After a layoff of nearly a month, World Superbikes are back in action this weekend, taking a bold - and some would say foolish - gamble to head to Donington Park in the English Midlands at the end of March. But gambling on both England's fickle weather and the state of the Donington circuit, so close to bankruptcy over the past couple of years, has paid off, and the first day of practice took place under sunny skies and surprisingly pleasant temperatures for the time of year, on a track that was bumpy but ready to race on. The modifications to the track have been well-received in general, with the Foggy Esses having been opened up a little, and now a little faster and smoother.
Max Biaggi is on provisional pole, not usually the place the Roman Emperor is to be found on a Friday afternoon, usually taking another day to get bike and body dialed in and ready to race. While Biaggi will be happy to be competitive this early, it is the Yamahas who are looking strongest, with both Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty on the front row alongside Biaggi. Melandri's transition to World Superbikes has gone off without a hitch so far, and Laverty has also shown little trouble adapting to the 1000s after spending so long in Supersport. The Yamahas are up to speed far earlier than they were in 2010, and showing plenty of promise this year.
The Ducatis aren't too bad either. Carlos Checa is the fastest of the twins once again, the Althea man taking 3rd spot on the unofficial factory bike, with Jakub Smrz not far behind. Checa is still looking like the hot favorite, after having topped the morning session of free practice as well.
While Yamaha and Ducati are looking strong, the Hondas and Kawasakis are faring much worse. Jonathan Rea had a nightmare start to qualifying, struggling with a tire that was spinning on the wheel and bumping around as if out of true. With Ruben Xaus only in 8th, this has to be a concern for the Castrol squad, especially as the team's sister squad in World Supersport is having a similarly difficult time. At Kawasaki, meanwhile, Chris Vermeulen is back for Paul Bird's factory team, but the Australian - still recovering from a knee injury sustained last year - is rolling around at the back of the field alongside the perennial backmarkers of the Pedercini team. It has now been over a year since Vermeulen first injured his knee, and it must now be doubtful whether he will ever get back to the level he displayed before the crash.
Speaking of crashes, there was a little bit of a set-to between Max Biaggi and Alstare Suzuki's Michel Fabrizio. Biaggi dived underneath Fabrizio at Turn 8 during qualifying, barging his fellow Roman off the track. The pair were called to Race Direction to discuss the incident, but no action was taken. Biaggi later went to the Alstare garage to apologize to Fabrizio, but by that time, the Suzuki rider had returned to his motorhome. These two men have a history, and though Biaggi is known to show a disregard for other riders on the track from time to time, it looked as if this was completely unintentional. It doesn't look like this will stop Fabrizio from holding a grudge, however, and the cash-strapped Alstare team was keen to point out that the crash had caused them 30,000 euros worth of damage.
In the World Supersport class, the reign of the Ten Kate team seems to be over. Yamaha's Luca Scassa took provisional pole, carrying his brilliant Phillip Island form halfway round the world and into the meeting at Donington, and given that the bike is essentially the same machine that Cal Crutchlow won the title on in 2009, it is a testament to how good the Yamaha was as a basic sportsbike, a fact attested to by the swarms of R6s which dominated the European Superstock class in 2010.
Behind Scassa comes the deeply impressive youngster Sam Lowes, fully justifying Parkalgar boss' Simon Buckmaster's signing of the Englishman. Lowes looked good at Phillip Island, and now on a familiar track, is continuing to shine. The Kawasakis are none too shabby either, with Broc Parkes and David Salom taking the two remaining spots on the provisional front row, finishing just ahead of Yamaha's Chaz Davies and Honda's Gino Rea.
The Ten Kate team seems to be in disarray, with Fabien Foret down in 10th just ahead of his teammate and newcomer Florian Marino. The team was not helped by Foret's big crash during qualifying, in which he refractured his little finger, undergoing an operation to pin it again on Friday evening. Foret suffered a similar injury in a crash at Phillip Island, and the 38-year-old Frenchman is not bouncing as well has he used to when he was younger. There's a lot of work to do for the Ten Kate team if they are to retain the title this season.
Practice continues tomorrow, with qualifying and Superpole - for the World Superbike class at least - to follow in the afternoon.