Forget the swallows at San Juan Capistrano in California or the low-rent Midwestern version, the buzzards at Hinckley, Ohio. The real sign of spring is that Superbikes are roaring Down Under, so seagulls have reason to be nervous at Phillip Island.
The winter break is over and the Superbike World Championship resumes racing this weekend in Australia. The teams tested at Phillip Island earlier this week, then got a few days off to visit the beach, get their pictures taken petting kangaroos, and otherwise distract themselves from the pressure of an opening round at the beautiful, fickle, fast and tricky circuit.
Despite being shoved firmly down to second-class status by organizers Dorna, who now control both WSBK and MotoGP, the Superbike World Championship is looking good, with seven manufacturers competing in the Superbike class and a mix of promising young riders and established veterans.
One fundamental change for 2016 is the schedule, with the two Superbike races now on different days, instead of both of them running on Sunday. Superbike timed qualifying sessions take place on Friday, Superpole happens on Saturday morning, and then Superbike race one takes place Saturday afternoon with race two on Sunday afternoon. Also, Supersport will now have a Superpole session, right after the Superbikes' Superpole. Super, right?
Here are a few other things to watch for this year.
The favorites, the challengers
There's no question that the defending champ and the 2013 champ, both on the proven Kawasaki ZX-10R, have to be considered the favorites for 2016, as well. Jonathan Rea dominated last year and Tom Sykes has finished in the top three in points the last four years.
The strongest challenge to the Kawasaki team is likely to come from the Ducati Panigales ridden by Chaz Davies and Davide Giugliano. Yamaha has returned to WSBK with its new YZF-R1, and with 2014 champ Sylvain Guintoli and Alex Lowes aboard, the bike has already shown competitive speed. The two Pata Yamaha riders finished first and third in one test session at Phillip Island this week.
Nicky Hayden moves to WSBK for the 2016 season. Though he was reluctant to leave MotoGP, he will certainly have better chances of winning races in Superbike, riding for the Ten Kate Honda team alongside promising young rider Michael van der Mark from the Netherlands, than he did on his uncompetitive Honda in MotoGP. Unfortunately, Honda's Superbike is not the frontrunner it once was, either. The CBR1000RR is an older design. Consider that Rea finished third on a Honda in 2014, switched to the Kawasaki for 2015 and immediately dominated, winning 14 races and the title. That shows how much edge the right bike gives a talented rider.
Hayden and van der Mark put down some competitive times in this week's testing at Phillip Island, however, so there is still hope that Hayden can return to the top step of the podium. If he should pull off a miracle and actually win the championship, he would become the first rider ever to win world titles in both Superbikes and MotoGP. It would be a sweet legacy, not least of all because nobody really thinks it is possible. More realistically, Hayden is hoping Honda will introduce a new bike for 2017, the second year of his two-year contract with Ten Kate.
Suzuki and Aprilia have left WSBK to focus on MotoGP, but two Aprilias from last year will still be on the grid, along with several BMWs and the MV Agusta ridden by Leon Camier, giving the series seven different marques.
The next U.S. world champion?
With no U.S. riders left at any level in the MotoGP series, and Hayden riding a Honda CBR1000RR that may not be competitive, many believe that the best hope for an American world champion in roadracing is P.J. Jacobsen.
Jacobsen is not that well known in the states because he has done much of his racing in Europe. But last year, he emerged as a legitimate title contender in the World Supersport class, winning two races and eventually finishing the year second behind four-time Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu. The 22-year-old rider from Montgomery, N.Y., will be riding a Honda CBR600RR in Supersport for the Ten Kate Honda team, which means the two U.S. riders will be teammates, of sorts, though in different categories.
While 2016 could be Jacobsen's breakthrough year, it won't be easy. Sofuoglu has been a dominant presence in the Supersport class for years and Jules Cluzel was vying for the title last year until he was sidelined by injury. Both will stand between Jacobsen and his hopes of becoming a world champion. He is the best hope for hearing "The Star Spangled Banner" played during a podium ceremony at a world-level roadrace this year, however.
So how do I see these races?
The Superbike Video Pass, which gives you online access to all the races, highlights, video archives, and more, costs 69.90 Euros for the entire season. If you're in the United States or Canada, the Video Pass might be a good idea, because the races will be shown on the beIN Sports network. That hasn't been a popular decision with a lot of race fans because the network is not widely included in a lot of television packages. Plus, while beIN is probably nirvana for soccer fans, with its globe-circling coverage that sport, it clearly is a little out of its element with motorsports. A recent story about a Superbike test season was illustrated with a photo of a Moto3 race. Wrong bikes, wrong series, wrong message to send, beIN.
I don't know about you, but around my house, winter is over not when the daffodils bloom or the buzzards fly overhead on their way north to Hinckley, but when Superbikes start racing in anger, not just testing. So it's shaping up to be a great weekend.