Six-gun Aussie salute for world Superbikes
The 18th instalment of the Superbike World Championship will commence in Losail, Qatar this weekend, with a record number of Aussie aspirants in action -- six.
Four of the riders -- Troy Corser, Steve Martin, Garry McCoy and Chris Vermeulen -- will return from active duty in last year's championship, while Andrew Pitt and Karl Muggeridge will be making their first appearances in the resurgent 1000cc production-based class.
In what has been one of the most frenetic off-seasons on record, 33-year-old Corser, the 1996 world Superbike champion, has switched loyalties from Foggy Petronas Racing to Alstare Suzuki for 2005, while Pitt has been drafted into the Yamaha Italia operation. Meanwhile, Martin and McCoy, who both competed on privateer Ducati 999RSs in the 2004 championship, have replaced Corser and Englishman Chris Walker in the Anglo-Malaysian Foggy Petronas collaboration.
That leaves Vermeulen, the reigning world number four, as the only rider to maintain incumbency from the previous season, where he will be joined in the Dutch-based, Winston-backed Ten Kate operation by 2004 world Supersport champion Muggeridge on a pair of CBR1000RRs.
With six Aussies on a championship quest, the number will exceed the previous best for full-time representation -- five riders in 2001 and 2004 respectively.
In what is shaping up as one of the most hotly contested championships since the heady days of the 1990s, all four Japanese marques are capable of greeting the chequered flag in 2005 - especially Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda -- against the established might of Ducati.
Suzuki, without a race win since Italian Pierfrancesco Chili prevailed in 2001, has only two riders on its 2005 roster -- Corser and Japan's former British Superbike punter Yukio Kagayama -- but a brilliant pre-season on the all-new 2005 model GSX-R1000 suggests that the marque's ninth world Superbike race win may come as soon as Qatar. That was after Kagayama and Corser went 1-2 in a combined SBK test at Losail last weekend, with times just two seconds short of Colin Edwards' current MotoGP lap record. The duo also sizzled in testing at Phillip Island last December.
The free-wheeling Corser, after three years on the underperforming Foggy Petronas triple, is relishing a return to top-shelf machinery, and the chance to add to his 23 world Superbike wins -- the last coming when he was Aprilia-mounted in 2001. Corser is currently equal fourth on the all-time SBK winners' list behind four-time world champion Carl Fogarty (59 wins), and dual title holders Edwards (31) and fellow American Doug Polen (27).
"I'm happy that we finished 1-2 because it is a good reward to the team for all the work and effort we have all done," said the recently married Corser after testing in Qatar. "We've done a lot of work with altering the (engine) mapping and improved it considerably, though there's more to do. We also made chassis and suspension changes - not big changes - and we've improved in that area as well.
"There are still a couple of sections on the track where I know I can go quicker, so Yukio had better watch out! Each day the track has felt different, so it's been really good to have some understanding about how it behaves. If it changes next week, hopefully we'll have the info to respond quickly and keep ahead of the rest."
Meanwhile Yamaha, which hasn't enjoyed a factory presence in world Superbike since 2000, has welcomed back prodigal son Noriyuki Haga into the fold, where he will partner former Kawasaki MotoGP pilot Pitt on the rapid YZF-R1.
Twenty-nine-year-old Pitt, who has won both the Australian (1999) and world Supersport (2001) titles, will, alongside Muggeridge and Martin, attempt to become the 11th Australian to win a world Superbike race, following in the footsteps of Michael Doohan, Michael Dowson, Peter Goddard, Rob Phillis, Kevin Magee, Anthony Gobert, Corser, Troy Bayliss, Vermeulen and McCoy.
Spanish rider Joe Luis Cardoso (DFX Xtreme YZF-R1) also looks like adding to the Yamaha firepower after setting the third fastest time in last weekend's test, while SBK rookie Norick Abe (Yamaha Motor France -- IPONE YZF-R1), a former 500cc winner, cannot be discounted on pedigree alone.
Yamaha, like Kawasaki, has won 34 world Superbike races in 17 years, well behind the all-conquering Ducati (235 wins) and Honda (80).
Honda, courtesy of the supremely gifted Vermeulen -- Mick Doohan's next Aussie tip to make the MotoGP ranks -- will again be at the pointy end of proceedings, and the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer will also be banking on Muggeridge to make good on his accession to world Superbike duties, while American Ben Bostrom (Team Renegade KOJI CBR1000RR) will also re-join the fray for the first time since 2002, when he finished fifth on a Ducati. A year before, Bostrom finished third in Bayliss' world championship-winning campaign.
Wily veteran Chili (Team Klaffi Honda CBR1000RR) has also defected to Honda in 2005, and is capable of pinching a win or two -- although his capricious ways always leave him short in the championship battle.
Kawasaki's major hope in 2005 will undoubtedly come in the form of the talented Walker on the PSG-1 ZX-10R, with the former British Superbike champion cutting some great times in last weekend's test.
Despite the increase in might from Japan Inc, Ducati will one again be the machine to beat in 2005, with reigning world champion James Toseland and number two Regis Laconi remaining in the Xerox-backed factory ranks. Yorkshireman Toseland, despite only winning three races in 2004, was a deserved world champion, and will be looking to get off to a flyer in Qatar.
Spanish rider Fonsi Nieto, who finished seventh in last year's world 250 GP battle, has also joined the Superbike ranks in 2005, and will campaign a "customer"-spec Ducati 999RS -- the same machine that Italian hotshot Lorenzo Lanzi will campaign for Team Caracchi.
For the two remaining Australians in this weekend's 31-rider field, McCoy and Martin, 2005 may prove to be frustrating as the Foggy Petronas FP1 continues to search for that elusive top speed -- the bane of Corser's three-year tenure with the team.
McCoy, a five-time winner in the 125 and 500cc world GP titles, will race in round one after an injury-interrupted pre-season, while 1999 Australian Superbike champion Martin will be aiming to eclipse his seventh place finish in last year's championship. The Adelaide-born Martin, 36, is now entering his fifth year of world Superbike competition.
In the corresponding Supersport World Championship, the battle to crown a seventh world champion will see two Aussie teammates to the forefront -- the tireless veteran Kevin Curtain and reigning number two Broc Parkes.
Both will compete under the aegis of Yamaha Motor Germany on YZF-R6s, with their main opposition expected to come from Parkes' erstwhile team, Winston Ten Kate Honda (Katsuaki Fujiwara and Sebastien Charpentier), former 500cc rider Jurgen van den Goorbergh (Ducati Selmat 749R), and former world champions Fabien Foret (Megabike Honda CBR600RR) and Stephane Chambon (Gil Motorsport CBR600RR).
The opening round of the Superbike World Championship will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 2 from 8.00pm (Eastern Summer Time) this Saturday night.