After a long, cold, lonely winter, the World Superbike racing season is finally upon us again. With 26 machines on the grid, the series is down a bit in participation, but considering the depressed world economic climate, it could be a lot worse. Despite the drop in sheer numbers, there are seven manufacturers with factory (or the equivalent) teams. There has been some shuffling of marques and talent on privateer teams, but participation is fairly strong on that level as well.
Reigning World Superbike Champion Ben Spies has abdicated his throne for the theoretically greener pastures of MotoGP and there are a crop of both familiar and new faces eager to claim his title. There doesn't appear to be someone who is going to grab the series by the throat and make it his own in his rookie year like Spies did, but then no one could have predicted that at the beginning of last season either.
The Empire Strikes Back
2007 was a long time ago, especially for Superbike fans that hail from a certain sceptered isle. That's the last time that an English rider (James Toseland) captured the World Championship. Since then, the residents of Blighty have had to settle for champions that speak rather crude forms of the mother tongue. This drought may be over this year with no less than 7 British (Ok, so Jonny Rea is technically Irish) riders on the grid.
At Factory Yamaha, James Toseland returns to the series, back from his ill-fated venture into MotoGP, and 2009 World Supersport champion Cal Crutchlow moves up to the big leagues. While Crutchlow has looked impressive on the 2010 edition of the R1, especially in early testing, neither rider has exactly set the time sheets on fire recently. The team has had to try to suss out a chattering issue that prevented the British duo from cracking the top 10 at last weekend's Phillip island test. Reportedly, the 2010 bike is so flawed that Yamaha has made the 2009 machinery available to the team.
Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea is the last man standing from the Dutch team's 2009 3-rider roster. Rea came into his own midway through last year when the team abandoned the WP (formerly known as White Power) suspension that the Honda mounted team used to great success in capturing 7 WSS and 2 WSBK championships in favor of Ohlins components. After the suspension swap, Rea went on to win twice and land on the podium 5 times.Rea is infamous for his hard-charging take-no-prisoners style. Pity the fool that stands between the young Ulsterman and the finish line. Rea has done very well in testing in the pre-season and he has to be considered a serious contender for the 2010 title. Rea's new teammate at Ten Kate, German Max Neukirchner, comes to the team after a frankly miserable injury shortened 2009 season that saw him basically fired by Alstare Suzuki team owner Frankie Batta over questions regarding Neukirchner's fitness to race.
Leon Haslam moves onto the Alstare Suzuki team from the defunct Stiggy Honda squad, which collapsed from lack of sponsorship. The Pocket Rocket a has looked very promising indeed on the GSXR1000 and is well chuffed to finally have a factory ride. Joining Haslam on the Alstare squad is sort-of-Brit Sylvain Guintoli who looks to have fully recovered from the injuries that kept him out of action for most of last season's British Superbike series.
Speaking of the BSB, 2009 champion Leon Camier slots in next to the Roman Emperor, Max Biaggi at the factory Alitalia Aprilia squad. Camier has the least experience on the world scene of all the British contingent but has gotten up to speed fairly quickly on the RSV4, placing in the top 10 at the last test. If Leon can avoid being run over on pit road by Biaggi, he should have a very creditable year on the Aprilia.
Tom Sykes, who would have had fine rookie season in 2009 but for the fellow over in the other pit box at Factory Yamaha, has his second shot at a factory ride in 2010 with the Paul Bird Kawasaki squad. Unfortunately, as with all the other riders who have ventured out on the ZX-10 (including MotoGP refugee Chris Vermeulen and Pedercini Kawasaki riders Roger Lee Hayden and Matteo Baiocco), Sykes is finding out the hard way that it ain't easy being green. With the demise of Kawasaki's MotoGP effort, KHI had vowed to concentrate their efforts on the World Superbike Championship (or at least that's what they promised Chris Vermeulen) improving the current ZX while developing a radical new model for 2011. So far, those supposed improvements haven't helped results much, if at all, to elevate the Kawasaki into the upper tier.
The elder statesman and sole privateer rider in the British contingent, Shane "Shakey" Byrne finds himself aboard a Ducati again this year, albeit for the Althea team. Byrne has done well on Ducatis in the past, winning the British championship on one in 2008. Last year's outing with the Sterilgarda team wasn't nearly as successful, but Byrne is back on pace this year. Byrne's team mate, Carlos Checa, has been a bit of a surprise in the pre-season, ending testing at the top of the time sheets. Checa has always been fast when he really needs to (like around contract renewal time) but it remains to be seen if he can be consistent over the whole season.
The Italian Job
Xerox Ducati come into the new season with the same riders from last season, Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio. Who doesn't return is Davide Tardozzi, long-time team manager, who has been replaced by Ernesto Marinelli, crew chief to the stars. There have been conflicting rumors about why Tardozzi left, but the failure of Haga to clinch the World Championship that he had in his grasp up until the season ending race at Portimao is almost certainly a factor. Haga was bitterly disappointed in his failure to finally capture the crown and has to be considered one of the favorites this year. Michel Fabrizio came into his own last year, posting his first race wins. Mr Fabulous has been very fast in testing this year, but it remains to be seen if he has developed the maturity and patience that he will need to make a run at the championship.
Aprilia returns, albeit with a new sponsor (Alitalia Airlines) and a spiffy new paint job on the surprise bike of the of the 2009 season, the RSV4. The Roman Emperor, Max Biaggi, is the core of the team, and if rumors are correct, pretty much calls the tune in regard to major decisions regarding development. The 411 on the RSV4 is that there is plenty of power but handling is a bit lacking. If the team can effect a fix for the handling issues, then Biaggi has to be considered a top contender for the title as well. New hire Leon Camier has to contend both with acquainting himself with a plethora of new-to-him venues and team politics, the latter of which allegedly scared a few top riders away from accepting an Aprilia ride.
Deutschland Uber Alles
The BMW S1000RR, in stock form, is arguably the most impressive platform in the paddock. Transforming that engineering potential into results has been problematic, however. Although the team had signed two fast, experienced riders in Ruben Xaus and Troy Corser, the results, for the most part, stagnated around mid-pack. The missing link last year was widely posited to be the lack of practical roadracing team management experience. That chink in the armor has been theoretically rectified by the hiring of Ducati refugee Davide Tardozzi.
Also, in an attempt to secure more diverse data and to spotlight BMW's "superbike for the masses" niche for the S1000RR, the Reitwagen Racing privateer team will contest the series with machinery that (as of yet anyway) isn't at the factory level. Reitwagen's choice of riders (Former WSS champion Andrew Pitt and Austrian Roland Resch) has had a few heads shaking, but there is formidable technical talent behind the scenes with Johan ‘Stiggy’ Stigefelt as the team technical manager and Australian Peter Goddard as chassis engineer.
Balls in the Air
Although last season was touted as one where any one of a dozen or so riders could take a win or contend for the title, the series quickly settled into the Ben and Nori show. This year starts with the same initial promise. Although the Dynamic Duo of Haga and Fabrizio have to be considered favorites, there will be no discounting the likes of Max Biaggi and Jonny Rea. If Yamaha can fix their technical woes, Toseland and Crutchlow should be close to the front as well. One thing that hasn't changed from last year though -- it's a great time to be a World Superbike fan.