After just two rounds of the World Superbike championship, the Althea Ducati juggernaut looks just about unstoppable. Four races, three wins, and a worst result of 3rd puts Carlos Checa very much in the driving seat of the 2011 championship.
There is good reason to believe that Checa will continue as he has started, with the Spaniard and his Italian team running like a well-oiled machine. Accusations that the team is actually Ducati's factory effort have been strenuously denied, though Ernesto Marinelli - head of Ducati's Superbike project - added some nuance to the situation in an interview with Italian website GPOne.com. The Althea squad is not a factory team, Marinelli explained, but rather a private team who buy a package from Ducati Corse. That package includes a 2011 Ducati 1198R, with a very large amount of support from the Bologna factory. Enough, hopefully, to secure a championship, though there is still a very long way to go in the season.
But Checa heads into Assen looking for more victories to add to his tally so far. That is not an easy task, however, given the Spaniard's recent record here. His last visits to the podium were in 2008, and that was aboard the Ten Kate Honda. But Checa was the best of the Ducatis here last year, and given the step forward the machine appears to have made, the Spaniard should leave Assen with a comfy points haul to add to his total.
The outlook for the reigning champion is less rosy. Max Biaggi has had a tough time at the Dutch track aboard the Aprilia, and is yet to score a podium here on the RSV4. Yet Biaggi has never needed a good result more: The Italian had one of his occasional meltdowns at Donington three weeks ago, securing a fine for giving Marco Melandri a not-so-friendly pat on the face after Superpole, then riding two uncharacteristically mistake-filled races on Sunday, ending up being black-flagged after missing a ride-through penalty for a jump start. Biaggi cannot afford too many weekends like Donington, and so his main task at Assen will be getting his season back on the rails. That does not necessarily mean taking a double, but it does mean scoring solid points and looking like a competitor all weekend.
The man who upset Biaggi, Marco Melandri, has gone from strength to strength. Melandri has taken little time to adapt to the World Superbike class, winning his first race for the factory Yamaha team at just the 3rd attempt. The shoulder surgery he underwent over the winter has not slowed the Italian, and Melandri looks like being a force to be reckoned with this season. Now that he had his first win, he told a reporter from Dutch website Racesport.nl, his aim at Assen was his first double.
Castrol Honda's Johnny Rea knows exactly what that feels like. Rea cleaned up at Assen last year, helped in part by testing at the circuit prior to the race. This year, they've not had the testing, and after a tricky start, Rea has a lot of work to do. Still, there is no denying the Ulsterman is fast here, and in front of his team's home crowd - the Castrol Honda team is still run by Ten Kate, whose home base is just three quarters of an hour away - Rea's motivation will be at its peak.
Perhaps the most interesting question at Assen is how well Leon Haslam will fare on the BMW. The 2010 championship runner up has struggled more than expected on the S1000RR, but then the bike has been difficult for everyone who rides it. Haslam is pushing for a drastic simplification of the machine, aimed at making finding a base setup a much quicker process. The fruits of that work are starting to pay off, though Haslam fell short of the podium twice at Donington. Haslam and BMW still have a lot of work to do, but the task appears to be getting easier.
The dark horse for this weekend's outing could well be Jakub Smrz. The Effenbert Liberty Ducati rider had his first pole and his first podium at Assen back in 2009, and Smrz has had a strong start to 2011, bagging his second ever podium at Donington Park, and looking for a while like he might even take his maiden victory. The Ducatis are clearly looking strong in 2011 - ironically, given the factory's decision to drop its factory Xerox team - and Smrz could well be the benefactor at Assen.
In the World Supersport class, the series looks like being a battle of the Yamahas. Luca Scassa has taken victory in the first two races of the season so far, though he had a helping hand from Lady Luck. At Phillip Island, several riders dropped out with tire problems, leaving Scassa to win the race, while at Donington, the Italian managed to just keep ahead of his ParkinGO Yamaha teammate, Chaz Davies. Davies decided that discretion was the better part of valor on that last lap of the Donington round, mulling over an attack on Scassa, but realizing that any such attack would end up with both riders in the gravel. It is still far too early in the season for such shenanigans, and Davies counted the remaining 11 rounds as opportunities to get even.
While Scassa was helped by tires at Phillip Island, it was a clutch problem at Donington that prevented the PTR Hondas from competing with the Yamahas. After a fantastic preseason and a podium at Phillip Island, Parkalgar's Sam Lowes was forced to retire with a malfunctioning clutch in Donington. If the team have found a solution to the Honda's problems, the English youngster could well push Scassa and Davies very hard indeed for the win.
The Kawasakis are adding to the pressure on the Hondas. For years, the winner of the World Supersport class was easy to predict: whoever happened to be riding the Ten Kate Honda. This was in part due to the fantastic preparation of the CBR600RRs, but it was also due to the ability of cousins Ronald and Gerrit to identify and bring on winners. Their ability has recently been surpassed by Parkalgar boss Simon Buckmaster, and now the Motocard.com Kawasaki team has joined in the fun. Both David Salom and Broc Parkes have had strong outings so far this season, and it is only a matter of time before the Kawasaki bags its first win.
So the riders sit in Assen waiting to race, and what will greet them is a track with a couple of minor alterations. Firstly, the narrow path through the gravel trap at the Ruskenhoek has been removed, the gravel traps making way for a fully-paved interior section of the track. The problem was that riders overshooting the Ruskenhoek were having trouble negotiating the narrow path between the gravel traps, and rejoining the race without watching for traffic on the other side of the corner. With much more asphalt to choose from, the riders should be able to focus on getting back on track safely, rather than picking their way along a narrow and winding path, before dumping their bikes back on track in front of oncoming traffic.
The other change to the track is more subtle, but could be significant nonetheless. At the Hoge Heide corner - the fastest part of the track, taken wide open in 5th or 6th gear - a minor bump has been removed where the two loops of the track were joined by a connecting road, the bump making way for billiard-table-smooth asphalt. The bump that was taken away was pretty minor, but at the speeds it was being taken, it was occasionally cause for concern.
The Assen World Superbike round also sees the first running of the European Junior Cup, a series modeled roughly on the Red Bull Rookies Cup which runs at a number of MotoGP events. With WSBK being (nominally at least) a production-based series, the youngsters taking part in the EJC will have hopped-up street bikes to ride, the machines being slightly modified Kawasaki Ninja 250Rs. It will be an interesting spectacle watching a grid full of crazy teenagers wrestle this bikes around, the only fear being the fact that the machines are so incredibly underpowered. The class is aimed at developing the talent of the future, and Assen is the first chance we get to see just how successful that program is.
At least the EJC - and WSBK and WSS along with it - will have fair weather to embark on their adventure with. The threat of rain has receded, while the outlook is improving day-by-day, with Sunday starting to look like a reasonable day. After a cold and windy start to the Assen weekend, the riders - and the fans - will surely welcome a little bit of springtime warmth.