Six of the best: Memorable World Superbike debuts
9 April 2014
Alex Lowes may have ended his first weekend in the World Superbike paddock with three points out of a possible fifty to his name but that measly haul does little to reflect the 23-year old's tenacity throughout his week down under.
Lowes took full advantage of the GSX-R's sweet handling to head the first day of free practice. Only a fearsome high side on Saturday morning, where he sustained fractures to his tibia, ankle and three bones in his foot, prevented him from qualifying higher than fifth.
The two races may have been forgettable for the Lincolnshire rider but his overall pace in Australia marks him down as one of the class' most exciting newcomers in years.
After his strong showing in Australia Crash.net decided to look at six of the best World Superbike debuts, for better or worse…
Mick Doohan, 1988 – Sugo, Japan
For a man who, by his own admission, “fell into racing”, Mick Doohan's rise through the national Australian ranks to full time grand prix rider was stratospheric. Within four years the Queenslander had gone from a ballsy proddy racer scraping his shoulders off Bathurst's walls to a works HRC rider. The end result may not have been quite the same had Doohan not stamped his mark all over the World Superbike series at his first attempt.
Doohan enjoyed a frantic 1988, a year where his value increased by the race. He and Marlboro Yamaha team-mate Michael Dawson fronted a strong national championship push but his performances on the world stage really caught the eye of prospective GP teams. Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were all interested in taking him to the grand prix paddock and his record of 16 wins from 33 starts that year demonstrates why.
Doohan returned to Japan to compete in the inaugural World Superbike season. The country had served him well in the past after scoring a highly impressive third in the '87 Suzuka 8 Hour, in his very first overseas race.
The puffy eyed Aussie seen wandering through the Japanese paddock was very much a different specimen to the intimidating, sharp tongued Aussie that put the fear of god into rivals and journalists alike in the nineties. The 22-year old was carrying the frame of a young man not taking life too seriously and enjoying the partying game to the full. Not that you could tell by his riding.
With a fierce four-man championship battle going on around him Doohan qualified fifth and fell victim to changeable conditions in the first race, crashing out with just four laps to go. He was then sitting behind leaders Marco Lucchinelli and Dawson in race two when an oil spill brought the pair down and the red flags out. The procession that followed was an ominous sign of things to come for the racing world. He blitzed the field after a fine start and crossed the finish line over six seconds clear of Kenichiro Iwahashi and race one winner Gary Goodfellow, scoring Yamaha's maiden triumph in the series.
And it wasn't simply his speed that stood out. Doohan, with the rear of his body fully leant over as far as his elbow, kissing the apex mid-turn, was able to make shapes with a four stroke that seasoned campaigners could only gawk at. Steve Hislop had the pleasure of witnessing Doohan first hand at an end of season TTF1 event in Mount Fuji that same year, an episode he recalled in his autobiography:
“Mick passed me in qualifying and to this day I've never seen anyone riding a four-stroke bike like he did… I swear he was laying black lines of rubber with the front wheel as well as the rear.”
To prove his success in Japan was no fluke, Doohan smoked the field on his way to a dominant double win at Oran Park next time out. These results, coupled with another fine showing at the Suzuka Eight Hour in Yamaha colours paved the way for a big money move to Honda's factory GP team, where the small matter of five world championships and 54 premier class wins followed.
Freddie Spencer, 1995 – Laguna Seca, USA
When Freddie Spencer first burst on to the world scene in 1982 he had it all; speed, adaptability, factory support and youth. At just 20 years and 196 days he became the youngest ever winner of a 500 race at Spa and a year later the youngest champion.
Twelve years and two well-publicised returns from retirement later and Spencer wanted to get in on the World Superbike act. He arrived at Daytona for pre-season testing at the start of '95 having not ridden a race bike for 15 months. His leathers didn't fit as well and there were a few added grey hairs compared to the Spencer of old yet he came away with the fastest time.
He signed up to ride for Eraldo Ferracci in the AMA and wild-carded at Laguna Seca for his first taste of the series. Spencer finished a creditable seventh in the first race before a broken transmission forced him out of the second. If only he had left it there.
Determined to secure a ride for the following year, Spencer signed on to compete in the final two rounds in Indonesia and Australia. A comedy of errors, which included his bike not arriving to Jakarta on time and having to use Mauro Lucchiari's spare, saw him come away from Sentul with a best finish of 14th, which Ferrari later admitted was “disastrous.”
Motivation was clearly an issue and it was painful for those who had witnessed his sparkling talent in the early eighties see him circulating some distance outside the top ten.
Needless to say the offer for the following year never materialised and the racing fraternity exhaled a sigh of relief when he finally decided to call it a day at the close of that year. Considering the reputation that preceded him, Spencer's brief and unsuccessful foray was certainly one of World Superbikes' less distinguished debuts.
John Kocinski, 1996 – Misano, Italy
When John Kocinski entered the 500 class at the start of 1991 he boldly exclaimed, “I'm going to be learning while I'm winning.” And he had every right to do so. He won all before him in America and his first year racing abroad full-time yielded the 250cc world championship, where established names like Cardus and Cadalora were put to the sword.
His prowess while learning could never be doubted. It was the small matter of maintaining his focus throughout an entire eight-month campaign that proved his Achilles heel. He finished on the podium three times in his first five races with Team Roberts but his form tailed off midseason. His other GP campaigns followed a similar pattern.
By the end of 1994 no one wanted to touch Kocinski and all the petulant baggage that came with him. He had fallen out with influential members in the paddock - namely Kenny Roberts and Giacomo Agostini - and his riding in the second half of '94 showed that when the chips were down John wasn't up for the fight.
A season out in the cold was the result and his future looked entirely uncertain. Luckily for Kocinski, Carl Fogarty was growing tired of dominating the World Superbike series. Although he initially hoped to move across to grand prix, Fogarty eventually switched the red of Ducati for the white and green of Castrol Honda and their ever improving RC-45.
Desperate to replace the double world champion with a big name, team manager Virginio Ferrari turned to the ex-GP star in a big money move that saw him line up alongside rising star Neil Hodgson. It's worth noting Kocinski only accepted the deal after Honda had turned down his request to run his own 250 World Championship team and Kenny Roberts rebuffed a potential return to his 500 fold.
Could John, now at the ripe age of 27, win in Superbikes while he was learning, a feat he had previously failed at in grand prix? The instant impact, as so often was the case, was spectacular. A double win at his first round remains the only time in the series' 24-year history that a rookie has come away from their first weekend with the maximum 50-point haul.
And it took a little luck to do so. 'Little John' joined the series in arguably its strongest hour. A measured display in race one saw him comfortably quell Troy Corser's challenge after starting from pole position. A frantic four-way battle ensued in race two, with Anthony Gobert bringing some welcome exuberance to the all Ducati battle between Kocinski, Corser and Chili. Gobert's late braking antics saw him cross the line first but an illegal carburetion system meant scrutineers disqualified him from the final results, promoting Kocinski to top spot and a double victory at his first attempt.
Hell, here was Kocinski, winning while still learning. It was the stuff that came after that proved to be difficult. If only every round could have been the first.
Akira Yanagawa, 1997 – Phillip Island, Australia
Ok, so it may not have been the most successful of debuts on the world scene in terms of results. But when taking the surprise factor into account, few can rival Akira Yanagawa's explosive debut in Australia in 1997.
The Japanese first appeared outside Japan at the '94 Daytona 200 in a four man Yoshimura Suzuki assault, but spent the following four seasons in the Japanese national Superbike series, clad in green. When Aussie wild child Anthony Gobert announced he was moving to grand prix for 1997 the Kawasaki bosses felt the time was right to promote Akira-san to the world stage. Few knew much about him, other than the ballsy move he pulled on Miguel Duhamel – riding around the outside of his elder at Daytona's fierce turn one – four years before.
Gobert's boots were certainly big ones to fill but what the racing world didn't know at that time was that what Yanagawa lacked in the Australian's outspoken personality, he more than matched in fearless determination. Well, initially anyway.
Team manager Harald Eckl may have played down off-season developments to the ZX-7 as “minor”, but the switch to Brembo brakes, suspension upgrades from Ohlins and some vast improvements from Dunlop helped to turn the 1997 Kawasaki into a formidable package. Yanagawa and team-mate Simon Crafar enjoyed their most competitive Superbike campaigns as a result.
After qualifying second, the Japanese did well to stay on two wheels to finish fourth in race one in conditions race winner John Kocinski described as the worst he had seen in his career. If the Japanese hadn't caught the paddock's attention by now he didn't take long to do so in the second.
Sprinting off the line, Yanagawa was soon involved in a memorable five-way scrap with Slight, Edwards, Fogarty and Crafar. He moved to the front with several daring moves into the downhill first corner and with the others slightly taken aback by his tenacity, a first win for a Japanese rider outside Japan in the series seemed highly plausible. Sadly his raw speed wasn't rewarded with the result it deserved, and Yanagawa's inexperience told when he came upon a group of back markers on the start-finish straight, missed his braking marker, and ran on at turn one in an burst green debris.
Yanagawa left Australia with just 13 points but his performances marked him down as one to watch. He went on to become the first Japanese winner in the series to win a race outside of his homeland when he took a fine victory in Austria, which he followed up with another win at home in Sugo.
His performances in '97 led Carl Fogarty to cite him as one of the men to beat - along with Corser and Slight - the following year. Unfortunately for the Japanese he and Kawasaki never quite recaptured that initial form. Injuries and uncompetitive machinery never took him to the next level and although moments of brilliance followed in the seasons after - notably his only other superbike win at Sugo in 1999 - a true championship challenge never materialised.
Tadayuki Okada, 2001 – Valencia, Spain
Okada's inclusion in this list owes more to the bad luck that followed him throughout his single season in the championship than a demonstration of riding brilliance. Of all the debuts through the series' history, Okada's must rank amongst the most disappointing.
Despite being only one of a handful of men to match and beat Mick Doohan on equal machinery during the Aussie's glory days in nineties 500 racing, it was clear Okada's days aboard the NSR Honda were numbered after a listless 2000 campaign yielded a single podium finish.
Okada had twice been victorious at the prestigious Suzuki 8-Hour (in 1995 and 1999) and already had a great deal of four-stoke experience. Unassuming with a quiet determination, HRC bosses saw him as an ideal sidekick to reigning world champion Colin Edwards and their upgraded SP-2 superbike.
Initial signs were promising. He and Edwards shared a smooth style that pushed the front end, born out of their formative years racing 250s. It seemed he only needed to acclimatise to the added weight and softer power delivery before he would be fighting towards the front. Okada finished preseason testing at Valencia third fastest, only headed by Bostrom and Corser and two places better off than Edwards.
Sadly, that was to be as close to the front as Okada got. He placed a modest seventh is his very first Superpole session and was afflicted with some of Honda's infamous 'electrical' troubles in race one after a strong start. He compounded his miserable opening day in the series by running into the rear of Regis Laconi's Aprilia on the first lap of race two. Okada left Valencia with no points with a measly six laps completed.
His fortunes failed to improve at round two, where two dodgy engines gave him four DNFs from the first four races. As Norick Abe and Shinya Nakano would later find out, the step from a career of racing grand prix prototypes to superbikes was far from a walk in the park.
Max Biaggi, 2007 – Losail, Qatar / Marco Simoncelli, 2009 – Imola, Italy
Biaggi not only qualifies for this list because of his own thrilling debut in the class but also because of the unwilling part he played in Marco Simoncelli's spectacular first competitive ride on a four stroke.
Like Kocinski eleven years before, Biaggi demonstrated his worth having sat on the sidelines for a full season before. His final year in MotoGP was a disaster and his misery was compounded when Honda dropped him for 2006. No other teams opened their doors and Max was cast out of grand prix.
Luckily Francis Batta had a seat in the Alstare Suzuki squad for the '07 Superbike season after Troy Corser's departure to Yamaha and Biaggi's performance in his first race, where he held of a determined James Toseland, belied all of his 35 years. “I wished I had discovered this championship years ago!” he beamed after race two having just lost out on his maiden double win to Toseland by 0.7 seconds. The performance was reminiscent of Biaggi's brilliant win at Suzuka when he won with Erv Kanemoto's NSR Honda in his first race in the class.
Ben Spies did the same at his first round but the Texan had been racing Superbikes for four years before in America. Biaggi on the other hand had no Superbike experience and sat idle for a year, waiting to get the best machinery possible from Suzuki.
Two and a half years on and Simoncelli was mid-way through his 250cc title defence when the call came to try his hand at World Superbikes on home turf. With full-time rider Shinya Nakano still nursing an injury from the previous round there was a chance to competitively race a four stroke before his imminent move to MotoGP in 2010.
The gangly Italian impressed when testing the RSV-4 at Mugello, matching Michel Fabrizio's best time from the test and finishing the day just over one tenth slower than Biaggi's best time. Biaggi and Simoncelli hadn't crossed paths before that autumnal weekend in northern Italy but the latter's close association with Valentino Rossi had many seasoned hacks rubbing their hands together in glee, anticipating fireworks in the Aprilia garage.
Biaggi knew to expect the unexpected after first setting eyes on the then 22-year old. “I know that they told him: 'Do what you want but do not bother Biaggi.' Just to look at him for a second you realised that there, without doubt, was a guy who rode for fun and to take risks,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Even the Roman couldn't have foreseen the events on the track. Simoncelli crashed out at Tosa in the first race but made steady progress through the top eight in the second, leaving a marker on Ben Spies in the process. He bridged a four second gap to Biaggi in third before putting a precocious move on his countryman at the final chicane, pushing him briefly off track.
Simoncelli's ride served as a warning to those in MotoGP that his gangly, six-foot frame was clearly suited to bigger machinery. That, coupled with the commitment shown at Imola, would carry the Italian a long way.
Which WSBK debut stands out most for you? Leave your comments below...