WSS: Phillip Island, Australia – Preview
25 February 2010
The World Supersport Championship looked destined to heading into a new era when Cal Crutchlow prised Honda's seemingly impenetrable grip from the trophy at the end of 2009, but heading into 2010, things don't look so promising.
Yamaha's title win in 2009, together with their first at Superbike level, was made all the more poignant by the fact it had already been decided it wouldn't return in a works capacity in 2010 to defend its crown.
Even so, it was still a surprise to learn that not a single example of the title-winning bike – works or private – would be included on the full-time entry list.
The manufacturer's absence has had a big effect on the number of starters at this weekend's opening round at Phillip Island, with a field of 17 set to compete. By comparison, 30 riders started in 2009.
Throw in the effect of some riders choosing to pursue the new Moto2 Championship, as well as the ever present concerns over finance, and the 2010 World Supersport Championship doesn't look in such rude health on paper.
Nonetheless, what the series may lack in numbers it certainly makes up for in talent.
While Crutchlow has graduated to the World Superbike stage, four of those classified inside the top five last season remain to challenge for the title.
Leading the way is Parkalgar Honda's Eugene Laverty, the Irishman entering his second season in the Supersport championship after just missing out on the title to Crutchlow in 2009.
Judging by his performances last season, Laverty is the assumed favourite for this year's crown. However, he faces stiff opposition from two particular sources – Kenan Sofuoglu and Joan Lascorz.
Having seen its run of titles come to a somewhat anti-climatic end in 2009, Ten Kate Honda head into the new season determined to avoid the poor start to the season that ruled it out of contention early on.
Former champion Sofuoglu remains as team leader, the Turk eager to start 2010 as he ended 2009 having gradually got back on terms with Crutchlow and Laverty towards the season's close. As quick as he has ever been, it's unlikely Ten Kate will make the same mistake twice.
On the cusp of the two riders, however, is Lascorz, who has been very fast in testing aboard the ever-improving Motocard Kawasaki. The Spaniard returned the Japanese manufacturer to the winners' circle in 2009 and the ZX-6R is emerging as a genuinely fast – and consistent – contender.
Indeed, together with Sofuoglu, Lascorz was almost as quick as Crutchlow and Laverty towards the end of the year, while you sense there is still more to come from his package. The Spaniard is a young, precocious talent too and while some may consider him a slight outsider next to his closest rivals, he is still a title contender here.
Other potential race winners in 2010 include Michele Pirro, who joins Ten Kate Honda after a solid maiden season on a privateer Yamaha. The Italian has been instantly fast in testing, although a title challenge straight away could be a little too much to ask from the youngster.
Supersport veterans Katsuaki Fujiwara and Fabien Foret return for another year of racing, with both riders bolstering Kawasaki's effort. Factory rider Fujiwara looks close to regaining the form made him a six-time race winner, while former Yamaha rider Foret has settled nicely into his new surroundings at Lorenzini Kawasaki so as to be considered a front runner this year.
Given the size of the grid, Triumph should be applauded for expanding its involvement to include four factory bikes, although it remains to be seen whether the Daytona 675 can get on terms with Honda and Kawasaki this year.
The rider line-up is certainly enticing, with Chaz Davies returning for a full season following his star turn towards the end of 2009, while former champion Sebastian Charpentier makes a shock return to the category for the first time in three years.
So far, the Frenchman has taken some time to get up to speed with the three-cylinder machine, but his title-winning experience will be of huge benefit to the Anglo-Italian team. WSBK exile David Salom and AMA rider Jason Di Salvo make up the rest of the Triumph line-up.
Given the World Supersport Championship's reputation as a breeding ground for biking talent, it is a surprise to see just four rookies on the starting grid this weekend – Di Salvo, Alexander Lundh, Gino Rea and Paola Cazzola.
Cazzola's inclusion is of particular significance as she will become the series' first full-time female rider when she lines up for Kuja Honda.
Reigning Superstock 600 title winner Rea, meanwhile, will ride an Intermoto Honda for his first season of Supersport racing, alongside experienced racer Massimo Roccoli, while Robbin Harms and Miguel Praia will also make their presence felt again in 2010, both on Hondas.