Wednesday, October 11, 2006

World Superbike Rewind

Despite domination by Ducati's Troy Bayliss, the 2006 World Superbike season was one of the best yet. This was mainly due to the quality of the field, as good as the championship's previous heyday of the late 90s through 2002. The list of top riders this year was remarkable: former WSBK champions Troy Corser, James Toseland and Troy Bayliss; MotoGP refugees Alex Barros, Ruben Xaus, Fonsi Nieto and Roberto Rolfo; World Supersport champions Fabian Foret, Karl Muggeridge and Andrew Pitt; and top Superbike regulars Chris Walker, Regis Laconi, Nori Haga and Yukio Kagayama.

What's more, this fabulous cast of characters found themselves on a wide variety of top-quality machinery. The lucky ones were even benefitting from cast-off MotoGP traction-control technology. One thing that all bikes continued to share however was Pirelli tyres. In 2004 the motorcycle press was predicting doom and gloom after the decision to switch to the Pirelli control tyre - but it turned out to be a genius move, as a diminished grid in 2004 provided infinitely more compelling racing than the humdrum 2003 season.

After a dominant 2005 on the Suzuki, Troy Corser was expected to be the primary rival to Troy Bayliss, who returned to WSBK after an average three years in MotoGP. Preseason tests confirmed Bayliss' position as the man to beat. But come the first race of the season in Qatar, Bayliss seemed off the pace, outclassed by Honda's new signing James Toseland, as well as Yamaha's Haga and the Suzuki pairing of Corser and Kagayama.

As the year progressed, Bayliss quickly got onto the pace, and then starting setting it. The surprise was that it wasn't Corser who was his main rival. Perennial WSBK runner-up Nori Haga showed speed and consistency, as did Toseland, and by the end of the year only those two who were within reach of Bayliss.

Along the way a number of other riders grabbed a win or two. Suzuki madman Yukio Kagayama had already won in 2005, and added to the tally in 2006, most notably with a double win at Brno. Yamaha's Andrew Pitt also garnered a win, his first since his days in World Supersport. A win had been expected from MotoGP star Alex Barros from day one, but it took until the penultimate round for him to deliver it. Perhaps the most special win of the season was the first ever for British favourite Chris Walker. In addition to the significance of it being his first win, the fact he did it in the rain from last place coming out of the first corner made it even sweeter for his legions of fans.

When all was said and done, it ended as expected: Troy Bayliss became the 2006 World Superbike champion, with three races in hand. The battle for second went to the very last race and saw James Toseland pip Nori Haga for runner-up.

So what does the 2007 season hold for WSBK fans? There's not much that has been decided yet, but we do know that Bayliss stays at Ducati, Toseland stays at Honda and Haga stays at Yamaha. Corser moves from Suzuki to Yamaha and is replaced by the mercurial MotoGP star Max Biaggi. Leaving the paddock for good are Frankie Chili and Norick Abe, who both retire. Amongst the riders sniffing around for a job are Karl Muggeridge, Andrew Pitt, Chris Walker and former champ and AMA reject Neil Hodgson. Some juicy rumours put Ducati's British Superbike rider Greg Lavilla on the factory team, Neil Hodgson on a satellite Ducati run by Carl Fogarty and a less satisfying rumour that sees Alex Barros return to MotoGP with Kawasaki or Ilmor. Whichever of these turn out to be true, one thing is for sure: it's going to be another terrific year for World Superbike. Only one thing could make it any better: a return to the USA...

No comments: