by Peter McLaren

Sunday's World Superbike season opener was the first time that an all Pirelli grid took to the racetrack, for two 23 lap races around the Spanish circuit of Valencia.

As such, the event provided the first indication as to whether the new tyre rule had - as intended - made racing closer by reducing the previous rubber advantage held by certain teams.

Unfortunately, Sunday's first race was held on a damp surface, making comparisons between the all dry 2003 event difficult. However, with the weather improving, race two took place on a fully dry circuit - comparable to the previous season.

The following figures show how close the racing was for the top six, top ten and lead lap by the end of each event:

Valencia 2003

Time covering top six: 27.006secs (race one) / 38.594secs (race two)Time covering top ten: 1min 6.328secs (race one) / 54.721secs (race two)Number of riders on lead lap: 15 (race one) / 16 (race two)

Valencia 2004

Time covering top six: 1min 11.269secs (race one*) / 21.140secs (race two)Time covering top ten: 1 lap (race one*) / 33.537secs (race two)Number of riders on lead lap: 8 (race one*) / 18 (race two)
* wet/dry track

In summary, the top six at Valencia 2003 - Neil Hodgson to David Garcia in race one, then Hodgson to Marco Borciani in race two - were covered by an average of 32.8secs over the two dry races, while this season that number had dropped by 35.5% to 21.14secs (using race two only).

2003 also saw the top ten riders separated by an average of 60.525secs. However, fast forward one year and the gap between the race two top ten - Noriyuki Haga to Mauro Sanchini - had shrunk to 33.537secs. A reduction of 45%.

Looking at the number of riders on the same lap as the race winner - an indication of speed throughout the field - shows that last year 15 riders completed the full race one distance, and 16 in race two.

This season that had increased to 18 in race two, although only 8 finished the treacherous race one on the lead lap, due largely to the low grip levels.

So what does it all mean? Clearly it's too early to jump to conclusions, but it would appear that pessimistic forecasts of two or three riders dominating WSBK were premature; while - hard as it may be for some to admit - the Pirelli only rule may have significantly improved the number of potential race winners and podium finishes this season.

The only real question mark, from Valencia at least, is how fast pole sitter Regis Laconi would have been if he'd finished a race...



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