As is traditional the production-based racing championship kicks off at Phillip Island (Australia), one of the fastest and most spectacular circuits on the entire calendar. The first of 14 rounds will be preceded by two days of official tests, organized by Infront Motor Sports, on Monday 20 and Tuesday 21 February. This will be the last chance for teams, riders and bikes to go through their final fine-tuning before action gets underway later on in the week.
It was one year ago at Phillip Island that Carlos Checa began an extraordinary march towards the first world title in his career. With 15 wins in 26 races the Spanish ace took Italian manufacturer Ducati back to the top slot after a gap of two years. The Althea Racing man was also quickest in last week’s private testing here, confirming his current outstanding form on the Island. “Our Ducati 1198R is six kilos heavier this year with the regulation weight penalty, so we’ve had to modify the bike set-up,” explained Checa. “We also successfully tested some new Ohlins front forks. I’m happy with my lap time of 1 minute 31.8 seconds but now we have to do the most important test, over race distance. Both me and the team are focused on what we have to do, which is to hold on to the world title."
Last week’s big surprise in testing was Kawasaki, who placed Tom Sykes right behind the reigning champion on all three days. “Through all our tests we have explored a lot of areas and gathered a lot of information, but finally it looks like our base setting from winter testing is pretty good” said Sykes. “It is difficult to see exactly where our competitors are at in terms of set-up but ultimately we have had a successful test and have set ourselves up nicely for the official tests. We’ve also been quick on a race tyre and that’s the most important thing.”
Max Biaggi, back in black again this year for the new liveried Aprilia Racing Team, will line up at the age of 40 for his 23rd season of racing with the aim of taking back the number one plate he conquered in 2010. On a difficult track for the Italian bike, Aprilia have made up a lot of ground here in testing, even though “it will be almost impossible to beat Ducati on this track” as Biaggi himself admitted. "I have a new team with me this year and the feeling between us is getting better day after day. We’ve prepared well for the year ahead and we’re ready for battle."
It will also be a crucial season for BMW Motorrad, who enter their fourth year with new signing Marco Melandri and the confirmed Leon Haslam trying to score the German manufacturer’s first win in World Superbike. In last week’s testing the British rider lapped just four-tenths off the pace of Checa on soft tyres while Melandri was over one second behind. “We still have some issues with the front of the bike, and I need to get more confidence,” declared the Italian. “We still have two more days of testing before we go into the first race weekend, and I hope we are going to have good weather then.”
The test proved to be a bit of a setback for Aprilia’s new signing Eugene Laverty, who crashed at turn 1, fracturing a bone in his left hand. “It’s a bit painful but with the help of my specialist hopefully I won’t miss the race” said Laverty. “The same thing happened to me a few years ago and five days later I was back on the bike”. The hopes of seeing Crescent Fixi Suzuki star John Hopkins race however are minimal, as the American broke a bone in his right hand and immediately flew to the USA to visit a specialist. Hopkins will probably be replaced by reserve rider Joshua Brookes from Australia, who tested the team’s GSX-R last week.
All eyes will also be on the talented rider from Northern Ireland Jonathan Rea, who lines up for another year on a Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade, flanked by Superbike rookie Hiroshi Aoyama from Japan, while the British contingent is completed by Leon Camier (Crescent Fixi Suzuki) and 2011 Supersport champion Chaz Davies, who steps up to World Superbike on an Aprilia together with his ParkinGO team.
Australia will also see the start of the 14th season of World Supersport racing reserved for racing bikes from the mid-sized production-based sector. Despite the current economic climate the entry-list is stronger than ever with over 30 riders from 14 different countries, on machines from Honda, Kawasaki, Triumph and Yamaha. In winter testing strong times were recorded by Turkey’s double Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu, who has returned to the category to try and win a third title, this time on a Kawasaki DeltaFin Lorenzini.
But Supersport, with its elbow-to-elbow racing and late braking moves, is so unpredictable and any number of riders can win. These are sure to include another former champion Fabien Foret (Kawasaki Intermoto), Broc Parkes from Australia (Ten Kate Honda), and Britain’s Sam Lowes, one of six riders spread over three different PTR Honda managed teams, an unprecedented operation in modern-day bike racing. Completing the international line-up in Supersport are two South Africans, two Hungarians, three Russians, two Czechs and a total of eight Italians, all aiming to become the heir to last year’s winner Chaz Davies.
World Superstock1000 action is set to join the series at Round#2 in Imola, Italy March 30- April 1, 2012 where Canadian Brett McCormick will make his series debut.