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A Roman (Back From) Holiday?
World Superbike Preview
by dean adams
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
In just a few days, the World Superbike Championship will begin anew, dropping the flag on the twentieth season of racing that the venerable series has enjoyed. As the season commences, all eyes are on several key players in this season's championship—Troy Bayliss & Ducati, Troy Corser & Yamaha, and Max Biaggi & Suzuki.
Bayliss has to be considered the favorite to win the championship based on his 2006 run to the title. Is he one of the best riders in the world? His MotoGP win at Valencia on the Ducati would seem to have solidified the 36-year-old (he'll be 37 next month) in that honored position, and the fact that he stormed to the WSBK title last season in a stunning comeback certainly didn't hurt.
Bayliss returns to a familiar place in 2007. While vast sections of the planet are ga-ga over the 1098 Ducati sportbike, you will not see it in 2007 WSBK racing as it is not (yet?) legal for the class. Bayliss will be mounted on his tried-and-true 999 in 2007, but there seems to be sufficient evidence that the old knife will cut well enough, thank you. Anyone who saw Bayliss in '06 will attest that. At some races last season he was five seconds and three places behind the leaders in the early laps, only to finish the race five seconds in front. Yes, the Bayliss-controlled triple nine will still be quite capable this season.
Thus far, no clear challenger to Bayliss has shown himself to be a worthy contender. While several riders have shown they have the ingredients to make a potential challenge, none of them have shown anything in the preseason that would lead one to believe they can and will beat Bayliss.
Former two-time WSBK champion Troy Corser (35) has changed teams for 2007 after essentially having his title ripped away by Bayliss in 2006. Corser won the title on a Suzuki but couldn't match Bayliss, thus this season, he will be Yamaha R1-mounted—the fourthfifth-different manufacturer Corser has ridden for in WSBK. Corser, teamed with Nori Haga, will race on the Team Yamaha Italia squad and brings a nice racing pedigree to Yamaha—a former US Superbike and World Superbike champion, he is known as one of the most proficient and precise riders in the world, with the ability to strategize his way into championship success. While he has not yet shown the speed needed to beat or even match Bayliss thus far in preseason testing, Corser on a Yamaha will, no doubt, be a serious threat. You can bet your tuning forks on that.
While some may not view him as such after his dismal 2006 season, another possible threat to Bayliss' 2007 championship defense comes from within his own team. Lorenzo Lanzi (25) spent 2006 looking like a man who didn't feel like being at the racetrack. Lanzi's racetrack-mentor father died shortly after his stirring 2005 late-season run, and it was clear to insiders that Lanzi's grief for his late father was a factor in why he never found the next gear in 2006. Even though there is sometimes ample evidence to the contrary, riders are human, and Lanzi just needed time to grieve. After a surprise re-signing on the factory Ducati team, the 2007 preseason has seen him lapping fast once again. Few things are as popular as in-country racing heroes in Italy, so Lanzi is in a unique position. Greatness on the cusp?
Until then, Max Biaggi (35) will be garnering the most views on Italian television. After a season off from world championship racing, Biaggi (finally) signed with Corona Suzuki to race a GSX-R1000 in the WSBK championship in 2007. Sometimes labeled the archetypical Roman, Biaggi is actually more like Aries, the Greek God of war: a talented warrior not too popular with his colleagues.
As stated here previously, Biaggi brings a unique blend of talent, accomplishments, and baggage along with him to World Superbike and, thusly, he will be closely watched from the first lap. Unquestionably, his name and record will draw in the masses who might normally pass over WSBK—Biaggi is still a rockstar-level celebrity in Italy. But how badly does he want this? Racing the B series after so many years in Grand Prix and MotoGP? In his defense, and with his effort taken at face value, Biaggi seems to be putting in the laps, doing the work and has been pushing hard, trying to understand the bikes, tires, and limitations of Superbike racing. Some felt he'd pack it in after his first strong pull on steel brakes after so many years on carbon-carbon-level equipment but Biaggi has been applying himself in a most noble and humbling way. A year off gives a man ample time to think and, while he might be saying and doing all the right things now, every man has to be true to his own nature.
Biaggi will be back in the thick of things, on and off track, soon enough.
Another rider who will be closely observed in 2007 is Nitro Nori Haga (32), back for another season on Team Yamaha Italia, and now computer-throttle-controlled R1-mounted. But for one of the first times in his career in '07, Haga has an equally fast teammate—Troy Corser—who definitely puts Haga in a JYE (justify your existence) position. What most people want to see is a 1997-2000 era Haga, sliding, hammering his way to the front—a rider who soundly beat Carl Fogarty, Colin Edwards, and many, many others. We haven't seen that Haga in some time, and it is clear by Corser's hiring that someone at Yamaha is growing a little tired of Haga's lack of consistent competitiveness. And while Haga's threat of unemployment at Yamaha is probably miniscule—look how long they hung onto Norick Abe after he peaked—if Corser smokes Haga, it will be final confirmation that Haga has indeed jumped the shark.
Haga found himself in a duel for second place in the championship in 2006 but lost that spot to James Toseland (26). A former WSBK champion, Toseland returns to the ten Kate Honda team in 2006 hoping to build on his notable second place in the championship. No one will ever bet against a ten Kate bike-although the running-out-of-fuel incident last year had to be humbling for the usually clinically efficient squad—and this season is no different. Ten Kate has the bike and, with time, should have some new tricks up their sleeves to put Toseland in a better position to beat the Ducatis.
Toseland gets a new teammate: Roby Rolfo (27) for 2007. Rolfo hasn't shown the speed he did when he raced against Dani Pedrosa and the lads in 250 GP but make no mistake, if he brings the level of game to ten Kate that he did when he won 250 GP races—he finished second in the championship in 2003—he will be on the podium.
Spanish GP legend Angel Nieto's nephew, Fonsi (28) returns to the PSG-1 Kawasaki team for 2007 as does his elder statesman teammate, Regis Laconi (31). Kawasaki was essentially out of the WSBK championship last season even when you consider Chris Walker's amazing win in the deluge at Assen. Kawasaki has reportedly promised the PSG-1 squad more support for 2007 and Team Green fans will be eager to see the fruits of that development.
There was a time when both Carl Fogarty and Davide Tardozzi pegged Ruben Xaus (29) as a future WSBK champion—if not MotoGP champion—but the 2007 season arrives with Xaus still mired in the back half of the WSBK Championship. Make no mistake, Xaus did have some spirited rides on the privateer Ducati last season—most of them before the halfway point of the year—yet those runs on an injured leg were inspiring. 2007 dawns much the same for Ruben Xaus as the past five seasons have for the Spaniard, with people wondering when his talent, capabilities and accomplishments will show themselves in his current results. Xaus will ride the ex-Bostrom/Hodgson 999F06 ("official motorbikes with traction control") for the Sterilgarda squad.
Honda has several 'satellite' efforts in WSBK, including the Alto Evolution team with Australian Josh Brookes and Ben Bostrom's buddy, Karl 'Muggs' Muggeridge on board. This team appears to have the resources to compete very well in WSBK and might surprise some people.
Team Yamaha France morphed into Team YZF in the off-season, and shagged Norick Abe in the process. Abe went home to start his own domestic Superbike team, leaving the team with Japanese rider Shinichi Nakatomi (28).
Japan is further represented by tried-and-true WSBK stalwart Yukio Kagayama (32) on the Alstare Suzuki WSBK team, where he is teamed with Max Biaggi. Kagayama finished seventh in the world championship last season and has won a career four WSBK races, but his new teammate puts more focus on him than ever before. Being teamed with Biaggi is either a great opportunity to show the world you're capable of beating one of the best riders or that your career is over, you just don't know it yet. Best of luck, either way.
Possibly the most intriguing entry in the WSBK championship is Italian Michel Fabrizio on the DFX Treme Honda, where he will be teamed with long-time WSBK (and Pirelli tire) vet Steve Martin (38). Fabrizio showed signs of possibly being a player in 2006—finishing on the podium in WSBK—and one can only hope for that curve to continue. He will be mentored in park by newly retired legend Frankie Chili.
2007 beckons as a season where it might just all go to plan, with nearly all pundits choosing Bayliss as the series champion. However, the 999 is at the end of its design cycle, and there will be three vastly improved four-cylinders on the grid, with upgraded support from Japan for many of the teams.
Questions linger, though. It's impossible to look at the WSBK series and not wonder how the politics of Biaggi—a superstar Italian rider racing a series owned by Italians with the field running, gulp, Pirelli tires—will play out.
Hard to believe that it's been two decades since Steve McLaughlin launched his World Superbike concept. We've seen a lot of thrilling racing over the past 20 years from the likes of Giancarlo Falappa, Scott Russell, Raymond Roche, Fred Merkel, Carl Fogarty, Aaron Slight, Colin Edwards, and the rest, and 2007 shapes up to be one of WSBK's best seasons yet. We can barely wait.