Mike Nicks column: Silverstone.

By Mike Nicks

'Anti-spin' catches out Toseland.

By Mike Nicks

'Anti-spin' catches out Toseland.

It looks like it's only going to get tougher for James Toseland as Noriyuki Haga and Troy Bayliss continue to pare away his lead in the World Superbike Championship. In the chilly wet conditions that forced the abandonment of the Silverstone round of the championship, any rider could have repeated Toseland's mistake, applied a fraction too much power and ended up on the grass.

But even if Toseland hadn't committed that error in the first race - the only one that was held, as it happens - it looked like he had only a fourth-place bike in his Hannspree Ten Kate Honda. With the Ducati 999 now at the end of its development cycle before the factory runs the new 1098 next year, Bayliss can request only minor improvements to his V-twin, yet he and the bike are so well matched that he's now winning or hitting the podium at every meeting.

"At the Misano tests recently we found a couple of things which made me feel more comfortable," he said. "It was just a couple of different clutch springs that we've had in the garage for ten years to help balance the bike. We're just looking for a couple of tenths."

Meanwhile, further up pit lane in the Yamaha Italia garage, team coordinator Massimo Meregalli is looking increasingly happy. He received the new four-valve version of the Yamaha YZF-R1 in September, had to make a mass of new cycle parts including fairings, fuel tanks and footrest assemblies, and had the bikes ready for testing in November.

Early in the season Haga and his team-mate Troy Corser experienced excessive rear tyre wear, but Meregalli's technicians identified the problem. "There was a hole in the power curve," he said. "There was either nothing or too much. When the tyre was new this wasn't a problem for the rider, but as it wore down it started to spin and destroy itself."

Now the Yamaha Italia crew - who are based in the same building as the Fiat Yamaha MotoGP team - have smoothed out the power flow, and Haga is also on a roll, scoring two wins and four other podiums in his last six races.

Meanwhile, it became apparent at Silverstone that the Honda HRC traction control system on Toseland's Fireblade is not as sophisticated as the kit on some rival bikes.

"What we have is really an anti-spin system," said his manager Roger Burnett. "It's not full traction control. It stops the rear wheel from spinning initially, but if you then load up the throttle it will spin. When he crashed here he was just slightly too much on the power, and the anti-spin was not good enough."

So it's back to the garage for those savvy Ten Kate engineers. Toseland's had a frustrating time recently, retiring with a gear-change problem at Donington, and suffering Sunday's crash. But he performed heroically to pick the bike and restart with a loose throttle handlebar and water spewing from a broken pipe. He could see that a split in the handlebar bracket was gradually opening up as the race continued, while the sweating engine was losing power, but he still made it to eighth place and eight precious championship points. Now that really is bringing the ship home.

With six rounds and 12 races remaining, the championship looks like it's coming down to a three-way fight between Toseland, Haga and Bayliss. Max Biaggi is holding in there in third place in the points table on his Alstare Corona Suzuki, but you can't help feeling that he is unlikely to win the championship in his first season in the series.

Why Britain Flops in the World.

British motorcycle racing keeps wailing that it doesn't have enough riders on the world scene - but then does very little to correct the situation. Of the 106 riders who contested the three Supersport and Superstock support races at Silverstone - fame academies for the tomorrow's stars - only six were British. We had only two riders - James Toseland and Dean Ellison - in the Superbike division. It's pathetic.

The only Brit in the Supersport class was Craig Jones, the 22-year-old who is backed by Gary Ekerold's Rev? Ekerold Honda Racing team. Ekerold is a South African - the son of the 1980 350cc world champion Jon Ekerold - and has a pretty good fix on why Britain doesn't produce a stream of world class riders.

"BSB [the British Superbike Championship] is just too good," he said at Silverstone. "It's simply too strong. It's too easy for British riders to race in England.

"When an Australian rider comes to Europe he's travelled 10,000 miles and there's nothing for him to go back to. The same applies to a South African like me: I've come here to be world champion and I'm going to make sure that that happens."

In Ekerold's case, he means a world champion as a team owner. Last year he won the British Supersport title with Cal Crutchlow as his rider, and used that as a springboard to launch into World Supersport. But problems arose.

"It isn't just the riders, it's the corporates, too," Ekerold said. "Why would British companies get into world championship racing when they can get everything they need from the British series? I lost Nokia, Northpoint [a powder coating company] and Jewson [builders' merchants] as sponsors when I moved to World Supersport.

"We had one of the best funded teams in Britain. Now we're struggling for funding, and it's showing in our results."

Businessman and racing fanatic Ben Atkins, who used to back British Superbike champion John Reynolds, is now financing the team, which explains his trademark Rev? team name on the bikes. Honda - who actively try and develop young British riders - are also providing support.

But it's turning into a frustrating season for Ekerold. After Jones finished fourth in the World Supersport race at Donington in April the squad was hoping for similar success at Silverstone. Indeed, Jones climbed from 13th place on the grid to third place by lap four. But on lap seven he crashed in the rain, and he now holds 15th place in the championship.

"Rain like this is a lottery - there was carnage in every class today," Ekerold said.

Meanwhile his vision of becoming a world championship team owner remains undimmed. "We'll get there," he said in his race truck as his mechanics packed away his virgin-white CBR600s, largely unadorned by sponsors' logos. "Something always crops up. There's a certain amount of fate involved in this. It takes a lot of positive thinking to win anything in life."

Now Ekerold wants to expand to a two-rider World Supersport team in 2008. But he warns: "If the money comes from Spain or Italy, I'll look for riders from those countries."

Edwards Back to WSBK?

Texan Colin Edwards, the former double World Superbike champion and now team-mate to Valentino Rossi in the Fiat Yamaha MotoGP team, dropped in to Silverstone at the weekend to say hello to old mates - and inevitably sparked rumours of his return to the series.

It hasn't been easy for Edwards in MotoGP: a hard-working sidekick to Rossi, but no wins in 71 races. Now paddock rumours suggest that Jorge Lorenzo, Spain's 20-year-old 250cc world champion who is leading the series again this year, has secretly signed for Yamaha for 2008 as the company starts to develop a MotoGP youth policy and prepares for the post-Rossi era. Having seen Casey Stoner captured by Ducati, where he is now leading the world championship, Yamaha doesn't want to be caught out again.

Paddock chatter also whispers that while Rossi may have fought against Stoner moving to Yamaha, his opinions would be over-ruled in the case of Lorenzo. Yamaha just has to move on. And Rossi, 28, could drive world rally cars in 2009 for Fiat, which may explain the odd conjunction of an Italian car manufacturer backing a Japanese motorcycle factory.

So back to Edwards. Now 33, he won his Superbike titles in 2000 and 2002 with Honda, which may explain his appearance in the Ten Kate Honda hospitality unit at Silverstone, and the golf he played during the weekend with a Honda executive.

You can start to work out a scenario here: Were James Toseland to depart to MotoGP in 2008, Ten Kate and Honda could form a dynamic Superbike pairing consisting of Edwards and Kenan Sofuoglu, the 22-year-old Turk who is leading the World Supersport series for the Dutch team. Or maybe this is just paddock theorising spiralling out of control. Big Gerrit Ten Kate, boss of the Dutch operation, denied at Silverstone that a deal was being cooked up. So did Honda. We'll see.

All-New for WSBK: Tracks, Bikes and Business Partner.

This season the World Superbike Championship looks like a series that's desperately grabbing at any track that will host a round, with three events in Britain and three in Italy. But appearances may be deceptive, and WSBK may soon be improving in terms of the shape of its calendar and the quality of the grid.

"Ideally we would like two rounds in Italy and two in Britain," said Paolo Ciabatti, the series' project leader. "We're trying to get a US round in 2008 and a round in Asia. We would be happy with a championship with maybe 15 rounds."

For the US round WSBK owners FGSport are looking at the Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and the new Miller Motorsports Park in Utah, a venue that offers four circuits ranging from 2.2 to 4.5 miles in length.

There are hopes that, at a meeting at the Mugello MotoGP round in Italy next weekend, the factories involved in WSBK will accept the new 1,200cc ruling for twin-cylinder bikes. That means that Ducati - synonymous with the championship since its inception in 1989 - will continue in the series with its new 1098 model, and that KTM will compete with a V-twin. MV have already signed a deal with Carl Fogarty to run a team of their 1,000cc fours, and there are rumours that BMW might arrive.

Meanwhile, FGSport have a heavyweight new business partner in Infront Sports and Media, based in Zug, Switzerland whose chief executive is Philippe Blatter, nephew of Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter. Infront handles the global sales of the 2006 World Cup TV rights, and may be able to get better TV deals for WSBK. One targeted market is the UK, where the sport is currently seen only on Eurosport, and lacks a terrestrial channel. ITV is apparently the desired partner of FGSport chief executive Paolo Flammini.

Many people thought that Flammini was, frankly, mad when he converted SBK to a control tyre championship with Pirelli a few seasons ago. But the series has thrived on that lower cost format, and even Formula 1 has become a one-make series, with Bridgestone.

Team KR Gets Deeper into Superbikes.

Chuck Aksland, manager of MotoGP's Team KR, was in the paddock at Silverstone to seek new customers for his company's increasing range of components for showroom-based bikes. Team KR already supplies its distinctive swinging-arms to Ten Kate and Alto Evolution Honda in WSBK, to the Stobart Hondas in the British Superbike series, and to American Honda in the USA.

"Our engineering staff was put together to handle MotoGP projects, but when we downsized to one rider this year, we had to ask what we could do to keep everyone employed and utilise our technology," Aksland said.

Now one of Team KR's five designers is the contact man for the Superbike teams. The KR swinging-arm is completely machined from billet just like the component on the team's KR212V Honda-engined MotoGP bike. "There isn't a stamped component on it," Aksland said. "Obviously it's lighter than the standard swinging arm, but that's only a part of the advantage. It's about controlling the stiffness of the product to match the tyre performance, and we have a lot of experience in that area."

So Team KR now makes swinging-arms and exhaust pipes, and is looking at footrest assemblies, ignition systems and traction control units. So when's the complete Superbike coming? Will the Roberts squad run a WSBK team?

"We've not really looked at it," Aksland said. "But you know racing - you never say never..."

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