World Superbike 2008 – Round One (Qatar) – Preview
The 2008 HANNspree Superbike World Championship begins in Qatar this weekend (Thursday to Saturday), with a healthy influx of fresh talent to take on established foes Troy Bayliss, Troy Corser, Noriyuki Haga and Max Biaggi in two 18 lap battles scheduled for race day Saturday.
Former MotoGP riders Carlos Checa and Makota Tamada feature on the 2008 grid, while British Superbike champions Gregorio Lavilla and Ryuichi Kiyonari have bolstered the stocks even further. The 2007 world Supersport champion, Turkish star Kenan Sofuoglu, has also made the move to Superbike.
Between them, Checa and Tamada have won five MotoGP races, while Tamada was also a three-time world Superbike winner in 2001 and 2002 when the championship visited Japan.
But it’s Bayliss who’s still the man to beat in his swansong year, with the 38-year-old back in free-wheeling form on the new Ducati 1098 after breaking his collarbone at Phillip Island in early January. The dual world champion, freshly rested for 21 days in Monaco, set the fastest time in final pre-season testing at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit last week, and he was also able to complete a full race simulation to test his fitness.
“I did very well considering it was only four and a half weeks since I broke the collarbone,” said Bayliss. “I was a little weaker than normal maybe but was still able to do a long-run which I was very happy with.
“I’d been having ultra-sounds every day in Monaco before testing which helped a lot. Now I’m going to gym here in Qatar and I’m confident knowing I’m going to be even stronger for round one. I’m going to be in top form.”
Bayliss is confident he’s found a strong base setup on the 1098.
“I’m feeling really comfortable with the bike,” said Bayliss. “We’ve been to Qatar twice and to Phillip Island for testing of course … but at some tracks we’ll need to pay more attention as it’s a new bike.
“Qatar is strange as we’ve always done well in testing there but then the race has not worked out. It would be nice to have a great weekend there, I am just going to put my head down to do as well as I can.”
Ducati hasn’t won a race at the 5.380km Losail circuit since the title first ventured there in 2005, although Bayliss got close with two second places the following year. Instead, Suzuki has been dominant, with Corser responsible for two of its four wins there before switching to Yamaha at the start of 2007.
Corser, 36, impressed in the recent Qatar test and goes into the 2008 title with a fresh outlook.
“I may have not had a victory last season, but for our team to assist Yamaha in winning the manufacturers’ title was actually more important for a whole lot of reasons,” said Corser. “This year we want to go one better and not only retain the manufacturers’ title but also add the riders’ title as well.
“We know that Yamaha is giving Haga and me the best support it can this year. They understand what it is going to take to win both of those titles and they are working towards making that happen as much as I am. That is the motivation that I have for 2008.
“There are a few new riders in the series, along with a few of the regulars and for sure they’ll be hard to beat, but we have our own game plan and that’s what we’re working on.”
Meanwhile, the opposition will come thick and fast for Corser and Bayliss on Saturday. Haga finished 2007 in a blaze of glory, which ultimately ended in bitter disappointment with a narrow championship loss to Briton James Toseland, while Biaggi shared victories with Toseland in Qatar last year and is the current lap record holder.
Biaggi is now racing a ‘customer’ spec Ducati after parting company with Suzuki, and it remains to be seen whether he’s still got the hardware to do justice to his prodigious talent. The Roman will be paired alongside Spaniard Ruben Xaus in 2008.
Bayliss’ new teammate, Italian Michel Fabrizio, will be another rider looking to make a real impression at Losail after flashes of brilliance in the past, while Sofuoglu comes into Superbike with 10 wins from only 28 world Supersport starts – a superb foundation on which to make his ascension to the premier class.
Sofuoglu, along with his teammates Checa and Kiyonari, have only just started testing their 2008-spec Hondas, and will be underdone in Qatar and for the second flyaway round at Phillip Island from February 29-March 2.
Lavilla, who returns to world Superbike for the first time in four years, will be Honda’s other big gun in 2008.
Over at Suzuki, Fonsi Nieto, a rejuvenated Yukio Kagayama and German Max Neukirchner form a potent three-pronged attack, while enigmatic Frenchman Regis Laconi remains at Kawasaki alongside the recently inducted Tamada. Both will benefit from a vastly improved traction control system on the Kawasaki, as well as top-line Ohlins suspension.
There are four Australians competing in the 2008 Superbike World Championship (out of a permanent field of 28), with Russell Holland and Queensland’s Karl Muggeridge to be paired at DFX Honda.
Muggeridge can still conjure up anything on his day, while 24-year-old Holland finished second in the 2006 Australian Superbike Championship on a privateer Honda – a magnificent feat among a throng of distributor-backed machines.
In world supersport, a quintet of brilliant Aussies will compete in Qatar: Broc Parkes (Yamaha), Mark Aitchison (Triumph), five-time GP winner Garry McCoy (Triumph), Josh Brookes (Honda) and Andrew Pitt (Honda).
Parkes is the current world No. 2, and will start the championship as favourite now that Sofuoglu has moved on; his case strengthened with a prolific pre-season.
Pitt’s record speaks for itself: world Supersport champion in 2001 and he was fifth in the 2006 SBK title.
Brookes is a three-time Australian road racing champion who has finally found a settled home, while Aitchison and McCoy’s entries are the most intriguing, as they’ll be spearheading Triumph’s entry into the world Supersport title on the award-winning Daytona 675.
Aitchison, who finished fifth in the 2007 Superstock title, is a renowned hard-charger and has a rock-solid temperament – just the ingredients to make a real impression in Supersport.
McCoy makes a welcome return to world championship-level road racing, in the same team which guided him to a world Superbike win at Phillip Island in 2004.
The Aussies will compete in an 18-lap world supersport race at Losail against a healthy field of hard chargers, including former world champion Sebastien Charpentier (Honda), gifted Brit Jonathan Rea (Honda) and French wiz Fabien Foret (Yamaha).
Losail lap records:
Race – Max Biaggi (Suzuki) 1m59.194s (2007)
Superpole – Troy Corser (Yamaha) 1m58.402s
Best lap – Troy Corser (Yamaha) 1m58.402s (2007)