There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Ducati announced they would be not be fielding a factory team in the World Superbike series in 2011, and much fingerpointing and dark mutterings of the price of signing Valentino Rossi. The general consensus was that this was a huge mistake, and would cost Ducati dearly in terms of exposure in their most crucial market.
But there was no sign of that on the first day of the final test of the year at Phillip Island, less than a week before the first race of the 2011 season. At the end of day 1, a red-and-white Ducati - bearing an all-too-familiar resemblance to the former factory color schemes - topped the timesheets, with a former factory Ducati rider - albeit in MotoGP - aboard. Carlos Checa did not so much as stun the field on Monday, as completely destroy any illusions that his competitors may have had of keeping up, smashing the lap record and taking a 1 second lead over the rest of the field. Ducatis followed in spots 2 and 3, with the Liberty Racing team of Sylvain Guintoli and Jakub Smrz completing the top three, the teammates separated by just one hundredth of a second.
If Checa's gap was huge, the gap between the chasing group was almost negligible. Just over a quarter of a second separated Guintoli in 2nd from Eugene Laverty in 10th place, and less than a second covered places 2 to 14. With the gaps this close, positions meant little.
While the Ducatis are clearly very strong, there was hope for the other manufacturers. The 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R looks especially strong, with Tom Sykes bagging 6th position, and Joan Lascorz not too far behind. Max Biaggi looks as strong as ever on the Aprilia, and Marco Melandri's adaptation to World Superbikes appears to be going apace despite recovering from shoulder surgery, though Melandri has historically run very well in Australia. The BMW of Leon Haslam is also showing well, though teammate Troy Corser is a little further back.
The biggest disappointment, if you can call it that, must be the position of Johnny Rea on the Castrol Honda. Rea had a very strong outing at Portimao, but could manage only the 8th fastest time at Phillip Island. Look at Rea's times, though, and there is less than two tenths behind reigning World Champion Max Biaggi, so we should not read too much into Rea's 8th place.
The World Supersport class got proceedings underway on a damp track on Monday morning, but the sun and wind soon dried the track out, and the Supersport riders started to fly in the afternoon. Fabien Foret dominated the WSS riders by a similar margin to Checa in WSBK, the Ten Kate Honda rider over nine tenths ahead of the Kawasakis of David Salom and Broc Parkes. Salom is turning out to be a revelation, the Spaniard having been fast at Portimao as well, while Parkalgar's Sam Lowes, who had been very impressive in Portugal, was nearly two seconds down on Foret, but still occupied the 4th spot on the timesheets. Lowes is having to learn the scarily fast Phillip Island circuit, and is proving himself a keen pupil.
Testing continues tomorrow, with the weather set to improve for the remainder of testing, and hopes of good weather for this weekend's race.
Photos courtesy of Andrew Gosling