Thursday, February 22, 2007

World Superbike Preview

There's really only one story when it comes to the 2007 season of World Superbike: Max Biaggi. Sure, we've had MotoGP refugees in WSBK before, most recently Alex Barros who secured one win on a Klaffi Honda last year. But this time, we've got a former champion on a bike that has the potential to win any race. Barros was on an under-developed bike with an under-funded team. He didn't even have traction control whilst all around him others did. Max's Alstare Suzuki will be extremely competitive, with all the best componentry that the racing industry has to offer; most significantly Mitsubishi traction control, Showa suspension and Brembo brakes. Whether all this will make Max a race-winner again is the huge question that will define the early part of the 2007 WSBK campaign. Certainly testing times have shown him to be on pace with the front-runners. After some rough seasons in MotoGP, he'll be hoping that his racecraft and thirst for victory will keep him there once the starting lights go out.

Alongside Max at the Alstare Suzuki team will be wily Japanese Yukio Kagayama. He'll be going into his third year with the team, albeit on a very much redesigned GSX-R. His inconsistent record has kept him out of the title fight thus far, but when he hits a rich vein of form, like he did in the middle of 2006, he's virtually unstoppable. He shouldn't be dismissed as a second-tier rider.

The rider who Max Biaggi has replaced at Suzuki, Troy Corser, has moved over to Yamaha, and will line up with Noriyuki Haga on the R1s. Despite some decent Yamaha Europe backing, this team has never quite been able to run at the front consistently and will be hoping that one small detail will allow them to make that step in 2007. The detail in question is the revolutionary variable intake tract on the new R1 engine. Yamaha's American colleagues have already made claims that it will instantly allow them to fight for wins, so Corser and Haga will be hoping that's true. Is it finally time for Haga to claim a WSBK crown? His legions of loyal fans will certainly hope so, and I'm happy to count myself among them. I find Corser's smooth, methodical approach to be less exciting...

Honda's hopes will once again rest with 2004 champion James Toseland and the mighty Ten Kate team. Like all the other Honda riders, he struggled in 2006 without traction control, a situation that has now been remedied. James did well to get the results he got, so this could very well be the package to take the fight to the dominant Ducatis. Other changes in the Ten Kate team include a new sponsor (Hanspree, makers of LCD televisions) and a new second rider, Roberto Rolfo. The gutsy young Italian takes the place of perennial underachiever Karl Muggeridge who moves to the Bertocchi team.

Kawasaki's top team, PSG-1, continue to grow in confidence, despite choosing to retain the two weaker riders from its 2006 three-rider squad. Gone is the bulldog agression of Chris Walker, who moves to British Superbike and the Rizla Suzuki squad, hoping to take care of some unfinished business. Left behind at PSG-1 are 250cc refugee Fonsi Nieto (another next big thing who wasn't) and owner of the ugliest ears in motorcycling, Regis Laconi. Both riders have significant achievements in their past but have failed to deliver with Kawasaki. They would probably blame the difficult handling of the ZX-10RR, and to be fair they wouldn't be the first. Despite being arguably the fastest of the Japanese 1000s, a slow-steering front end (due to a long wheelbase) have made it a bit of a pig on the track. Lack of success in World, British and American Superbike championships are evidence of its problems, and to be honest that is unlikely to change in 2007.

And so to the most successful of the factory squads, Ducati Corse. Current Superbike rules have allowed them much more leeway in engine development due to their twin-cylinder configuration, and with factory resources behind them this has made for a very potent package. Add in one of the best Superbike riders of his generation, Troy Bayliss, and it's unlikely that Ducati will lose its Superbike crown this year. It is true that Ducati have basically stopped developing the 999F any further, hoping for a rules change that will allow it to use either the new 1098 or a forthcoming 1200cc variant in 2008. Ironically, that change might make them slower, as the myriad of engine mods that have been afforded them so far would be rescinded, placing the team on an even footing with the 4-cylinder bikes. However, they seem willing to trade their exotic lightweight crankshafts and other one-off engine components for increased engine size. You know how the old saying goes... "there's no substitute for cc's".

It's worth noting here that Bayliss' team-mate continues to be Lorenzo Lanzi. It was widely expected that Lanzi's inability to fulfill the potential he showed in late 2005 would mean he'd lose his seat to Neil Hodgson. For some reason, Ducati stuck with the chrome-domed Italian, leaving Hodgson out in the cold, grimly awaiting Carl Fogarty's team to find sponsors to run ex-factory Ducatis. This never happened, and Hodgson and Fogarty now find themselves with no prospects for 2007. Which is a bit of a shame.

Outside the top five "factory" (the term is used loosely) teams, there are an additional four teams that could show their faces near the front of the field from time to time. In contrast to last year, where there was so much uncertainty, and so many new faces, it's a safe bet that the bulk of success will go to the top five factory teams, and not to these four. Still, we shouldn't ignore the likes of Steve Martin, Karl Muggeridge or Ruben Xaus.

The top privateer team in 2007 is likely to be the DFXtreme Honda team. Former MotoGP rider Michel Fabrizio will be back for a second year, whilst the place of the retiring Frankie Chili has been taken by former Foggy-Petronas man Steve Martin. Martin managed to beat the odds time and again on the dog-slow Petronas by qualifying well, but even his undeniable skills were able to do anything of note when it came to races. On a well-developed Honda he should be at least as fast as Fabrizio, and may even stick his nose into the factory battles on occasion.

Erstwhile privateers Bertocchi return for another year, but make a surprising switch from Kawasaki to Honda, and change their name to Alto Evolution Honda. For many years, Bertocchi were known for the being the second Kawasaki team in WSBK, but that is all set to change. Joining former Ten Kate Honda rider Karl Muggeridge will be up-and-coming young Aussie Josh Brookes.

Two other riders to watch out for will be Ruben Xaus on the Sterilgarda-Berik Ducati and Shinichi Nakatomi on the Yamaha France R1. Both teams are capable of troubling the top ten, although Xaus (who I referred to as mercurial in last years WSBK preview, and who maintains that persona) has the potential to make it to the podium from time to time.

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