Though Ducati won't have an official presence on the World Superbike Championship grid once again in 2012, the domination of Carlos Checa and Althea Ducati last season proves bona fide factory support isn't the essential factor in a title-winning campaign.

Of course, the level of Ducati's involvement has been much debated, with Althea insisting its influence has been fairly minor, though the presence of Ernesto Marinelli in the garage at various events suggested otherwise.

Even so, it certainly required Ducati itself to delve into its pockets to retain its champion rider, the Italian manufacturer intervening just in time to prevent Checa from accepting a tempting offer from BMW.

A win-win situation for both since Checa made it fairly clear his first choice was always to stay with Althea Ducati, the level of his domination in 2011, and the harmony he has established with Genesio Bevilacqua's team, suggests he cannot be considered anything other than the favourite to win again this year.

Having shown some incredible race-craft last season, it's hard to see where rivals can exploit any weaknesses. Fortunately for his rivals (and for those hoping for greater competition than was shown at times in 2011), the organisers may have handed down the solution - a 6kg weight increase on the 1098R.

Appeasing the calls from rivals that the twin-cylinder Ducati had an advantage last year, though Althea have vigorously denied the weight parity made any difference to their form, Checa is worried about having an extra ballast to lug around and pre-season comments have been fairly negative.

Indeed, though Checa was fastest during the pre-season Phillip Island test, he admits he is at the limit and having won three of the last four races there, his form around the circuit doesn't necessarily make it representative of elsewhere.

Despite the increase, Ducati remains the most popular option on the WSBK, with seven entries being submitted, including an extra bike from Althea, who will expand to two machines for Checa and Davide Giugliano.

A reward for his excellent run to the title in the FIM Superstock 1000 class, Giugliano gets a full-time debut after a brief appearance at the end of 2011. Ducati have high hopes for the Italian and have invested a lot into the 22-year-old, but he arrives with a substantial learning curve ahead of him. On the plus side, Giugliano can learn from Checa, though the quality of the team around him there is pressure to be a top five contender by the end of the season.

Also growing for 2012, Effenbert Liberty Racing expands to three bikes, with Maxime Berger joining Sylavin Guntoli and Jakub Smrz for the season. Guintoli enjoyed a stealthy rise to a fine sixth in the 2011 standings following a series of strong finishes in the second-half of the year, the Frenchman heading into the new season as something of a dark horse having shown his hand with a particularly impressive effort at the Portimao finale.

Guintoli heads up Smrz, who showed flashes of pace in 2011, but also woeful inconsistency, and Berger, who has a chance to show his mettle on more accomplished twin-cylinder machinery following a noteworthy debut with WSBK minnows Supersonic Racing.

On the subject of Supersonic Racing, who will compete as a BMW customer team in the British Superbike Championship this year, their entry has been assumed by Red Devils Roma (formerly SS Lazio, before a couple of months as Ducati Team Roma), which steps up from the Superstock 1000 series with ex-MotoGP rider Niccolo Canepa.

Once heralded as one of Italy's rising two-wheeled stars, Canepa's fast-track to MotoGP in 2009 actually pushed him off the rails, Ducati subsequently dropping him after an anonymous year at premier level and forcing a fairly substantial step back to Superstock 1000 within less than two years. Nonetheless, a mid-season change to SS Lazio in 2011 put him in the right place to secure a passage to WSBK, where he now has the chance to rebuild his career. Bold name aside, Red Devils Roma may have a tough task with their one-man entry to crack the front, but Ducati machinery has been known to bring out the best in some teams in the past and testing has been positive.

The sizeable Ducati contingent is completed by PATA Racing, who switches from Aprilia machinery in 2012 as it realigns itself as a breeding ground for new talent. Indeed, the desire to promote young Italians has been touted as the reason why PATA didn't retain Noriyuki Haga for 2012 (a move that has drawn horror from Nori-san's dedicated band of followers) and instead signed Lorenzo Zanetti.

Zanetti comes to WSBK after an eye-catching turn at Superstock 1000 level, the Italian proving a fast and formidable contender in just one and a half season's racing. Even so, as one of the least experienced riders on the grid, PATA - who were podium winners in 2011 - may not see quite the same return on their investment straight away.



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