As 2009 season kicks off in Australia
The 22nd edition of the FIM Superbike World Championship gets underway this weekend at the Phillip Island circuit in Australia.
Expectation is already at fever pitch over the start of this season, the first for many years without
Troy Bayliss, one of the legendary names in Superbike history, who retired at the end of 2008 after winning his third world title in the production-based championship racing series.
With Bayliss gone, the question is now who will write their name in the record books alongside the other legendary Superbike greats like Merkel, Roche, Polen, Russell, Fogarty, Corser, Kocinski, Edwards, Hodgson and Toseland.
Superbike continues to show enormous potential and the 2009 edition of the championship organized by Infront Motor Sports will see a record seven manufacturers present on the grid (Aprilia, BMW, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha). The result perfectly demonstrates the impressive growth of the category, which this year has also added quantity to quality, with a record number of 32 permanent riders in the 14 rounds that make up the 2009 calendar.
It is difficult to find a clear favourite in this year's championship, both amongst men and machines, and in particular after the various pre-season test sessions. Almost every manufacturer has at least one candidate for the title within their ranks. Ducati Xerox go aces high with top signing Noriyuki Haga flanking talented youngster Michel Fabrizio, who is called upon to make a quantum leap in quality this season.
Yamaha World Superbike have totally revamped their squad with the arrival of the Anglo-American pairing of three-times AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies and Britain's Tom Sykes. All eyes are focused on the Texan, one of the most interesting names to emerge in the last few years.
Hannspree Ten Kate Honda again have a three-pronged attack, with Carlos Checa as the focal point and Ryuichi Kyonari and Jonathan Rea on the wings, both capable of extraordinary feats. Suzuki Alstare have decided to go with the German flow of Max Neukirchner, last year's revelation, together with the reconfirmed Yukio Kagayama. The Kawasaki World Superbike Racing Team pairing of MotoGP and SBK race winner Makoto Tamada and Australian Broc Parkes also looks an interesting one as the Japanese manufacturer has decided to boost its investment in SBK.
The 2009 season also marks the return of Aprilia and the entry of BMW, both global brands that add more prestige to Superbike. The Italian marque shows that it means business right from the start, with the signing of two top riders of the calibre of Max Biaggi and Shinya Nakano, while the same can also be said for the German company, who have snapped up double world champion Troy Corser and multiple race winner Ruben Xaus. Both teams are aiming for a place at the top, and quickly too.
SBK is not just a battle between the top teams and riders. The aim has always been to have balanced technical regulations aimed at keeping costs down, so that private teams can take part in the championship and have the chance to emerge. This year once again therefore a handful of quality private teams are in a position to sign up quality riders, because they have competitive machinery available; all eyes therefore will also be on Shane Byrne and Leon Haslam, Roberto Rolfo, Jakub Smrz, Brendan Roberts and Régis Laconi, riders who are all capable of cutting a decent figure in a championship that promises to be electrifying.
The 22nd running of the championship will also see some important changes from a regulation point of view. Out goes the old ‘one-lap dash' Superpole, in comes a new knock-out formula for the top 20 qualifiers, from 20 to 16, then 16 to 8, who will fight it out for the first two rows of the grid. The format promises to liven up Superpole and will also undoubtedly be a lot more exciting for TV viewers. Superbike has also decided to introduce a ‘flag to flag' procedure, with a change of bikes and full running in case of rain.
Phillip Island will see the opening round of the Supersport World Championship. The team to beat are Ten Kate Honda who have won the last seven editions of the series. Candidates for the win this year are reigning champion Andrew Pitt and team-mate Kenan Sofuoglu, who picked up the trophy in 2007.
The championship promises to be hard-fought, with five manufacturers taking part: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Triumph and Yamaha. Honda's traditional rival Yamaha have a strong pairing in Cal Crutchlow and Fabien Foret, but major surprises could come from the young Spanish rider Joan Lascorz on the Kawasaki, Dutchman Barry Veneman with the Suzuki and the experienced Triumph pair of Garry McCoy and Gianluca Nannelli.