Preview - Brands Hatch
2 August 2006
With the pitlane and main straight surrounded by gently rolling hills, Brands Hatch is arguably the greatest naturally formed Motorsports amphitheatre in the world.
The fact that Brands is also the biggest event on the World Superbike calendar is subject of little argument, with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable local crowd helping to make Brands the highlight of the 12-round championship trail.
The magnificent 4.197km circuit, first used for cycle races in the 1920s, is stunning mix of undulations and variety of corners. From the up and down hairpin at Druids, to the high speed sections in the woodlands towards Hawthorn and Westfield, Brands offers a unique challenge to every level of rider, in this its 14th appearance on the SBK calendar. Such is the importance of this meeting that when an additional venue had to be found to complete the scheduled 2000 season, Brands got the nod, and therefore hosted two SBK events in the same season - one in August and the other in October.
Despite championship leader Troy Bayliss on the Ducati Xerox having blasted his way to an impressive mid-season lead after the sixth round at Misano (including an eight-race unbeaten record only one short of the all-time best) the fates have now skewed the plot - in favour of everyone outside the official Ducati Xerox pit garage. Bayliss still enjoys a more than useful 73-point lead, but compared to the previous run of events, the last two rounds have certainly shuffled the face cards in the SBK pack.
Seldom is the World Superbike series predictable for any length of time, and the surprise beneficiary at the most recent round at Brno proved to be the mercurial Japanese Yukio Kagayama riding for Alstare Suzuki Corona Extra. Robbed of a chance of an early season win at Qatar, Kagayama hit the bull's-eye not once but twice at Brno, scoring his first SBK double ahead of a host of more fancied riders, including his own team-mate Troy Corser, the 2005 season race winner, who now sits fourth overall.
Of the riders still active in World Superbike, none can challenge the recent Brands Hatch record of Yamaha Motor Italia rider, Noriyuki Haga. Winner of the three of the last four SBK races at Brands (two on Ducatis in 2004 and one on a 2005 Yamaha) Haga was pole man at Brno, and still sits second in this year's championship fight overall. His team-mate Andrew Pitt has gone one better than Haga in race trim thus far, and despite sitting sixth overall, was a race winner at the second Misano leg, in late June. Two Brno retirements, from strong front-running spots, have merely fed his hunger for more wins and podiums, on what is a spectacularly resurgent Yamaha R1.
James Toseland on his Winston Ten Kate Honda enters his home round with the knowledge that he has returned to podium-scoring form, and that his much-desired improvement in qualifying has already paid dividends in terms of recent points scores. The 2004 champion has proven already that he can win in 2006, and alongside is his team-mate, the ever-improving Karl Muggeridge he will be a force to be reckoned with in front of a partisan home crowd.
World Superbike may be a long-term dance partner with Brands, but for the hugely experienced ex-MotoGP rider, Alex Barros on the Klaffi Honda, it is a step into the latest unknown during his rookie SBK season. Having never raced at Brands Hatch, he will possibly find it the steepest of all his learning curves this year, but after two disappointing races at Brno, plagued by technical problems, he and his determined team are sure to bounce back into podium contention. Another top rider without a win so far, Barros is certain to show why he is such a highly rated player in SBK, irrespective of the obstacles he may have to overcome on the way.
Having amassed experience in many forms of racing over the past three years, 2003 European Superstock Champion Michel Fabrizio on his DFX Honda scored not just his first but a pair of podium finishes at Brno, setting himself up for two more strong showings at the rigorously-challenging Brands Hatch circuit. His first two podiums since his move up from World Supersport were audacious in the extreme, proof that being partnered with the vastly experienced Pierfrancesco Chili is now paying dividends for Fabrizio and his entire Honda team.
After a breathtaking debut SBK season, Lorenzo Lanzi on the Ducati Xerox has had to summon up every splinter of self-belief in 2006, and has occasionally approached the heights of his two wins in 2005. His pair of third places at Valencia were notable highlights, and Brands offers him two more chances to display his unquestioned abilities on the factory 999F06 Ducati.
Only two points separate the PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse pairing of Fonsi Nieto and Chris Walker (in 10th and 11th places respectively) as Brands approaches, with third team-member Regis Laconi (16th) having suffered greater misfortune in races, despite his obvious speed. Some brilliant qualifying and early race performances from each rider have yet to be turned into podium consistency, but at Brands, where Walker scored fourth place in race two last season, anything could be possible for the PSG-1 triumvirate. Kawasaki Bertocchi rider Josh Brookes is approaching Brands with the intention of scoring his first points since his move to Superbike from what was scheduled to be a rookie season in World Supersport.
The unique three-cylinder Malaysian Petronas FP-1, run from a British base by the Foggy Petronas Racing Team, will bow out from British track action in front of the same Brands Hatch banking that witnessed its first public track outing in 2002. Riders Steve Martin and SBK rookie Craig Jones will be out to make the race a memorable one for both team and fans, despite the machine's 100cc disadvantage to all other competing machinery.
The list of strong talent in the midfield of any SBK race this season is impressive to behold, but the likes of Ruben Xaus on board his Berik Sterilgarda Ducati, Roberto Rolfo with the Ducati SC Caracchi machine, Norick Abe on the Yamaha Motor France bike et al will be strengthened by former AMA Supersport Champion and MotoGP rider Kurtis Roberts, who has joined the Pedercini Ducati squad to replace the outgoing Max Neukirchner.
Regular British Championship runner Tommy Hill riding for Virgin Mobile Yamaha proved that the wildcard concept is far from over in World Superbike when he scored a remarkable pole position during the first British SBK round of 2006, at Silverstone. Out to repeat that feat and then build on it at Brands, Hill is back in SBK action once more, ready to make the regulars take note.
After a series of dramatic changes in fortune, and the re-emergence of some early season talents, the World Supersport championship is once more completely wide open as Brands Hatch approaches. 2005 Champion Sebastien Charpentier on the Winston Ten Kate Honda could only finish 11th at Brno in the most recent round, having also missed the previous Misano outing after suffering pelvic and collarbone injuries in testing. Despite his misfortune he still leads the championship, thanks to his four previous race wins and a third at Monza, but he now heads Brno race winner Kevin Curtain on the Yamaha Motor Germany by only ten points.
A run of three successive podium finishes for Curtain's team-mate Broc Parkes has pushed him to a relatively comfortable third, ahead of top Honda privateer Robbin Harms on the Stiggy Motorsports bike. In a good year for rookie riders, Misano race winner Massimo Roccoli riding for Yamaha Team Italia is in fifth place overall, with another WSS race winner in his inaugural season in the category, Yoann Tiberio on the Megabike Honda in sixth. After a difficult period of late, another full season newcomer, Kenan Sofuoglu also on the Winston Ten Kate Honda scored his second podium of the year at Brno. The most recent formbook at Brands makes comforting reading for Charpentier, who won the race in 2005.