Honda – WSBK 2010 Preview
24 February 2010
If the 2009 World Superbike Championship had started from the South African round, then Honda may have had reason to feel quite satisfied about its season.
Unfortunately for them, five events had been and gone and it was clear Honda wasn't going to be making it a three-way battle for the title alongside Yamaha and Ducati as per the pre-season predictions.
Of course, Ten Kate did eventually get its head around the 2009-specification CBR1000RR at the mid-season mark and while fifth in the overall standings wasn't the result Honda were exactly looking for, the season did at least set the foundation for the future with Jonathan Rea.
In terms of experience, Rea was Ten Kate's third-string rider in 2009, but the rapid Northern Irishman quickly went above and beyond to establish himself as the team leader. As such, when man and machine eventually began to gel from Kyalami onwards, he was the team's consistent front runner.
From a technical perspective, Ten Kate's breakthrough had a lot to do with the mid-season switch to Ohlins suspension, a move that revived their form and had them back on terms with the leaders by the conclusion of the season.
It means they have a sturdy platform from which to progress in 2010 – there should be no nasty surprises from the bike and Rea is evidently the man to revisit the successes of 2007.
With Rea's efforts shuffling the spotlight back to under-performing team-mates Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari, Ten Kate undergo some changes for 2010 by slimming from three riders to just two and poaching Max Neukirchner to ride its second bike.
Having looked very certain to stick with Suzuki in 2010, a curious sequence of events would see Neukirchner creep away from his contract towards the end of 2009 as team and rider clashed over his long-term fitness.
Neukirchner did skip the majority of the 2009 season with injury, but while differing opinions prompted Suzuki to stall on taking up their option on the German, Ten Kate swooped in snapped the two-time race winner up.
Question marks over fitness do still remain, however, and Neukirchner has freely admitted during testing that he having to reacquaint himself with competitive riding again.
The acid test for his body will be as and when Neukirchner takes a spill, but testing has gone well and if the confidence is now back, there is no reason why he shouldn't expect to be just as quick as Rea by the season's end.
One thing Ten Kate Racing won't have to worry about is another satellite team treading on its territory following the demise of Stiggy Racing.
While it frees up Ten Kate to fly the Honda flag, the manufacturer may not be so pleased to see the Swedish-based team, who at times led their charge in 2009, flounder as privateer efforts are looking surprisingly quite thin on the ground.
In addition to Stiggy Racing, Althea Racing has also defected to Ducati, leaving just Squadra Corse Italia as the only existing Honda representative to make it into the new season. Even then they will persevere with Vittorio Iannuzzo, who in two seasons has mustered just two points.
Honda will have two new teams to pin its hopes on, however, following the belated formation of Pro Ride and the graduation of Supersport runners Echo CRS.
Pro Ride's arrival comes after its planned debut with Gregorio Lavilla in 2009 was scuppered by a series of sponsorship withdrawals. Nonetheless, a year has passed and Pro Ride are set to debut – at Portimao - after entering into a deal with Speed of Japan, who in turn have placed Makoto Tamada on the bike
Potentially saving his career after two dismal seasons at Kawasaki, Tamada is treating the deal as a new start having enjoyed the majority of his MotoGP success in the past with Honda. His talk of podiums may be pushing it, but Tamada could follow in the footsteps of former Kawasaki team-mate Regis Laconi by reviving his reputation in pressure-free surroundings.
Another Kawasaki man to find refuge at Honda, Broc Parkes remains in Superbikes with the little-known Echo CRS outfit in 2010. The Italian team participated in the World Supersport Championship in 2009, but despite being mid-field at best, it hasn't deterred them from pushing on into Superbikes this year.
Testing suggests they won't be able to match Ducati's top second-tier team, Althea Racing, but Parkes is an experienced hand to guide them to points.
Ten Kate Racing
Squadra Corse Italia
Pro Ride WSBK