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.
On the basis of this weekend's action at Phillip Island, all may be forgiven. Carlos Checa blitzed every session except Sunday morning's wet warmup at the World Superbike opener, crowning the weekend with an utterly dominant double aboard the privateer Althea Ducati. It was exactly what the fans would have expected, if the Xerox Ducati team had still been in existence.
But Althea Ducati are privateers in name only: several members of the Ducati factory squad found places inside the Althea garage for this season, and even the livery of the bike has changed to a red-and-white scheme, strongly reminiscent of the Xerox, Fila and Infostrada colors which graced previous factory bikes. Checa is said to be receiving a lot of support from the factory, the difference being that the fast parts are all arriving via the back door rather than openly through the front gate. Ducati may have dropped their official factory entry, but they now have an unofficial team instead.
And they've chosen the right time to make the jump: Checa rode as near a perfect weekend as it is possible to ride, getting maximum use out of each session, and setting a new pole record along the way, taking a quarter of a second off Regis Laconi's record from 2009. So fast was Checa's lap that it would have put him 3rd on the grid for the MotoGP race last October, just a tenth slower than 2010 World Champion Jorge Lorenzo (for a more detailed comparison, see the ever-informative Dennis Noyes' story over on SpeedTV.com). Now 38, the Spanish veteran has cast off some his earlier propensity for tossing the bike into the scenery, and has the maturity to take this all the way. Checa, with the backing of the factory-lite Althea team, has staked a very serious claim for the 2011 championship at Phillip Island.
The Australian race threw up several more items of note. The first is that the rule changes to make the bikes resemble a little more closely the street bikes which are supposed to have spawned them - enforcing standard injectors, fuel pumps, etc - have not had too much effect on the competitiveness of the Aprilia. There has been much dark muttering about the Aprilia in the paddock, with accusations that it is virtually a MotoGP prototype from the critics, such curmudgeons then going on to suggest that the RSV4 would be nowhere without the gear-driven cams and other parts which it used throughout 2010. Yet Max Biaggi took an uncontested 2nd place in race 1, and a more hotly contested 2nd in race 2, a vast improvement over the 5th and 8th the Italian started out his championship-winning season with in 2010.
If Biaggi is sure to be a factor again, there is no such luck for his teammate. Leon Camier is being examined for a suspected case of mononucleosis (Epstein-Barr, or glandular fever), which could turn into a long drawn-out nightmare for the young Briton. The typical duration of mono is some 6 to 12 months, or an entire racing season, and though it is possible to function at some level with the disease, sufferers tend to tire extremely easily, and there are some risks associated with intensive sports. Camier finished 13th and 6th, extremely impressive given his illness. He may not be able to show his full potential all year, though.
There was much interest in the factory Yamaha team this season, and Phillip Island showed that the team could be very strong this year. Marco Melandri's adaptation from MotoGP to World Superbikes has gone swimmingly, the Italian getting on the podium in his very first race weekend. It was, he said, likely to be the first of many this season, and his progress will be watched closely by several MotoGP veterans, with an eye to their own futures should the rides in MotoGP dry up.
Melandri's teammate Eugene Laverty also made a strong debut in the premier class, adapting well to the larger capacity class after spending most of his life aboard small capacity machinery in one form or another. Laverty's biggest challenge lies in adapting to the behavior of the tires with the bigger bikes, but given his outstanding results over the past two years in World Supersport, he is looking strong for 2011.
Over at BMW, Leon Haslam more than justified the Munich factory's decision to sign the Englishman. Haslam took a podium in race 1, with his teammate Troy Corser not far behind, but the BMW's continue to struggle with tire wear. The German manufacturer's insistence on using a self-developed electronics system may well be part of the problem, BMW refusing to take the easy route and fit Magneti Marelli like every other team in the paddock. The BMW is still eating tires too quickly, and once the team can solve that problem, then Haslam will challenge in 2011 as he did in 2010.
Most heartening for the series as a whole is that the racing in World Superbikes was once again entertaining, with close battles being fought out all race long for the podium positions. Take away an imperious Checa, and the WSBK season opener would have seen a pair of genuine nail-biters kick off 2011. Checa is unlikely to manage this kind of dominance all year long, giving the fans high hopes of witnessing proper entertainment all year long.
If the racing in World Superbikes was good, it was back to classic axe-murderer style in the World Supersport series. Here, too, the rule changes have had a positive effect, with the upping of the minimum weight limit (by 3kg), the banning of carbon fiber fairings and limiting the riders to just a single bike in the pits - just as the Grand Prix Commission has done in Moto2 and 125 - has made the racing much cheaper, with the grid back up to a healthy 26 at Phillip Island, well up from the miserly 17 which started in 2010.
The grid is also better balanced than in 2010, with perhaps 7 or 8 riders capable of victory this season. Some 7 of those men - Fabien Foret, Chaz Davies, Sam Lowes, Broc Parkes, David Salom and Luca Scassa - battled for much of the race, with the outcome settled on the final straight and just 0.033 seconds separating the podium finishers. Even better news was the depth of manufacturer support, with Yamaha stepping back into the class with the ParkinGO team of Davies and Scassa, after a last-minute rupture with Triumph. The rift worked out perfectly for Scassa, the Italian taking his maiden WSS victory thanks to the raw power of the YZF-R6, blasting past Lowes over the line on the Gardner Straight.
There were also strong indications that talent is quickly developing in the class. Sam Lowes, reigning British Supersport champion and just 20 years old, Chaz Davies, 24, Gino Rea, 21 and the positively ancient 27-year-old David Salom are all progressing extremely well, with Lowes making a particularly impressive debut. The youngster may be just 20, but the maturity and racecraft he showed in holding off the clearly faster Yamaha of Scassa was truly remarkable. Lowes rode like a wily veteran, rather than a fresh-faced youngster, and is yet another product of the Parkalgar team boss Simon Buckmaster's nose for spotting talent.
What was less impressive was the performance of the spec Pirelli tires. At least three riders suffered fast-deflating rear tires, with Foret, Davies and Roccoli forced into the pits with flat tires. Davies went back out with a fresh rear, but was too far behind to get back into the points. Pirelli is yet to come forward with an explanation, but three bikes with identical problems clearly point to some kind of production or QA problem. The point of a spec tire is to level the playing field for the riders; the spate of flats turned into a crapshoot.
The racing in both classes has whetted appetites around the world for more racing, but WSBK fans will have to wait a full four weeks before the action continues. The WSBK paddock heads back to Europe now, their next appointment scheduled at Donington for March 27th. Late March in Leicestershire can be a real gamble as far as the weather is concerned, with the chances of snow, rain or warm spring sunshine just about equal. Not unlike the weather at Phillip Island, as it happens...