Tom Sykes leads the way at Monza. The SBK paddock returns to Donington Park after a controversial visit to the Italian circuit which was marred by weather and tire woes.
World Superbike heads back to its roots for Round 5 of the 2012 championship, paying a visit to Donington Park. It was 25 years ago that the SBK kicked off its inaugural season by lining up at the British circuit, and the series’ quarter century celebrations were the centerpiece of festivities last round at Monza. Those celebrations didn’t go so well… (read more in our Monza World Superbike Insider report) Spotty weather and tire woes spoiled the racing action at the Italian circuit, cancelling Race 1 with Race 2 called half-distance with half the points awarded. The single half race produced much controversy, but very little movement in the points standings. SBK features a strong three-rider battle for the points lead, with the two most recent champs joined by a surprising upstart.
Max Biaggi remains the points leader arriving at Donington, but the factory Aprilia man lost a prime opportunity to make tracks on rival Carlos Checa. Monza is ideally suited to the RSV4, and a problematic circuit for the Ducati. But instead of leaving Monza with a comfortable cushion over Checa, the 2010 SBK champion gained one meager point – extending his overall title lead to two. If last year’s results are any indication, Biaggi could be in for a long weekend with his erratic 2011 performance at the English circuit remembered most for his off-track altercation with Marco Melandri, which resulted in a curt face slap from Max.
As for Checa, the bizarre events at Monza bolstered his title hopes. Negating Biaggi’s expected advantage, now Checa heads to a circuit where he tallied a 3-1 result in 2011. The winner of three out of seven SBK races this year, the reigning champ stands a good chance of vaulting ahead of his Italian rival in the points.
The third man in the title-contending pack is Kawasaki’s Tom Sykes. The notion of a Kawasaki pilot as legit title contender seemed hopelessly improbable the past few years, but Sykes has blown away expectations and sits just six points adrift of Biaggi for the title lead. Starting his first race off of pole position at Monza, Sykes was unchallenged in Race 2 – credited with the checkers once the race was called on Lap 8. Now a two-time winner in SBK, the Englishman still searches for his first race win in dry conditions. The East Midlands circuit is a prime location to do so (if the weather cooperates), as Sykes’ home confines was the site of his breakout second-place SBK wild card podium in 2008.
Following the leading trio, a quintent of riders are engaged in a close quarters title brawl. BMW Motorrad’s Melandri holds fourth at the moment, and the Italian had some good luck with his rookie WSB visit to England last season. Supermarco nabbed his first-ever SBK victory at Donington, complementing it with a second-place finish in Race 2. That 1-2 result, however, was with the now defunct factory Yamaha squad. While tantalizingly close, the S1000RR is still winless in SBK – though Melandri and teammate Leon Haslam have both led races (along with BMW Italia satellite rider Ayrton Badovini). The Germans are closer than ever to that maiden win, and Haslam has been arguably the better rider of the Motorrad boys – though 4.5 points behind his teammate in sixth overall. The British rider claimed a steady 4-4 result for BMW at his home circuit in 2011 – one of the best Beemer finishes up to that point and a promising sign for Sunday.
Leon Haslam logged one of BMW’s best efforts in SBK with a 4-4 result at Donington in 2011, where the British rider led for a time on the S1000RR.
Honda World Superbike rider Jonathan Rea sits fifth overall, 2.5 points behind Melandri. Performances from the Northern Ireland rider are difficult to forecast. While Rea already has one victory in 2012, taking the Race 2 checkers at Assen, that is his only podium result this season. Rea remains Hondas only viable contender for now, as SBK rookie Hiroshi Aoyama continues to struggle – 13th overall and not cracking the top 10 since the Phillip Island opener.
Factory Aprilia rider Eugene Laverty hasn’t quite found his groove yet aboard the RSV4. The Monza round was a double whammy for the Irishman, as the Italian circuit not only suited the Aprilia, it suited Laverty too, who took a surprising double victory there aboard the Yamaha in 2011. Donington was a different story in 2011, with Laverty authoring a dismal DNF-14 byline. Eighth overall, a solid result for Laverty this weekend could easily leapfrog the second-year SBK rider into the top five of the championship.
Flanking Laverty in the standings are Effenbert Liberty Racing Ducati riders Sylvain Guintoli and Jakub Smrz. Aside from Sykes, Guintoli has to be the biggest surprise of 2012. The French rider has a Superpole, race win and three podiums to his credit. Those successes are countered by three DNFs, including a bizarre Race 2 incident at Monza where he failed to start after stalling his Ducati during the weather-induced delay. Teammate Smrz has been a more consistent finisher, but with less impressive results. Either man could surprise at Donington, and the privateer team will have plenty of fire in the belly – having been quite vocal in its criticism at the Monza proceedings, firing off a scathing press release post-race.
One man who won’t be lined up on the Donington grid is FIXI Crescent Suzuki rider John Hopkins. The American broke his foot after high-siding during the first Monza race. The latest injury to the hard-luck rider will see Hopper out of commission until the US round at Miller Motorsports Park later this month. Instead Leon Camier will lead the Suzuki charge. Thus far the Englishman has struggled to finish in the points, much less press for a top five or better. It’s a harsh reversal for the former Aprilia factory man, who was a podium finisher at Donington in 2011.
Bogdanka PTR Honda’s Sam Lowes remains winless in Supersport despite holding second in the points. Look for the British rider to press hard for the win on his home circuit.
In the Supersport ranks Kawasaki Deltafin’s Kenan Sofuoglu holds the points lead, 10 up on Bogdanka PTR Honda’s Sam Lowes. Kawasaki’s second SS contender, Fabien Foret, is just two points adrift of Lowes and a second PTR Honda, Jules Cluzel, is in turn one point behind the French rider.
A two-time Supersport champion, Sofuoglu has been consistently fast, with only his Imola black flag disqualification tarnishing a season-long podium streak. The Turkish rider remains the title favorite, but there has been good parity in races thus far. Of the top four, only Lowes is winless, with Sofuoglu, Foret and Cluzel taking one win apiece. (The other Supersport winner this year, Lorenzo Lanzi, is not campaigning the full season after surprising the paddock at Assen.) Expect Lowes to fight for the victory on his home soil.