Friday, April 06, 2007

British Superbike is back

Quite possibly my revelation of 2006, British Superbike is a great championship to follow. What made it more compelling than it might otherwise have been was the tedium of its transatlantic cousin, the AMA Superbike championship here in the US. Race after race in the AMA put me to sleep, so it was truly refreshing to watch another national superbike class that was actually entertaining. On any given weekend, any one of perhaps six or seven riders were in with a shout. In the US, that number was really only two (and ended up being three).

The top two teams in BSB remain the HM Plant factory Honda team and the factory-supported Airwaves Ducati outfit. Further down the pecking order are semi-factory efforts Rizla Suzuki, Hawk Kawasaki and Virgin Yamaha, along with top Honda privateers Stobart.

HM Plant boast last year's title-winner, Ryuichi Kiyonari, and kick Karl Harris to the curb in favour of junior team graduate Johnny Rea. Kiyonari is undoubtedly capable of repeating in 2007 and remains one of the top three riders in the series. The question is, how long before Honda gives him another shot on the international stage?

Rea's major obstacle will be the switch from the Dunlops of the junior team to Michelins, something that has caused many more experienced riders trouble in the past (most notably Ben Bostrom, but Neil Hodgson and Noriyuki Haga also come to mind). However, his speed in pre-season testing seems to indicate that he's already oversome that issue.

Stepping into Johnny's place in what used to be called the Red Bull junior team and is now sponsored by, is Leon Camier, who won the British Supersport crown in 2005. It's safe to say he has the support of his family - they sold their house to kickstart his career back in 2000, when he headed to 125 grand prix racing. If he can maintain the pace of Rea from 2006, he'll be a constant threat for the podium.

Last year Airwaves Ducati had the strongest rider line-up with Leon Haslam and Spaniard Greg Lavilla. Haslam's season started slowly but picked up speed to the point that he was in contention for the title going into the last race. Lavilla on the other hand was untouchable to start with, but a series of errors and mechanical failures put him out of the running in the penultimate race of the season. As championship winner in 2005, he's proved he can do it, but with Leon growing in confidence every year, the competition gets stronger, not weaker. However both riders are equally capable of getting the job done this year.

The next strongest team has to be Rizla Suzuki, who have the most exciting new line-up. Returning from his years in World Superbike is Chris Walker, who considers the BSB championship to be unfinished business - he's been runner-up four times, most notably against Neil Hodgson back in 2000 in heartbreaking circumstances as his bike failed in the last race. He'll be quick, there's no doubt, but it's not clear whether the Suzuki is the bike to be on if you want to win the championship. It certainly wasn't for Shakey Byrne, who won on a Ducati in 2003 but couldn't mount a serious challenge last year on the Suzook. However, it's the bike to have in the US AMA series, so perhaps there's hope yet.

Alongside The Stalker will be last year's British Supersport champ, Cal Crutchlow. Like Leon Camier, he represents the future of British Superbike racing, and should be the perfect "yin" to Walker's "yang". The mixture of youth and experience has worked well for teams in the past and Rizla Suzuki will hope that'll be the case again. I'm expecting Cal to find an occasional podium during this first year, but not challenge for victories just yet.

The two Rizla refugees have split for other second-tier teams this year after both endured terrible injury-riddled seasons in 2006. James Haydon finds himself on a Pirelli-shod Virgin Yamaha, whilst Shane "Shakey" Byrne rejoins Paul Bird Motorsport's Stobart team, for whom he won the title in 2003. Now running Hondas instead of Ducatis, they struggled last year against the might of the factory-backed teams, waiting in vain for traction control systems. They'll have it for this year, but who's to say what new gizmos HM Plant Honda will get that Stobart won't. The life of the privateer team is a tough one, even with the decent level of funding that they have. Still, there exists the possibility that Shakey's bike will be close enough in performance that he'll be in with a shout. I certainly hope so.

One other notable rider returning to an old team is Scott Smart. Three years ago he was the next big thing after a great season on the Hawk Kawasaki. He nabbed a spot with Rizla Suzuki, at that point the team to beat, but he struggled mightily and lost the ride. Picked up by privateers Vivaldi, he did what he could and was always top-ten material and in 2006 achieved a spectacular win in the wet at Donington. He'll hope that a move back to Hawk Kawasaki can turn his stuttering career around. If not, we'll be hearing much more of him in the commentary booth of World Superbike, where it has to be said he does a very good job too.

It's all shaping up to be another cracking season. The only difference as far as I'm concerned is that the AMA championship is looking decidedly rosier this year. The question is this: how great will BSB look now when compared with the much-improved AMA Superbike? Whatever the answer is, it's a good year to follow superbike racing...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello from Edinburgh :-)
What a well written article!
I would like to wish all the best to Scott Smart now he's back at Hawk Kawasaki. Shame he's only had a cold wet weekend at Snetterton to try out his bike but I'm hoping Scotty will soon get to grips with it!!

Ciao! :o)