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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