The World Superbike series returns to Kyalami in South Africa for the first time since 2002, and through no particular fault of Infront Motor Sport, the series couldn't have chosen a worse time to visit such a physical and technical track. A large part of the field is either injured or has been replaced due to injury, leaving the injured and unfamiliar to struggle to get the bike round the difficult circuit. What's more, Kyalami is located on the high plain of South Africa's eastern plateau, and the elevation takes its toll on both bikes and riders. At Monza, an injured rider could rest a little down the long straights. At Kyalami, that's virtually impossible.
The track is new to some, and all too familiar to others. The manufacturers designated teams tested here back in December last year, and a number of the veterans have raced at Kyalami in the past. Perhaps half the riders on the World Superbike grid will have ridden here previously, while a far smaller proportion of the World Supersport grid will have seen the South African track before.
With little previous form to go on, this leaves the race a rather unpredictable affair, apart from the pattern which has dominated the season so far. The races are likely to be shared between Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga again, Spies so far managing to maintain his 50% win ratio, while Haga continues to finish either 1st or 2nd. But Haga's mask of reliability slipped at Monza, if through no fault of his own.
In race 1, Haga should have finished 3rd, having been comprehensively beaten by Spies and outclassed by his team mate Michel Fabrizio, but Spies Yamaha R1 running out of fuel left Haga in 2nd spot. In race 2, Haga hit a flock of pigeons through the very high speed Curva Grande, damaging Haga's arm and causing him to lose sensation in it, which later caused him to crash out of the race. It didn't cause Haga to lose his sense of humor, as is evident from the popup on his web site. Haga is the only current rider to have won at Kyalami, taking victory back in 2000, and so has a slight advantage going into the race, though one which is probably negated by the pain Haga is still suffering from the lacerations in his arm.
Ben Spies dominated at Monza, and only a miscalculation on fuel saw him run out of gas in the very last corner of the race. Spies is clearly the man to beat in World Superbikes, but is doing an excellent job of beating himself, with two race crashes and the fuel incident. He is due another double, though, and if he can stay on the bike, he looks capable of taking one in South Africa.
One of the most interesting things to watch at Kyalami will be how Michel Fabrizio does. The Italian took his first win in 87 races at Monza, after 14 previous visits to the podium. Sometimes a first win can rid a rider of the monkey on his back and allow him to rise to the greater heights that he had always thought himself capable of. But sometimes, the first win turns out to be nothing more than an anomaly, a blip in normal service. Fabrizio should be running with Haga and Spies anyway this weekend, but the interest will come in whether he looks capable of taking another victory.
The Ten Kate Hondas also showed signs of improvement at Monza, with Ryuichi Kiyonari taking two podiums, and Johnny Rea getting a 4th and a 5th. The Ten Kate team have struggled with the new bike since the start of the season, but may now finally be getting on track. While Kiyonari is the type of rider who is brilliant at one circuit and nowhere at another, Rea should be able to build on the results from Monza and make progress up the championship table. So far, neither Rea nor Kiyonari have looked capable of a win, but if the Hondas are being sorted out, then that day must be coming soon.
After the carnage of the first-corner pile up at Monza's silly chicane, the World Superbike field will be full of unfamiliar faces at Kyalami. Max Neukirchner, Brendan Roberts, Makoto Tamada and Troy Corser were all injured badly enough to have to miss the South African race. As a result, Fonsi Nieto, Gregorio Lavilla, local boy Sheridan Morais and veteran Steve Martin will be filling in for them, while another local rider Shaun Whyte will be riding in place of David Checa. Both Lavilla and Martin have experience here in the past, while Morais is the reigning South African Superbike champion, and so knows Kyalami like the back of his hand. Morais' problem is that he will be riding the uncompetitive Kawasaki, though that didn't prevent him from taking the SA Superbike title last year.
If the World Superbike title is looking like a two-man race, there are are six riders who look capable of winning every weekend in World Supersport, and another couple who could win on occasion. The most impressive riders so far have been the class rookies Cal Crutchlow on the factory Yamaha and Eugene Laverty on the Parkalgar Honda, both men having taken two victories. The Yamaha has the edge on top speed, but Laverty's CBR600RR is no slouch either, and both men are evenly matched in terms of talent. On any weekend, either or both of these men will be involved at the front, and in at the kill as the bikes cross the finish line.
Crutchlow's team mate Fabien Foret and Ten Kate's Andrew Pitt bring the benefit of experience to Kyalami, both men having ridden here the last time the Supersport series ran here in 2002. But both men have had their problems this year, Foret getting off to a slow start and being completely outclassed by his rookie team mate. The Frenchman is slowly recovering his form, finishing 4th at Assen and 3rd at Monza, though there was a good deal of complaining about the manner in which Foret took that 3rd spot in Italy. He will need a few more podiums if he is to hold on to his job at the end of the year.
Andrew Pitt could hardly have thought his title defense would turn out to be such an uphill task at the start of the season, but problems with the 2009 Honda have caused Pitt and team mate Kenan Sofuoglu to struggle far more than expected this season, despite the model changes being minimal. As Ten Kate iron out the bugs, both Pitt and Sofuoglu should be back at the front of the pack, and with Pitt's experience at the track, he could make a start this weekend.
The biggest anomaly in racing at the moment has to be Joan Lascorz on the Glaner Motocard Kawasaki. Not because of Lascorz, who has proven to be a highly talented, if occasionally capricious rider. Rather, the fact that a Kawasaki has looked capable of winning in any form of road racing is surprising indeed: The ZX-10R has been singularly unimpressive in the World Superbike class, and equally invisible in the more restricted FIM Superstock championship. In the European Superstock 600 championship, the Kawasakis are completely outclassed by the Yamahas and the Hondas. It is only in the World Supersport series that Kawasaki's bikes seem to fly, despite both ZX-10R and ZX-6R receiving rave reviews in motorcycle magazines. Building a sports bike is one thing, building a race bike is evidently another.
Finally, there will be not one, but two Lavertys on the World Supersport start grid at Kyalami. Eugene's brother Michael will be filling in for Robin Harms, who broke a collarbone during practice at Monza. With Johnny Rea also from the same part of the world, the World Superbike paddock is becoming home to an increasingly large (Northern) Irish contingent, unsurprising given the long history of racing in that part of the British Isles.
There are a lot of reasons to be glad that the World Superbike series is making a return to Kyalami. If motorcycle racing is to be a truly global sport, then it needs to be present on all the continents, and racing has been missing from Africa for too long. Kyalami has a fantastic layout and has produced some great racing, and is likely to do so again this weekend.