While MotoGP has its dramatic season opener under the lights in the desert of Qatar, World Superbike starts off its season on the other side of the Earth with a far different dramatic setting: the beautiful seaside track at Phillip Island with its fast, flowing curves that test a rider’s courage.
Best of all, it’s happening this weekend. If Superbikes are racing, winter must be in its final gasps.
While the usual Kawasakis and Ducatis are safe bets to remain up front, some other riders and brands have made some surprising steps forward. New faces and rules changes (see the new race-two grid procedures here, if you missed it) will likely bring some surprises to the 2017 season.
This is the 30th season of the Superbike World Championship, and there’s no doubt about the strength of the field. Seven riders already have a world championship on their resumes: two WSBK, one MotoGP, one Moto2, one 250 Grand Prix and two World Supersport titles. So who will add the 2017 WSBK title to their credits?
Former WSBK and MotoGP rider Marco Melandri joins the Aruba.it Racing team this year and injects another unknown into the title fight, but it’s his teammate, returning rider Chaz Davies, who’s getting the most preseason attention. Davies finished 2016 on a roll, winning the last seven races on the Ducati Panigale R. Testing suggests he’ll carry that momentum into this year.
But it’s still hard to bet against defending champion Jonathan Rea and the Kawasaki Racing Team. Since switching to Kawasaki from Honda two years ago, Rea has won back-to-back titles by a shocking 132 points in 2015 and 51 points in 2016. Now he will try to be the first rider to win three consecutive WSBK titles.
Rea’s teammate, Tom Sykes, finished second in the standings last year only because Rea let him pass into second place in the final race, giving Sykes two more points for the season than Davies. That’s hardly a satisfying result for the 2013 WSBK champion. Sykes has said changes to the ZX-10R race bike for 2017 have increased the need for him to alter his riding style and adopt a more flowing approach, like Rea, than the brake hard and accelerate hard style he’s used to. He’ll have to make a step forward to keep up with Rea and Davies — not to mention to fend off new challengers emerging.
Who will step up to challenge Kawasaki and Ducati for wins and spots on the podium? Both Aprilia and Yamaha are showing signs of being stronger contenders in 2017.
After two years in MotoGP, Eugene Laverty returns to WSBK this year to ride for the Milwaukee Aprilia team, and his times in testing have put him near the front. His teammate, Lorenzo Savadori, has also shown speed, with the two of them nearly knocking Davies off the top of the time sheet at the Portimao test.
Over at the Pata Yamaha team, Alex Lowes returns and is joined by Michael van der Mark, who defected from Honda. They would be happy to bring Yamaha just a fraction of the success in WSBK that the company has seen with the YZF-R1 in the United States in MotoAmerica.
Both Lowes and van der Mark have posted competitive times in preseason testing and this could be the year for van der Mark, now 24, to blossom on a new bike after two years on the less competitive Honda.
The question marks
The most worried looks during preseason testing were seen in the pits of the Ten Kate Honda team, this year with title sponsorship from Red Bull. The team has had little time to whip the new Honda CBR1000RR into race shape. Former MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden and former Moto2 champ Stefan Bradl both said the bike was hard to ride and moving around a lot because the electronics are not yet sorted.
Van der Mark and Hayden finished fourth and fifth on the Honda in 2016, and the highlight was clearly Hayden’s win in the rain in Malaysia. Ten Kate is an experienced team, but they don’t have much time to sort out the new bike before the season begins. Hayden has suffered one frustration after another since his 2006 championship, losing several years with Ducati as they lost their way in MotoGP. If the team can’t develop the new CBR1000RR into a competitive superbike, this could be the final frustration of his career.
In addition to Honda, there’s the question of whether Leon Camier can take a step forward on the MV Agusta 1000 F4 and compete for podium finishes.
Will we hear "The Star Spangled Banner" in World Supersport?
U.S. rider P.J. Jacobsen has switched to the MV Agusta Reparto Corse team this year and will ride the F3 675 in World Supersport. Jacobsen has been in the title hunt the last two years, but only has two race wins on his resume. In testing, he has said the MV Agusta feels quite different from the Honda he rode in the past, but he likes it. He turned in the fastest time in the final day of pre-season testing this week at Phillip Island.
Jacobsen's title hopes grew considerably at that test because of a bad break (no pun intended) for defending and five-time Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu, who broke bones in his right hand during the off-season. He had hoped surgery would have him fit when racing began, but after attempting to ride at this week's test, he withdrew from the first two rounds and will have more medical treatment. Sofuoglu said the pain was too intense and he was unable to brake properly.
Unfortunately, Jacobson won’t get to race in his home country, as the Supersport and the new World Supersport 300 classes do not make the long trip to the U.S. round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
|2017 Superbike World Championship schedule|
|Feb. 24-26||Phillip Island Circuit, Australia|
|March 10-12||Chang International Circuit, Thailand|
|March 31-April 2||MotorLand Aragón, Spain|
|April 28-30||TT Assen Circuit, Netherlands|
|May 12-14||Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Italy|
|May 26-28||Donington Park Circuit, U.K.|
|June 16-18||Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, Italy|
|July 7-9||Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, U.S.A.|
|August 18-20||Lausitzring, Germany|
|Sept. 15-17||Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, Portugal|
|Sept. 29-Oct. 1||Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours, France|
|Oct. 20-22||Circuito de Jerez, Spain|
|Nov. 2-4||Losail International Circuit, Qatar|