As we make our way through February, we come ever closer to one of the weekends that has defined my life for the last nine years. Sure, the end of February means that big sporting events have already passed us by. The Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 are in the history books by then. But the last weekend in February marks the start of a different season: The motorcycle road racing season. The last weekend in February is the traditional trip down under for the World Superbike paddock to one of motorbike racing’s most iconic race tracks. With it’s distinctive curves, whose names we all know by heart, Phillip Island is the perfect setting for the start of the rubber-on-asphalt two-wheeled racing season. There is elegance and challenge in the simplicity of its layout. Most of us can probably easily redraw the circuit from memory. Some years have seen six weeks or more between the Phillip Island event and the next round of any international road racing. However, the event remains year after year to wake us all from the slumber of the off-season to the sounds of crossplane crankshafts and the sight of road racers sliding their way through Stoner Curve.
However, with the beginning of each new season come changes in the paddock. New teams, new riders, riders with new teams, and new brands. So, to assist the casual fan (and even the experienced fan who gets frustrated trying to figure out who is who during the first races), this article represents a short summary of what to look for heading into the 2016 World Superbike Championship season.
A few notes must be covered before we dive into a team-by-team breakdown. Pirelli remains the control tire supplier for the championship. One big change for this season will be the timing of the two races. World Superbike is switching its weekend schedule to holding one of its two races on Saturday instead of holding both races on Sunday. This is something America’s AMA Superbike and MotoAmerica series have done since the 1990’s. World Superbike held a Saturday race at Laguna Seca a couple years back, but just for that one weekend. Holding one race per day (rather than having them 90 minutes apart) gives a team that crashes or has a mechanical problem in the first race a chance to repair the bike and get back out on track for the second race. However, it also requires an audience to tune in on two different days in the middle of the afternoon. It will be interesting to see what the fan reaction is to this change. Even though we in the U.S. we are more accustomed to having races split between two days, those races were often broadcast on tape delay (sometimes the following day). It will be interesting to see how the live broadcasts of the races perform ratings-wise both in the U.S. and internationally.
Some calendar changes are also worth noting. The Algarve International Circuit (near Portiamo, Portugal) has been dropped from the calendar to 2016. World Superbike was the first professional motorsports series to hold an event at the venue when it opened in 2008, and had held and event at the venue every year since. The track is a fast, flowing, undulating circuit that most road racing fans enjoy. Returning to the schedule are two circuits that could not be more different from one another. The Autodromo Nazionale Monza, a circuit of great lore in Formula 1, will return to the World Superbike schedule for the first time since 2013. With it’s rich racing history, long straights, and park-like setting, the circuit is like a journey back in time. It is also a throwback to when racers had to have even larger attachments than they do now. Speeds on the Curva Grande are reported to be in the 170mph range, at nearly full lean angle. Look for bikes with strong top-end performance like the Kawasakis and Ducatis to do well at Monza.
The other addition to the 2016 calendar is the EuroSpeedway Lausitz. This is a large motorsports facility in the former East Germany with several different track configurations. A portion of the facility that World Superbike does not use was built to act as a replacement for the AVUS circuit/public highway in Berlin. The facility also features a 2.023-mile tri-oval similar to Pocono Raceway in the U.S. Sadly, it was on the tri-oval that Champ Car racer Alex Zanardi lost both of his legs in a horrific accident in 2001. World Superbike will use a 2.670-mile, 13-turn layout that utilizes the facility’s infield road course, similar to what MotoGP did when it held a GP at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 2008 to 2015. Naturally, the road course is very flat but uses several of the superspeedway’s long straights. The entire facility was actually constructed on top of a former open-pit coal mine. World Superbike formerly raced at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz from 2005-2007.
Kawasaki Racing Team – Johnny Rea (#1), Tom Sykes (#66): With Johnny Rea’s dominance of the championship last season, this team has to be the favorite to win the team’s championship in 2016. Coming over from the Ten Kate Honda team last season, Rea showcased the talent that had allowed him to have success on the underpowered Honda in stark comparison to his past Honda teammates. Rea’s Kawasaki teammate Sykes is the 2013 World Superbike Champion and narrowly missed out on the 2012 and 2014 crowns. Late in the 2015 season Sykes began struggling with rear tire grip toward the end of races. Sykes has had a history of struggling with the same problem on an older edition of the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R. While the reason for the re-emergence of the problem on a bike that had not had a re-design since 2011 was not clear, the team also have a redesigned bike to roll out for the 2016 campaign. While there could be some teething problems with a brand new machine, testing times indicate the Kawasakis are solidly out in front of everyone right now.
Aruba.it Racing Ducati Corse – Chaz Davies (#7), Davide Giugliano (#34): The Ducatis were a bit of a surprise coming into their own this year. Ducati had struggled with their completely redesigned Panigale superbike since it was introduced to the World Superbike Championship in 2013. The bike marked a dramatic departure from Ducati’s previous emphasis on mid-range power and driveability in favor of more top-end performance. This was likely in response to having been down on power on long straightaways in comparison to the four-cylinder machines, and apparently having lost the ability to make up that time in the corners.
Chaz Davies’ success was a bit of a surprise to many. The 2008 Daytona 200 winner and former AMA Formula Xteme racer has had a successful career at the international level. Despite being tall for a motorcycle racer (6’0), Davies won the 2011 World Supersport title on a Yamaha YZF-R6, and won at least one race in World Superbike in 2012 (Aprilia) and 2013 (BMW). While Davies has proved his talent time and again, it was unexpected that he would pip Tom Sykes for second place in the 2015 championship. Look for Chaz to have another strong season in 2016.
The status of Davies’ teammate, Italian Davide Giugliano, is less certain. Giugliano missed the beginning and end of the 2015 campaign with injuries. During pre-season testing at Phillip Island last year, Giugliano had a nasty crash at the circuit’s fast Swan Corner that resulted in two broken vertebrae. His injuries caused him to miss the first four rounds of the 2015 season. Guigliano returned and showed he had not lost anything in terms of pace. He scored three podiums and eight top 5 finishes in 10 races before re-injuring his back in a crash at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca round. One of the noticeable differences in Giugliano’s riding was his consistency. Since Giugliano began riding in World Superbike full-time in 2012, he had shown great pace but had crashed out of 24 of 88 races. Giugliano also had a record of not being able to maintain his quick pace over an entire race distance, as he has yet to win a World Superbike race despite four years as a factory rider. Despite his Italian heritage, the iconic Italian mark may need to make a change mid-season if Giugliano cannot make it through the entire season without injury. In that event, look for Ducati to call up the likes of Xavi Fores or Michele Pirro who subbed for Giugliano for parts of the 2015 season. Additionally, Marco Melandri has done some testing for the MV Agusta team, but is still a free agent. Leon Haslam is also a free agent.
Honda World Superbike Team (Ten Kate Racing) — Michael van der Mark (#60), Nicky Hayden (#69): Perhaps the most exciting news for American fans is Nicky Hayden moving from a very uncompetitive Open class Honda in MotoGP to the factory-supported Ten Kate Honda Superbike team for the 2016 season. While Nicky may not have looked excited in World Superbike based on the preseason videos released by the team, Nicky was consistently in the top 5 during World Superbike testing sessions on a bike that has not seen significant updates since 2008. Hayden’s point and shoot, dirt track-oriented riding style should find a suitable home with World Superbike machinery. Without the high cornerspeed-oriented MotoGP tires and chassis, Hayden should see a career revival on the softer-carcass Pirelli tires. With American Honda footing part of the bill to make Hayden a factory superbike rider, look for Nicky to be at or near the front for most of this season.
Ten Kate Honda’s other rider is 2014 World Supersport champion Michael van der Mark. After a solid 2013 and a stellar 2014 on the Ten Kate Supersport squad, van der Mark was promoted to the superbike team for 2015. He had an inconsistent season, with podium finishes at his native Assen circuit and Aragon while also crashing out of six races. Van der Mark was regularly, but not consistently in the top 5 until the end of the season, when he finished fifth or better in six of the last eight races. Based on his shared Dutch heritage with the Ten Kate team, look for van der Mark to continue to develop with the knowledge his race seat is secure for the 2016 season and likely beyond.
Milwaukee BMW – Karel Abraham (#17), Josh Brookes (#25): While new to the World Superbike paddock, the Milwaukee BMW squad is anything but a new team. Sponsor names aside, this is the Shaun Muir Racing outfit that won the 2011 and 2015 British Superbike Championship. The team is reported to be receiving factory support from BMW after having previously run factory Yamaha and Honda machines in the British Championship. The team will field 2015 British Superbike Champion and World Superbike and Supersport veteran Josh Brooks and former MotoGP rider Karel Abraham. Brookes had a solid season in World Supersport in 2008, finishing third overall. Since 2009, Brookes has had several wildcard rides in World Superbike with a few top 10 finishes, and has finished no lower than fifth in the British Superbike Championship on a wide range of machinery. Abraham comes to World Superbike after a five year stint on satellite and Open class Hondas in MotoGP. The son of the owner of the Czech Republic’s Brno circuit, Abraham will look to restart his career after an underwhelming and injury-riddled 2015 MotoGP campaign.
Pata Yamaha Official WSBK Team – Alex Lowes (#22), Sylvain Guintoli (#50): While this is Yamaha’s first official factory effort in World Superbike since the 2011 season, this is anything but a new team. The team is owned by Paul Denning, who was the team principal for the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP factory team. The team was formerly known as Crescent Suzuki and had a successful run in the British Superbike Championship before making the jump to World Superbike in 2012. After having a torrid 2015 season, long-time Suzuki man Denning has made to the move to factory Yamaha equipment. The team will carry over British rider Alex Lowes from the 2015 season (twin brother of current Moto2 rider and 2013 World Supersport champion Sam Lowes) and add 2014 World Superbike Champion Sylvain Guintoli to replace aging former MotoGP rider Randy de Puniet. Based on Yamaha’s past success in World Superbike, look for this team to start strong and come on stronger as the season progresses.
MV Agusta Reparto Corse – Leon Camier (#2): The famous Italian mark will enter a one-bike factory effort for the third straight season. Despite more than doubling the number of points it scored from 2014 to 2015, MV Agusta remained seventh in the constructors championship. With returning rider Leon Camier, bringing in staff from the former MotoGP Forward Racing Team, and signing Marco Melandri to do off-season testing, MV has demonstrated a commitment to staying in the World Superbike Championship. However, it has yet to make real inroads on its factory competition.
Ioda Racing Team (Aprilia) — Alex De Angelis (#15), Lorenzo Savadori (#32): This team is making the move from the MotoGP Open class to World Superbike. With the demise of the Red Devils Roma team, Ioda will carry the flag for Aprilia in World Superbike. De Angelis is still recovering from a crash at the MotoGP round in Motegi, Japan last year, but has been able to participate in limited testing. Savadori is the reigning World Superstock 1000 champion. The Aprilias, even without factory support, looked fast at times last year, especially at Phillip Island where they placed in the top two in both races. Look for an up and down season from the team as they get experience under their belt with the new bike and new tires.
Althea BMW Racing Team — Markus Reiterberger (#21), Jordi Torres (#81): This privateer squad is the former factory-supported Ducati team that took the 2011 World Superbike crown with Carlos Checa. After losing Ducati factory support to Frank Alstare’s team in 2013, Althea has run Aprilia and non-factory Ducati machines, and is switching to the BMW S1000RR for the 2016 season. The team will field two very strong riders in the form of Jordi Torres and two-time and current German (IDM) Superbike Champion Markus Reiterberger. Reiterberger won his German championships on BMW equipment, and Torres had a strong 2015 in World Superbike on the privateer Aprilia. Look for this team to remain mid-pack most of the year with an eye toward 2017.
Barni Racing Team (Ducati) — Xavi Fores (#12): This privateer team is entering its second year of running full-time in the World Superbike Championship. The team scored points in every race but one in 2015 with rider Leandro Mercado on board a privateer Ducati. For 2016, the team will compete with 2014 IDM (German) Superbike Champion Xavi Fores. Fores filled in for the injured Davide Giugliano for four races in 2015, scoring consistent top 10 finishes in every race. Look for Fores to be fighting in the mid-pack for most of the season.
Pedercini Racing (Kawasaki) — Saeed Al-Sulaiti (#11), Sylvain Barrier (#20): Long-time privateer team Pedercini will again contest the World Superbike Championship aboard Kawasaki ZX-10R’s. After having had a successful run given its budget with rider David Salom, the team has brought in former BMW rider Sylvain Barrier and Qatari rider Saeed Al-Sulaiti. Al-Sulaiti brings the support of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) to the team, while Barrier is a two-time World Superstock 1000 champion who was forced out of the BMW Italia team last season after just two rounds. Look for Barrier to make the most of his second chance in World Superbike and push hard in the mid-field.
The teams below are not likely to make much of an impact in even the mid-field. Rider Roman Ramos was just a few point behind Pedercini’s David Salom last season while also riding a Kawasaki ZX-10R. VFT Racing are making the jump from competing in the World Supersport Championship on a Yamaha YZF-R6 to a privateer Ducati Panigale for 2016.
Team GOELEVEN (Kawasaki) — Roman Ramos (#40)
Grillini Racing Team (Kawasaki) — Dominic Schmitter (#9), Josh Hook (#16)
Team Toth (Yamaha) — Imre Toth (#10), Peter Sebestyen (#56)
VFT Racing (Ducati) — Fabio Menghi (#61)