Notes from the Television Screen: WSBK @ Phillip Island

Editor’s note – While I have been sorely remiss in properly posting here at OASTD, I have begun a new series of “Notes from the Television Screen,” in which I compile my thoughts from a racing weekend. Between my Formula1Blog commitments and various life choices (hello grad school!) I cannot cover all or the majority of any two-wheeled racing series, nor attend any racing in 2011 (though I”m planning on an attempt or two). These new articles will generally cover what I can catch of the WSBK season, MotoGP, and some Grand-Am. Enjoy!

The World Superbike season got underway beneath not just the stormy clouds at Phillip Island, but under a black cloud of grief. Young Australian racer Oscar McIntyre passed after sustaining injuries during Saturday’s Australian Supersport support race just before the first Superpole of the season began. That led to Superpole’s cancellation and Tom Sykes’ third career WSBK pole. Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa, and Jakub Smrz completed the front row of starters as the organizers set the grid from the earlier qualifying practice standings.

Though Sykes led into the first turn for both races, he and his Kawasaki were entirely unable to keep the position long. The Brit drifted backward in both races but refused to do so without a fight. It is unclear whether the issue lies with tire wear or a lack of power, but both likely contribute to Kawasaki’s lack of recent wins in WSBK.

The more important story is twofold: Biaggi and Checa. In the first race, Checa soon surpassed Sykes and had set off to capture the first race of the season as reigning champion. Only Biaggi seemed capable of giving him a run for his money until the Spaniard had an impossibly violent highside that threw him out of the saddle, fifteen feet into the air, into the gravel, and out of the race. Somehow Checa sustained only bruising and was able to compete in Race 2. His Ducati was not so lucky.

Biaggi, less than a half second behind as the accident occurred, caught some flying gravel that damaged his windscreen but proceeded to run away with the race win. He not only won with a substantial margin but finally broke the years-old lap record set by Troy Corser. Rain had begun to spit about the time or soon after Checa’s incident and might have been the cause of the blindsiding crash.

Race 2 looked to have the reversal of bad luck for Biaggi and Checa, as the former ran wide into Turn 1 while fighting Sykes for position. The Italian was forced through the gravel and grass and rejoined last. The former 250 and WSBK champion was exceedingly scrappy, carving his way through the field and ending the race second. On this first weekend of the WSBK season, it seems one can give Biaggi adversity or a clear track and he will still make fine use of it.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Rea spent the weekend testing out the one-bike rule for Honda. He also had tire issues near the end of the second race, allowing Sykes to finish on the podium in both Race 1 and 2. Honda seemed to have chosen the softer rear tire for Race 2 after the harder compound did them little good in the first race. Unfortunately, the sun was out and the track ten degrees Celsius hotter for the later race. It did Rea and his smoking tire little good as Sykes chased him down at the line.

Mention must also be made of Leon Haslam and Eugene Laverty, both suffering injuries from the pre-season test. They acquitted themselves admirably through the pain and battled convincingly for position, particularly in a large group of riders shuffling over fifth for a major portion of Race 2.

The Effenbert-Liberty Ducati squad was also rather quicker than expected, particularly with Sylvain Guintoli and Jakub Smrz at the controls. If only their grid girls were outfits as well as the bikes themselves. Similarly, the BMWs looked rather stronger than last year, particularly in the hands of Melandri. Though he continues to start more poorly than anyone might hope, the Italian managed a podium after starting thirteenth in the first race. (see the complete results form both Race 1 and Race 2 here at the official WSBK website)

With thirteen rounds to go and six weeks until they next go racing at Imola, there are plenty of variables yet to change in WSBK. John Hopkins will presumably be fit again, as will Haslam and Laverty. Updates and changes can and will be tested across the board; somebody might be able to figure out how to keep an Aprilia behind him on the straight. Still, it already looks that 2012 will be a fight between Checa and Biaggi, veteran and veteran, champions already both.


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