The World Superbike series completes its spring migration this weekend, reaching the most northerly point of the season, after starting at its most southerly point just three races ago. For the teams and riders of the series are gathering at Assen, to do battle on the emasculated version of what was once called the Cathedral of Racing.
But as they gather in the paddock, there are plenty of new faces all round. After the Stiggy Racing team set a trend for dumping one rider (Roberto Rolfo) when another, bigger name rider (John Hopkins) became available - prompting rumblings from WSBK regulars that the atmosphere is changing, and this kind of thing belongs more in the MotoGP paddock than in World Superbikes. But needs must when the devil - or rather, Mammon - drives, and so up and down the paddock, riders are disappearing, some to be replaced by others bringing sponsorship, or the hope of better results, while others go to save money and cut costs.
Ayrton Badovini from the PSG-1 Kawasaki World Superbike squad and Shaun Geronimi from the Hoegee Suzuki World Supersport team are two of the names leaving the paddock, Badovini forced out due to a lack of funds, while Geronimi - himself a last-minute draftee to fill the gap in the Hoegee lineup - is being dropped for a lack of results. Not undeservedly, as the former Australian Supersport rider was a little out of his depth on the world stage, persistently finishing last.
Geronimi is to be replaced by a rider who lost out in earlier cost-cutting: Alessandro Polita was due to partner Shane Byrne at Sterilgarda Ducati, but a lack of funding left Polita out in the cold. Polita has extensive experience in the paddock, having won one Superstock 1000 championship and regularly challenged for others, while he has also contested the World Supersport championship, though with less success.
Two new faces will be joining the regulars, though their final destinations are not yet known. Lorenzo Lanzi and Gregorio Lavilla are expected to be present at Assen, and rumors surround where they will be going and who they will be joining. Lanzi was released from his contract to race in the Italian Superbike Championship with KTM Scuderia Corse, and has already announced that he has a World Superbike ride. It's just that he hasn't announced who that is with.
Rumors suggest Lanzi could join Regis Laconi aboard a second DFX Corse Ducati, after a benefactor provided two 2008 Ducati 1098RS' to race. But Lanzi could also replace Brendan Roberts at Guandalini Ducati, the reigning Superstock 1000 champion failing to impress after stepping up to the World Superbike series.
Then again, Roberts could be replaced by Gregorio Lavilla instead. The Spaniard - a former BSB champion who lost his ride when the ProRide Honda team folded before the season started - had been drafted in by the Guandalini team to race their Ducatis in the Italian Championship, to assess the state of the bikes. However, a mixture of severe rain and oil on the track at Misano meant that the race was canceled, raising speculation that Lavilla could replace Roberts as early as Monza, the round after Assen. Lavilla's name has already been linked with the Sterilgarda team, but nothing more has been heard of that suggestions.
But all such speculation is enough to make your head spin, and frankly, there's more than enough racing in the World Superbike series to be able to disregard any financial and contractual shenanigans which may be afoot. For the series is rapidly turning into a two-horse race, with a Japanese veteran aboard an Italian thoroughbred facing off against a Texan riding a Japanese machine with an impeccable racing pedigree.
Both Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies have taken three wins apiece so far, but Haga has come out on top, as the Xerox Ducati man has three second places to add to his wins, while Spies has put the Yamaha Italia R1 on the podium only once, getting forced off the track in his first race and crashing out of the first race at Valencia two weeks ago.
The two men seemed to have reversed their roles: Ben Spies crashing out of a superbike race for the first time in four years, while Haga has shown uncharacteristic poise and calm to keep posting regular results, more Steady Eddie than Nitro Nori. Haga has always been fast, but his tendency to either crash or have an off day have previously prevented the Japanese rider from getting close to a title. It's looking like it could be Haga's year, but he faces his first big test at Assen, a track he has historically always struggled with, with four DNFs out of the last 6 races at the Dutch circuit.
Spies, on the other hand, faces getting to learn the fast and treacherous track, after turning down the opportunity to ride the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP bike after Loris Capirossi injured himself in practice last year in difficult weather conditions. But Spies has already proved he is a fast learner, and if he treats the fast left hander of the Ramshoek with respect - one of only three fast lefts on the circuit, leaving tires cold and unprepared for the violence of the high-speed turn - he should be in with a shout at a podium, if not more, this weekend.
Though Haga and Spies are dominating, there is a host of candidates aiming to depose them from their throne. Chief among these is Max Biaggi, the Roman Emperor taking the brand new Aprilia RSV4 to outstanding results in the first three rounds of the series. So good has the Aprilia's debut that some team managers - most notably Alstare Suzuki's Francis Batta - have complained that the RSV4 is a prototype and using illegal parts. With Aprilia launching its new superbike a couple of weeks ago, those complaints should start to subside.
Shinya Nakano has not scored the podiums that his team mate Biaggi has aboard the Aprilia, but Assen is a track the Japanese rider has historically done well at, and which suits his style. The bike is fast enough, and Nakano is quickly adapting to his switch to World Superbikes, and could be a factor in Holland.
The Aprilia has some way to go before it is as competitive as the Ducati 1098R, though. Nori Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate Michel Fabrizio and Regis Laconi on the privateer DFX Corse bike demonstrated the quality of the Ducati at the previous round in Valencia, Laconi taking a brace of fourth places, while Fabrizio podiumed twice. Fabrizio will be hoping for a better outing at Assen than he had here last year, posting two DNFs, but on his current form, he should be a contender.
With Haga, Fabrizio, Laconi and even Guandalini's Jakub Smrz posting respectable results, Shane Byrne's form on the Sterilgarda Ducati is rather mystifying. The reigning BSB champion is no stranger to the tracks, having ridden them in MotoGP several years ago, and much more was expected of him after being very impressive in preseason testing. Only time will tell whether Byrne will find his feet quickly, but as always a large contingent of British fans will be on hand to cheer Shakey on, and hope that Assen will be the point at which the season swings back in his favor.
If Ducati has only one underperforming rider, Honda has a whole gaggle of them. Before the season started, both Johnny Rea and Carlos Checa were being tipped as possible title candidates. But an indifferent start to the season has seen the Ten Kate boys floundering firmly in mid-pack, with no obvious reason for their misfortune. The '09 CBR1000RR is not hugely different from the '08 bike, which Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari managed to book multiple wins on. The team needs to find some answers if they are to get back to the front of the field again.
The only Hondas that have looked remotely competitive have been the Stiggy Racing bikes. Leon Haslam had a strong start to the season, getting on the box at Phillip Island, and has consistently been the best Honda. At Valencia, he was joined by a new team mate after Roby Rolfo had been unceremoniously dumped, and great things are to be expected of John Hopkins. But Hopper has unhappy memories of Assen, being caught out by a cold tire at the Ramshoek, and smashing his ankle. There's no doubting the American's quality, but he may be just a fraction more cautious at the track which bit him so badly last time he was here.
With all the media attention being focused at newcomers, poor Max Neukirchner is getting a raw deal. The German has had an outstanding start to the new season, consistently running at the front of the field, and putting the Alstare Suzuki on the podium twice so far. Neukirchner had a strong showing at Assen last year, taking a third and a fifth in 2008, so the chances of the German getting on the podium are very good indeed.
While the Hondas have had a miserable time in the World Superbike class, they are faring considerably better in World Supersport. Ten Kate continue to feature prominently, with Kenan Sofuoglu winning the first race at Phillip Island, and reigning champion Andrew Pitt finishing in second place twice. But new boy Eugene Laverty has made an impressive entry into the class, putting his Parkalgar Honda on the top of the box at Qatar, after a fourth place in Australia. And Ant West continues his impressive run on the Stiggy Honda, having finished on the podium in 5 of the 6 World Supersport races he has competed in so far.
But Honda are not having it all their own way. Another rookie, British rider Cal Crutchlow, took a win for Yamaha at Valencia, after judging the damp circumstances to perfection, and blasting past West on the last lap in Spain. And Kawasaki's Joan Lascorz has proved to be a strong contender so far, though a failing rear tire saw his hopes of home glory retire at Valencia.
There will be a gaggle of local wildcards at Assen as well, but a couple of the WSS regulars could throw up a surprise. Suzuki's Barry Veneman was incredibly competitive at the end of last season, but has had a poor start to 2009, currently down in 10th in the championship. His results have improved every race, however, and he will be keen to put on a show in front of his home fans. The other dark horse at Assen could prove to be RES Veidec's Arie Vos. The reigning Dutch Superbike champion has had a very modest start to the season, failing to score points so far, but improving at every race. The man who has dominated the Dutch championship as utterly as Mladin and Spies dominated the AMA will be keen to score his first points at his home race, and with local knowledge - and a round of the Dutch championship here under his belt just two weeks ago - he could well finish well up the order.
The depth of talent in the World Supersport promises a close and exciting race, and they have plenty to live up to. The 2008 race here was one of the most thrilling we have seen in a long time, with eight to ten men battling for victory until the final lap, and the first five across the line covered by just over a quarter of a second. With the sun due to shine for most of the event, and warm Dutch spring weather on offer, the conditions are right for another great weekend of racing. Assen is a track that can throw up some close racing, with the final GT chicane the deciding factor in so many races here. The World Superbike series visit here should see several more thrilling finishes decided at that final corner.