Friday, December 23

SUPERBIKES SET FOR HOT AUSSIE ACTION

By MICHAEL ESDAILE

THE 2012 World Superbike Championship gets underway in Australia at the end of February and after the end-of-season musical chairs, it looks set to be even more competitive than the last two years.

At almost every track the Superbikes visit, they have turned faster lap times in qualifying and in the races, with race records tumbling year-on-year.

And 2012 looks set to provide even more pulsating action, even without an official team from Yamaha.

After clinching the 2011 championship on the privately entered Althea Ducati 1198R, Spaniard Carlos Checa lines up on the same bike and in the same tight-knit and very well run team.

This was the 39-year-old Spaniard’s first world championship after 18 years in top level racing, starting from his d├ębut in the World 125 Championship on a Honda in 1993.

Winning a world championship is never easy: backing it up the following year is even harder. However, Checa gave an indication of just how hard he will be to beat in 2012 with his performances at the end of 2011. Having wrapped up the title at Imola with two rounds to go, Checa could easily have been expected to settle into cruise mode for the final four races, savouring his first ever world crown.
But he didn’t.

A week later he won both races at Magny Cours in France, then at the final round at Portugal’s Portimao circuit, Checa was still on top of his game, winning the first race, and finishing a close-fought fourth in the second outing.

His score for the season included six pole positions, ten fastest laps and 21 podiums from 26 starts, including 15 race wins.

Despite the penalty placed on twin cylinder motorcycles for 2012 (see: http://www.kiwiridernews.com/2011/11/superbike-rules-changed-twins-penalised.html ) Checa can be expected to be fighting for the podium at Phillip Island, a track where he and the Ducati shine.

DUCATI COMPETITION
However, with at least five other Ducati 1198Rs on the grid, Checa will have a battle on his hands from the very brand he represents.

Although we reported that the ParkinGO team would field recently crowned Supersport World Champion Chaz Davies on a Ducati in 2012 ( see: http://www.kiwiridernews.com/2011/11/more-ducatis-in-2012.html ) it now transpires that the Welshman will be racing an Aprilia RSV4.

Word is that ParkinGO team owner Giuliano Rovelli had second thoughts about fielding a brand new Ducati when he found out how many other teams would be fielding Italian V-twins. Unconvinced his team would get the technical back-up he wanted from Ducati, he made the decision to go the Aprilia route.

This news was broken by Motosprint.it, which reports that Aprilia has tempted the team by offering the same level of factory support allocated to the PATA team.

However, Czech-based Effenbert Liberty Racing will continue with Ducati, fielding a pair of Frenchmen: Sylvain Guintoli and Maxime Berger. While it was earlier thought this meant the team was letting crash-prone Czech rider Jakub ‘Kuba’ Smrz go, that is not the case. The team has decided to expand to three riders, possibly due to the new rules which limit teams to one bike per rider from 2012 onwards. (See: http://www.worldsbk.com/en/news/5-news/9785-effenbert-liberty-racing-team-looks-back-before-looking-forward.html )


APRILIA CHALLENGE
After proving the competitiveness of the only V4 machine in the Superbike field by taking the world championship in 2010, Aprilia had a nightmare run in 2011. Not only did former British Superbike Champion Leon Camier fail to fire on the Italian machine, team leader Max Biaggi seemed to have reverted to type with inconsistent results. He started the season very well with his best-ever Superbike results at Phillip Island, then suffered brain-fade at Donington and was out-ridden by Checa at Assen. In the end Biaggi scored just two race wins in 2011 compared with ten in 2010.

However, with Camier switching to the new English-run Suzuki team, former Supersport World Champion Eurgene Laverty, left without a ride after Yamaha decided to fold its Superbike race team, signed with the Alitalia Aprilia team. Now Biaggi knows he will have a fight on his hands from within his own team – Irishman Laverty ended the 2011 season tied on points with the Italian. They had 303 points apiece, with Biaggi awarded third place in the championship on the basis of a greater number of second place finishes (nine to three).

Since jumping onto the Aprilia, Laverty has gelled, posting fastest lap time at an end of season test at Portimao, bettering his new team-mate’s 2010 lap record in the process. (See: http://www.worldsbk.com/en/news/5-news/9619-laverty-takes-the-top-slot-as-aprilias-come-out-stronger.html )

Meantime, Biaggi will be racing with a new pit crew – the team that took him to the World Superbike Championship in 2010 having decided to seek alternative employment. (See: http://www.worldsbk.com/en/news/5-news/9800-max-biaggi-past-present-and-future.html ) This is not the first time Biaggi has had mechanics walk away, perhaps indicating how difficult he is to work with at times.

However, in addition to the factory Alitalia-based Aprilias, there is the ParkinGO team with Chaz Davies already mentioned, while the PATA Racing team is to field Italian Lorenzo Zanetti in place of Noriyuki Haga in 2012. Zanetti raced for BMW Motorrad Italia in the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup and finished third in that series in 2011, behind the Ducatis of Davide Giugliano and Danilo Petrucci.

Word is that PATA boss Remo Gobbi wanted to invest on a young and promising Italian rider.


BMW TRYING HARDER
With his Superbike rider gone following Yamaha’s decision to withdraw from the class, Italian Marco Melandri – along with Eugene Laverty – was left without a ride. However, he has found a new home, at BMW following the retirement of Australian two-time champion Troy Corser.

BMW’s third year in the competition was less successful than its 2010 season so the German manufacturer has re-grouped, updated its potent S1000RR in-line four and in preliminary tests (see: http://www.ultimatemotorcycling.com/2011/portimao-superbike-test-haslam-leads-day-two ) the results have been encouraging. The three day end of November tests at Portimao followed a three day session with the new bike at Jerez in Spain (see: http://www.bmw-motorrad.com/com/en/index.html?content=http://www.bmw-motorrad.com/com/en/motorsports/superbike/news_reports/news.jsp¬rack=1 )

Not only was Melandri quickly on the pace, so too was Leon Haslam while Ayrton Badovini on the BMW Motorrad Italia S1000RR showed he can be expected to be fighting for podiums in 2012. Joining Badovini in the Italian BMW team is former Xerox Ducati and Alstare Suzuki rider Michel Fabrizio, another initially left without a ride following the withdrawal of his 2011 team, in his case, Alstare Suzuki.

Bolstering the BMW factory effort are three Italians who may prove key: former Alstare Suzuki technical director Bruno Bailly will be reunited with Leon Haslam while Andrea Dosoli and Silvano Galbusera, team manager and technical manager respectively of the former Yamaha factory team, came "in the baggage" of Melandri, as French website Sport Bikes put it (see: http://www.sport-bikes.fr/sbk---suzuki--aprilia-et-bmw-vont-tester-a-portimao-_a3193.html )

Bruno Bailly has great respect for Haslam. The pair kept Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 at the top of the 2010 championship for months despite the withdrawal of support by the Suzuki factory. Last year Bailly continued his own development of the Suzuki to keep it competitive and now back with Haslam, is bound to work hard to overcome the BMW’s weaknesses: lack of traction from mid-corner and lack of front-end stability in corner entry. On the Suzuki, no one went into corners harder than Haslam, something the Englishman has missed with the BMW.

And with Silvano Galbusera continuing on with Melandri, albeit on a completely different motorcycle to the cross-plane crankshaft Yamaha, do not be surprised to see the BMWs right at the front come Phillip Island.

GOODBYE ALSTARE, HELLO CRESCENT
After struggling along without sponsorship in 2011, Francis Batta decided to withdraw the Alstare Suzuki team from Superbike competition after the end of the 2011 season. However, Suzuki will still be represented – with the English Crescent Suzuki team joining the Superbike fray.

First rider signed was Leon Camier (see: http://www.kiwiridernews.com/2011/11/new-suzuki-team-in-swc-series.html ), later followed by former Suzuki GP rider John Hopkins. After battling alcohol and drug problems at the end of his Suzuki MotoGP days, Hopkins got himself back on track in the British Superbike Championship in 2011, finishing a very close runner-up to winner Tommy Hill (Yamaha) – by two points, 647 to 645. He also contested the Silverstone round of the of the 2011 Superbike World Championship, putting a GSX-R1000 on pole for the first time in the season, and finishing 5-7 in the two races.

Hopkins’ Silverstone pole time was 2m 04.041s, two seconds off Casey Stoner’s MotoGP pole of 2m 02.020s, recorded a month earlier in very similar track conditions.

The Crescent Suzuki team will use Yoshimura engines supplied from Japan. Yoshimura contested three rounds of the 2011 championship with Australian Josh Waters as a wild card entry in a toe-in-the-water exercise. In addition to the Yoshimura engines, the English Suzuki team will use Australian MoTeC electronics and Brembo brakes (see: http://www.crescent-motorcycles.com/news/story.asp?story=20111201095110_CRESCENT ).

The new Suzuki operation may struggle a little in the first part of the season but could be a podium contented by mid-season.


HONDA RE-CHARGED
In its first season sponsoring the Dutch Ten Kate Honda team, British Petroleum subsidiary Castrol did not have a lot of cheer. Irishman Johnny Rea suffered several injuries and the team appeared to struggle to find a good set-up at times. However, when the bike was right and Rea was fit, he was a hard man to beat. The same could not be said of team-mate Rueben Xaus, who has not had his contract renewed for 2012.

Joining Rea at Castrol Honda is MotoGP refugee, Japanese star Hiroshi Aoyama, the man who won the last World 250 Championship before the introduction of the Moto2 four-strokes-only class.

While the Honda CBR1000RR is similar to the bike the team first raced in 2008, there have been upgrades to the 2012 production bike which will no doubt be helpful for the Castrol Honda team in Superbike racing.

KAWASAKI GOES SPANISH
After three years as the factory-backed Kawasaki team in the Superbike World Championship, English-based Paul Bird Motorsport lost its contract with the factory. The announcement was made on the morning of September 4, immediately before the tenth round of the 2011 series at Nurburgring in Germany.

Ironically, that afternoon, on a streaming wet Nurburgring, Paul Bird Motorsports’ Tom Sykes scored the first win for the all-new Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja – after qualifying sixth fastest then finishing 11th in the first 102 km race. Team-mate, Superbike rookie Joan Lascorz, finished seventh in the first race then struggled home 11th in the second outing, which was red-flagged due to the dangerous conditions after 14 of the scheduled 20 laps had been run.

Sykes’ win, only a few hours after learning Paul Bird Motorsports contract would not be renewed, was the first for Kawasaki in the Superbike World Championship in five years. The previous win came when another English rider, Chris Walker, took the second version of the ZX-10R to victory in similar conditions at Assen. In that September 3, 2006 event, Walker did it the hard way: he arrived on the grid late and had to start from the back of the pack, got tangled up in a first turn mishap that ran him off track but rode through the field to win.

Sykes’ win in Germany is only the second for Kawasaki’s ZX-10R, now in its fourth distinct version since the original was released in 2004. Sykes’ win underlines his standing as a strong wet-weather performer. In 2010 he scored the Paul Bird Kawasaki team its first pole, at Imola and also took pole at Misano in June this year, both times in the wet.

In announcing the withdrawal of support to the English team, Kawasaki's Race Manager, Ichiro Yoda, praised the efforts of Paul Bird Motorsports over the past three years. He then announced Kawasaki’s new direction for 2012 and beyond. The text of the Kawasaki statement is as follows:

“Underlining a commitment to the internationally recognised World Superbike Championship, Kawasaki has announced a continued participation in the popular series in 2012. Focusing on the further development and race winning potential of the new Ninja ZX-10R, the company has decided to exercise a greater degree of control over the engineering and structured development of the flagship machine for the 2012 season.

“Having worked closely with the Cumbrian-based team of Paul Bird Motorsport for the past three years, the relationship for the WSB effort will draw to a close at the end of the 2011 season”.

Kawasaki praised the efforts of PBM and all those team members and riders involved in that time via Race Manager, Ichiro Yoda, who said:

“We have enjoyed three valuable years alongside the Paul Bird Motorsport team and would like to put on record our sincere thanks for the time, effort and dedication they have shown to the Kawasaki World Superbike racing programme.

“The direction of our World Superbike effort from 2012 moves to even closer control from our HQ where decisions will be made back in Japan. There are plans for much more testing in the future and so from a European logistical perspective Kawasaki’s WSB operating base will need to be close to the best circuits and good weather conditions, for practical reasons. Additionally, this new situation must also match the budget constraints that the company has to operate within.
“Understandably, it is a considerable challenge to develop a brand new machine into a potential race winner whilst competing in the public arena, and we applaud the efforts of all those who have contributed towards getting us to our current position. We hope that everyone with an interest in the World Superbike Championship will look forward to seeing Kawasaki on the grid once more in 2012.”

Just a few hours after Sykes’ win on the new ZX-10R, team owner Paul Bird issued his own statement:

"Having learned this morning that we wouldn't be running the Kawasaki team next year was a massive blow and the team responded magnificently with our strongest performance of the season. As well as us, Tom was told his services would not be required next season so what better way of proving a point than giving the factory its first victory in five years, but you have to say they make some great decisions don't they?

“Getting sacked proved to be a lucky omen for us and I’m delighted for Tom and the team as they have been through the mill at times with this project. It’s a shame we can’t see it through given all our hard work but as one door closes, another opens and we look forward to the challenges ahead should we decide to carry on.”

Bird signed Sykes on a personal contract for the 2011 season after Kawasaki's decision to retain injured Australian Chris Vermeulen and honour a long-standing agreement with Spanish rider Joan Lascorz.

However, a statement issued on behalf of Sykes by his personal management two days later made it clear that as far as he was concerned, he was still talking with Kawasaki about his future.

The Sykes’ statement read:
"In response to recent events, and as the sole appointed party responsible for negotiating Tom Sykes' on-going contracts, we can confirm the following: Tom remains a fully committed Paul Bird Motorsport (PBM) team rider and will continue to do so for the duration of his current contract. For the remainder of the season Tom's primary focus is to produce the best possible results for PBM and Kawasaki, as his recent win at the Nurburgring would confirm.

"It is clear from Tom and also Kawasaki that there is a strong desire from both parties for there to be an on-going relationship that can reap the full benefits of the work done to date. Discussions regarding this matter are in progress at this time.

"Once Tom's plans have been finalised, these will be communicated via ourselves in the usual manner. In the meantime Tom will continue his role as a professional WSBK rider, doing his utmost to represent PBM and their associated sponsors, Kawasaki, and his own personal sponsors in the best possible way at all times."

After the announcement, there was speculation that Provec Motocard.com, which runs a Kawasaki team in World Supersport, would take over the Kawasaki Superbike operation, and that has been what has transpired.

Both Lascorz and Sykes have been retained and tested the 2012 version of the ZX-10R at Portimao two days after the last round of the 2011 season (see: http://www.kawasaki-racingteam.eu/road-race/news.asp?Id=B637DF6662 ).

Following that the team tested at both Aragon and Valencia in Spain, with encouraging results (see: http://www.kawasaki-racingteam.eu/road-race/news.asp?Id=B637D62773 and http://www.worldsbk.com/en/news/5-news/9639-record-pace-for-sykes-in-spanish-testing.html ).

Kawasaki has been represented in the Superbike World Championship right from the inaugural year and the record shows that Frenchman Adrien Morillas scored the first of the company’s 46 race wins in the class at the Hungaroring on April 30, 1988.

All but two of those wins came with 750cc four cylinder machines; Kawasaki’s only wins with the ZX-10R are Walker’s amazing win at Assen in 2006 and Sykes’ gutsy effort at the Nurburgring in September 2011.

Kawasaki has only won the Superbike World Championship once. That was in 1993 when Georgia’s Scott Russell clinched the Superbike crown on a Bob Muzzy Kawasaki ZXR750 with New Zealand’s Aaron Slight as his team-mate.