When a motorsport series celebrates a milestone as prestigious as its silver anniversary, there is always the danger that the racing fails to live up to the inevitable hype. The 25th Superbike World Championship delivered from start to finish, producing a season to rival any of those that preceded it, as well as the closest title battle of them all.
After triumphing by a 110 point margin in 2011, Carlos Checa began the defence of his crown as the undisputed favourite but plenty were lining up to wrestle the title from his grasp. Max Biaggi, the man dethroned by Checa, was chief among them but Leon Camier wouldn’t be partnering him again having joined John Hopkins at newcomers Crescent Fixi Suzuki. Yamaha’s departure had seen Eugene Laverty fill the vacancy while 2011 runner-up Marco Melandri had moved to BMW. The German squad were hardly lighting up the testing times though, throwing the hopes of Marco and Leon Haslam into question.
James Toseland may have retired but the introduction of World Supersport champion Chaz Davies on a ParkinGO Aprilia maintained the healthy number of British challengers. Honda’s hopes continued to rest on the shoulders of another Brit, Jonathan Rea, with Hiroshi Aoyama moving across from MotoGP to fill the seat left by Ruben Xaus while the factory Kawasaki team would continue to be led by Tom Sykes with the Yorkshireman producing some startlingly quick times in testing.
Testing results can always be taken with a pinch of salt though and it was still something of a surprise to see Sykes grab pole for the season-openers in Australia. Tom had topped the pre-qualifying times but the tragic death of local rider Oscar McIntyre in a support race saw Superpole cancelled, putting the no.66 ZX-10R on pole.
The defending champion was third on the grid behind Max Biaggi but wasted no time storming into the lead in race one. The situation had all the hallmarks of 2011 all over again but six laps in, Checa was unseated by a spectacular highside at the last corner, handing victory on a plate to Biaggi. The 2012 season hadn’t taken long to provide the unexpected. The theme continued into race two with Biaggi the man to mess up this time. At the start, Max took the fight to pole-man Sykes but was clearly too eager and outbraked himself into turn one, sending him for a lengthy excursion across the grass and dropping him to the back of the field. The compliment had been returned with Checa the grateful recipient of 25 points but Biaggi’s speed was such that he still salvaged second, taking advantage of the Kawasaki’s lack of race pace which left Sykes on the bottom step of the podium.
Sylvain Guintoli was one of the stars of the weekend with a fine third in race one, pushing Marco Melandri’s BMW all the way while the German squad saw their worst fears realised in race two as Haslam and Melandri trailed home eighteen seconds behind in fifth and sixth.
After his first pole position was achieved in tough circumstances, Sykes showed his class over a single lap at Imola to dominate Superpole. Free practice had seemed to suggest a duel with Checa was on the cards but the Spaniard was well over half a second slower, although race day would see the tables turned.
The pair would have the top two places sewn up in both races but Checa and Ducati were simply too strong for Sykes and a Kawasaki that was still peaking on a Saturday. Carlos kept cool in the opener before bolting at half distance, storming to a three second victory, before overturning a two second deficit in race two. Forty points was still an excellent return for Sykes although the maximum return propelled Checa into the series lead with Biaggi only managing a brace of fourth places, behind the impressive Leon Haslam on both occasions. Marco Melandri had been forced to play second fiddle within BMW with sixth in race one as good as it got.
A thrilling title battle was already shaping up but points and prizes were the last things on anyone’s minds 24 hours after Imola. On the same circuit which he’d finished seventh and ninth the day before, Joan Lascorz lost control of his Kawasaki at Piratella during a test run, slamming into an unprotected concrete wall at around 125mph. The paddock united in their support of the Spaniard who was left with a quadriplegic paralysis and no mobility in his legs, abdominal area or fingers. A burgeoning career had been tragically cut short.
The show had to go on and a depleted Kawasaki squad joined the rest of the teams at Assen for round three but an unwanted visitor was also going to join the action, rain and lots of it. The first deluge came on Saturday morning and created the first of many shocks to come in the Netherlands. With Max Biaggi only seventeenth in Friday qualifying, the change in climatic conditions left him stranded and a spectator for Superpole. The circuit had virtually dried by the business end of the afternoon and Sykes handed Kawasaki a welcome boost by maintaining his 100% pole record, putting a second between himself of the field.
The heavens well and truly opened on Sunday, setting the scene for mayhem in race one. After a stoppage reduced the distance to nine laps, several riders took turns in crashing out of potentially winning positions with Ayrton Badovini among them when a maiden victory was in sight. Instead, that honour went to Sylvain Guintoli to the delight of the Effenbert Liberty team with Althea Ducati rookie Davide Giugliano beating his illustrious teammate to second. Biaggi stayed out of trouble to take fourth but Tom Sykes was eliminated by an engine failure while leading prior to the red flag.
The ZX-10R would hold up in race two but only carried Tom quick enough to finish sixth while a tyre gamble backfired on Checa, dropping him out of the points completely. That was enough to see the championship lead switch back to Biaggi, despite the Italian languishing back in eighth. As far as the win was concerned, a trip to Assen wouldn’t have been the same without a Jonathan Rea victory and the Ulsterman delivered for the fourth time in three years, denying Guintoli an unlikely double.
Looking after your tyres is a significant skill in modern day motorsport but the events of round four at Monza pushed the world’s top superbike riders to and beyond the limit. An issue with Pirelli’s treaded wet tyres began to rear its head in Superpole with the rubber seen to be breaking up on the high-speed straights. As a result, the riders agreed that racing wouldn’t be able to take place on those tyres on Sunday, and guess what happened.
Three laps into race one, rain fell with John Hopkins, David Salom and Kawasaki stand-in Sergio Gadea all sent falling. The riders’ pre-race stance would now be put to the test and with no decision made quickly on a quick resumption, the race was knocked on the head altogether thanks to a heavier storm.
Race two didn’t go much better although we did at least see a race. Tom Sykes was the victor, ironically doing so without the benefit of pole position having seen Sylvain Guintoli end his streak the day before. The race only lasted eight laps with Sykes a country-mile ahead of the rest but the rain returned to bring out the red flags again. The problem being that due to the tyre issues, the race wouldn’t be restarted. Reliability permitting, Sykes would’ve surely won a full-length race and was therefore one of the big losers, despite winning, as his reward was only 12.5 points.
The whole affair left a sour taste on a weekend where the championship officially celebrated its silver anniversary with numerous riders inducted to its hall of fame. Pirelli responded to the farce by blaming the riders for opting not to use the available intermediate tyres, instead opting for the slicks and full wets which were against their recommendations.
It would be left to Leicestershire and Donington Park to provide some welcome dry-weather when the series resumed. Superpole was another success story for Sykes but the history made on race day wouldn’t involve the Yorkshireman, even though he made it onto the podium both times. After over three years of trying, BMW finally broke their victory duck as Marco Melandri and Leon Haslam claimed a triumphant 1-2 to kick-start the Italian’s title campaign. The pair could’ve easily repeated the feat in race two but a dramatic final lap saw agony turn to ecstasy for BMW.
Haslam, looking to end his own victory drought, led up to the Melbourne loop before his teammate dived through, only to run wide and let Leon past again. With just the Goddards hairpin to go, Melandri tried again but his move went the same way as the first, allowing Jonathan Rea who’d started the last lap in fourth to snatch victory. In doing so, Rea made contact with Haslam, sending both BMWs skittling off the road and promoting Max Biaggi and Sykes into the top three. The big loser of the weekend was Carlos Checa who struggled to sixth in race one before being collected by Jakub Smrz at Redgate later on, losing 23 points to series leader Biaggi.
For Smrz, the error in race two was indicative of a season that had stuttered since finishing fifth in the opening race back in February. With that in mind, it was a surprise to many that the Czech rider claimed pole position at Miller Motorsports Park, doing nothing to endear himself to Checa who looked to have it in the bag as Superpole reached its conclusion. The reigning champion wouldn’t be denied in race one though, taking an easy victory from Melandri, Rea and Biaggi but the second race of the day was arguably the moment that his title defence truly unravelled.
Leading comfortably, the Spaniard dropped the Ducati at the Black Rock Hairpin, handing Rea the chance to take a third win in 2012. Honda’s team leader was reeled in by Melandri though and the power of the BMW S1000RR proved too much on the final lap, giving the German squad a second victory in as many meetings. Biaggi followed up his race one podium with another in race two to maintain his championship lead but Melandri, Sykes and Rea were still keeping him honest, all within 20 points. Checa, meanwhile, was more than a race victory’s worth of points in arrears.
The Superbike World Championship returned to Europe for round seven at the newly named Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli and predictably, Superpole was another rain-affected affair, not that the weather stopped Tom Sykes from taking another pole position. Biaggi and Melandri didn’t cope with the conditions anywhere near as well though and were forced to start both races in tenth and respectively. Max set about making a mockery of that supposed disadvantage on Sunday though with two sensational victories with consistency deserting his rivals. Jonathan Rea left San Marino second overall thanks to fifth and second but a 38.5 gap had opened up at the top with Sykes and Melandri unable to reach the podium all day. Checa did manage it but undid all that hard work with another crash in race two while battling with Melandri.
The pressure was on Checa’s shoulders on home turf at Aragon and Carlos did respond with a fortunate third place in race one but it was clear Ducati no longer had the equipment to beat Aprilia and BMW in particular. Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri proved the point in race one by fighting for victory amongst themselves and it was Biaggi who’d prevail, outdragging the BMW two laps from home.
The top two did have company at the sharp end in the second race as two more Aprilias joined the fun. Eugene Laverty, who’s opening season on the RSV4 had been blighted by problems with the electronics, and Chaz Davies both produced their best performances of the year so far to mix it with the title contenders. The Irishman was half a lap away from a first win his famous Monza double but Melandri had other ideas, making up for his disappointment earlier on. Marco’s mood was lightened still further by a first career podium for Davies, pushing Biaggi down to fourth. The Roman Emperor had the consolation of a 48 point lead over Melandri but Sykes and Rea had chosen Aragon as the place to have their worst weekends of the year, seemingly dropping them out of contention.
In truth, it was difficult to see anyone other than Biaggi claiming the title but Brno, ironically one of Max’s favourite circuits, where the pendulum began to swing the other way. The trouble started in Superpole as the points leader suffered another early knockout, qualifying a miserable fourteenth, and the handicap caused him to go without a podium in the Czech Republic for the first time in his SBK career. Melandri took full advantage with back-to-back victories but he was pushed to the limit in both by a resurgent Sykes who, 24 hours after taking a seventh 2012 pole, was finally showing the race pace of a title challenger. He still had 59 points to make up on Biaggi but Melandri’s double had seen him more-than-halve the deficit between him and the lead.
Jonathan Rea followed up his disastrous Aragon weekend with more agony after clashing with Sykes late in race one. While trying to follow Melandri past the Kawasaki, the Ulsterman was flicked over the top of his Honda and the mayhem allowed French rookie Loris Baz to take his first SBK podium having taken over the second factory Kawasaki.
Baz continued to enhance his reputation on a crazy August weekend at Silverstone where rain returned to throw the racing into chaos. The opener had to be restarted after drizzle one lap into a ‘dry race’ and while polesitter Jakub Smrz floundered after a poor tyre choice, Baz stormed through from ninth on the grid after overtaking the GoldBet BMWs of Ayrton Badovini and Michel Fabrizio two corners from home. The sight of the BMW Italia riders dicing at the front was equally surprising with both qualifying in the second half of the field but the constant changes in weather conditions played into their hands. They certainly didn’t favour Biaggi whose summer slump continued with a crash on the last lap but the saving grace for him was the failure of Melandri and Sykes to capitalise, the pair finishing seventh and eighth respectively.
While race one reverted from wet to dry on a lap-by-lap basis, race two was unquestionably wet, bordering on impossible for the riders. The torrential rain was such that race direction had no choice but to stop proceedings eight laps early and after a thrilling battle with Baz and Smrz, it was Sylvain Guintoli who was sitting in the no.1 position when the music stopped. The win was especially sweet for Sylvain, not only because he’d done the same as Smrz in race one and picked the wrong tyres, but because of Effenbert Liberty’s bizarre decision to sack him after Aragon. Guintoli had found a second home at PATA Ducati and the victory came on his first weekend under new employment.
Because only half points were awarded in race two, none of the title contenders took more than three points. Melandri was still able to close the gap to Biaggi still further but would Silverstone prove to be a missed opportunity? Just four rounds remained and once the three-week summer break was out of the way, the run-in to the end of the season kicked off in Moscow with World Superbikes’ first visit to Russia.
The new venue seemed to go down well with Carlos Checa as the tight, twisty track played to the strengths of the Ducati 1098R. The world champion took what, incredibly, was his first pole of the season from Sykes with the two main protagonists both trailing their teammates on the grid, Biaggi behind Eugene Laverty while Melandri had Leon Haslam ahead of him.
History would repeat itself for Checa who crashed again, effectively ending the defence of his title, but the days of Sykes slipping back through the field looked to be over as Tom took a dominant victory. Melandri beat Biaggi to second, pulling another four points back on his compatriot but race two would see an even bigger momentum shift.
With Melandri on his way to a sixth win of the year, Biaggi was mired back in sixth place and botched an attempt to pass Haslam’s sister BMW, smashing into the back of the S1000RR. Both were out on the spot and after pulling out a 55 point lead on Melandri at Misano, Max had now fallen 18.5 points behind in the space of eight races. Having matched Melandri’s 45 point haul in Russia, Sykes was only 41 adrift himself and a genuine three-way fight was back on.
Despite seeing his advantage evaporate, Biaggi showed the mental strength of a champion to take pole position at the Nurburgring with Sykes and Melandri within a tenth of the Aprilia, letting him know that they weren’t going to surrender the initiative without a fight. Pressure can do strange things to people and Melandri’s Sunday display was a graphic demonstration of that. In race one, while running third, the new championship leader slid off at the Dunlop hairpin, gift-wrapping the advantage to Biaggi once again. Max wasn’t going to turn that opportunity down and took his first win for eight races, leading home an Aprilia 1-2-3 with Eugene Laverty and ParkinGO’s Chaz Davies joining him on the podium. Sykes was only fourth, a satisfactory result given Melandri’s problems.
Race two saw the weird get even weirder as Biaggi hit the floor within a lap of the start. Leading on the approach to the NGK chicane, Biaggi’s teammate Laverty went straight on through the gravel and Max left his braking similarly late, following Eugene off the road. To Aprilia’s horror, Biaggi couldn’t stay upright though and fell to the back of the field. Salvation would follow though courtesy of another mishap from Melandri, this time from the lead, at the RTL-Kurve. With Sykes only fifth, the victory went to the emerging Chaz Davies who became the series’ eighth different winner in 2012 and surely the most popular of all. Laverty took another second while Aprilia were also relieved to see Biaggi recover to thirteenth, securing what would prove to be three crucial points.
Sykes was the outsider of the three heading to the penultimate round at Portimao but Kawasaki would play their joker once again, their sensational Superpole speed. Encouragingly for Tom, his Italian rivals were fourth and fifth on the grid with rain on the way for race day. When you’ve just come off a double DNF, a wet race is probably the last thing you want and Marco Melandri’s collapse continued on lap one. Overtaking Biaggi of all people, Marco lost control on the slippery track and crashed out not just of race one, but race two with injuries side-lining him for the rest of the day. A chaotic first race which was suspended due to an oil-spill halfway through was eventually won by Sykes after resisting the challenge of outgoing champion Carlos Checa but Biaggi had to fight for his life just to finish fourth, losing twelve points to Sykes who had now emerged as the main threat, fifteen points back.
No sooner had he done that, the reliability of the Kawasaki ZX-10R chose the worst possible moment to falter. With victory more than achievable in race two, the engine cried enough and brought Tom to a grinding halt. Biaggi wasn’t able to put the championship beyond reach, coming home a solid third, but Aprilia were able to celebrate a first win of the year for Eugene Laverty, the ninth different rider to stand on the top step this season. Jonathan Rea was a tenth of a second away from stopping him and kept his hopes of pipping Checa to fourth overall alive.
Three men arrived at the Magny Cours showdown with a mathematical chance of title glory but with a 30.5 point lead over Sykes and 38.5 over Melandri, surely it would be a formality for Max to collect the 20 points necessary for title number two. The sight of Sykes securing pole wouldn’t have worried him, that had happened eight times already this year, but the events of race one would have caused many a heart to skip a beat.
With two laps completed, Biaggi ran fourth in damp conditions but thirteen points were on offer if he stayed where he was. What followed defied belief as the front end of the no.3 Aprilia folded under braking for the Adelaide hairpin, wiping him out of the race and handing his challengers an unexpected lifeline. Neither could claim maximum points as Sylvain Guintoli took an emotional home win but second for Melandri and third for Sykes ensured the race for the title would go down to the wire.
The equation was rather simple for Biaggi who had fortunately escaped injury in his fall, he needed eleven points to be absolutely sure, and that was only if Sykes won. It goes without saying then that nerves will have been jangling when Sykes romped into a first lap lead while Biaggi tumbled to tenth. The situation was now crystal clear for Max, he needed fifth, and he no longer had Melandri to worry about after the BMW crashed dramatically on lap six.
Sykes didn’t put a wheel wrong out front, mindful that victory was his only option, and he was left to nervously watch his pit board to monitor Biaggi’s progress. Sadly for the Briton, Biaggi overtook Checa eight laps from the finish to claim the vital fifth place and despite an agonising finale, the Italian held on to win the title by the slimmest margin ever, half a point.
The celebrations in parc ferme were noticeably emotional and four weeks after his second world superbike crown was secured, the 41 year old called time on a glittering career, paying tribute to the manufacturer that carried him to his final success.
“This passion for racing has taken me onto some great achievements. I have had many companions along the way, but one that truly stands out is Aprilia, with whom together we have written some important chapters in racing history. It was true love! We got together, we left each other, we hitched-up again… And for this reason it is right and I am happy that I am retiring as world champion with Aprilia.”
|2012 eni Superbike World Championship – Final Standings|
|1||Max Biaggi||Aprilia Racing Team||1||5||5||358|
|2||Tom Sykes||Kawasaki Racing Team||9||4||3||357.5|
|3||Marco Melandri||BMW Motorrad Motorsport||0||6||4||328.5|
|4||Carlos Checa||Althea Racing||1||4||8||287.5|
|5||Jonathan Rea||Honda World Superbike Team||0||2||0||278.5|
|6||Eugene Laverty||Aprilia Racing Team||0||1||1||263.5|
|7||Sylvain Guintoli||PATA Racing||1||3||2||213.5|
|8||Leon Haslam||BMW Motorrad Motorsport||0||0||1||200|
|9||Chaz Davies||ParkinGO MTC Racing||0||1||0||164.5|
|10||Davide Giugliano||Althea Racing||0||0||1||134|
|11||Michel Fabrizio||BMW Motorrad Italia GoldBet||0||0||0||137.5|
|12||Ayrton Badovini||BMW Motorrad Italia GoldBet||0||0||1||133|
|13||Loris Baz||Kawasaki Racing Team||0||1||1||122|
|14||Leon Camier||Crescent Fixi Suzuki||0||0||0||115.5|
|15||Jakub Smrz||Liberty Racing Team Effenbert||2||0||0||92.5|
|16||Maxime Berger||Red Devils Roma||0||0||0||92|
|17||Lorenzo Zanetti||PATA Racing||0||0||0||68|
|18||Hiroshi Aoyama||Honda World Superbike Team||0||0||0||61.5|
|19||John Hopkins||Crescent Fixi Suzuki||0||0||0||44|
|20||Niccolo Canepa||Red Devils Roma||0||0||0||42.5|
|21||David Salom||Team Pedercini||0||0||0||22|
|22||Brett McCormick||Liberty Racing Team Effenbert||0||0||0||19|
|23||Joan Lascorz||Kawasaki Racing Team||0||0||0||17|
|24||Claudio Corti||Team Pedercini||0||0||0||11|
|25||Norino Brignola||Grillini Progea Superbike Team||0||0||0||10|
|26||Leandro Mercado||Team Pedercini||0||0||0||9|
|27||Lorenzo Lanzi||Liberty Racing Team Effenbert||0||0||0||8|
|28||Matteo Baiocco||Red Devils Roma||0||0||0||8|
|29||Alexander Lundh||Team Pedercini||0||0||0||8|
|30||Peter Hickman||Crescent Fixi Suzuki||0||0||0||7|
|31||Bryan Staring||Team Pedercini||0||0||0||6|
|32||Alessandro Polita||Red Devils Roma||0||0||0||4|
|33||Mark Aitchison||Grillini Progea Superbike Team||0||0||0||3|
|34||Josh Brookes||Crescent Fixi Suzuki||0||0||0||1|