Tag Archives: motorsports

Day Summary: MotoAmerica VIR 2017 — Saturday


Saturday’s MotoAmerica action at VIRginia International Raceway could be re-named “bump day.” While the racing in all three MotoAmerica classes features close battles, all three races were defined by multiple incidents of riders banging bars to the point where one or more of them left the racing surface. Banging bars can be a sign of good or bad racing. However, when bar banging results in more crashes than close battles it begins to cross the grey area between bravery and recklessness.

Not helping the bar banging was the weather. While the rain stayed away and the sun came out for good around 11am, the heavy rains that fell on Friday continued to define track conditions throughout the day. The morning was cold, humid, and overcast, and the track dried slowly as each of MotoAmerica’s classes took their turn on track. As the sun came out, the track dried more quickly and lap times began dropping. Xavier Zayat, who was among the top three Superstock 600 riders in dry conditions at Road Atlanta a couple weeks back led the Group 2 qualifying with a 1:39.228. Michael Gilbert was the fastest Superstock 600 bike in Group 1 (which went out after Group 2) with a time of 1:31.746. Later on in the race water began seeping up from the track in areas, including a small river running across the last turn. I chatted with Hayden Gillim, who was our guest on the TWPH a couple weeks ago. He told me water coming up out of the track after a heavy rain was not unusual, but the amount of water at the last corner was very unusual. More on the impact of the water coming up can be found below.

Unfortunately, a couple buckeyes were on the losing end of the bar-banging. OMRL product Gavin Anthony was forced wide at the last corner by another rider and went down. Gavin remounted and was able to finish the race a lap down in 13th. I caught up with Gavin after the race. He was disappointed but was physically okay. Gavin had put in an incredible effort in qualifying. He came into the pits with about four minutes to go with a front brake fade problem. His dad sent him back out since there was just enough time to get in a out lap and a hot lap in before the session ended. On the hot lap the front brake fade problem came back, so Gavin had to finish the hot lap using only rear brake and backing the bike into corners. Despite having the ride the bike very unorthodoxly, Gavin jumped from ninth to sixth. While Gavin’s race did not go as planned, he will have another chance tomorrow. Gavin will again line up on the second row of the KTM RC390 Cup grid, where he should have a good chance to getting to the front again. The twin buckeyes of Ryan and Tyler Wissel also had bummer days out on track. Tyler, who told me before the race he was a big fan of VIR, was another bar-banging victim. He started the race fourth on the grid and slipped back a few positions at the start. Tyler was then forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section and crashed heavily. I swung by the Wissel Racing paddock set-up after the race and caught up with Tyler. He reported that he is physically fine despite the spectacular-looking crash, and that the KTM RC390 is repairable and will be ready for tomorrow’s race. Tyler’s identical twin brother Ryan, who reported not being a big fan of VIR, finished ninth after starting twelfth.

The Supersport/Superstock 600 was also the scene of more bar-banging. The relatively clean first lap featured another three-way battle between the Y.E.S. Graves Yamaha R6s of Garrett Gerloff and J.D. Beach and the M4 Suzuki GSX-R 600 of Valentin Debise. Debise did stand Gerloff up in turn 1, but Gerloff managed to get around Debise and Beach to take the lead. As they began lap two, Debise clipped the left rear of the Gerloff’s bike at the end of the front straight and ended up going down in the muddy turn 1. Debise was uninjured but the rider and bike were covered in a thick, wet layer of mud and grass. The remainder of the race featured a close battle between Gerloff and Beach, with Gerloff eventually breaking away and taking the win. With Debise out, Honda’s factory-supported Benny Solis was able to bring his CBR600RR home in a lonely third place for his first podium of the season. TWPH friend Caroline Olson crashed her Meen Motorsports Yamaha R6 at turn 1 on the last lap. I did not have a chance to catch up with Caroline after the race but will try to find her this morning. Despite the use of the last chance qualifier pre-race to limit the size of the Supersport/Superstock 600 grid, Gerloff and Beach began lapping riders around lap 12. That caused the gap between the leaders to change and created some close calls between the faster and slower riders on the mostly one-line VIR track. MotoAmerica may need to look at ways to shrink the middleweight grid even more the rider safety.

The Superbike/Superstock 1000 race was spectacular with its deft riding and amazing comebacks by the Graves Yamaha riders. However, the race was ultimately defined by bar-banging between Yoshimura Suzuki’s Toni Elias and Meen Motorsports’ Josh Herrin. Graves Yamaha’s Josh Hayes and Cameron Beaubier, along with Herrin, secured a Yamaha lockout of the front row. Herrin, Elias, and Yoshimura Suzuki’s Roger Lee Hayden got off to good starts while Beaubier made a mistake in turn 1 and Hayes was forced off track at the top of the roller coaster section. Herrin battled with Hayden for the first part of the race with some aggressive passes and defensive riding before Hayden’s Suzuki was able to get in front and pull away to a comfortable lead. Herrin began drifting back toward Elias while Hayes and Beaubier were trading fastest laps between them. Elias caught and passed Herrin, and Herrin attempted to make a bold pass he had completed successfully several times earlier in the race at the top of the roller coaster. That time however he lost control and crashed straight on, taking Elias out with him. Hayden was then able to cruise to a win, while Beaubier has ridden all the way back to second and Hayes back to third. Hayes, however, was piped at the line by Latus Motors Kawasaki’s Bobby Fong, who took his third Superbike podium and third Superstock 1000 win of the season. Fong reported in the post-race press conference that Hayes lost drive after running over the aforementioned river at the last turn and that is why his Superstock 1000 Kawasaki ZX-10R was able to out-drive the factory superbike to start finish. I spoke with Hayes after the race and he did not feel that the “river” slowed him down. He thought he had gone around it and just did not get a good drive out of the last corner.

There was a mixed response in the press box and the paddock to the Herrin/Elias incident. During the press conference, Fong and Hayden heavily criticized Herrin’s riding. They felt he was trying too hard and was seriously overriding his bike to pass other riders for pride rather than positions he would be able to maintain. When I asked Roger how he felt Herrin had raced him earlier in the race. Hayden responded “Clean, but dumb.” Several people in the press room also felt that Herrin had tried to come from too far back to out-brake Elias, who is renown for being strong on braking. Other members of the press and Josh Hayes felt that it was a racing incident and that Herrin had not done anything any other racer would do, or that Elias would not have done to him. Personally, I always go back to the Ayrton Senna quote, “If you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer a racing driver.” Herrin had made that same out-braking maneuver several times earlier in the race. I think he probably tried to out-brake someone he could not out-brake and got in too deep. Racers are going to make aggressive moves. They are not out there to complete the world’s fastest parade on two wheels. To me, it was not a dirty pass and did not deserve to be penalized. Instead, Herrin has been dropped three grid positions for Sunday’s race.

2017 MotoGP Season Preview


Introduction 

Usually when I am writing a MotoGP season preview, I am talking about two or three riders who are expected to dominate the championship, and everyone else is about a mile behind the leaders. Usually I am writing about how MotoGP’s reliance of laboratory bikes makes for less exciting racing than World Superbike. Usually, I am writing about the “aliens” of MotoGP (Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa, and Rossi) returning for another year of domination at the front. However, 2016 was anything but the usual in MotoGP. 2016 may be the year we look back at as the year MotoGP was redefined. 2016 could also end up being an aberration that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy it will look back on fondly. In either case, MotoGP’s anything-but-ordinary 2016 season gave its fans something more gripping that even World Superbike has delivered in years past. It rejuvenated a series that had become too lopsided. In 2015, the defining moment of the MotoGP season was not a ballsy pass or the emergence of a new rising star. Rather it was a poor-quality soap opera-like drama show, where the immaturity of one star and another star’s short fuse resulted in the championship being decided by the stewards. The 2014 season was a year of Marquez domination, with Marquez’s championship-winning debut season in 2013 being the series’ last re-defining season.

Despite Marquez’s enormous impact on MotoGP, from his aggressive riding and elbow dragging to his soured relationship with Rossi, 2016 was a far more important season to MotoGP’s future than 2013 every could be. Yes, Marquez is an immensely talented rider who may one day be arguably the greatest grand prix motorcycle racer of all time. However, domination is not the underpinning of commercial success in motorsports: close competition is. 2016 was the godsend MotoGP knew it needed but, despite its best efforts, had failed to produce artificially.

2016 was witness to something far more important to top-level professional motorsports than greatness: hope. In years past, only a select few riders, teams, and manufacturers won races. While Marquez picked up his third top-class title in 2016, it was far from a dominating season. From the start of the 2007 season to the end of the 2015 season, five riders (Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Marquez, and Stoner) won all but four grands prix. Ben Spies was the last “other” winner (Assen, 2011). Other than Casey Stoner’s wins for Ducati from 2007 to 2010, the only non-Honda or Yamaha-mounted riders to win races were Loris Capirossi (Ducati, Japan, 2007), and Chris Vermeulen (Suzuki, Le Mans [wet race], 2007).

In 2016, nine different riders (Marquez, Lorenzo, Rossi, Pedrosa, Crutchlow, Vinales, Miller, Dovizioso, and Iannone) won grands prix for six different teams (Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki factory teams, LCR Honda, and MarcVDS Honda) representing four different manufacturers (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Ducati). Crutchlow won two grands prix. It may be no coincidence that the greater parity in on-track success suddenly appeared when MotoGP transitioned to spec electronic control units (ECUs) for 2016. In any event, the 2016 MotoGP season was more than something different from past seasons. It has given the teams who used to be seconds behind the two big teams the hope that they can be at the front too. 2016 was more than just an aberration: it is blood in the water. In 2017, we should expect to see a rejuvenated paddock that will attack the championship with a ferocity that we have not seen in previous years.

 

Series Changes

The only major rules change for the 2017 MotoGP season concerns “winglets.” While we usually think of wings and downforce in the context of auto racing, MotoGP teams have gradually been integrating winglets into their bodywork designs. Ducati was one of the first to use the noticeable winglets to help prevent wheelieing in the early 2010s. Last season, winglets took on some extreme iterations, notably the factory Ducati and Yamaha squads.

This year’s schedule remains essentially unchanged. Brno (Czech Republic) and the Red Bull Ring (Austria) have swapped their order on the schedule. Otherwise, MotoGP will visit all of the same tracks they visited in 2016. Unlike previous seasons when the U.S. enjoyed hosting as many as three grands prix, the only U.S. race will be at Circuit of the Americas in April. The 2017 MotoGP calendar can be viewed here: http://www.motogp.com/en/calendar/

 

Teams 

Repsol Honda Team

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Marc Marquez(#93) / Dani Pedrosa (#26)

This team needs no introduction. Marquez is now a three-time and reigning MotoGP world champion, having won his first championship in his rookie season and has won three of the last four MotoGP crowns. The elbow dragger had two strong tests at Valencia and Jerez, but ended up 10th fastest at the last test in Qatar. Marquez went on the record saying he feels better going into 2017 than he did going into 2016. As always, with the engineering prowess of Honda and his sheer talent, Marquez will be a definite threat to repeat as world champion in 2017.

Marquez’s teammate Dani Pedrosa is also well-known to Americans, though for less-than-memorable reasons. Pedrosa is entering his eleventh season with the factory Honda squad. His rookie season miscue where he took out eventual championship-winner and then-teammate Nicky Hayden at Estoril seems like a distant memory now. In his first eight seasons with Repsol Honda, Pedrosa has finished second or third in the riders’ championship seven times. However, since 2014, Pedrosa has finished no higher than fourth in the championship. Honda appears to be holding onto Pedrosa as its reliable #2 rider. Pedrosa has scored at least one win every season in MotoGP, the team’s Spanish petroleum sponsor Repsol would probably like to see the team feature two Spanish riders whenever possible. Pedrosa will likely be near the front again, but his consistent slide in performance makes one wonder how many more seasons Pedrosa will be able to hang onto one of the most coveted rides in the MotoGP paddock.

Honda was the most outspoken team on the issue of electronics the last several seasons. They were reported as being ready to quit the sport on more than one occasion if they were not allowed to use their own electronic rider aide package. Well, for Honda, that came to fruition last season, and they are still in the paddock. Honda did still take second in the constructors’ championship in 2016, 28 points behind Yamaha.

 

Moviestar Yamaha MotoGP

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders:  Vinales (#25) / Rossi (#46)

The 2016 constructors’ champion is entering 2017 with more steam than they probably expected at the end of 2016. Most would have likely thought having to replace Jorge Lorenzo, who won three world championships in his nine years riding for the team, would be a tall order. While the 37 year-old Valentino Rossi actually led the team in points in 2016, Lorenzo’s past success and pace on the Yamaha were thought to be nearly impossible to replace. Then along came Maverick Vinales. Vinales, who is a former Moto3 world champion and the 2015 MotoGP Rookie of the Year, has showed immediate pace on the factory Yamaha machine. Vinales was the fastest overall rider in all three winter tests and won a race on the factory Suzuki last season. Look for Vinales to be at the front all season long in 2017. It remains to see how well Vinales will handle the pressure of a one of MotoGP’s most coveted rides. However, his past championship success in Moto3, success in his one season in Moto2 and young age (22) means we likely have not even seen Vinales’ full potential yet.

While Vinales may be one of MotoGP’s stars of the future, Vinales’ teammate remains the unequivocal face of MotoGP. Valentino Rossi, despite being the elder statesman of the MotoGP grid, is coming off a very strong season in 2016. The Doctor has shown that age does not feed on speed nor consistency. Rossi has finished the last three MotoGP seasons second in the riders’ championship, and likely had a legitimate shot at the 2015 title before his incident with Marquez at the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, off-season testing was not kind to Rossi. The Doctor was in the middle of the pack for most of the off-season testing sessions. Rossi finished the Valencia test seventh-fastest, Jerez fifth-fastest, and Qatar eleventh-fastest. At the Qatar test, Rossi was almost one second off of teammate Vinales’ pace. The Doctor has had a career of success by adjustment. But like an old clutch cable, could Rossi be coming to the end of range of adjustment? Rossi will likely still be at the front this season, but may not be there consistently for the early part of the season. It may be a matter of how quickly the Doctor’s team can master the new M1, as well as how much pace some of the other factory teams like Ducati have picked up over the offseason.

 

Ducati Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17

Riders: Jorge Lorenzo (#99) / Andrea Dovizioso (#04)

But for Maverick Vinales’ unexpected pace at Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo’s move to Ducati would likely be taking all of the MotoGP headlines. After nine years and three world championships with the factory Yamaha squad, Lorenzo is attempting to do what Rossi failed to do during the 2011 and 2012 seasons: Win on a Ducati. The Ducati team is in much better shape now that it was during Rossi’s short tenure, as it is coming off of its highest team points total since 2008 and won races for the first time since the Stoner era in 2010. Testing started slow for Lorenzo in Valencia, as the Ducati is a very different bike from the Yamaha. Lorenzo finished eighth-fastest in Valencia, ninth-fastest in Jerez, and fourth-fastest in Qatar. Lorenzo’s raw talent may allow him to be a consistent threat for podiums, but there is likely to be a bit of a learning curve on the Duc.

Lorenzo will team with returning Ducati rider Andrea “Dovi” Dovizioso. Dovi scored one of Ducati’s two wins in 2016, and got his first career MotoGP win all the way back in 2009 during his short tenure as a factory Honda rider. Dovi has shown consistent pace on the Honda, satellite Tech 3 Yamaha, and Ducati, relative to each machine’s potential. As the rider who had input into the development into the GP17, Dovi will be a threat for wins at tracks that suit the Ducati (Austria, Sepang), and will be a barometer that Lorenzo’s ability to adapt to the Italian machine will be measured by.

 

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini

Bike: Aprilia RS-GP

Riders: Alex Espargaro (#41) / Sam Lowes (#22)

Aprilia’s return to MotoGP as a full participant has been a bit dismal. The Gresini-Aprilia pairing has scored only 111 points over their two seasons together, and are already on their fifth and sixth different riders. Despite Gresini’s past success in several classes of grand prix racing, and Aprilia’s success in World Superbike, the RS-GP has failed to live up to the hype so far. For 2017, the RS-GPs will be piloted by riders Sam Lowes and Aleix Espargaro. Lowes is the 2013 World Supersport champion who has had some success in his three Moto2 seasons. Lowes scored two wins last season in Moto2, and finished fifth in that championship before being promoted to Gresini’s top-class squad. Espargaro is coming off of a disappointing season with the factory Suzuki team. He was comprehensively outperformed by them-teammate Maverick Vinales, finishing the season with 93 points compared to Vinales’ 202. In preseason testing, Espargaro was often mid-pack, while Lowes found himself near the bottom of the time sheets. While incremental improvements in performance are possible in 2017, preseason testing seems to indicate Aprilia have not taken the steps they needed to in the off-season to become a real threat in MotoGP.

 

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing

Bike: KTM RC16

Riders: Bradley Smith (#38) / Pol Espargaro (#44)

KTM is entering its very first season in MotoGP. Despite its success in the lower classes of grand prix racing and in the off-road competition, first seasons in top-class grand prix racing are usually disappointing. It appears KTM may be following that trend. KTM have opted to use a trellis steel frame for their machines. The remainder of MotoGP teams use aluminum perimeter frames. Ducati was the last team to use the steel trellis design before it moved over to carbon fiber in the late 2000s. It remains to be seen whether KTM has something in mind that Ducati did not, or whether this may be a short stint in MotoGP for KTM.

One thing KTM did very well was put quality talent on their machines. The team signed both Tech 3 riders from last season (Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro). Smith is known for being among the most intelligent riders in the MotoGP paddock, and Espargaro is coming off a relatively strong season where he was the second-highest finishing non-factory rider behind Crutchlow. KTM’s performance in winter testing reflected their rookie status, with all test riders consistently finishing near the bottom of the time sheets. Though not much is to be expected from the Austrian squad, this will be a pivotal year for the team. How they respond to what they learn this year may well dictate the mark’s future fortunes in MotoGP.

 

Team Suzuki Ecstar

Bike: Suzuki GSX-RR

Riders: Andrea Iannone (#29) / Alex Rins (#42)

The relatively young factory Suzuki squad is coming off an unexpectedly positive 2016 season. While the team’s fastest rider (Maverick Vinales) has moved on to the Yamaha factory effort, the team scored its first win since 2007 and had its most successful season since it ended its two-year hiatus from grand prix racing in 2014. The team signed two new riders for 2017. Andrea Iannone moves over to Suzuki from the factory Ducati outfit after a successful yet forgettable 2016 season. Iannone’s success in achieving Ducati’s first win since 2010 at the Red Bull Ring last season was overshadowed by his submarine move on then-teammate Andrea Dovizioso in the closing stages of the Argentine Grand Prix, erasing a sure double-podium for Ducati. Iannone will be teamed with MotoGP rookie Alex Rins. Rins was the runner-up in the 2013 Moto3 championship, and has finished second or third in the last three Moto2 championships. Rins and Iannone were very close in the last two preseason tests. Look for Suzuki to continue to build on its success last season with its recent experience, past success in grand prix racing, and young talent. While wins may be a stretch for the team without the tremendously fast Vinales behind the bars, Suzuki will likely see at least one of their riders consistently in the top five. Podiums are possible depending on what happens with the frontrunners.

 

LCR Honda

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Cal Crutchlow (#35)

2016 was a year of completely unexpected success for Crutchlow and LCR Honda. Crutchlow, who is the 2007 World Supersport champion and is entering his seventh season in MotoGP, has been known as a rider who has immense talent who does not always have the machinery underneath him to allow his full potential to be shown. While Crutchlow only moved up one place in the riders’ world championship between 2015 and 2016, last season saw Crutchlow take a pair of wins. For LCR, it was the team’s first two wins in its eleven year tenure in grand prix motorcycle racing’s top class. For 2017, Crutchlow returns to the team, and will again be paired with a factory-supported Honda RC213V. In preseason testing, Crutchlow showed consistent pace, but was still a little bit behind the frontrunners. He finished inside of the top 10, but outside of the top five, in all three preseason tests. While it may be difficult for Crutchlow to repeat his 2016 success, look for Crutchlow to challenge for podiums occasionally in 2017.

 

Monster Yamaha Tech 3

Bike: Yamaha YZR-M1

Riders: Johann Zarco (#5) / Jonas Folger (#94)

Yamaha’s French-based satellite team gets a complete makeover with its 2017 rider line-up. With both of its 2016 riders moving over to the new KTM factory team, Tech 3 secured the services of two-time and reigning Moto2 world champion Johann Zarco and Moto2 stand-out Jonas Folger for the 2017 season. Despite being bitter rivals in Moto2 for the last several seasons, they will share the Tech 3 garage and contest the 2017 top-class championship aboard year-old Yamaha YZF-M1s. Look for both riders to be mid-pack most of the season while they learn the ropes in MotoGP, much like both riders were in preseason testing. The two may reignite their fierce rivalry this season or in 2018 if and when it becomes clear that Rossi may hang up the leathers at the Yamaha factory team.

 

Other Teams 

The teams below are privateer or satellite teams who are not expected to be major contributors to the 2017 championship. The lone major participant in the 2016 championship from this group was Jack Miller. Miller grabbed a very unexpected win in mixed conditions at Assen last season. Miller was a standout in Moto3 before being promoted directly to the MotoGP class. Miller’s teammate Rabat, the 2014  Moto2 world champion, has yet to demonstrate his talent in the MotoGP class. Both riders will return to the team for 2017 aboard satellite Honda machinery. The three Ducati satellite teams will campaign several different iterations of past and present MotoGP chassis. The only rider to get current-year equipment is Danilo Petrucci, who has shown glimpses of speed, mostly in mixed or wet conditions. Petrucci’s teammate Redding, the 2013 Moto2 runner-up, has yet to show that same pace in the MotoGP class. He has slipped over the past couple of seasons, falling from 12th to 13th to 15th in the riders’ championship over his three seasons in MotoGP. Barring something unforeseen, none of the remaining riders are expected to make even occasional challenges for top fives or podiums in 2017.

 

EG 0,0 MarcVDS Racing

Bike: Honda RC213V

Riders: Jack Miller (#43) /  Tito Rabat (#53)

 

Octo Pramac Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP17 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Danilo Petrucci (#9) / Scott Redding (#45)

 

Reale Avintina Racing

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP16 / Ducati Desmosedici GP15

Riders: Hector Barbera (#8) / Loris Baz (#76)

 

Pull&Bear Aspar Team

Bike: Ducati Desmosedici GP15 / Ducati Desmosedici GP16

Riders: Karel Abraham (#17) / Alvaro Bautista (#19)

 

 

2017 World Superbike Season Preview


Introduction

It is that time of year again. Riding season is right around the corner in the northeast U.S., the days are getting longer, and the professional motorcycle road racing season is revving up down under. While we are a little under a month away from the MotoGP season beginning, and two months from MotoAmerica getting its season underway, World Superbike is starting its season with its annual pilgrimage to the Phillip Island this weekend. World Superbike begins 2017 on the heels of two unspectacular seasons, dominated chiefly by Johnny Rea’s back-to-back championships. In 2017, World Superbike will be looking to take back the title of best quality racing series in world after MotoGP had an unprecedented slew of different winners in 2016. While only one new factory team has joined the World Superbike fray, and many riders have held station with the same teams they contested the 2016 season with, World Superbike is hoping its production-based formula will begin producing its old charm again in 2017.

 

Series changes

While there have been several important changes within World Superbike in terms of rules, riders, and teams, far more remains the same from last year. All riders will still use Pirelli tires. The schedule has changed very little from last year. The two-year old round at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia has been dropped, and the Algarve circuit in Portimao, Portugal has come back onto the World Superbike calendar after a one-year hiatus. That circuit had run into some serious financial problems, despite its flowing yet challenging nature. The championship’s only stop in the United States will be in July at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Perhaps the biggest change to the World Superbike scene in 2017 will be the grid format for race 2. Race 1 will continue to be gridded based on the results of the Superpole qualifying sessions. However, for race two, only positions 10 and higher will be gridded based on Superpole. Instead, the podium finishers from race 1 will be moved back to row 3, and have their positions reversed. The first six positions will be gridded with the 4th through 9th place finishers in race 1, in that order. In other words, the race 2 grid will be race 1 finishers 4-5-6-7-8-9-3-2-1, with three bikes to a row.

In essence, this is the Johnny Rea rule. World Superbike television ratings are reported to be down from a couple of years ago, likely thanks in large part to Rea’s utter dominance after he moved from the Ten Kate Honda squad to the Kawasaki factory team. Chaz Davies also had his fair share of runaway victories at the end of last season. Processionals at the front of the World Superbike grid, combined with an unusual 2016 in MotoGP where four different manufacturers and nine different riders won grands prix apparently caused World Superbike to reach for something desperate. On social media the race 2 gridding changes have been panned by fans as gimmicky. It will likely take a couple of rounds to determine whether the new gridding method is brilliance or desperation.

Personally, I have my doubts about the new gridding scheme working. While it may create more passing and “excitement,” it may be short-lived. The fast four bikes at the front of the grid (the factory Kawasaki and Ducatis) also boast high trap speeds. The three race 1 podium finishers will likely be able to sit in the midfield for a lap, then when they hit a long straightaway just blow by the competition. Also, if the fourth-place finisher in race 1 begins winning race 2’s on a regular basis, does a team order a rider to slow down if they are in third in order to finish fourth? We will just have to wait until this weekend in order to find out how well (or not so well) it will work.

Another change to the broader production-based championship umbrella is the addition of the Supersport 300 class. With the rapid decline of middleweight (600cc) sportbike sales in light of rising prices and marginal price differences to literbikes, smaller-displacement sportbike sales are climbing. Moreover, several small-displacement sport bikes, like the Ninja 300, have proven themselves capable at the club racing level but have been without a home in the production-based world championship. Some of the other machines that are legal in the class are the Honda CBR500R, the Yamaha R3, and the KTM RC390 that is used in MotoAmerica development series. Moreover, grand prix motorcycle racing fans can attest that often the best racing of a grand prix weekend is not Moto2 or even MotoGP, but rather Moto3. While it remains to be seen if and when the 300 class will be televised in the U.S., the class clearly has a bright future ahead.

 

Teams 

Kawasaki Racing Team

Bike: Kawasaki ZX-10R

Riders: Jonathan Rea (#1) / Tom Sykes (#66)

The Kawasaki factory team enters the 2017 season as the obvious favorite to repeat as both rider and manufacturers’ champions. The rider lineup remains unchanged, with two-time and defending World Superbike champion Johnny Rea and 2013 World Superbike champion and 2012, 2014, and 2016 runner-up Tom Sykes returning to their respective saddles. While Kawasaki did release a slightly updated ZX-10RR model for the 2017 model year, testing seems to indicate the Kawasakis, especially Rea, continue to be consistently quick. We may be in for another year of Johnny Rea domination, but Rea will have some formidable competition from his proven teammate and the factory Ducati riders.

 

Aruba.it Ducati

Bike: Ducati Panigale R

Riders: Chaz Davies (#7) / Marco Melandri (#33)

Ducati’s factory squad received a partial makeover this year, with Davide Guigliano being replaced by Marco Melandri, who is returning to professional motorcycle racing after a one-year hiatus. Melandri will partner with Chaz Davies, a rider American fans know well from his days racing in the AMA Superbike Championship. While placing third in last year’s World Superbike Championship (in part thanks to Rea letting Sykes pass him on the last lap of the last race in Qatar), Davies finished 2016 on a tear. He won seven of the last eight races of the season, most of them by commanding margins. Given the steady improvements Ducati have made on the Panigale R since its borderline embarrassing introduction to racing in 2013, look out for Chaz Davies to be a title contender from the start of 2017. Melandri remains a bit a of a wild card. He has had very good runs in World Superbike with Yamaha, BMW, and Aprilia. He had never finished less than fourth in any World Superbike season he has contested regardless of what motorcycle he was riding. He also finished 2014 in strong fashion, and was routinely faster than his teammate Sylvan Guintoli who ended up taking the 2014 championship on consistency rather than outright pace. However, Melandri had a torrid half-season in 2015 during Aprilia’s ill-fated return to MotoGP. It will remain to see if the aging Melandri (now aged 34) will be back up to his old ways in 2017.

 

Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team

Bike: Honda CBR1000RR

Riders: Stefan Bradl (#6) / Nicky Hayden (#69)

Many American fans of World Superbike were delighted last year about this time as Nicky Hayden was getting ready to start his World Superbike career. Nicky did not let his rabid American fans down, winning a race in the wet last season at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit. However, on the whole, Hayden’s 2016 season was lackluster. While Hayden did finish in the top five in the riders’ championship, Hayden only scored half as many points as championship winner Johnny Rea and finished behind teammate Michael van der Mark. In 2017, Hayden will have a new teammate in Stefan Bradl, as van der Mark has moved over to the Yamaha factory team. Bradl, who is the 2011 Moto2 champion (which he won over runner-up Marc Marquez) had strong but less-than-podium showings in his three years with LCR Honda before being replaced by Cal Crutchlow after the 2014 season. Bradl has spent the last two seasons on either an Open class Yamaha or the dismal Aprilia MotoGP bike. This will be Bradl’s first year racing in a superbike series, and it will be interesting to see how well he adapts to the production-based machinery. Both Hayden and Bradl will have to learn the all-new Honda CBR1000RR. This may give Hayden the slight edge over Bradl, as he was with the team last year and may have had input into the redesign process. However, without true factory support from Honda, the Ten Kate team will have quite the chore on their hands learning an all-new bike as the 2017 season progresses.

 

Althea BMW Racing Team

Bike: BMW S1000RR

Riders: Markus Reiterberger (#21) / Jordi Torres (#81)

The Althea team was a bit of a surprise in 2017. The former factory Ducati outfit sported BMW motorcycles for the first time after using Ducati machines since 2010. Despite BMW also putting factory support behind the previously successful BSB Yamaha outfit of Shaun Muir’s Milwaukee Racing, the Althea team stood out as the stronger of the two teams last year. Now Milwaukee Racing has switched to Aprilias and Althea is the sole a factory-backed BMW effort in World Superbike. The team sees both of its riders return from its 2016 campaign. Jordi Torres became the team’s lead rider, finishing sixth in the 2016 rider’s championship. Torres is a Moto2 product who has been a strong runner in World Superbike. He has a race win and two more podiums under his belt from his 2015 season on a privateer Aprilia. Torres’ teammate is Markus Reiterberger, who won the 2013 and 2015 IDM (German) Superbike championships. Reiterberger had an inconsistent season in 2016, with six retirements and three finishes outside the points in 26 races. He finished 16th in last year’s riders’ championship. After gaining a year of experience, it will be interesting to see whether Reiterberger can find his old form and pull closer to fan favorite Torres (who I will always remember for blowing kisses to the Laguna Seca crowd after Superpole).

 

Pata Yamaha Official World Superbike Team

Bike: Yamaha YZF R1

Riders: Alex Lowes (#22) / Michael van der Mark (#60)

After leaving World Superbike as a factory team at the end of 2011, Yamaha had high hopes for its return to World Superbike in 2016. Yamaha’s new R1 had already proven itself in the MotoAmerica championship, and it was supposed to be a matter of adapting the bike to the World Superbike rules and tires. Yamaha chose to partner with the Crescent team, run by long-time Suzuki guru Paul Denning, rather than maintain the partnership it had with Shaun Muir’s Milwaukee outfit in British Superbike (BSB). While Milwaukee did not perform well in 2016, neither did either of the factory Yamahas. Alex Lowes had five retirements with five additional finishes outside the top 10. Lowes’ teammate and 2014 World Superbike champion Sylvan Guintoli did somewhat better despite missing five round in the middle of the season. His one podium in Qatar was a lone highlight among a season where he usually finished somewhere in the top 10 on a factory bike. With a year of experience with Yamaha equipment under their belt, the MotoAmerica Graves Yamaha team now using the same rules package (but different tires) as the Crescent team, and the addition of the speedy Michael van der Mark to replace Guintoli, Yamaha may be able to get closer to the Kawasakis and Ducatis this year. The young van der Mark is the 2014 World Supersport champion and has shown very good pace in the Superbike class. However, van der Mark has been on Hondas since 2011. It will be interesting to see how quickly he adapts to his R1.

 

IODA Racing

Bike: Aprilia RSV4 RF

Riders: Leandro Mercado (#36)

This former grand prix motorcycle racing team made the transition to World Superbike in 2015. IODA previously ran Aprilia Open class machines in MotoGP in 2014 and 2015, and continued its relationship with Aprilia on privateer RSV4s last season. The team ran a two bike effort in 2016 with Lorenzo Savadori and Alex de Angelis. While de Angelis, a former MotoGP competitor, had an unspectacular season, Savadori finished in the top 10 in the riders championship and was signed to Aprilia’s new factory-supported effort at Milwaukee Racing. IODA will enter the 2017 season with Leandro Mercado as their sole rider. Mercado should be a familiar name to American motorcycle road racing fans. Mercado finished third in the AMA Red Bull Rookies Cup during its only season in 2008, and won the AMA Pro Racing Supersport East championship in 2009. Mercado last competed in World Superbike in 2015, finishing eighth in the riders’ championship onboard a privateer Ducati. Last season Mercado contested the World Superstock 1000 championship where he finished runner-up onboard a Ducati Panigale.

 

MV Agusta Reparto Corse

Bike: MV Agusta 1000 F4

Riders: Leon Camier (#2)

Despite the financial problems its parent company suffered through in 2016, the MV Agusta factory squad had a stellar showing considering its budget and one-bike team. The team’s sole rider since 2014, the 6’2″ Leon Camier, rose in the riders’ championship from his 13th-place finish in 2015 to eighth in 2016. The team actually had to turn down the power the bike could generate, as they were having problems with the bike’s electronics. The result was a bike that was much easier for Camier to ride, and he finished in the top five consistently last season. Look for Camier and MV to keep moving forward to the degree their budget allows.

 

BARNI Racing Team

Bike: Ducati Panigale R

Riders: Xavi Fores (#12)

2016 was an inconsistent but promising year for the BARNI Racing Team. The team’s sole rider, Xavi Fores, contested the 2016 championship on a satellite Ducati Panigale R. Reportedly the bike was the exact same as the factory Ducati bikes expect for the suspension. While Fores finished the championship in ninth in 2016 with five retirements, he did score a podium in Germany in wet conditions and was inconsistently within the top five. Look for Fores to get closer to the front of the pack in 2017 with a potential seat opening up at the Ducati factory team in the next couple seasons.

 

Milwaukee Aprilia

Bike: Aprilia RSV4 RF

Riders: Lorenzo Savadori (#32) / Eugene Laverty (#50)

If you want an example of how quickly a team can fall from the top, look no further than the Milwaukee team. The team had a string of success in BSB, winning the 2011 and 2016 riders’ championships with factory Yamaha support. For 2016, the team made the jump to World Superbike as a BMW factory-supported team, but did not find the success they has enjoyed in BSB. Josh Brookes, who had had previous stints in World Superbike and World Supersport, and was the reigning BSB champion, barely finished the 2016 campaign inside the top 15. Brookes’ teammate for 2016, Karel Abraham, finished 18th in the riders’ championship with nine retirements and two additional non-points finishes. For 2017, the team has switched to Aprilia machinery with factory support from Aprilia. While the Aprilia has been known to be very competitive even as a privateer bike, it is still difficult for a team to switch manufacturers three consecutive seasons.

This is especially true when a team is sporting a all-new rider lineup for the 2017 season. Lorenzo Savadori is the 2015 World Superstock 1000 champion, and had a good run last season aboard a privateer Aprilia at IODA racing. Savadori’s consistency and experience with the RSV4 RF may prove invaluable to the Milwaukee team this season. Savadori will partnered with Eugene Laverty, another rider who knows the Aprilia RSV4 well. Laverty is a bit of a journeyman, having raced in World Supersport, World Superbike, the old 125cc grand prix class, and MotoGP. Lavery was the 2009 and 2010 World Supersport runner-up behind Cal Crutchlow and Kenan Sofuoglu, respectively. Laverty then moved on to World Superbike, where he had several strong seasons, including finishing runner-up in the rides’ championship in 2013. Laverty has spent the last two seasons with the privateer Aspyr MotoGP squad, and is looking to return to success in 2017 with Aprilia.

 

Additional Teams

The teams listed below are the remaining privateers who were included on the official World Superbike entry list for 2017. The teams are not factory-supported and are not expected to be near the front on the field.  Kawasaki Go Eleven’s rider Roman Ramos returns to his team for the third year. Ayrton Badovini, who for a short time was a factory-supported Ducati rider, finds himself aboard a privateer Kawasaki this season. Former MotoGP rider Alex de Angelis, who is at the twilight of his career, has also found a ride aboard a privateer Kawasaki. While de Angelis did score a podium last season during a rain-soaked race in Germany, his 2016 season was overall unimpressive. It will remain to be seen how competitive he will be against the other privateer Kawasakis.

 

Team Kawasaki Go Eleven

Bike: Kawasaki ZX-10R

Riders: Roman Ramos (#40)

Grillini Racing Team

Bike: Kawasaki ZX-10R

Riders: Ondrej Jezek (#37) / Ayrton Badovini (#86)

 

Guandalini Racing

Bike: Yamaha YZF R1

Riders: Riccardo Russo (#84)

 

Kawasaki Puccetti Racing

Bike: Kawasaki ZX-10R

Riders: Randy Krummenacher (#88)

 

Pedercini Racing SC-Project

Bike: Kawasaki ZX-10R

Riders: Alex de Angelis (#15)

 

 

A Case for Pascal: Why Wehrlein is the Logical, Strategic Choice to Replace Rosberg at Mercedes F1


When I saw the news this past Thursday that Nico Rosberg had retired in the immediate aftermath of his first drivers’ championship, I was as shocked as anyone else. However, my mind almost immediately shifted from the present to the future. I immediately began to consider who could take Rosberg’s seat this late in the silly season. The Mercedes F1 ride is probably the most coveted in all of motorsports, even with a radically new set of technical regulations coming in 2017. Several very talented drivers who were free agents have already been signed to mid-level teams or worse for next season. The magnitude of the opportunity at Mercedes F1 would appear to command a proven talent. However, in my opinion, this is the right time for Mercedes F1 to try something new. This is the time for Mercedes to find out what they have in Pascal Wehrlein.

Some would argue other drivers have done more prove themselves than young Pascal. Fernando Alonso in the underachieving McLaren, Valtteri Bottas in the declining Williams, or Nico Hulkenburg at a rebuilding Renault F1 would represent logical steps toward assured success. A recently retired Jenson Button may be able to get out of his McLaren connections for one last shot at a second title. Even an Esteban Ocon, who was promoted to the better-performing Force India squad over Wehrlein, could be in the running.

However, to me, none of those choices make as much sense as Wehrlein. While Alonso, and to a lesser degree Bottas and Hulkenburg, represent the best, quasi-available talent in the sport, their respective contract situations would need time to be worked out. There would probably have to be a fair bit of money involved in springing them from their current commitments. Furthermore, in the case of Alonso and Button, their proven talent may not be as valuable to the Silver Arrows as it first appears. Sure, either driver behind the wheel of a Mercedes package would make Mercedes a double threat for victory every grand prix. However, Mercedes has Lewis Hamilton, who is coming off his most unlucky season in recent memory. Without the likes of a Rosberg to challenge him in the other Mercedes seat, Hamilton represents the by far strongest threat for a championship in the paddock. Mercedes F1, therefore, does not need a second driver in order to be a threat in 2017. Moreover, it was the drama with a seasoned Nico Rosberg that seemed to drive the tension that has probably shot Toto Wolff and Patty Lowe’s blood pressure through the garage ceiling on more than one occasion.

As for the young Ocon, his talent became very apparent in 2016. Even though Wehrlein beat Ocon in qualifying on 6 out of 8 occasions (Ocon did not get out for qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix), Ocon outraced Wehrlein 6-3, including the last three races in a row. However, in my opinion, he does not have enough Formula 1 experience be given the reigns to a factory ride just yet. Ocon’s time will inevitably come, but it is a big risk to put a relatively unproven talent in the hot seat of a factory ride. I would have made the same case for Verstappen in 2014. Even the baby-faced assassin got a full season of seat time at a junior team before getting bumped up. Plus, Verstappen’s call up to the senior squad in 2016 was not Red Bull’s strategy going into the season.

To me, Wehrlein is the best choice for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is timing. Not only are we essentially past the silly season, but Wehrlein could not have asked for a better time to move up. With Lewis Hamilton leading Mercedes’ charge next season, Wehrlein can develop in the factory car without having too much pressure on him. Sure, he will be expected to perform, same as Ocon would. But Wehrlein has already won a championship in DTM, which is a pretty elite touring car series. Wehrlein has proven he can handle the pressure in a top-level championship and still come out on top. Moreover, Wehrlien won his DTM championship with consistency, as he was able to bring his car to the checkers every round. The biggest asset a number two drivers can have is consistently finishing races in the points.

Second, with the new technical regulations coming in 2017, having someone who has already gone through a full season working with Formula 1 engineers would be invaluable to Mercedes. Third, If Mercedes bring on someone like Alonso, then in 2-3 years both Alonso and Hamilton may well be gone. Mercedes F1 would then have two drivers who would not have factory-level experience in F1. Now is the time, to use a Steve Matchett phrase, for Mercedes to put Wehrlein in the car and find out what they have in him.

If he doesn’t work out, Mercedes can just send him back to DTM to rack up a few more championships there. If he does do well, Mercedes will not have to put up with Hamilton’s antics unless they really want to. They will have a proven Wehrlein in one car, and Ocon waiting to come up and take Lewis’ place in the other car. If you are going to be like Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault and have young driver development programs, you need to actually use the drivers now and again to justify the program’s cost. Sure, Wehrlein or Ocon could jump ship in the future like Vettal did. But if a team is as good as Mercedes is right now, it needs to take up the opportunity to ensure their foreseeable future now.

 

Race Rip: WSBK Thailand 2016


Until the last few laps of Race 2, I was going to start this report by saying that the on-track action at the Chang International Circuit had been overshadowed by the track conditions. The slippery surface that had riders regularly running off the track at several corners was detracting from the on-track product. Then the last 5 laps happened. Then we saw a real scrap between the Kawasaki powerhouse teammates Johnny Rea and Tom Sykes. The two Team Green riders put on a epic display of speed, cunning, and true grit as they jockeyed for the lead. The slippery asphalt raised the stakes, making the scrap even more impressive to watch. While Tom Sykes got the victory, despite his previous problems maintaining rear tire grip over a full race distance. But this was no ordinary victory; it was more than a win. After having won a world championship and having narrowly missed out on two more, Johnny Rea turned Tom Sykes’ world upside down last year. Rea’s dominant championship-winning year left many wondering how good Skyes really was. Despite losing Race 1 to Rea, Sykes boldly answered back in Race 2. While last year Rea was the clear number one rider at the Kawasaki team, Sykes has now proven he indeed has the talent and confidence to beat Rea head to head. However, Sykes’ performance at Phillip Island two weeks ago was not nearly as spectacular. Despite taking the pole in Australia, Sykes finished P5 and P6 in Race 1 and Race 2, respectively. The next track on the WSBK calendar, Motorland Aragon, is a fast but technical track. It will be interesting to see how both riders perform there.

While the epic battle between Sykes and Rea made the headline in the end, the track conditions at the Chang International Circuit were less than ideal. Riders were seen having to sit their machines up mid-corner in several areas of the track. Most perturbing among them was  Turn 3, the right-hander at the end of the track’s longest straightaway. Although ample, paved run-off room was available to the riders, having to suddenly change one’s line can make for hazardous on-track conditions. The slip-and-slide asphalt detracted from the races, as riders who were otherwise performing well were penalized by poor pavement rather than poor riding. While the conditions were not egregious, one would expect them to be addressed before next year’s event in Thailand.

Another notable performance was that of Dutchman Michael van der Mark. Riding for the Dutch-owned Ten Kate Honda team and teammate to American Nicky Hayden, van der Mark has shown astoundingly fast cornerspeed and scrappy racecraft in the first two rounds of the WSBK season. The 2014 World Supersport Champion and weekend pole winner, van der Mark has shown both speed and consistency this season. He has usually been able to get solid starts off the line, and has been able to maintain solid track position to the end of a race. Having podiumed three times in his rookie WSBK season in 2015, look to van der Mark to continue to develop both his speed and his racecraft as the season progresses. The Dutch round of the championship at Assen is the series’ next stop after Aragon. Two of van der Mark’s three podiums in 2015 were at the Dutch circuit. Johnny Rea also always seemed to do well at Assen when he was riding the Ten Kate Honda. We could be in store for something very special if van der Mark could pull off a home soil win in motorcycle-crazy Holland.

For American fans, Nicky Hayden had an up-and-down weekend. While Hayden DNF’d in Race 1 (by no fault of his own), Hayden came back from the technical problem to place in the top 5 in Race 2. While it appears Nicky is still getting used to the World Superbike package, look for Hayden to become even more competitive as the season progresses. Of note, Hayden has performed much better in both Race 2’s than in Race 1’s. If that trend continues at Aragon, it will be apparent Hayden just needs a little more time to get used to the WSBK brakes, tires, and chassis before he’s right up at the front with the Kawasakis. Another American favorite, long-time AMA road racer and 2008 Daytona 200 Champion Chaz Davies has performed very well this season. Riding one of the two factory Ducati’s, Davies has placed in the top 5 three times, and has been on the podium twice. If Davies had not crashed out of Race 2 at Phillip Island on the last lap (where he still managed to finish 10th), Davies would be right near the top of the championship standings. Davies has historically done well at Aragon, so it will be an opportunity for him to get right back in the fight for the title.

Why I am so excited about Nicky Hayden’s move to World Superbike


At first glance, Nicky Hayden’s move from MotoGP to World Superbike seems like a step backward. Hayden is moving from a series where a crankshaft is probably as expensive as an entire superbike. This is something we have seen other riders do toward the end of their careers. Talented riders like Carlos Checa, Max Biaggi, and Marco Melandri (all of whom had the misfortune of racing in MotoGP during the Rossi era) have made the same transition when they were no longer as competitive in the “premier class.” Superbikes, despite their name, are usually several seconds slower on the same track than MotoGP machinery. They do not lean as far, accelerate as fast, or turn as nimbly. Some equate the difference even more extremely, and compare MotoGP to Formula 1 and World Superbike to touring car racing.

So then, why is this author so stoked to see a name that many American motorcycle road racing fans practically worship taking such a big step down? Because to the author, it is anything but a step down. Technical sophistication, lavish hospitality tents, and absurd factory budgets do not, alone, beget great racing. Sure, MotoGP, as a championship, is even older than Formula 1. World Superbike (as we know it today) did not emerge until the late 1980’s. But to the author, what matters most is the quality and authenticity of the on-track product. It does not matter how many millions of dollars a MotoGP machine costs when “grands prix” turn into really, really fast motorcycle parades. Nor is the domination of a couple teams on budgets alone impressive. Nor the nearly NASCAR-like rule-making MotoGP is beginning to become accustomed to. With the exception of Johnny Rea’s dominant season in 2015, World Superbike has historically produced the best racing on the planet. There is usually a battle at the front, or at least several good scraps in the midfield. A number of different riders win races each year, and manufacturers have had a much easier time getting to the front. Moreover, the machinery and environment is much closer to what we here in the States are accustomed to. In short, MotoGP may be the technical pinnacle of the sport, but WSBK has, time and again, proven to be the “sporting” pinnacle of road racing.

Moreover, Nicky is now in an arena where he will finally be able to show how great of a rider he is. He may not have gotten on the podium at Phillip Island. That said, to score a P4 and P9 on one of the oldest bikes on the grid speaks volumes. Nicky’s stop-and-go, throttle happy riding style will find a compliant home on WSBK’s soft-carcass Pirelli tires. Nicky hasn’t lost a thing. Rather, he has finally shed a series that was designed around one particular riding style. Moreover, Honda is rolling out a brand new, redesigned bike in 2017. This will give Nicky a chance to test the new bike and provide feedback to Honda. Perhaps next season Nicky will get a bike that matches his talent for the first time since 2006.

So why is the author so happy for Nicky? Because Nicky is racing in a series to means more to many of us for many reasons, and will let the world see just how good he still is.