Triple AMA Superbike champion Ben Spies is being tipped to fight at the front of the 2009 World Superbike field right from round one after an impressive debut with his new Yamaha Motor Italia team at the Portimao test.

Spies, who took all his AMA titles on a Suzuki GSX-R1000 and also made three race appearances on Suzuki's GSV-R in MotoGP this season, quickly adapted to the WSBK-spec R1 (and the Portimao circuit) finishing Tuesday's first day of testing on top of the timesheets with the ex-Haga/Corser '08 machine.

The Texan's best time effectively matched the best Yamaha Italia race lap, by Haga, in Sunday's season-ending races, but with an early version of the all-new 2009 R1 - which features an uneven firing 'big bang' type engine design, similar to that used in Yamaha's YZR-M1 MotoGP machine since 2004 - available, attention quickly turned to development of next year's racer.

Yamaha said that the '09 bikes present at the Portimao test were still relatively close to production specification. The present modifications included; modified cam-shaft, enlarged radiator, the addition of an oil cooler, new exhaust, aluminium fuel tank with increased capacity, the latest Magneti Marelli electronic systems and a new swing arm developed purely for the WSBK race bike.

Despite the early stage of development and new engine characteristics, Spies was able to dip 0.1sec under his best lap on the proven '08 racer to finish the test second fastest to Shane Byrne.

Spies - also making his debut on Pirelli tyres - lapped consistently in the low 1min 44sec on Wednesday and his best lap, of 1min 43.9sec, was just 0.113sec from the fastest race lap in Sunday's season-ending round, set by Ducati's retiring triple world champion Troy Bayliss.

"The whole Superbike weekend has been great for me," said Spies. "Having my own crew chief here from the US joining the team is good, he really understands me and it's great to see him working well with the Yamaha Motor Italia Technical Chief Silvano Galbusera.

"Getting out on Nori's bike we made a couple of changes and got going, it answered a lot of questions for me on the different tyre manufacturer and riding new circuits.

"The 2009 bike is at the beginning of its development, but for where it's at now compared to where we will be when we line up at Philip Island [round one] it's hugely exciting," he admitted. "The team worked really hard on the bike this weekend and it's just going to get better and better. I'm really looking forward to next year."

Team-mate and fellow (full time) WSBK rookie, Tom Sykes, finished the test in fourth position, with a best lap time of 1min 44.5sec. Sykes, who won three races for Rizla Suzuki in BSB this season, declared the '09 R1 to be a 'fantastic package'.

"For me it's been a very good test," said the young Briton. "Having done two days I now feel fully part of the team. It was quite difficult arriving on Tuesday morning for the first day of the test, facing a new bike, a new circuit, and a new team. It was important to me to get it right from the start. We are developing well together and we have a good understanding.

"I was very happy with my time on the 2008 bike, and happy with a good race pace. For the 2009 bike, considering it's at a very early stage of development, I think it's a fantastic package. The feeling coming out of the corner is unbelievably smooth, the power is so controllable, the whole bike remains incredibly stable. There is still lots to be done but the outcome is already very good.

"All in all it was a great weekend for me, I was really happy to get started and learning, getting on with the new team and feeling part of it," he concluded.

Team manager Massimo Meregalli - who guided Corser and Haga to second and third in the 2008 WSBK standings - already appears confident that his new rider and machine line-up will be a success.

"As a first test, I think it went very well," he said. "We didn't have any problems and both riders did a very good job. The test gave us a very good feeling because the bike is very good now and we know how we can improve it even more, there is still a big gap to where we can get to, so we are just very happy. Everything went very well with the riders and the team, there's no better way to end a test for us, we are very excited about the next stage."

Yamaha Italia will hold its next test in South Africa.