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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)

 

 

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.

History, Safety & Speed: Should World Superbike Continue Racing at Imola?


As I watched the World Superbike races last weekend at the Autodromo de Enzo y Dino Ferrari (a.k.a. Imola), I could not help but think of the circuit’s recent past. The place is steeped in motorsports history. Who can forget the images of World Superbike greats like Bayliss and Edwards going like hell in the “Showdown.” While I was not a World Superbike fan at the time, Imola will always have a special place in my heart. I have only seen the circuit through a television screen, but it held the first Formula 1 grand prix I ever watched. I was mesmerized not only by the technology and sexy-fast appearance of the F1 cars, but also by the evident challenge the circuit posed to drivers and teams alike. The circuit’s flowing yet challenging nature drew me to it. In particular, I fell in love with the Piratella corner. It is fast, flowing, technical, and visually stunning all at the same time.

Despite my long-held affection for the place, Imola’s recent reception and impact on the World Superbike community makes me wonder whether World Superbike should continue to race there. Yes, I am aware that Ducati’s factory and headquarters is right down the road from Imola. However, for a company so deeply immersed in a history of competition, Ducati should understand as much as any other OEM the value of safety to their brand. I am not talking here of the death of Ayrton Senna. As the motorsports community recently took pause on the anniversary of his tragic passing, the impact of losing Senna sent tidal waves through the grand prix racing community. Changes were immediately made to the circuit and the series to redress the oversights and failures that led to his unfortunate passing.

However, World Superbike has taken a very different approach to Imola compared to Formula 1’s actions 20 years ago. My reservations about Imola began when Joan Lascorz, a very talented rider riding for the Kawasaki factory team, crashed and was paralyzed in 2012. Reports indicate that Lascorz was coming over the crest into the Piratella when his bike had a violent tank-slapper, crashed, and Lascorz’s back struck an exposed concrete wall. As I watched the race this year, I tried to pay careful attention to that wall, looking to see if the wall had been moved or covered with air fence. While there may have been a tire wall behind a lime-green cover to match the rest of the track’s barriers, it appears that the concrete barrier that took away Lascorz’s ability to walk and race remains firmly in place. Moreover, Steve Martin’s color commentary for the last 3 years makes clear that there is insufficient run-off room at the entrance to the Piratella complex. The same could be said for the Variante Bassa. Despite the low speeds it is designed to create, it provides riders little to no margin for error as they exit the chicane.

In a sport that is presently marked by unavoidable danger (e.g. the Marco Simoncelli accident) and a hooliganistic media image, the sport cannot afford to sacrifice safety in the name of either history or profit. While the aura of racing in venues like Imola and Monza may be attractive, motorcycle road racing’s leaders have the responsibility of protecting and improving the sports’ image and protecting riders from having to choose between going racing and personal safety. For a problem that has had such dire consequences as well as pointed media attention, what does it say when a series continues to host an event in spite of obvious danger? World Superbike is not alone. While I will discuss AMA Pro Racing’s failures of this sort in a separate article, World Superbike needs to understand that the best safety practices are proactive, not reactive. Unless structural changes are made to the facility, World Superbike runs the risk of having to learn the hard way the lessons Imola painfully taught Formula 1 over 20 years ago. I am not writing this because I have a perfect solution. Rather I am merely pointing out the severity of an obvious problem that could have a lasting, painful impact of the sport’s future.