2012 sees the Superbike World Championship enter its 25th year and as the series awaits its silver anniversary, a golden season of racing lies in store.
The SBK era began on April 3rd 1988 as the Italian duo of Davide Tardozzi and Marco Lucchinelli claimed victory at Donington Park but Great Britain and the United States would go on to dominate through the 90s. Fred Merkel and Doug Polen claimed two titles each while Colin Edwards marked the turn of the century with two of his own but the 1990s were really all about one man, Carl Fogarty.
The Lancashire man established himself as one of the all-time greats in World Superbikes with his fiercely aggressive riding style leading to four World Championships, the last coming in 1999, as the Briton and his Ducati worked in perfect harmony.
Fast forward 12 years and the Italian manufacturer remain the class of the field although this time it isn't a battling Briton taking the spoils, but a sensational Spaniard. Carlos Checa was in the form of his life as he dominated the 2011 season, winning 15 of the 26 races, and clinching the title with three races to spare and ripping the crown from the head of Max Biaggi.
The “Roman Emperor's” title defence never got going as it took 14 races to register his first win and a late-season injury saw him lose the runner-up spot to compatriot Marco Melandri. The 29 year old had an impressive debut season in Superbikes and with Checa and Biaggi staying with their respective teams, Marco's move was one of the headlines of the winter.
His hand was forced by the withdrawal of Yamaha from the WSBK scene with the Japanese manufacturer pulling the plug on their two-rider operation. Their loss was BMW's gain as they filled the void left by the retiring Troy Corser. Melandri will partner Leon Haslam and if BMW's wait for a World Superbike win goes on, they certainly can't blame the riders, particularly with Ayrton Badovini and Michel Fabrizio riding for the sister team, BMW Motorrad Italia.
Melandri wasn't the only man seeking alternative employment following Yamaha's departure as Eugene Laverty found himself without a ride despite a bright rookie campaign. The Irishman's stunning double-win at Monza earned him plenty of admirers and Aprilia were clearly among them, bringing him in alongside Biaggi.
|2012 Superbike World Championship Calendar|
|1 & 2||Phillip Island||26th February|
|3 & 4||Imola||1st April|
|5 & 6||Assen||22nd April|
|7 & 8||Monza||6th May|
|9 & 10||Donington Park||13th May|
|11 & 12||Miller Motorsports Park||28th May|
|13 & 14||Misano||10th June|
|15 & 16||Motorland Aragon||1st July|
|17 & 18||Brno||22nd July|
|19 & 20||Silverstone||5th August|
|21 & 22||Moscow Raceway||26th August|
|23 & 24||Nurburgring||9th September|
|25 & 26||Portimao||23rd September|
|27 & 28||Magny Cours||7th October|
Honda's factory team have also recruited over the winter after parting company with Ruben Xaus. In looking for a replacement, Ronald ten Kate turned his attentions to the Grand Prix paddock and found his man in Hiroshi Aoyama. Still only 30 years old, the Japanese rider will still feel he has plenty to offer but has a formidable teammate in the form of Jonathan Rea. Injuries destroyed his 2011 campaign but he still found time to take superb victories at Assen and Imola. Given a full season, the Ulsterman will be a man to watch.
Kawasaki boast continuity on the rider front but Paul Bird Motorsport's running of the team has come to an end, and the factory are looking to have a greater influence. Now a winner in WSBK, Tom Sykes looks a changed man and has lit up the timesheets in testing but Joan Lascorz outscored him last year and will aim to do so again.
In such difficult financial times, new entrants are more valuable than ever and World Superbikes welcomes Jack Valentine's Crescent Suzuki squad to the series this year. With John Hopkins on board, the team were literally inches from the 2011 BSB title but rather than having another tilt at national glory, Crescent have moved up to the world stage, bringing Hopkins with them. Sadly, the American's injury jinx has struck again in pre-season testing with an accident at Phillip Island that broke a bone in his right hand. Crescent's hopes, for the opening weekend at least, will therefore rest on the shoulders of new signing Leon Camier but Josh Brookes should prove a more than able deputy for Hopkins next weekend on home soil.
The dark horses for 2012 may well come in the form of Effenbert Liberty Racing who now have a trio of riders representing them. Sylvain Guintoli had his best season yet last time around and with Jakub Smrz and Maxime Berger alongside him, the satellite Ducati outfit will have their eyes on a regular podium challenge.
2011 was the end of an era for British motorcycling as two-time world champion James Toseland hung up his helmet due to injury but a new name has entered the fray. After cruising to the World Supersport title, Chaz Davies will make his WSBK debut on an Aprilia RSV4 backed by the ParkinGO team that backed him last year.
Davies is one of eight riders who will line up on World Superbike grid for the first time next weekend. Moto2 refugee Raffaele de Rosa will join Hiroshi Aoyama in making his debut on a Honda Fireblade while reigning Superstock 1000 champion Davide Giugliano steps into the lion's den alongside the world number one at Althea Ducati.
Lorenzo Zanetti finished third to Giugliano last season but will join him in the WSBK field after taking the vacant seat at PATA Racing who have swapped Aprilia for Ducati machinery in an attempt to climb the order. Team Pedercini have stuck with the Kawasaki ZX-10R but neither rider remains from last season. Roberto Rolfo has returned to Moto2 while Mark Aitchison has joined newcomers Grillini Progea BMW, forcing the Italian squad to go with youth. 2011 World Supersport runner-up David Salom and Argentinian Leandro Mercado are the riders of choice.
Niccolo Canepa may not be a new name to World Superbikes but he returns to the series with a new team, Red Devils Roma. With such a name, it's no great surprise to see them running a Ducati 1098R but it surely would be a shock if they're troubling the frontrunners at any stage. But who will be spraying the champagne in 2012?
It's difficult to see past the defending champion at this stage, particularly when he topped the timesheets in the Phillip Island test, host of the opening race weekend. His main challenger on all three days was Tom Sykes on the Kawasaki while Aprilia's week was marred by a broken hand for Eugene Laverty. Biaggi still finished the week in fourth place and is likely to carry the team's hopes with his new colleague ailing.
Leon Haslam's third fastest time on the final day in Melbourne needs to quantified by the fact he used a qualifying tyre and BMW don't appear to have the pace to challenge Checa at this early stage. Whether they have more pace up their sleeve or not remains to be seen and the answer is only one week away.
For motorcycle fans, the season starts here. The eight month marathon to crown the 25th World Superbike champion will travel through classic venues such as Assen, Monza and Magny Cours as well as a maiden voyage into Russia and the Moscow Raceway. WSBK will take two stops home for race meetings at Donington and Silverstone (in May and August respectively) and with a quarter of the field coming from Great Britain and Ireland, an electric atmosphere is guaranteed.
After Carlos Checa's runaway victory last year, hopes are high for a much-closer title race in 2012. The Spaniard is showing no signs of getting any slower so will surely set a high standard. Messrs Biaggi, Melandri and co, it's over to you.
2012 Superbike World Championship – Rider Line-Up
|Althea Racing – Ducati 1098R|
|7.||Carlos Checa||34.||Davide Giugliano|
|Aprilia Racing Team – Aprilia RSV4 Factory|
|3.||Max Biaggi||58.||Eugene Laverty|
|BMW Motorrad Motorsport – BMW S1000RR|
|33.||Marco Melandri||91.||Leon Haslam|
|Honda World Superbike Team – Honda CBR1000RR|
|4.||Hiroshi Aoyama||65.||Jonathan Rea|
|Kawasaki Racing Team – Kawasaki ZX-10R|
|17.||Joan Lascorz||66.||Tom Sykes|
|BMW Motorrad Italia GoldBet SBK Team – BMW S1000RR|
|84.||Michel Fabrizio||86.||Ayrton Badovini|
|Team Effenbert Liberty Racing – Ducati 1098R|
|50.||Sylvain Guintoli||96.||Jakub Smrz||121.||Maxime Berger|
|PATA Racing – Ducati 1098R|
|Team Pedercini – Kawasaki ZX-10R|
|36.||Leandro Mercado||44.||David Salom|
|Crescent Fixi Suzuki – Suzuki GSX-R1000|
|2.||Leon Camier||21.||John Hopkins|
|Grillini Progea Superbike Team – BMW S1000RR|
|ParkinGO MTC Racing – Aprilia RSV4 Factory|
|Pro Ride Motorsports – Honda CBR10000RR|
|35.||Raffaele de Rosa|
|Red Devils Roma – Ducati 1098R|