WSBK Season Preview - The Brits
1 January 1901
If the many comments that grace stories on Crash.net are a good indicator of popular opinion in the sport, then this year's World Superbike Championship is destined to be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet.
The countdown seems to have been a long one; from the season-long saga of whether Troy Corser would switch to BMW, to Noriyuki Haga's surprise move to Ducati, to the influx of British interest, it is almost as if 2009 has been touted as the 'year of World Superbikes' since midway through 2008!
So, with less than a week to go before the first bike turns a competitive wheel in anger during free practice at Phillip Island, Crash.net will preview the season ahead with five special instalments – after all, with a 32-strong entry list and a myriad of race winning contenders to consider, each deserves more than just a passing mention.
First up, we preview the five British riders that will compete in 2009, before moving on to this year's high-profile rookies, those who have switched teams, those that have stayed put and the many others who make up a mouth-watering grid…
Shane Byrne - Sterilgarda Ducati
Although he won't be one of the two British riders to get factory-funded machinery in 2009, Shane Byrne is nonetheless the one being mentioned in the same breath as 'title contender' and 'surprise package'.
With two British Superbike titles under his belt, credits in MotoGP and even two World Superbike wild-card wins to his name, Byrne's reputation should have been assured long before he simply dominated pre-season testing at Portimao.
Capitalising on having a similar bike to the one he rode to dominant title glory in BSB last year, Byrne has been astonishingly quick out of the box and has made his well regarded rivals looking tardy in comparison.
Such a performance means Byrne has crept into the title reckoning, alongside Noriyuki Haga on the factory Ducati and fellow rookie Ben Spies already. It wasn't long ago that most were tipping Byrne as an outsider for wins – it seems he could be capable of more this year.
His biggest question mark though is one that will only become apparent as the season wears on. For a privateer team, Sterilgarda are arguably the best - luring Ruben Xaus and Max Biaggi for a successful 2008 season is testament to that – but their form at the start of the year was at odds with that at the end.
The same could happen this year. After all, does Ducati appreciate a Ducati title win, or a Xerox Ducati title win?
With the team already down to one bike due to financial constraints, Byrne's title challenge could well be blighted before it even gets underway. Still, Sterilgarda have a fine talisman in Byrne and so long as he maintains his form over the first few rounds, it won't be long before sponsors will hopefully be falling over each other to become associated with him…
Jonathan Rea - Ten Kate Honda
Big things are expected of Jonathan Rea in 2009 following a superb maiden season in the World Supersport category, one that saw him up at the front from the very beginning and taking the challenge to his more esteemed team-mate Andrew Pitt.
Although he didn't win the title, just getting close to Pitt was enough to see him promoted to Ten Kate's Superbike effort, where they will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the trouble Kenan Sofuoglu had in adapting last year.
Early signs suggest that is unlikely to happen, with Rea not only proving competitive in testing, but also getting the jump on team-mates Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari, both of whom have been tipped for a title challenge this year.
Although team manager Ronald ten Kate is keeping his aims fairly modest for Rea, the Northern Irishman's impressive, if erratic, performance during last year's season finale at Portimao certainly provided a clue as to what he could be capable of this year with some fine honing.
Whether he can provide a challenge for the title remains to be seen. Rea is a British Superbike race winner, while his season learning the world championship ropes in Supersports has given him an insight into, not only the circuits, but the experience of racing away from home.
At worst, podiums and race wins should be his aim in 2009, but there is no reason why this year can't be the foundation for something even greater in the future…
Tom Sykes - Yamaha Italia
It is amazing what a couple of headline-grabbing performances on the World Superbike stage can do for your career – just ask Tom Sykes…
In 2008, he started the season as a rising British Superbike star, but ended it with a plum factory Yamaha contract in his back pocket. Surprising it may have been, but it certainly wasn't through lack of effort.
Even so, of the five British riders taking part in 2009, Sykes comes with the most pressure applied to his shoulders.
With very little knowledge of the circuits he will compete on this year, Sykes is arguably the least experienced factory-backed rider this season. With increased competition from six other manufacturers, Sykes will be determined not to get swept up in the mid-field – after all, with 15 factory riders on the grid, one of them has to be at least 15th…
His cause isn't being helped by fellow rookie team-mate Ben Spies grabbing all of the headlines during testing, but Sykes has shown a consistent linear of improvement as the off-season has progressed, even if a foot injury hasn't helped.
His performances at Brands Hatch and Donington Park last season have already shown what he is capable of on a Superbike, while the new Yamaha R1 will certainly be no slouch, so the emphasis will be on how quickly he can learn new circuits. Fellow BSB alumni Ryuichi Kiyonari showed what he can do when the element of a new circuit is eliminated, something that should give Sykes confidence through the year.
With that in mind, the youngster should find himself creeping up the timesheets as the year progresses.
Leon Haslam - Stiggy Honda
After several seasons of being close, although not close enough, to the British Superbike title, Leon Haslam is turning his back on the domestic championship for a second shot on the WSBK stage.
A return to the series he vacated at the end of 2004, while a deal to race the new privateer Stiggy Honda may not make him an obvious contender this season, Haslam has nonetheless shown a good turn of pace so far in testing.
With Stiggy Racing keen to do for Honda what Sterilgarda has done for Ducati in recent years, Haslam is in a good, largely pressure free surrounding for his first season back as a World Superbike rider.
In terms of pure speed, Haslam has shown already that he can be a top ten contender in 2009, although the sustainability of his performance may depend on whether Stiggy's so far seamless transition from Supersport to Superbikes is maintained through the season.
Can Haslam win a race? It won't be easy, although the man himself admits podiums – and the occasional Ten Kate scalp - are perhaps a more realistic target. Of the five British riders, Haslam is probably the 'dark horse' of the quintet in that both he and the team are something of an unknown quantity…
Tommy Hill - Althea Honda
Although somewhat overshadowed by his four countrymen, Tommy Hill is nonetheless a popular addition to this year's grid, not least because of the trials and tribulations that afflicted him last year.
After a year on the sidelines nursing a myriad of injuries, the good news for Hill is that he is feeling fitter than ever before, while Althea Honda have not only retained their faith in him, but they have promoted him to a Superbike position after barely turning a Supersport wheel with them all year.
The flip side, however, is that Hill heads into 2009 without a season of Supersport action under his belt, one that would have allowed him to revise new circuits and become acquainted with the World Superbike paddock.
Furthermore, with such a competitive field, particularly amongst the independent teams, Hill is fully aware that he has a challenge ahead of him.
Still, despite an unspectacular season with Roberto Rolfo at the helm, the Althea team remains one of the better backed privateer teams on the grid, with Honda providing a similar package to that enjoyed by Ten Kate and Stiggy Racing.
Having no team-mate to share data with won't help his cause, but after such a troublesome 2008, just getting on the grid in 2009 will be an important moment in itself for Hill.
Tomorrow - we take a look at the wave of rookies joining in 2009.