Ducati rider standings after 7 rounds, 14 races
Carlos Checa, Althea Ducati
Jakub Smrz, Effenbert-Liberty Ducati
Sylvain Guintoli, Effenbert-Liberty Ducati
Maxime Berger, Supersonic Ducati
It's been almost twelve months since Ducati shocked the World Superbike paddock by announcing its withdrawal in a factory capacity, but seven rounds into the 2011 season, you'd be hard pressed to notice.
The once dominant Xerox machines may not be present on the grid and Althea – whom inherited the role of Ducati's primary WSBK representative – may be just a one-bike outfit, but when team and rider, in this case Carlos Checa, are working in perfect harmony, what more do you need?
Of course, there are murmurs that Ducati's 'withdrawal' is merely more of a side-step, with key personnel still seemingly involved behind the scenes at Althea to give it an unofficial status between semi and factory machinery. Althea and Ducati claim they're privateers, but when the likes of Ernesto Marinelli appears in your garage at meetings, it's hard not to wonder.
Regardless, it does nothing to dilute the magnificent performance of Checa and Althea, with podiums in all but three of the fourteen races, including eight wins. Expected struggles at Monza and an uncharacteristic error at Aragon aside, Checa fully deserves his place at the top of the leaderboard and, after years of chasing a world championship, it now seems very much in his grasp.
Though there are less 1098Rs on the grid than in previous years, Ducati still retain a solid presence in WSBK, with Effenbert-Liberty swelling the ranks in 2011 as a proper satellite entry.
A welcome and competitive addition to the WSBK grid, the distinctive yellow and white machines have shown flashes of speed in the hands of riders Jakub Smrz and Sylvain Guintoli.
More susceptible than the Althea Ducati around circuits that don't favour the twin-cylinder machine, Smrz has nonetheless put in a series of star performances in qualifying (expected) and followed it up with notable race efforts (less expected)
Notching up career podiums two and three at Donington Park and Miller Motorsports Park, it's a shame that the Czech rider has also been prone to a few accidents. Indeed, having been on the cusp of a top five position in the standings at one stage, four straight retirements at Misano and Aragon leave him 11th at this stage.
Guintoli, meanwhile, has seen the early stages of his Ducati return hampered by an injury sustained in the very first race, one that has seemingly taken time to heal. Nonetheless, decent top ten finishes, including a podium behind Smrz in the USA have seen him make stealthy progress up the order recently.
Having shown impressive progress in its maiden 2010 season with Luca Scassa, Supersonic Ducati is enduring a somewhat tougher sophomore campaign, though it hasn't been without some promise.
Signing Superstock standout Maxime Berger, the bike has shown occasional top ten pace that belies some fairly average race finishes. Indeed, reliability issues have been a particular hindrance, while Berger has been overshadowed by former SSTK rival Ayrton Badovini, but his pace is improving.