Monthly Archives: February 2011

World Superbike 2011: What Phillip Island’s taught us

The 2011 World Superbike season got underway this weekend in Australia at the most picturesque circuit in motorsport, Phillip Island.

This season stood to be one of the most interesting in the series’ recent revival. Reigning champion Max Biaggi returned with Aprilia, Ducati left only a shell of a factory effort in the series once nicknamed the “Ducati Cup” and left Carlos Checa with the keys. Yamaha brought in former MotoGP runner-up Marco Melandri and two-time World Supersport runner-up Eugene Laverty. Last season’s runner-up Leon Haslam moved from the underfunded Alstare Suzuki squad to the up and coming factory BMW team.

What that jumble of a paragraph is getting at is that World Superbike has seen an influx of new talent, a large amount of rider turnover, and all the young and promising Brits have another season of experience under their belts. To summarize, World Superbike now has a grid where a top 10 finish is a genuine accomplishment for a world championship caliber rider.

Even better, in that depth the series now has even more potential winners than its glamorous cousin, MotoGP, who many are saying has the deepest field of winners in decades. Essentially, in Leon Camier, Biaggi, Jonathan Rea, Checa, Troy Corser, Melandri, Noriyuki Haga, Laverty, Michel Fabrizio, and Haslam, World Superbike has the most exciting and unpredictable grid on the planet.

So what did we learn from round one?

First, Ducati may have pulled their official support, but Checa and his Althea Ducati squad are more than up to the task of picking up the slack with the few factory techs still hanging around. Checa dominated this week’s preseason tests before topping each free practice session, securing pole, and taking a comfortable double victory.

Second, Biaggi and Aprilia are back and just as strong as 2010. Phillip Island has been a bogey track for Biaggi with Aprilia, but a pair of second places indicates the Roman Emperor is up for the challenge of defending his brand new number one plate.

Thirdly, Yamaha have done extremely well in recruiting Laverty and Melandri. Many wondered if Melandri could ever rediscover the form he showed in his 990cc MotoGP career, or if his entrance into superbike racing would just be an extension of the misery he’s suffered since his ill-fated switch to Ducati in 2008. After spending most of preseason testing moping in positions that would lead you to believe it would be 800cc Melandri, he found some magic before race one and looks to be closer to his old self than ever. And Laverty, well, he’s impressed me more than Cal Crutchlow did at this point last season, if I’m honest.

Haslam’s move to BMW was meant to be the ticket he needed to adequately challenge for a championship. This weekend proved that it wasn’t going to be as easy as many predicted based on the S1000RR’s success last season. But Haslam managed to score a podium in race one despite a lack of grip and chatter issues, and added a top five in race two. When he gets adjusted to his new ride, the switch to BMW should offer what everyone thought it would, championship contending speed.

And the rest? Well, Jonny Rea must be eager to get out of Australia after pitching his CBR1000RR down the road a number of times throughout the week, as well as banging up his wrist, shoulder, ankle, and fingers in various offs. Still, a reasonable points haul considering his luck. So long as his injuries don’t slow him down too much throughout the season, he looks strong.

Nori Haga looked dangerous for spells aboard his new Pata Aprilia team. At his beloved Valencia, he could be up for stealing a win. Joan Lascorz showed glimpses of serious potential, but faded in both races. If he can show a bit more consistency as the season progresses, he could throw a spanner in the regular order towards the end. And it must be said that Leon Camier put in a gutsy ride. He may have only managed a couple of 13ths, but he did so with a suspected case of glandular fever, even getting sick in his helmet on a number of occasions throughout the weekend. Here’s hoping to a quick recovery, and a return to the front for Camier.

And now? We wait. We wait an entire month for the show to return to Europe. Well, the UK, but you get the point. A home round so early in the season should give us an insight in to how serious of contenders Haslam, Rea, Laverty, and Camier really are.

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West London’s new look: Transfer activity from Chelsea and Fulham

The transfer window closed just more than a week ago, and we are starting to see the effects of the big buys. Chelsea were the big spenders of this month’s transfer window in spending £75 million (including bonuses) on two players. Operating on a substantially smaller budget, Fulham brought in three players who will have an impact on the club’s top half aspirations for the second half of the season.

First, at Chelsea and the name on every broadsheet and tabloid back page a week ago was Fernando Torres. Chelsea broke the British transfer record and splashed £50 million on the Spanish striker who’s been out of form since a knee injury suffered last April. Good bit of business for Liverpool, who’ve likely gotten £15 million or so more than the player is worth.

“It’s a lot of money, but potentially worth it,” said The Times football correspondent, Matt Hughes. “I think long-term, he’s a replacement for [Didier] Drogba.” The problem with him being the heir to Drogba is what to do with both of them in the present. Chelsea have reverted to manager Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond midfield rather than the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation installed by Jose Mourinho. In Torres’ debut, Ancelotti’s diamond left the flanks empty, and the central of the park cluttered. To sum up, it was ineffective. Where Chelsea finds space for their new golden boy will be a difficult task for Ancelotti.

The second big name signing that arrived at Stamford Bridge this week was Brazilian David Luiz. Big name might not be the right phrasing, but you get my point. Luiz’s signing is as important to Chelsea as Torres’ is exciting. Chelsea have sorely missed Ricardo Carvalho, who was sold to Real Madrid in the summer, and that has been exacerbated by injuries to John Terry and Alex.

“I think it’s a good signing,” Hughes said. “Maybe slightly overpriced because it’s Chelsea.”

Luiz looks a like for like replacement for Carvalho, except perhaps slightly better in every department. In his 20-minute debut, Luiz looked composed, sharp, quick, intelligent and capable of carrying the ball forward. And at 23, could be the anchor of Chelsea’s defense for the next decade or more.

Of the players out the door at Chelsea, one of the most watched will be Gael Kakuta as he spends the remainder of the season on loan at Fulham. “He’s skillful and tricky and creative, which is one thing Fulham lack,” Hughes said. Kakuta is the 19-year-old French star at the center of FIFA’s investigation and ban (which was later overturned) of Chelsea’s transfer market activity after his former club, Lens, claimed Chelsea unsettled the player in order to secure his services. In other words, Kakuta is one of the brightest young talents in world football.

Fulham also added former Reading, Chelsea, and Aston Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell for a bargain £500,000. Sidwell anchored Fulham’s midfield against Villa on the weekend, breaking up opposing play and creating a fair few impressive passes and shots of his own. A player who was tipped to do little more than offer competition for Fulham’s present central midfielders Dickson Etuhu and Jonathan Greening, Sidwell looks set to displace both as a regular starter if he can continue his run of form.

Fulham also added former Chelsea, Barcelona, and Tottenham forward Eidur Gudjohnsen on loan from Stoke for the remainder of the season. Gudjohnsen isn’t likely to be more than a supporting player for Fulham, but his addition means a side that has looked relative toothless since the injury to Bobby Zamora in September, now has a wealth of options in attack. Gudjohnsen joins Moussa Dembele and Andy Johnson, both returning from injury, and Zamora, who should return to action by the end of February, as out-and-out striking options. Further, the addition of Kakuta means Fulham have another versatile goal scoring threat from midfield in addition to, Fulham’s most valuable player this season, Clint Dempsey.

Six weeks ago, Fulham were in a relegation fight. Since then, they’ve climbed to 12th in the Premier League. With these additions, Fulham should climb into the top half by season’s end. And European places, although a long shot, aren’t out of the question.

As for Chelsea, their weekend loss to Liverpool likely signaled the end of their title pursuit. However, the remainder of the year should be used to sort out how to effectively use Drogba and Torres simultaneously so long as they aren’t in danger of falling out of the Champions League places. Given the talent of that side, and Ancelotti’s prowess, that should be a no-brainer. But this season has gone anything but to plan for Chelsea.

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