Preview – Imola
27 September 2006
Troy Bayliss on his Ducati Xerox machine is now firmly in the position of champion elect but he still has a little work to do at the magnificent Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari to land his second World Superbike crown.
The 4.959km circuit is situated just a few junctions down the A14 Autostrada from Ducati's home base of Borgo Panigale, Bologna, and it was at this venue in 2002 that Bayliss had to give best in the championship fight to Honda rider Colin Edwards, in the final round of the championship. This time around Bayliss is the one very much in the driving seat, even before first practice begins on Friday morning.
Only two riders have a mathematical chance of preventing Bayliss from being crowned champion at Imola, second place rider Noriyuki Haga riding for the Yamaha Motor Italia team and third place man James Toseland on the Winston Ten Kate Honda. Each has found a rich seam of podium form in recent races, and will no doubt provide fireworks of the brightest intensity in Italy, as they fight not only Bayliss, but each other, in their attempt to guarantee second in the championship struggle.
They have to rely on a serious streak of misfortune afflicting Bayliss to hope to prevent the ten-times race winner in 2006 from leaving Imola with the SBK Championship trophy, but with only six points between Haga and Toseland, the fight for second is expected to go all the way to the wire in the final round in Magny-Cours, next weekend.
With 100 points left for any single rider who wins all four remaining races, Bayliss is 87 points up on Haga and 93 ahead of Toseland.
The undulations, fast corners and chicanes of Imola never cease to provide dramatic backdrops for the latter stages of any SBK season, but with many further alterations planned for the track over the winter; this year's event may now take on a particularly important historical mantle. It will be a poignant race for all the Italian fans, who will have their final chance to see one of their undisputed heroes, Pierfrancesco Chili riding for DFX Treme Honda, race in front of a home crowd in SBK. The 42-year-old, with strong personal and family ties to the local Emilia-Romagna area, is sure to get a rousing send off, having already taken part in more SBK races than any other rider - 274 pre-Imola.
The city centre venue of Imola has hosted five previous SBK rounds, and in terms of riders still current in SBK racing, two have won races before - Ruben Xaus and Regis Laconi, who have scored a remarkable three Imola wins each. Xaus on the Sterilgarda Berik Ducati and Laconi riding the PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse were on twin-cylinder machinery when they took their wins, with Ducatis powering them home to five of the races victories, and Laconi scoring his lone win for Aprilia in 2001, on an RSV Mille.
Last year, weather conditions saw to it that there was only one individual Imola race, instead of the normal two, and Chris Vermeulen on the Winston Ten Kate Honda, won the race, but lost the championship to this season's outgoing number one plate holder, Troy Corser on his Alstare Suzuki Corona Extra.
Corser and his compatriot Andrew Pitt on the Yamaha Motor Italia bike enter the Imola round split by only a point in the championship table, and with each more than 50 points behind Toseland in third, they may realistically be fighting for fourth place. That will do little to dampen the competitive spirit of each of the ever-combative Aussie duo, as they also have a third rider in the hunt for a top four championship finish - and maybe even a fourth. Alex Barros riding the Klaffi Honda CBR1000RR is only 24 points behind Pitt, and the Brazilian star sees Imola as a place at which he can really challenge for podiums, after a season of highs and lows.
A mid-season re-ignition of Yukio Kagayama's championship challenge on the second Alstare Suzuki Corona Extra GSX-R has seen him climb to seventh, within nine points of Barros. With all the riders filling fourth to seventh places clearly capable of a strong run to the very last race, the final two rounds hold great significance for all parties.
Chris Walker on his PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse and Lorenzo Lanzi on board the Ducati Xerox continue the run of closely contested championship positions pre-Imola, with the English rider only one point ahead of Lanzi - and with Fonsi Nieto also on the PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse only six points behind Lanzi, the fight in the final places of the top ten could hardly be more competitive. Add in the ever-improving multi-podium finisher in his rookie year, Michel Fabrizio on the DFX Treme Honda - only ten points from Nieto - and the top ten battle deserves attention all the more.
Aforementioned Imola race winners, Xaus (in overall 12th place so far) and Laconi (15th) may have to pray for rain to give them a repeat appearance on top of the Imola podiums, but few would ever write-off their abilities on their best days. Xaus has work to do to move up a championship place ahead of local rider Fabrizio, while Laconi has to find the consistency from his machine set-up that has marred many a promising meeting for the 11-times SBK race winner. Karl Muggeridge riding the Winston Ten Kate Honda and Norick Abe on the Yamaha Motor France are the two riders who separate Xaus and Laconi, with either rider capable of strong top five finish when set-up and good fortune are aligned.
Roberto Rolfo on his Ducati SC Caracchi has found Superbike a competitive and combative world since his arrival in the close season, but nonetheless he looks safe for a top 16 finish if he is able to rack up even single-digit points finishes through to the final round in France. Some 31 points behind him, another classy rookie, albeit from a very different background, Shinichi Nakatomi on the Yamaha Motor France bike has had a fleetingly impressive first season in SBK, but he has to look out for the proven podium talents of Max Neukirchner on his Alstare Engineering Suzuki who will be out once more on the bike he has only made his own in the most recent two rounds.
Steve Martin on the turquoise Petronas FP-1 is on course to finish inside the championship top 20 in the final year of Petronas participation, while his team-mate Craig Jones will be out to repeat the points scoring finish he enjoyed at the most recent race at Lausitz. Aussie privateer Josh Brookes on the Bertocchi Kawasaki looks to Imola to increase his score in front of his team's home crowd.
As an astonishing Supersport season enters its last two acts, the dramas are surely not over yet. After injury halted a runaway performance from the almost unbeatable Sebastien Charpentier on his Winston Ten Kate Honda the second half of the championship season has been a melting pot of good and bad fortune for the top runners. Kevin Curtain on the Yamaha Motor Germany machine is now the hot favourite for the title, with a 27-point advantage over Charpentier.
Broc Parkes on his Yamaha Motor Germany bike is aiming to be back to fitness at Imola, having sustained some serious injuries to his ribs and lung after a heavy crash at Assen in early September. The star of the current show, however, is full-season rookie Kenan Sofuoglu, winner of the two most recent WSS races, at Assen and Lausitz, and now seemingly poised to finish in fourth in the overall championship standings, if he continues in this vein.