel the demons that have haunted racing over the winter. We have a long hot summer of two-wheeled action to look forward to, and it couldn't get off to a better start.