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Portimao – WSBK Preview

25 March 2010

As far as whetting the appetite goes, the 2010 World Superbike season opener in Australia couldn't have left fans feeling hungrier for more action.

The closest finish in WSBK history, a first-time winner in Leon Haslam and a daring last lap triumph for Carlos Checa, these were just the top headlines from a weekend brimming with notable performances – good and bad…

So while the riders and teams are no doubt refreshed and ready for second round of the season in Portugal, fans have been left famished by the lengthy month's gap between races.

Kicking off a lengthy European stint, Portimao may only be holding its third WSBK event, but it certainly feels as though it has been a series mainstay for far longer. That may be explained by the fact it only hosted a round of the series four months ago, while the swooping Algarve circuit has become the default venue for testing.

It means the playing field couldn't be much more level for the teams and riders, and given the closeness of the action in Australia, this can only mean better racing.

The big winner from the opening round was Haslam. Proving his pace in testing wasn't a false dawn – unlike former BSB rival Shane Byrne last year -, Haslam gelled with the Suzuki Alstare immediately for a first pole position and a first win at Phillip Island. It would have been a double had he realised there was a charging Ducati slipping up the inside of him on the final lap of race two.

Immediately elevating him to the status of a title favourite, having been considered an outsider initially, Haslam himself admits Portimao is likely to be a better indicator as to where he and his rivals will feature this season. On the plus side, the Briton was quick there in testing and is now the man with a target painted on his back.

Equally impressive in Australia was Carlos Checa, who turned his flagging reputation around in one swoop with a superbly timed fight-back, a result made all the more significant in that it was done with the satellite Althea Ducati team.

Given rider and team have been a mainstay at the top of the timesheets during testing, this shouldn't have been a surprise, but the fact Checa caught and passed the factory Ducati team will have spoke volumes to the Xerox concern.

Still, Portimao is a happy hunting ground for the works team, scoring 1-2 finishes in 2008 and 2009, even if Michel Fabrizio will have better memories of the circuit than Noriyuki Haga.

Fabrizio had a solid double podium result in Australia, signalling comfortably his best start to a season, while Haga put in a brave performance considering he'd been barrelling through the gravel trap at high-speed just a couple of hours earlier. While it remains to be seen if Haga will be able to shake the moment he came off his bike, thus effectively handing the 2009 title to Ben Spies, both will be in victory contention.

On the flip-side, Yamaha will be hoping last season's good memories will boost the team after a disastrous opener in Australia. With James Toseland being hampered by injury and Cal Crutchlow struggling to get the best out of the R1, a tenth and ninth place finish respectively wasn't the intended result – the quality of the competition means clawing back the ground won't be easy.

Although two favourable top ten finishes means Jonathan Rea has established a solid foundation from which to progress, it wasn't quite the podium challenge he and Ten Kate Honda had expected. Nonetheless, Rea was the star performer during testing at Portimao earlier this year, while he should have won one of last season's two races, so it is no surprise he is being touted for a similar feat this time around.

Over at Aprilia, Max Biaggi wasn't satisfied with his results in Australia, but like Rea he at least got good points on the board. His team-mate Leon Camier had a more eventful race day, with two identical mistakes in each race relegating him outside the top ten. However, the Briton quickly showed himself to be a potential front runner during free practice, while he will benefit from having raced at Portimao before – a boon that will be a rare one this season.

While Haslam was courting the majority of the attention post-weekend, team-mate Sylvain Guintoli certainly made his mark with a superb turn at Phillip Island, the Frenchman's eventual fourth place finish in race two failing to do justice to his feisty race-leading, fastest-lap setting performance. While he wasn't necessarily considered a potential race winner pre-season, the former MotoGP rider has joined Haslam in revising his status.

The same can't be said for Shane Byrne, who struggled come race day in Australia. While Checa was celebrating victory at the front, Byrne – hampered by an injury picked up in a free practice fall – was unable to claw up much ground from his lowly 18th place starting position.

Still, should Byrne require a confidence boost, Portimao is the place to do it, the Briton quickly establishing himself as a 'specialist' of the popular circuit in just over a year, and with the Althea package already a proven race winner, it isn't bold to suggest he could challenging for honours over the weekend.

Joining Byrne in the doldrums after Phillip Island was Max Neukurchner and Ruben Xaus. Neukirchner showed he still has some way to go before he adapts to the Ten Kate Honda, while Xaus didn't even make it to the start line after four accidents saw his confidence ebb away. Both riders will need to post significant improvements.

Luckily for Xaus, the BMW showed decent pace in Australia, Troy Corser producing two solid top ten results, while a raft of improvements should see him forging further forward in Portugal.

Kawasaki's season got off to an inauspicious start after Chris Vermeulen ruled himself out of action with two accidents, the latter leaving him particularly battered and bruised. On the plus side, both he and Tom Sykes showed a step forward in Australia, indicating top ten results are on the way for the plucky Paul Bird helmed team.

Beyond the factory representatives, Portimao will see two familiar faces back in the paddock, as well as the introduction of an all-new team.

Former Kawasaki men Sheridan Morais and Makoto Tamada return after being snapped up to substitute at Echo CRS Honda and Reitwagen BMW respectively, the former replacing the still-injured Broc Parkes, while the latter takes the place of the sidelined Roland Resch.

Meanwhile, Ducati's representation will rise to seven with the debut of the new Supersonic Racing Team, which will hit the track for the first time with former Pedercini Kawasaki man Luca Scassa.


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