Kyalami - Preview
14 May 2009
After seven years off the schedule, Kyalami makes a welcome return to the World Superbike Championship calendar this season as the series ventures into Africa once again.
Formerly a host of the South African Formula 1 Grand Prix, Kyalami was the scene for five World Superbike events between 1998 and 2002, but has since found its way back onto the calendar following a redevelopment push.
It means the circuit will be a new experience for many on the grid, with only five riders who competed in 2002 reappearing this season (if you want to guess the identity of those riders, answers are at the bottom of this article).
Less than a week after the teams packed up and ventured to the other side of the world, Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies will resume their battle following a day of unusual circumstances at the infamous Italian Autodromo.
Coming out almost 'as you were' from Monza, Spies should have had the double, were it not for an error regarding fuel consumption. Then again, Haga would have vied for victory in race two too had he not had a close encounter with a slow-to-react bird.
It means the gap between the two riders remains fairly large at 54 points – still, with Haga refusing to consider the word 'title', you can expect their battles to resume throughout the weekend.
Still, Kyalami won't be a complete unknown for all the riders, with six factory teams (Kawasaki not included) venturing there in December for a pre-season test. On that occasion, Michel Fabrizio dominated proceedings and his return to the circuit couldn't come at a better time.
The Italian scored a fortuitous, but nonetheless deserved, maiden WSBK victory at Monza and arrives in South Africa with his confidence higher than ever. Putting him on the cusp of Spies in the title fight, Fabrizio has a fine opportunity to add to that victory tally.
Over in the British quarter, Leon Haslam and Tom Sykes currently round out the top five positions in the overall standings, although both enjoyed differing fortunes at Monza.
For Haslam, qualifying is proving to be his boon and his bugbear if Assen and Monza are anything to go by, his impressive race pace unable to be put to good use in Italy. Nonetheless, he won't gamble in South Africa so, provided he can get to learn the circuit quickly, he will doubtless be up there again.
Sykes, meanwhile, has seen the Kyalami circuit having tested there last year, although on that occasion he sustained a foot injury. With consistency proving the cornerstone of his campaign this year, the time has come for the Yamaha rider to start eyeing that first podium with the team.
Over at Ten Kate Honda, Ryuichi Kiyonari and Jonathan Rea both gave the impression that the team are returning to some kind of prominence at Monza, with the former claiming two podiums and the latter a pair of top five finishes. Rea in particular performed well in testing at Kyalami, so after enjoying his best weekend of the season in Italy, a podium should be in the offing.
Elsewhere, Aprilia also performed well in South Africa, a prelude to what would prove to be impressive form during the first part of the 2009 season. In the hands of Max Biaggi, the RSV-4 has been a revelation, with bad luck preventing him from featuring higher than sixth in the current standings. Shinya Nakano was also quick during testing and, after a couple of anonymous rounds while he recovers from injury, he will be eager to get back to the form he showed at Qatar.
A key theme to the Kyalami weekend will be a return of old and new favourites, in place of a total of four riders who have chosen to sit out following accidents at Monza.
Chief amongst these is Fonsi Nieto, who makes a surprise return to the Suzuki team that let him go at the end of 2008 in place of Max Neukirchner. A great chance for the Spaniard to revisit some of the form that made him a race winner last season, a good performance here could see him in for the long stretch.
Elsewhere, Steve Martin makes his return to competition on the BMW S1000RR after Troy Corser took the late decision to sit out following his two crashes in Italy. The first time the Australian has competed since the end of 2007, he will at least have good experience of the bike having helped develop it for more than a year now.
Experienced rider Gregorio Lavilla also makes a welcome return to the Ducati fold as a replacement for Brendan Roberts at Guandalini Racing, while local rider Sheridan Morais brings one new face to the WSBK paddock having been drafted in to replace Makoto Tamada at Kawasaki.
The last time the World Superbike Championship visited South Africa, Troy Bayliss walked away a double winner – will his successor at Ducati complete a similar feat to pull away further from Spies in the standings…? Time will tell…
So, did you get it right - the four riders who competed at Kyalami in 2002? Noriyuki Haga, Ruben Xaus, Broc Parkes, Steve Martin and Gregorio Lavilla. Kudos to those of you with great memories!