There are many spectacular settings for racetracks around the world, but Miller Motorsports Park in Utah is undeniably one of the finest. Set on an undulating plain against the backdrop of the Oquirrh mountains, the track guarantees stunning images and wonderful scenery. And along with the fantastic scenery, the track also boasts some of the best names for corners on any track around the world: From Dreamboat, through Work-Out to the fast kink of Scream; from Right Hook to Knock Out and then on to Witchcraft; then the Attitudes, First, Second, and Bad; before the final flick right through Wind Up and out Release - the most appropriately named corner in the world - along the front straight.
Despite the interesting layout - good for some outstanding battles in the World Supersport class, who will not be joining the World Superbike riders in Utah as a way of containing costs for the junior class - Miller has a history of allowing a single rider to dominate proceedings. In the three visits that WSBK has paid to the circuit, each of the weekends has ended in a double win for one rider: Carlos Checa in 2008, Ben Spies in 2009 and Max Biaggi in 2010. The number of winners should really be fewer: Checa was leading both 2010 races comfortably before sidelined by a simple mechanical issue, twice denying him victory.
The case for Checa dominating at Miller again this weekend is strong: The Althea Ducati rider has a 27-point lead in the title race, and has won half of the eight races run this year. The only place where Checa was off the podium was at Monza, a track at which the 1200cc V-twin Ducati 1198R simply cannot match the pace of the fours, and especially of the rocketship that is the Aprilia RSV-4.
Miller's long front straight - just a fraction over a kilometer - is another place that the Ducati is likely to lose out to the fours, but the twisty back section gives the 1198R a place to catch up. Helping to level the playing field is the thinner atmosphere at that altitude, Miller being a kilometer and a half above sea level, providing less oxygen to burn and cutting horsepower for all the bikes, reducing the advantage the more powerful four-cylinder machines have. And now that a large part of Ducati's former factory team have moved into the Althea garage, the mechanical issues that ended Checa's challenge in Utah last year should be a thing of the past.
Though Checa's performance so far this season has been impeccable, his championship hopes are being ably assisted by the failings of his opponents. While Checa has been the model of consistency, the riders challenging him have been remarkably erratic, either through error, misjudgment or just the steep learning curve facing the World Superbike rookie.
Most erratic of all - remarkably so, given that he is the reigning world champion and a veteran of the sport - has been Max Biaggi. The Alitalia Aprilia rider's title defense has been inconsistent to say the least. In eight races, Biaggi has received two ride-through penalties - one for a jump start at Donington, one for missing the chicane at Monza - and a black flag (for ignoring the ride through at Donington). He has also received a warning from Race Direction after slapping Marco Melandri in pit lane, as well as a fine for dangerous riding during practice.
When not being disastrous, Biaggi has been very close to sublime. Five 2nd places from eight starts is outstanding by any measure, and only his stupidity, for want of a better word, prevents him from leading the championship. Biaggi has avowed that he remains calm as he enters the weekend, and calmness is the quality he needs if he's to get his title defense back on track. Given that Biaggi's record is almost as strong as Checa's at Miller - though his double here last year was due to Checa's retirement, there was no one else within five seconds of the Italian - this could be the weekend when he reignites his season.
Apart from Biaggi, Checa's strongest challenge comes from the factory Yamahas of Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty. Coming into World Superbikes after leaving MotoGP, Melandri has hit the ground running, with only a stumble at Assen breaking his stride. Fellow rookie Eugene Laverty took a little longer to find his feet in the class, but a setup change after Assen saw Laverty flying at Monza. The double win the Irishman took in Italy could well be the kind of transformational moment that sometimes happens in a rider's career, not just because of the results, but because of the manner in which he secured them. Laverty remained icy cool in both races at Monza, and clinically efficient in his finishing. If he can carry this on for the rest of the season, he will be a very frightening prospect indeed.
Laverty also has track knowledge on his side, having ridden at Miller in World Supersport. The Yamaha man was impressive here, finishing 2nd to Kenan Sofuoglu both years, and unlucky to get a win. For Melandri, this is his first visit to the track, but as he proved at Monza, he is a very fast learner. Miller may present a few more challenges than Monza, given its greater complexity, but the Italian should be up to speed soon enough.
Over at Castrol Honda, Jonathan Rea has already spent some time on the track at Miller, having had some testing time on the track prior to the race weekend. Rea's season has not gone to plan this season, with his only two podium appearances coming at the Ten Kate team's home Grand Prix at Assen. With a new swingarm and a new setup, Rea is hoping to return to being competitive at the American circuit. Rea and the team clearly have a lot of work to do this season.
As do BMW: Leon Haslam was championship runner up last season on board the underdeveloped Alstare Suzuki, but has not looked anything like his old self on the BMW S1000RR. The Monster From Munich has plenty of horsepower, but controlling it and getting it reliably onto the tarmac remains a tricky process, as illustrated by the problems the BMWs have had in the second half of the race. There has been some progress over the past couple of races, with Haslam calling for the bike setup to be simplified, concentrating on one thing at a time in the hope of improvement. But it will be a while yet before Haslam and teammate Troy Corser are challenging for wins.
The fly in the ointment this weekend could be the weather, with showers and cold temperatures forecast for all three days. Race day - on Monday at Miller, to coincide with the Memorial Day holiday weekend - looks worst of all, with conditions more reminiscent of a cold autumnal day than the beginning of summer. The cold and wet may make horsepower completely irrelevant, and if that happens, all bets are off. On paper, Carlos Checa is the red-hot favorite for the double. But rain has a knack of ruining paper plans...