2009 Valencia World Superbikes Preview - WSBK Comes Home

There is a long and healthy history of international rivalries in motorcycle racing, and these rivalries change with each generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a clash of East vs West, as the Japanese manufacturers entered, then dominated the world championship series, forcing out the European makes. In the 1970s and 1980s came the clash of the Americans versus the British, which culminated - and was exemplified by - the Transatlantic Challenge.

In the 21st Century, the chief rivalry has been more provincial. It is a rivalry between two countries separated not by a continent or an ocean, but just a few hundred miles of scenic coastal road. But it is a rivalry perhaps more intense than ever, as it encompasses not just riders or manufacturers, but entire World Championships.

The MotoGP series is a strongly Spanish, or perhaps even strongly Catalan affair, the organizer being based in Barcelona and the series full of Catalan teams and riders. The World Superbike series, on the other hand, is an almost entirely Italian affair, the organizers, the teams, the riders, even the dominant bikes to a large extent Italian. A walk through the World Superbike paddock is like taking a stroll through a small Italian village, with groups of men gathered in small groups talking and gesticulating furiously in that unmistakably Italian style.

So inevitably, there is friction when World Superbikes encroaches on Spanish territory. The Spanish national TV broadcaster, TVE, barely rates the series worth a mention, having splashed a considerable portion of its outside broadcast budget on MotoGP - though the fact that a rival broadcaster has the rights to the series may also have something to do with the lack of interest from TVE.

And Italians in one form or another are likely to feature heavily at the Valencia round of World Superbikes. Now back in Europe, very much the home of the series, the championship is rapidly developing into a battle between two Italian teams. The irony, though, is that one of those Italian teams was set up to race a Japanese bike, to be ridden by an American rider, while the other team may also be fielding an Italian bike, the rider is instead very Japanese indeed.

For so far, the World Superbikes can be summed up in a single rivalry: Haga vs Spies. Noriyuki Haga inherited the Ducati that belonged to Troy Bayliss, arguably the best rider ever to sling a leg over a World Superbike machine. While Haga is no slouch - the Japanese rider has already achieved legendary status, despite never having won a world title - merely inheriting last year's title-winning bike has failed to turn out to be the sinecure predicted by so many in the press. After winning the first race, Haga has put in an impressive runs of consistent second place finishes, and so far this season has only finished on the top two steps of the podium.

Haga's  problem is that he keeps coming second to the same rider. When Ben Spies finally joined Yamaha in World Superbikes, the general tone of reaction in Europe was rather patronizing. This did not improve after Spies scored zero in the first race at Phillip Island, despite being punted off the track twice. But after winning the next three races, the tone has changed, especially after the second race at Qatar where Spies controlled the race behind Haga, made his move, then went on to win comfortably, the result never really in doubt. 

Indeed, the most eagerly anticipated World Superbike season is fast developing into something of a disappointment. Ben Spies looks virtually unstoppable, while Nori Haga is the only rider so far to look capable of putting up any resistance. Prior to the season, many commentators were predicting there would be an unprecedented number of winners in World Superbikes this year. After Qatar, it is quite conceivable there will be only two.

But not if Max Biaggi has his way. If World Superbikes is an Italian series, then Biaggi is the very epitome. An Italian rider on an Italian bike run by an Italian team is exactly what the Flammini brothers who run the series want to see. And an Italian rider on a competitive Italian bike is even better. The Aprilia RSV4 has been the surprise package so far this year, on the podium at just the second round of the season, and unlucky to miss out on a podium two weeks before. With the Aprilia at the beginning of its development cycle, and Biaggi determined to win another world title to go with his previous 250 cc crown, Biaggi will be pushing hard to do better than third at Valencia.

While Ducati, Yamaha and Aprilia have monopolized the series so far, Valencia could see Honda return to the front of the fray. For a start, they have a highly-motivated Spaniard keen to put on a show for his home crowd, and make amends for his last-lap error here last year, when he threw away a certain podium by trying to dive up the inside of Suzuki's Max Neukirchner, taking both himself and Neukirchner out in the attempt. A podium in race two was gratifying, but not the result Checa was after, and he will be out for a home win at Valencia, if at all possible.

But Checa will be joined by other strong Honda riders, as well as a fascinating series debutant. Stiggy Racing's Leon Haslam has already had one podium this year, and the Swedish team is looking seriously competitive so far, with more podiums doubtless to come. And Haslam is joined by a remarkable team mate at Valencia, the injured Roby Rolfo making way for new boy and MotoGP refugee John Hopkins. After seeing his factory Kawasaki MotoGP ride go up in smoke over the winter when the Japanese factory pulled out of the MotoGP series in a desperate attempt to save money, Hopper was left without a ride until he was saved by a Scandinavian, with former 250 star Johan Stigefelt sacrificing the underperforming Rolfo for the undoubted class of John Hopkins. 

Having been given his chance, Hopper now has to seize it roughly with both hands, and make a proper fist of his World Superbike career. Only if he succeeds will Hopkins be offered a way back into MotoGP. But then again, if he succeeds, he may not feel the need to return, preferring to stay in the Italian series whose star is rising, rather than the Spanish series whose star is waning.

Over in the World Supersport series, the class once referred to disparagingly as the "Ten Kate Cup" is rapidly losing that tag, becoming instead the Honda Cup. For though Kenan Sofuoglo narrowly beat his team mate Andrew Pitt at Phillip Island, the Ten Kate pair only barely finished ahead of third place man - and another Kawasaki MotoGP refugee - Ant West. And at Qatar, they went one better, or perhaps one worse, being beaten by a storming Eugene Laverty on the Parkalgar Honda. The Parkalgar team has been improving race by race, their hard work finally paying off in the desert of Qatar.

So with four Hondas sure to be the bikes to beat, the other manufacturers have their work cut out. Though the results don't necessarily show it, the Yamaha R6s have been very close behind, with Cal Crutchlow so far being the stronger of the Yamaha pair of Crutchlow and Fabien Foret. But the surprise package could come in the shape of the Glaner Motocard Kawasaki, ridden by local hero Joan Lascorz. Lascorz looked strong here last year, and the Kawasaki has been surprisingly competitive, given that every other road racing series the factory has entered has seen performances which could most kindly be described as mediocre. 

If there's a wildcard at Valencia, it is surely Joan Lascorz, and with several tens of thousands of Spanish fans screaming him on, Lascorz could well break the Honda monopoly. The Italian series could well get a Spanish winner here after all. The Italian - Spanish rivalry looks set to run for quite a while yet. 

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2009

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