When the Superbike World Championship last left arrived in Imola, Carlos Checa had a mathematical opportunity to clinch the title. He didn't manage it, with Marco Melandri prolonging the inevitable until Magny Cours, but with only two races down in 2012, the picture looks completely different.
In fact, the complexion of this year's title battle changed within six laps of the first race getting underway. Checa, leading the race from Max Biaggi, dramatically high-sided his Ducati rounding the final corner to begin his title defence with a DNF, handing Biaggi a 25 point head-start in the process. Now he finds himself in a position that he wasn't in at any stage last year, the hunted has become the hunter.
But when you're trailing the championship leader by 20 points, there are worse places to go than Imola, a track which Checa has dominated on for the last two years, winning three races out of four. Biaggi didn't ride at all here last year as he nursed an injury but the speed of the Aprilia in Australia suggests he will be very tough to beat.
Although the defining moment of race one was Checa's excursion, Biaggi was reeling in the Spaniard at the time of his accident and after spearing off the road at the start of race two, falling to the back, Biaggi was still able to scythe his way through to second, just five seconds off the lead. Make no mistake about it, the Aprilia RSV4 is quick and Checa will have a serious fight on his hands.
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It will be interesting to see where the other challengers come from as far as race victory is concerned. Tom Sykes started from the very front in Australia and converted it into a race two rostrum, confirming the improvement made by Kawasaki. Whether they can carry that form to Imola remains to be seen. Sykes claimed that podium finish at the expense of Jonathan Rea after beating him on the drag race to the finish line. The Honda rider will carry the hopes of the Ten Kate squad while Hiroshi Aoyama gets up to speed but that shouldn't faze the Ulsterman who won on his last visit to Imola.
2011 runner-up Marco Melandri almost slipped under the radar at Phillip Island but marked his BMW debut with second and sixth, enough to leave him as Biaggi's closest championship contender. The Italian must surely be considered a contender on home soil but with his manufacturer still awaiting their first, he will have to make history to do it.
Leon Haslam would love to be the first-ever winner for BMW and with his injury problems seemingly behind him, he will be right in the mix if his machinery allows him to. Like Haslam, Eugene Laverty was walking wounded five weeks ago and will see this weekend as the start of his season. With a fully-fit Biaggi demonstrating the prowess of the Aprilia, Laverty could be one to watch. The Effenbert-Liberty Ducatis can't be discounted either and this weekend there will be four of them to look out for with Canadian rider Brett McCormick joining the regular trio of Sylvain Guintoli, Jakub Smrz and Maxime Berger.
Five weeks later than planned, SBK welcomes John Hopkins back into the paddock. Crescent Fixi Suzuki were forced to head to Australia without their team leader after breaking his right hand in a testing crash but 'Hopper' is fully-fit for Imola and it will be fascinating to see how competitive he is, particularly up against Leon Camier on the sister bike.
The early-season break will have also being frustrating for Chaz Davies who is still to start a World Superbike race. The British rookie impressed throughout practice but undid all the hard work with a crash pre-Superpole, breaking his wrist in the process. After a weekend of unfulfilled potential, the Welshman will relish the chance to show what he can really do.
Team Pedercini's Leandro Mercado is in the same boat after injury ruled him out of Australia but the first two races were enough for Raffaele de Rosa to decide Team Pro Ride weren't what he had in mind. The Italian has returned to the all-too-familiar position of job hunter with his rider going to compatriot Lorenzo Alfonsi.
Imola is used to producing decisive moments in championship battles, who will forget Colin Edwards pipping Troy Bayliss in 2002, but this year it may set the scene for the scrap that is about to unfold in the next seven months. Defeat in Italy won't be a disaster for Carlos Checa but if Aprilia leave him trailing, his crown may start to feel a lot less secure.
Imola Roll of Honour:
|Year||Superpole Winner||Race One Winner||Race Two Winner|
|2011||Carlos Checa||Jonathan Rea||Carlos Checa|
|2010||Tom Sykes||Carlos Checa||Carlos Checa|
|2009||Michel Fabrizio||Noriyuki Haga||Michel Fabrizio|
|2006||Troy Bayliss||Alex Barros||Troy Bayliss|
|2005||Chris Vermeulen||Chris Vermeulen||Cancelled Due To Rain|
|2004||Regis Laconi||Regis Laconi||Regis Laconi|
|2003||Ruben Xaus||Ruben Xaus||Ruben Xaus|
|2002||Colin Edwards||Colin Edwards||Colin Edwards|
|2001||Troy Corser||Ruben Xaus||Regis Laconi|
|(No SBK meeting at Imola in 2007 & 2008)|