Tuesday, February 19, 2008

World Superbike Preview

What a weekend we have ahead of us, as both World Superbike and V8 Supercars return to action. Today I'm going to take a quick look at what the former has in store for 2008.

Championship changes
Corona have departed as title sponsor, replaced by the Taiwanese LCD manufacturer HANNspree. I've never been particularly comfortable with a championship sponsor also being the main sponsor of a competing team (in this case Ten Kate Honda), so I'm a bit disappointed that series organizers the Flammini brothers weren't able to find someone else. Alas, you have to take what you can get when it comes to racing sponsorship these days, so we'll just let it slide. Incidentally, HANNspree will also be sponsoring Ten Kate's World Supersport effort, Althea Honda's WSBK and WSS teams (previously known as Italia Megabike) and Stiggy Motors in WSS. Talk about focussing your marketing dollars....

The other big change for WSBK is the return to the USA, with a round at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah at the end of May. Sadly, the AMA guys will be competing on a different configuration of the track so there will be no comparison of lap times, but it's terrific news that the US is once again on the schedule. I've bought my plane tickets, and am prepared to put up with 3% beer for a weekend if it means watching WSBK again!

Other noteworthy calendar items: the unfinished Parkalgar circuit in Portugal will host the final round of the championship (if it's finished in time). It is said to be a spectacular facility, so fingers are crossed. Also joining the calendar is Sentul in Indonesia, a circuit whose safety I have to question, and the Nurburgring in Germany which replaces the Lausitzring.

All in all, a nice full, diverse calendar. Well done Mr. and Mr. Flammini!

Contenders

Ducati Xerox Team:
Without a doubt, Troy Bayliss has to be favourite to take a final championship before he retires. The new bike has been quick, and is developed enough to be reliable too. A question mark will remain over his new team-mate Michael Fabrizio. The young Italian has shown flashes of great speed but has been hampered by poor machinery wherever he has gone in his career. It's now time for him to show his true potential, which I'm guessing will be tail-end of the top ten.

HANNspree Ten Kate Honda: Last year's championship-winners roll into 2008 with an all-new rider line-up, all of whom come from other championships. The team's success will therefore rest on how fast each rider comes to grips with the new bikes and new circuits. The main guy will probably be British Superbike ace Ryuichi Kiyonari, a man whose talent is never in question. However, I've seen him make some blunders in the past and he has a tendency to run a bit hot and cold sometimes. Behind Kiyo will be Carlos Checa. Will we see another Alex Barros-like rejuvenation, in which Carlos rediscovers his love of racing and returns to being a contender? It's distinctly possible. In his favour is the fact that only four of the tracks are those that WSBK has been to before which MotoGP hasn't. The rider on the team who knows the tracks best will be Kenan Sofuoglu, who took the World Supersport championship last year. The latest Ten Kate WSS grad to step up, will he be a Chris Vermuelen or a Karl Muggeridge? I think if he can hover around 7th or 8th and pick up the occasional podium, the team will be happy and will look for him to be a contender in 2009 or 2010.

Yamaha Motor Italia:
No changes to the main Yamaha team, except in the engine department, which sees the arrival of the variable length inlet tract that is standard on the road bike and has been run by the US factory team in AMA. Their bikes were underdeveloped so it was hard to tell if the fancy intake made a difference or not. Even if nothing else changes, Nori Haga will always be a threat, and although Troy Corser seems to be past his best, he should still figure in the top six most weekends.

Team Suzuki Alstare: In addition to pulling their championship sponsorship, Corona also quit the Alstare team, who revealed their new sponsors this week. You have to wonder if they've been making budget cuts with the loss of Corona, and if so what effect that will have on the team. Yukio Kagayama, like Troy Corser, is typical top six material and usually has a mid-season purple patch, so expect a win or two from him. Many people have predicted new recruit Max Neukirchner to be championship material and with his first season on a race-winning bike, we'll find out. I share the opinion that he's a dark horse. The other new rider is Fonsi Nieto, a man who has built a career on his last name, not his riding skill. I'm guessing that this will probably be his last season in anyone's favour and he should end up on satellite machinery in 2009.

Sterilgarda Go Eleven: Top Ducati privateers, Sterilgarda boasts the most mercurial and fan-favourite line-up with bin-it-or-win-it specialist Ruben "Spiderman" Xaus and the remarkable Max Biaggi. There's no doubt that Max should be on a faster bike this year, but he once again played the silly season game badly. In testing the satellite Ducati has been on pace with the factory bike (not surprising given that they are identical in spec) so if development of the bike either stays static or the team get new parts when the factory does, Max can challenge for the title. Xaus is too inconsistent, but is an asset to the championship for his exciting style and occasional wins.

Worth Watching

PSG-1 Kawasaki:
Let's face it: Kawasaki are not that good at building racebikes. Their lack of results in MotoGP and World Superbike demonstrates this, and it's only in the AMA's Supersport category that they've had any degree of success. Although the ZX-10 is new (again) can anyone reasonably expect a leap forward into contender territory. What is exciting here though is the arrival of MotoGP winner Makoto Tamada, who first made a name for himself winning WSBK races in Japan as a wild card. I think we'll see some promise from the Japanese this year, and perhaps he'll find himself on a competitive bike in 2009. As for his team-mate... yawn.

DFXtreme Racing: With an all-Aussie line-up this year, the plucky Italian team might be in the scraps near the front occasionally. Perennial Superbike under-achiever Karl Muggeridge steps up from the hopeless Alto Evolution team and hopes to save his career. Team-mate Russell Holland will sink or swim. He's got good results in Aussie Superbike behind him.

Paul Bird Motorsport: Coming from British Superbike, these guys have great pedigree, two wild-card wins in WSBK with Shakey Byrne in 2003 and a terrific rider in Gregorio Lavilla. Teams that have moved up from domestic championships have always struggled, except for Renegade who did well on factory equipment in the lame-duck 2004 season. As soon as they lost machinery advantage they were awful, with a 2005 to forget. Perhaps the shrewd leadership of Bird and the massive talent of Greg will be enough.

HANNspree Althea Honda: This is the team that was Italia Megabike in WSS and now steps up to the big time with former Ten Kate man Roberto Rolfo. Roby's jump to a front-running team last year was a disappointment as his team-mate won the title, so perhaps a reduction in expectation and pressure will allow him to ride with more vigor and less restraint. He is certainly a talented rider.

RG Team:
A former Italian Superstock team, this is a major step for them. It's also the new home for Dr. Evil-alike Lorenzo Lanzi, who had a terrifically average couple of years with Ducati's factory team. This year he's back on a satellite bike and has run well in testing, so perhaps he'll win both German races again? My comments about Rolfo apply equally to Lanzi.

Filler

GMT94 Yamaha: Coming out of the endurance racing world, Seb Gimbert and David Checa both return to WSBK. This is a good team with pretty good riders, but I see them struggling in their first year. Look for results from them at the end of the year or into 2009.

Team Pedercini: They're always there, but in 2008 they switch from costly Ducatis with 400km rebuilds to Kawasakis. Yes, the slowest of the Japanese bikes. Pedercini, take your usual place in the high-teens or low-twenties.

Alto Evolution Honda: Sergio Bertocchi, former owner of this team, is still in litigation, whilst the team struggles to improve upon their position. The one bright spot for them is the arrival of Japanese 250cc ace Shuhei Aoyama, although I have to question his wisdom in taking this particular ride.

So there you have it. Whichever way you look at things, WSBK continues to go from strength to strength. Last season it provided way more entertainment than MotoGP, and it's distinctly possible we'll see the same thing again in 2008. The changes are all interesting and have certainly done nothing to detract from the spectacle, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I plan to.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Ryuichi Kiyonari on the Ten Kate Honda in WSB - my mouth waters at the prospect. He'd be my top pick for the title by a mile. Of course, things are never that simple.

I hope you are wrong about 2008 WSB providing more entertainment than MotoGP, but the 'Round Zero' performance of Stoner (lucky timing excepted) does not bode well.