February 2, 2009 The global financial crisis has clearly hammered the highest echelons of prototype racing, with established teams like Honda and Kawasaki pulling out of F1 and MotoGP respectively in the last couple of months. But for the production-based (and much cheaper) World Superbike series, things have never looked better than they do at the start of 2009. Despite the retirement of beloved champion Troy Bayliss, the 2009 WSBK grid will field a record 32 bikes from a record 7 manufacturers as BMW and Aprilia join the fray with exotic new machinery. There's also an influx of phenomenally talented riders - including AMA champ Ben Spies, BSB champ and ex-GP god Shakey Byrne, and precocious youngsters Tom Sykes and Leon Haslam to do battle with battle-hardened veterans like Nitro Nori Haga, Biaggi, Corser and Kagayama. The first pre-season test has been run, giving us a glimpse at who's fast and who's faster, so it's time for a WSBK season preview, looking at the class, the teams, the bikes and the personalities that make SBK the race series to watch in 2009.
While it may be true that MotoGP is the premier class of motorcycle roadracing, the GP series is suffering lately. The expensive prototype series boasts the fastest lap times, the most advanced technology, and global superstar Valentino Rossi remains a massive drawcard - but fielding a team at the top level has proven too expensive for many teams, including the Kawasaki factory team, which announced its intention to pull out from the 2009 series due to the global financial crisis. There stands to be as few as 17 bikes on the GP grid when the season starts.
What's more, the 800cc MotoGP era has arguably produced some of the most boring racing of modern times, with fewer races being decided by less than a second than at any time in the last 10 years. Simply put, the fastest guy on the fastest bike, be it Rossi, Stoner or Pedrosa on a given day, has been disappearing into the distance and winning pole-to-post with alarming regularity, a far cry from the elbow-bashing battles that were so common at the end of the 500cc era and with the 990cc four-strokes.
Exactly the opposite has been happening in World Superbikes. The modified production bikes are far cheaper to run, for a start, and a more direct advertisement for the products the manufacturers are promoting. The grid has been steadily expanding to a record number of 32 bikes for 2009 - nearly twice that of MotoGP - and the racing between the guys at the front (Bayliss, Haga, Corser, Biaggi, Checa) has been absolutely desperate, edge-of-the-seat stuff, a refreshing antidote to the MotoGP parade. Check out this video to see Bayliss and Haga going hammer and tongs at Vallelunga last year.
2009 sees the debut of new Superbike teams from Aprilia and BMW, some seriously talented new riders, a few high-profile team swaps and even a new Superpole format. Here's what we have to look forward to when the flag drops at Phillip Island on March 1!
The 2009 Superpole format will be 50 minutes of sudden-death madness. The top 20 riders from the two qualifying sessions will get a shot at Superpole, which will consist of three 12-minute elimination rounds. The slowest four riders will be eliminated in the first stint, then the slowest eight in the second, leaving the eight fastest riders to compete for pole position in the final session. This will hopefully add an extra element of cut-throat competition to the qualifying format.
Team Beemer out of the gates at a gallop
While BMW has not prouced a roadgoing superbike or raced in this series before, you'd be foolish to discount the Bavarians as a serious contender. BMW has proven time and again in off-road bike racing, as well as Formula One, that it knows how to make a big impact fast.
The all-new S1000RR superbike is still yet to hit showrooms around the world, but due to homologation rules, at least 3,000 will have to be built this year. It's an inline four-cylinder 1000cc motor, with some sort of tricky valve actuation technology (probably mechanical, not pneumatic, and BMW have stated that they're not desmodromic), and will feature traction control. Beyond that, we don't know a lot about it except that Troy Corser has shown he can make it sing.
Aussie hard man, former WSBK champ, bike setup specialist and last year's runner-up, Corser put in the 11th fastest time at the pre-season Portimao test, just a second behind the leader despite the fact that the team has had very little time to develop the bike as yet. To put that achievement into perspective, that time was faster than anything Kawasaki managed, and only one Suzuki beat Corser around the track. "I’m pretty happy and positive about the next time out on the bike," said Corser, "If I had to race the bike tomorrow, I would be happy enough to do it."
Corser's teammate, Ruben Xaus, on the other hand, seems to be less comfortable on the new bike than Corser, coming out with the third slowest time overall.
We wouldn't be expecting Corser to fight for the title this season, but we do expect to see the S1000RR at the business end of the field enough to make the other manufacturers uncomfortable - and pave the way for a proper title shot for BMW in the next few years.
Team Aprilia will struggle to make an impact early
2009 will see Aprilia return to World Superbike after a 6-year break with a brand-new bike that boasts the only V4 engine in the competition. The RSV4 superbike has been less instantly impressive on debut than the BMW, but with its adjustable chassis geometry, fly-by-wire throttle and massively powerful V4 motor it's a thoroughbred racer for the road, and with the right development work, it should be a contender before too long.
The long road to the pointy end starts here for ex-GP superstars Max Biaggi and Shinya Nakano. Biaggi, unceremoniously dumped from Honda's MotoGP team after a fifth-place finish in 2005, went to WSBK in 2007 and finished a credible third in his first season with Suzuki. Last year, with Ducati, he was less successful, finishing seventh and winless despite fairly regular podium appearances. Biaggi is not known as an outstanding development rider - Valentino Rossi once referred to him as a "lost man" when his bike's not instantly fast. This year with Aprilia will be a chance for Max, who has long been one of motorcycle racing's biggest characters, to prove himself or bury his career completely.
Shinya Nakano joins the Aprilia team fresh out of seven seasons in GP, spanning the 500cc, 990cc and 800cc eras. Last year he took a Gresini Honda to 9th place, with a best finish of 4th, and lost his ride to Toni Elias. Nakano has shown some promise as a development rider, taking over the fledgeling Kawasaki ZX-RR that Garry McCoy finished 22nd on in 2003, and finishing in 10th place in 2004, also bringing home Kawasaki's first ever MotoGP podium.
At Portimao, Nakano finished with the 17th best time, a mere 2/100ths of a second faster than Biaggi but a good 2 seconds off the frontrunning pace.
This is shaping up to be a tough season for Aprilia, but the V4 engine configuration is a proven winner at all levels of the sport, and Aprilia's history of massive success in the smaller two-stroke GP classes shows the company knows how to make a bike handle. One to watch with technical rather than competitive interest this year, but with riders like Biaggi and Nakano on board, there's always the chance that something special could happen.
Honda: 8 bikes, but who's the #1 rider?
The revised (and by all accounts excellent) 2008 CBR1000RR was a huge step forward from the 2007 roadbike - the first major redesign since 2004 saw the Honda lighter, more powerful, better handling and absolutely dominant in roadbike reviews. But the 2007 Honda had a James Toseland on it, who took 8 race wins and the title. The entire 2008 squad of 8 CBR riders only managed 5 wins between them.
The top Honda jockeys and only Honda race-winners in 2008 were Spaniard Carlos Checa and Japan's Ryuichi Kiyonari, both of whom remain in the squad for 2009. They are joined by a couple of young British stars keen to make their mark in the Superbike class. Jonny Rea comes to SBK fresh from a second-place finish in last year's World Supersport, and a second place in British Superbikes in 2007. Leon Haslam, son of 'Rocket' Ron Haslam of GP fame, returns to WSBK after dipping his toe in the series in 2004 to take 8th place with Ducati. In the intervening years he's been a top competitor in BSB despite failing to win a championship, and in a wildcard appearance at Portimao last year he managed to finish third in a World Superbike race.
Checa managed fifth fastest at the Portimao test, with Rea 9th and Haslam 10th. Kiyonari was 14th and the remainder of the Honda fleet (Lavilla, Hill, Rolfo and Iannuzzo) were all well off the pace at the bottom of the table.
Having 8 bikes on the track, but no standout superstar rider, shows Honda's racing philosophy to a 'T' - the Japanese behemoth is famous for treating riders 'like light bulbs - when one breaks, you screw another one in.' But at this level, on these motorcycles, the human factor is a very powerful element. Checa and Kiyonari have shown they can fight for SBK wins, Haslam hasn't shown us his best yet. Could Rea be the dark horse in the Honda stable? He's made smart choices in his team selection so far in his career, and he'll be on the same Hannspree Ten Kate-prepared bike as Checa, which should be the pick of the bunch. Has he got what it takes to put together a championship tilt at this level?
Kawasaki: team green making up the numbers
Team Green has some of the most loyal fans around, but those fans haven't had much to cheer about in Superbike lately. The 2008 Kawasaki squad had a BEST race finish of 8th throughout the season, and took the wooden spoon in the constructor's championship by a country mile, with only 98 points against nearest rival Suzuki's 408.
Worse still, 2008 was a major model update for the ZX-10R, with a proto-traction control system and an overall bike that looked as promising as anything we've seen from Kwaka in years. That bike failed miserably to light any SBK fires, and it's the same base model as we'll see for 2009.
On the other hand, Kawasaki's decision to pull out of MotoGP this year might free up some cash to be put toward the SBK effort. But given Team Green's recent lack of financial commitment and a "winning culture" in racing it's hard to see much of a turnaround. You can hardly blame them; millions of dollars a year to prove that your bike is the slowest one going around is probably wearing down the patience of whoever's signing the cheques, so however good the rider feedback gets, new parts in response will be few and far between.
Broc Parkes and Makoto Tamada are the team's factory riders for 2009, with David Salom and Luca Scassa filling out the Pedercini satellite team. Supersport contender Parkes was best of the bunch at Portamao, struggling in 15th. He's used to good equipment, having come from the Ten Kate and Yamaha factory teams in Supersport - so he'll be in for a frustrating season.
Suzuki: 2009 GSX-R enough?
It wasn't so long ago that Suzuki won the World Championship - the barnstorming Gixxer combined with Troy Corser's talent to bring home the bacon in 2005. But the team has been distinctly off the boil in the last three seasons, culminating in a second-last place finish in last year's constructor's title with only three wins.
The team's best rider, the unpronounceable Max Neukirchner, returns in 2009 after a fifth place finish in 2008, teamed once again with the possibly spent force of Yukio Kagayama in the Alstare outfit. Satellite rides go to Karl Muggeridge and Roland Resch.
Neukirchner has proven himself able to ride above the level of his bike in the last couple of seasons - but the 2009 GSX-R1000 looks like a fairly minor upgrade to the bike Suzuki have been running without a major facelift since 2005. A 1cm shorter wheelbase and a slightly longer swingarm seem to be the meat of the improvements, and it's hard to see the Suzi measuring up to the dominant machines of Ducati and Yamaha, particularly given the stellar riders these two teams have brought in for 2009.
Expect Max N. to put up a decent fight, but we're unlikely to see much more of the Suzuki team this year.
Ducati preparing to dominate
There's only one V-Twin (okay, L-Twin then) on the grid these days - but it took the championship last year, and Ducati have assembled a very formiddable clutch of riders to fill the gaping hole left when Troy Bayliss decided to hang up the boots after his 2008 title. Consider this; at Portimao, 4 of the best 8 times were set on Ducati 1098Rs, including the outright fastest of the weekend. The Duke might not conform to the rapid update cycles of the Japanese bikes, but it hardly needs to; it's still the bike to beat. It certainly doesn't hurt that the base bike in production form costs up to three times what the standard Japanese superbike does on the showroom floor.
If the bike's a winner then, how about the riders? "Nitro" Nori Haga is a long-time veteran of the SBK paddock. His fearless, never-a-backwards-step attitude and unbelievable elbow-bashing battles with Bayliss, Corser and anyone else who dares ride near him have made him one of the most entertaining and successful riders of the decade. Haga missed out on the 2007 SBK title by a mere two points, finished third despite seven race wins with Yamaha in 2008, and now that he's jumped to the dominant bike in the series, it's fair to say he'll be a major contender in 2009. Nitro Nori posted the third best time at the Portimao test.
Then there's Shane "Shakey" Byrne, last year's British Superbike champion, who has tasted the bottom of the MotoGP barrel with KTM and Aprilia but now steps into World Superbikes on a winning bike that he's already comfortable on. 32-year-old veteran Shakey may be on a privateer team with Sterilgarda, but he sent a strong message to the paddock at Portimao with the fastest lap time of the weekend, and consistent pace.
Michel Fabrizio took several podiums last year in his first Ducati season, ending up with an 8th place. He's been quick in 2009 testing, though, and might make his breakthrough this year. in the Also Ducati-mounted this year are Alassandro Polita, Brendan Roberts, Jakub Smrz and Regis Laconi.
Ducati is riding high on recent Superbike and MotoGP successes - and team staff seem to have a fire in their belly that drives them harder towards racing goals than the better-paid Japanese teams. There will be red bikes aplenty at the front in 2009, but we'd expect Shakey and Nitro Nori to be spraying most of the champagne.
Yamaha: strong bike, laser focus
Yamaha R1s finished second and third in the 2008 WSBK championship, with Corser and Haga at the helm. Two outstanding riders, indeed, but the bike itself has stood since 2007 as the techno-warship of the Japanese contingent. Fly-by-wire throttle actuation was unique to the Yamaha until the underdone Aprilia made its debut this year - and it's still the only bike on the grid with variable length intake stacks. This year's R1 carries forward both these features and adds a crossplane crankshaft that creates a slightly uneven firing order and might make it act a bit more like a V4 than an inline 4. From a techie standpoint, this is a fascinating bike.
Only three Yamahas will take to the grid this year (as opposed to 5 last year), and you can bet that one of them will be getting the bulk of the factory attention. In the AMA Superbike paddock, Australia's Mat Mladin was utterly, untouchably dominant from 2000 until 2005. Clearly a world-class rider, Mladin had no ambitions beyond pulverizing the American competition and he seemed invulnerable at the top. That was, until Texan Ben Spies turned up as his Suzuki teammate. Spies astonished everyone by wrestling the 2006 title from a furious Mladin, then backed it up by snatching the 2007 and 2008 titles as well in an absolute war with his teammate. To give you an idea of how far ahead of the pack these two guys are, either Mladin or Spies won EVERY race in 2008, the other usually coming in second. Spies missed out on a MotoGP ride after a couple of wildcard appearances (and top ten finishes) on a Suzuki - then signed up with Yamaha for this year's WSBK title assault, ending the most heated AMA rivalry in decades. Spies will make an instant impact in World Supers, and Mladin will run away again in AMA, perhaps wondering what might have been if he'd had a shot on the world stage.
Britain's Tom Sykes will ride beside Spies in the factory team, a youngster fresh from BSB. In his two superbike seasons he's finished 6th and 4th, and has had a couple of encouraging home-track wildcard WSBK appearances. He's not a threat for this season but a young gun to watch. The final Yamaha rider is David Checa on the GMT team. Nice guy, but he doesn't have his brother Carlos' speed. Both Sykes and Spies shone at the Portimao test, coming in second and fourth sandwiched by Ducatis in first and third. It's a small contingent from Yamaha in 2009, but a strong one.
So who's it gonna be?
The field is so jumbled-up this year that even the bookies haven't set their odds. So many new riders, bike swaps, youngsters and new bikes - plus the retirement of a safe-bet title contender in Bayliss - make it a hard one to pick. But we don't have money riding on it, so we'll have a go.
Of the old guard, Haga, Checa, Corser and Neukirchner have shown championship consistency and the ability to take race wins. Biaggi and Nakano would be impact players on any other bike but the fledgeling Aprilia. Corser's year can probably likewise be written off as a development push for BMW, and Neukirchner and Checa, on their respective Suzuki and Honda rides, might simply not have the bikes to compete with Ducati and Yamaha week in, week out. So that leaves do-or-die Nori Haga as the better bet on his 1098R.
Of the new blood, Haslam and Rea are probably ready to give this season a proper crack, but again, the question will be whether the CBR is really capable of consistent wins. The bike was all-new in 2008, didn't achieve big results and it's not changing for 2009. It's more likely that Shakey Byrne and Ben Spies, both championship winners in tough conditions, and both on competitive bikes, will make a grab for the silverware in 2009.
So it comes down to Haga vs. Byrne vs. Spies, Japan vs. England vs. America. It's reasonable to expect that all three will take race wins through the season, and that they'll deliver some ground-shaking entertainment at the front of the pack. They're hard to split from that point. Perhaps Byrne will suffer from running a privateer Ducati next to Haga's factory bike. Perhaps Spies will benefit from the fact that there's only three Yamahas on the grid, while Ducati are spreading their efforts among seven quality riders.
It would be great to see 33-year-old Haga rewarded for the massive entertainment he has generated in WSBK in the course of being runner-up twice and third three times. Of the three here, he's the only one with big-time experience all around the SBK circuit, he's one of the greatest fighters in motorsport and he's clearly adapting very quickly to his new Italian bike.
Shakey dominated BSB this year on a Ducati, after doing very little with Japanese inline fours in his two previous campaigns - and he took a double win at Brands Hatch in a one-off World Supers appearance in 2002. At 32, he is still hungry for world-stage success after disastrous MotoGP tilts with Aprilia and KTM, and comes to SBK 2009 in an excellent position to clinch the title.
Spies has fought tooth and nail for his three AMA championships against a vicious opponent with the same equipment as him and skill and determination levels far above the rest of the American competition. Young at 24 but level-headed, he is sure to be a star on the world stage but took time to become a force in the AMA. He may suffer from a lack of experience around the SBK circuit - but then, he shot out of the gates to post a second-fastest time at Portimao on a brand-new R1 that's very early in its development cycle.
Failing revelation or disaster, it's got to be one of these three. And we're going to call it for the youngest guy, on the newest bike. Fresh from a three-peat in a torturous AMA apprenticeship, and mounted on the techno-warship R1 with its new crossplane crank engine, Spies is our pick for the 2009 World Superbike title... By a whisker!
What do YOU think? Check out the photo gallery for a bucketload of pics.
Portimao test results - best overall times (from Motorcycle USA):
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