Tom Sykes and the Kawasaki team have been one of the pleasant surprises in the 2012 World Superbike title chase.
The 2012 eni FIM Superbike World Championship heads to the penultimate round of the season at Portimao on Friday and the battle for this year’s title is far from decided. Three riders have a realistic shot at the top-spot: current points leader Max Biaggi of Aprilia Racing, BMW Motorrad’s Marco Melandri and Kawasaki’s front-man, Tom Sykes. Biaggi regained the points advantage in the previous round at Nurburgring where he was bolstered by a Race 1 win as well as the misfortune of his closest rival’s (Melandri) double DNF. The Corsair would have been in even better shape had he not crashed in Race 2. Though he was able to remount and finish in 13th, Biaggi left the German circuit with only a 9.5-point advantage on the BMW ace. Sykes, in third, lags behind Biaggi by 26.5.
Of the three, Biaggi has the best record at the Portuguese circuit, earning a double win there in 2010 with Aprilia and a third-place in Race 1 in 2009. Melandri has little comparative experience at the circuit to Biaggi since his first Superbike race at Portimao was in 2011. In that contest though the Italian rider earned his last win with Yamaha in Race 2, whereas Biaggi could do no better than seventh. Sykes has been to Portimao a number of times, but has only been within the top-10 once, taking eighth in Race 1 in 2011.
Melandri’s already had a banner year, giving BMW its first WSBK race win at Donington Park earlier in the season and going on to claim five more since. When he’s not the victim of some misfortune, Melandri and his S1000RR have consistently been at the top of their game.
“It looks like we are going to have good weather at Portugal, which I am very happy about,” said Melandri. “I certainly expect tough races. There are just two rounds to go and the championship is still very open for quite a few riders, so it will be not easy but very interesting. I will approach the weekend as I always do. In preparation I trained a lot back home and in Portimao I will try to enjoy the ride. The whole team and I will do our best and just try to be consistent and fast in both races.”
Sykes has been fast all year, taking seven poles and placing regularly within the top-10, if not top-five. He’s had some difficulty remaining in the lead pack through the duration of a race, but thanks to the tireless work of his Kawasaki crew the ZX-10R seems as dialed-in as ever, considering his recent performances in Moscow and Brno. As a result, Sykes’ confidence level has also gone up. Good news for the British rider but potentially terrible news for Melandri and Biaggi.
“The Portimao circuit is quite extreme, especially in the way it changes elevation so fast and so often, but I think that the way the Ninja ZX-10R is working we should be able to go to any circuit and do well,” said Sykes. “Right now, with two rounds to go, 90% of my thoughts are about taking it just one race at a time, and of course we will do what we have been doing all year when we get to Portugal. Obviously, ten percent of me is also thinking that we are in a good position in the table. If we play our cards right we can stay in the top three, and if we play our cards really well then we can win the championship. But in reality, come race weekend, we will go race-by-race and carry on as we have been doing.”
Max Biaggi will have to be on top of his game at Portimao if he wants to hold on to the championship points lead.
Behind Sykes in points is Althea Racing’s Carlos Checa. The defending world champion has a mathematical shot at the top, but his 70.5-point deficit is all but insurmountable in the face of Biaggi’s, Melandri’s and Sykes’ performances this year. Checa won at Portimao in Race 1 last year and took fourth in Race 2. He started 2012 with an impressive three-race win streak, starting in Race 2 at Phillip Island through his sweep at Imola. Since then though, he’s only captured one additional victory and has struggled at times to break the top-five.
Honda’s Jonathan Rea trails Checa in fifth overall, 92.5 off of Biaggi’s lead. The Irish rider has been busy of late, filling in for the injured Casey Stoner with Repsol Honda in MotoGP, contesting his first race at the Misano round. He’s excited to jump back in the saddle of his CBR1000RR and return to a circuit which he holds in high regard. Rea’s first WSBK race was at Portimao, which he finished in fourth. Since that first round, he’s taken a podium in at least one race at the Portuguese circuit every year, though none have been wins.
“I’m really looking forward to this weekend because I love riding at Portimao – it’s a very challenging circuit from a rider’s point of view,” said Rea. “It’s also where I had my first World Superbike race so it holds some special memories for me. We made some positive steps with the Fireblade at Nurburgring but there’s still lots more to do, especially with the electronics, working on acceleration on the side of the tire to improve corner exit. We also need to develop the engine characteristics to smooth out the power delivery, so there’s a bit to do.”
Biaggi’s teammate Eugene Laverty is sixth overall and arrives in Portugal with memories still fresh of his best round of the season in Nurburgring. Laverty went 2-2 at the German circuit, and though not a legitimate threat in points to any of the three contending for the championship, he has the potential to run with the lead pack and finish on the podium. In last year’s round at Portimao, Laverty had mixed results, placing 19th in Race 1 and rallying back to finish second in Race 2.
Leon Haslam, Melandri’s teammate, has been struggling with an injured left shoulder and elbow which was aggravated by crashes in Moscow and at Nurburgring. He’s received thorough medical examinations and luckily there’s no serious damage.
“Germany was pretty tough; I landed on my shoulder in two more crashes,” explained Haslam. “I had some MRI scans, the outcome of which was quite positive. There is no tendon damage, just at the ligament and some fluid in the joint. I have spent some time relaxing and am now looking forward to Portimao.”
Chaz Davies (center) came up with a win in Race 2 at Nurburgring and will be someone to watch at Portimao.
ParkinGO MTC Racing’s Chaz Davies was the star of Nurburgring, taking third in Race 1 and earning his maiden WSBK victory in Race 2. The rookie rider has steadily improved over the course of the season, which started dismally with three retirements and a 14th through the first two rounds. He got to the podium for the first time at Aragon in Race 2, finishing third and is currently on a streak of three-straight podium finishes. This will be his first time contesting Portimao in the premier class, but he took the win in Supersport in 2011 and placed fourth in the same class in 2010.
PATA Racing’s Sylvain Guintoli and Checa’s teammate Davide Giugliano have both enjoyed time on the podium this season and both are regular contenders within the top ten. Guintoli has two wins to his credit as well, one at Silverstone in Race 2 and the other at Assen in Race 1. The duo will be looking to get in a good start during qualifying in order to have a chance out front at Portimao.
FIXI Crescent Suzuki’s Leon Camier took his first podium finish of the season at Nurburgring in Race 2 and has finished in the top-10 five out of six times at Portimao. His teammate John Hopkins didn’t fare as well in Nurburgring, going 13-12, and he’s never contested the Portuguese circuit in the premier class. The Suzuki team has struggled this season and is looking for a strong finish in the final two rounds.
Kawasaki Lorenzini’s Kenan Sofuoglu is in good position to clinch his third World Supersport title, 38 points ahead of PTR Honda’s Jules Cluzel. The Turkish rider took the win at Nurburgring ahead of Cluzel in an action packed contest. Sofuoglu has taken eight podiums total this year, four of which were wins, and earned pole position at Brno. He will be working hard to remain focused in order to secure a place atop the rostrum for a fifth time.
“I am feeling good and ready for the next race,” said Sofuoglu. “Hopefully if I can finish the race in Portugal without mistakes or problems then probably I can win the title. Before the last round I knew it was very important to win the race and I won it, so I met my goal there. I like the track at Portimao but I will have to see how it goes there on my Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R. I think, normally, without anything happening, that we should be able to make a top four finish. We will see how our weekend is shaping up on Friday when we get there. I just need to make the maximum points possible and try to win the championship there, and if not we will have to go forward to Magny-Cours.”
Cluzel has two wins to his credit and has been on the podium in all but three rounds this year. The rookie rider has already put in a commendable season, but could still challenge for the title with a win at Portimao.
Kawasaki Intermoto Step’s Fabien Foret sits in third overall, followed by Bogdanka PTR’s Sam Lowes just three points back in fourth. Both riders have two wins to their credit this year and will likely be battling for third in the season through the final round at Magny-Cours.
Race action starts Friday with practice and qualifying sessions, followed by Superpole on Saturday and the main events on Sunday.