WSBK '06 - I hope it lives to the hype
Men of Steel: 2006 World Superbike Preview
by dean adams
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
The World Superbike Championship will crack open the 2006 season in a few days—the eighteenth campaign for the upstart little series. 2006 sees WSBK certainly back on the plane it inhabited in the late 1990s and early 00's—the grid features star riders, fast bikes and races at venues all over the globe.
While some of their racing rivals won't be keen to hear it, the story of the '06 season is the impending duel brewing between Australians Troy Corser and Troy Bayliss for the "King of Superbikes" crown. The Battle of the Troys, if you will. Both are former champions of the series (Corser is the reigning WSBK champion), and the two are clearly the two fastest men in the series.
Bayliss returns to WSBK after three years in the MotoGP championship—a period where even more fans became aware of the Monaco resident's gritty never-say-die will. No matter how bad his lot in MotoGP became, Bayliss never gave up, and never phoned in a practice session. It was exactly that determination that attracted fans from all over the world to Bayliss—and led to his return to Ducati Corse WSBK. At 36 years old (he'll be 37 on March 30), Bayliss returns to the series where he won the 2001 World Championship, fully healed from the injuries suffered at the end of the '05 MotoGP season. While some wondered how Bayliss would acclimate to the Pirelli tires now used in the WSBK series, pre-season testing has done very little to convince anyone he will be anything less than blistering fast. Bayliss will race a machine he's never actually raced this season. The last Ducati that Bayliss raced—in the 2002 season when he finished second to Colin Edwards II in the championship—was the famed "end-of-the-line" 998R, the final version of the 916-based machine. Bayliss will now race the 999-based Superbike, powered by a essentially the same engine he used in his last WSBK Ducati Superbike.
Corser, 34, was the class of the field last year in World Superbike, and his steamroll to the title was not a surprise to anyone who has watched the former 250 rider from Australia at any point in his long career. Corser is an extremely precise, efficient and cerebral rider, to whom tactics in practice and races aren't afterthoughts; they are the backbone of his racing theology. When those tactics are meshed with a very competitive motorcycle and a veteran team, it is going to take circumstances of near biblical proportions to defeat him. (And, let's face it; Corser was without a season-long rival in 2005.) Corser used the GSX-R1000 Superbike as prepared by the Alstare team—a veteran outfit from Italy—in 2005, and he'll do the same in '06. Alstare's strength is their passion for racing and their "no surprises" approach to machine preparation.
From an analyst perspective, one has got to believe that the '06 World Superbike season is on the cusp of one of the great duels in racing, with a pair of nearly evenly matched riders and machines going head to head for the title. Who will be the victor? Romantics will side with Bayliss, hoping that the former car painter from Australia will claw his way past Corser with the undying determination of a bulldog. Those able to brush away pesky emotions will side with Corser. He has the talent, intelligence and skills of a world championship-winning strategist in his leathers.
If things play out as most expect, 2006 could be a season for the ages, placed alongside the epic duels in motorcycle racing's past: Agostini versus Hailwood in 1965, Agostini versus Read in 1973, Rainey versus Mike Baldwin in 1983, Roberts versus Spencer in that same year, and Edwards versus Bayliss in 2002.
However, the 2006 WSBK season is not a two-man show by any means. There's a lively undercurrent of new and veteran riders who are capable of stealing a win or three, or even stepping up to the level of Corser and Bayliss and launching a full-scale title run.
The top of that list would seem to be inhabited by the team-mates of the two men mentioned above. Lorenzo "Fonzie" Lanzi is Troy Bayliss' teammate and unequivocally the standout rookie of the 2005 WSBK season. Just 24 years old, Lanzi scored two WSBK wins last season, a season that saw him race for both the factory Ducati team and the SC Caracchi squad. Lanzi—who raced the final round in the US for Austin Ducati in 2004—has a very broad background in racing, having ridden 125s, 250s, and World Supersport and Superstock machines. He will use that versatility to his advantage this year where he will be, at least, expected to challenge for wins in the Corser/Bayliss era. Fonzi experienced triumph and tragedy last year when he was signed to the Corse squad and suffered the huge loss of his father dying just days later. He will certainly be looking to make his mark.
Yukio Kagayama, Troy Corser's teammate at Alstare Suzuki, is 31 years old and well-seasoned, evidenced by his amazing season in 2005, which saw him, challenge and beat Corser several times during the season. He, too, could rise above the expected Bayliss and Corser brawl to dominate races and make a run at the title.
There are a plethora of dark horses in the World Superbike series; riders who could make breakout wins happen based on the capabilities they have shown in the past or other circumstances.
James Toseland, 25, is a former world champion who, one might assume, is on his way out of WSBK and back to British Superbike, what with his lackluster 2005 championship defense. Toseland was not invited back for another year of pasta and horsepower at Ducati, but he did score the coup of the off-season when he was unemployed at the exact moment that Team ten Kate Honda needed a rider. Chris Vermeulen bolted the ten Kate ranks for a MotoGP ride with Suzuki, which left a spot open on the always-fast Honda team from the Netherlands and Toseland quickly signed. Smart lad. Toseland is a proven race and championship winner but seems to have a problem focusing on racing or perhaps motivation—some days he's among the fastest riders, and the next, he's off the pace and seemingly lost. He's a good rider; but he needs to find himself before he winds up back at Oulton Park for the Brit Superbike title. The ten Kate outfit and their clinical, almost antiseptic, approach to racing should help Toseland fill in any blanks he has left at this stage of his career. They build the fastest Honda Superbike in WSBK, so Toseland should have no complaints about hardware.
James, come on, man. In the words of 250 great Jacque Cornu, "it's time to pull your fist out."
HRC will not be "officially" supporting any Superbikes in WSBK again this season, but Honda Europe is quite active in the ranks-they were a crucial part of getting Barros into WSBK-thus it will be interesting to see where the Hondas are against the Ducati and the championship-winning Suzuki.
Chris Walker, 34, and Regis Laconi, 30, Kawasaki-mounted on the PSG-1 team, are also two dark horses for the title. Laconi has yet to deliver on the promise he's show in something like four different series over the years and this Kawasaki ride may well be his last chance in a world championship series. Walker, as well, needs to will himself and his bike to the front and deliver. The Kawasaki should be much more competitive in 2006, and one of these two needs to gather it up and make a title run.
It was semi-interesting to observe Kawasaki's world championship racing activities in 2005, which in both World Superbike and MotoGP were little more than blasé, and nearly equally lifeless. This after being a very solid WSBK championship contender in the 1990s. It's too bad that someone talked them into drinking the MotoGP Kool-Aid, because it's not too difficult to see that if they had simply stayed in WSBK instead of running off to MotoGP, they might have actually owned the series championship today, and been the class King of Superbike. Or at least a contender. Now, they're presumably in the same position they were in 1982 AMA F1 racing: waiting for it to rain. This is progress?
Yamaha has a multi-team effort in WSBK again in 2006 with Noriyuki Haga and Andrew Pitt on the Yamaha Italia team, and Norick Abe, Shinichi Nakatomi, and Sebastien Gimbert on the Yamaha Motor France effort. Yamaha has re-girded the R1 for battle, with upgraded suspension, a slipper clutch and a few more ponies out of the already formidable engine. The '06 YZF-R1 SP was specifically homologated to help put the tuning fork brand on the podium. They've certainly got the riders to generate data for sharing, with the veteran Nitro Nori leading the charge.
At age 31, clearly Haga is not getting any younger, but the hope is that he can combine his no-fear riding style with the wisdom of his age, and regain the consistent winning form that he enjoyed when he rode the YZF750R and R7 to such impressive results.
MotoGP refugee Norick Abe, with a year under his belt on the R1, should be poised for even better results. Yamaha will be hoping that its five-rider phalanx can produce some wins in this, the company's 51st year of moto-existence.
Soup would be remiss not to look in-depth at the "star" of the WSBK off-season, Alex Barros, who will make his World Superbike debut this weekend at Qatar. Barros was left standing without a chair as the MotoGP season assembled itself for 2006, so he was quickly dispatched to the Klaffi Honda squad with much help from Honda Europe and the Flammini brothers who own the WSBK series. Barros is big news for the WSBK series, it seems, but veteran race-watchers can't do much more than look upon the Brazilian with a pessimistic eye. Some fans feel he's going to be a race-winner in WSBK. Others feel that he's already retired--it's just that he hasn't announced it yet. Time will tell.
Another former MotoGP rider, Roberto Rolfo, 26, will be the lead rider on the Scuderia SC Caracchi squad in 2006 World Superbike. Rolfo is still fairly young (26) and is looking to re-build his career after several dreadful seasons (he finished eighteenth in MotoGP last season on a customer Ducati). Rolfo once looked to have the promising future of a young Biaggi or Melandri in 2003, but it never came to pass and he finds himself in WSBK now, but on a good team. Time to capitalize.
Finally, 2006 sees the grand old man of WSBK return for yet another season. Frankie Chili, 41, will ride the DFX-Treme Honda this season, partnered with fellow Italian Michel Fabrizio, 22. What more can be said about "Frankie" one of the most popular riders in the world and certainly the most popular rider in WSBK? We'd be happy if he'd stop falling off and just as elated as his fans if he did, indeed, win a race this year, but even if he's off the podium all season again he'll continue to occupy a soft spot in our collective heart, for having the guts and courage to race hard with men little more than half his age.
The British nearly crowned Mike Hailwood king for his Isle of Man win in his late 30s against scrapping national-level riders. One can only wonder how the world would react if Chili were able to pull off a WSBK win—against factory World Superbike riders—at 41.
"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming WOW, what a RIDE !!"