With the first World Superbike race of the ‘06 season scheduled for February 25, which is just a few weeks away, I better get my review of the 2005 season published. Last December I did a blog posting about the ‘05 WSBK line-up where I said that the the new found diversity on the grid was sure to generate excitement in a series that had previously become dominated by Ducati. Well, that certainly turned out to be an understatement as the four cylinder bikes completely reshaped the World Superbike series last year.
The excitement for the season actually started early in the pre-season. The Alstare Suzuki team of Troy Corser and Yukio Yagayama showed up at the first test at Phillip Island and immediately started turning laps considerably faster than any of the other riders. At the end of the weekend, Corser topped the timing sheets with a considerable advantage over everyone else. What made this interesting was the fact that Alstare didn’t have their 2005 bikes in time for the initial test. Instead, they pulled an old 2003 GSXR 750, previously raced by Gregorio Lavilla, out of storage and then put the new 1000cc motor in it. The fact that Troy could still put in the fastest laps on a two year old bike was a pretty clear sign that the four cylinder bikes in general, and Corser in particular, where back in World Superbike.
The second official test went much the same way. The Alstare guys showed up with their new 2005 bikes and then proceeded to dominate with both again topping the charts. In fact, the two Suzukis ended the test almost half a second faster than the other riders. Also impressive at the second test were the Yamahas with five of the top ten positions being posted by R1s. The big surprise was that the Ten Kate Honda team, who had fought for the title in ‘04, were turning in some of the slowest laps at the tests. Clearly there was a problem in the Honda camp.
Corser had looked threatening during testing but it was at the first race at Qatar where that message was really driven home. Race one was all about Corser with Kagayama running a strong second. Regis Laconi, who had shown solid speed at the second WSBK test, rounded out the podium. Race two started out the same but Corser’s pushed too hard, too early and wore out his front tire. From there it was all Kagayama as the Japanese rider stormed away to his maiden WSBK victory. Laconi, followed up his race one podium with another by getting second in race two.
When the teams returned to Phillip Island for the second race of the season, it was all Corser. The Aussie doubled by winning both races while his teammate continued his string of strong finishes by following his teammate across the line in both races. The excitement of the weekend became watching the battle for the final podium spot. In race one, it was Chris Vermeulen who showed a thankful return to his 2004 form while in race two it was World Superbike rookie Max Neukirchner who thrilled everyone on the way to his maiden podium.
The European leg of the series started at Valencia, Spain but still looked the same as Phillip Island with Corser again dominating and bringing home the double. Vermeulen made another step forward to bring home two second place finishes while the final step was again split. Kagayama continued his string of podium appearances in race one while a rapidly improving Walker took the spot in the final race of the weekend.
From Spain, the WSBK circuit moved to Monza Italy and the home of Ducati. As a result, the Xerox Ducati riders seemed to find a little extra. Still, it wasn’t enough to stop Corser who one race one, his fifth straight win, again followed home by his teammate. However, it was James Toseland on his Ducati who rounded out the rostrum in race one. Race two was a complete reshuffle with Vermeulen taking his first win of the season. Laconi represented the nearby Bologna based Ducati factory on the podium with a second and Corser was third.
Race five was held at the Silverstone circuit in the UK and for the first time all year a Suzuki didn’t win either race. It was Laconi, building on the momentum from his Monza podium, who won the first race ahead of Corser and Toseland. Race two switched up with Toseland winning over Corser. The final spot in the second race was taken by Noriyuki Haga. Despite the fast times turned in my Yamaha in the pre-season, the R1 riders struggled in the first races of the season but Silverstone seemed to mark the end of their troubles and the start of Haga’s return to competitiveness.
The series then returned to the boot with a mid-summer race at the Misano circuit in San Marino. I guess the Italian air really suits the Ducatis because Regis Laconi turned in a stunning double, winning both races. Vermeulen topped Corser in both races and gained enough points to jump into second in the championship chase.
Next up was the race at Brno in the Czech Republic. After not winning in the past five races, Corser turned in a crushing performance in the first race, running away to a commanding victory. The two Ducatis of Toseland and Laconi continued their strong runs by rounding out the podium. However, Haga made a strong statement in race two by starting slow but then charging forward to lead, and eventually win, the race over Corser. Vermeulen rounded out the rostrom.
A repeat visit to England was on tap for the eighth race of the season, this time to the Brands Hatch circuit. Corser was quick to retaliate, after losing a race at Brno, and did so by winning the first race after a fantastic battle with Haga. In fact, it should have been Haga’s race but his crazed riding shagged his tires and allowed Corser through in the last laps. Laconi finished a distant, and struggling, third. However, Haga learned from the first race and put that knowledge to good use with an authoritative win in the second race. Corser and Vermeulen both turned in strong rides but it was all Haga in race two.
Race nine was held at the Assen circuit in the Netherlands. This is the home circuit of the Ten Kate Honda team and the pressure was on Vermeulen to get focused after an impressive, though inconsistent, start to the season. As it turns out, the young Aussie did just that by doubling both races of the weekend. Toseland, who had struggled at Brands Hatch, came through for a pair of podium finishes with a second in race one and a third in race two. Haga swapped the two spots with Toseland between the two races. However, the real surprise of the weekend was Corser who, for the first time of the season, didn’t finish on the podium and thus broke his string of sixteen straight top three results.
Corser bounced back at the next race at the Lausitzring in German with a third place finish in the first race, being beaten by a dual Vermeulen and Haga. Race two was another barn burner but this time it was Lorenzo Lanzi, standing in for the injured Laconi, who stormed away to victory in race two. Vermeulen and Haga continued their battle but had to settle for second and third, respectively, after Lanzi dominated the race.
Coming into the penultimate race of the season at Imola, Vermeulen needed a double win to mathematically keep the championship alive. The stuck to his plan with another impressive ride and a win in race one but Corser did what he needed to do by finishing second. Haga finished out the top three finishers. Then came the rain and the officials had to cancel the race. This took away the points that Vermeulen desperately needed and thus handed the 2006 World Superbike Championship title to Troy Corser.
The final race of the year, at Magny Cours, was a fascinating race. Vermeulen, determined to show he could have won the title had all the races been run, won the first race. Meanwhile, Kagayama returned to his early season form with a strong second place finish. It was Toseland, also trying to make a point after a dismal season on the Ducati, who rounded out the podium. Race two was another exciting race with Lanzi taking his temporary factory Ducati to his second win. Kagayama again took home second after a great duel with his fellow countryman Haga.
When the points for the season were added up, it was Corser with 433 and the title. Vermeulen was 54 points back with 379. Haga was in third, over one hundred points down on Vermuelen, at 271. Toseland was fouth with 254 while Kagayama was just two points back in fifth sitting on 252 points. The second half of the top ten was headed by Laconi in sixth with 221 points, Walker with 160, Pitt just behind him with 156 and Lanzi just a few more back at 150. Finally, it was Chili who rounded out the top ten with just 131 points.
I think the major stories of the season were:
First up, the strength of the Suzukis. Of the 23 races run, GSXRs won 9 of them. Of the 69 possible podium positions, the Alstare Suzuki teammates carried 26 of them.
Second, from a slightly higher altitude, is that dominance of the four cylinder bikes. Of those same 23 podium positions, the inline fours took 17 of them. Of the 69 podium spots, a stunning 52 of them.
Third, the Pirelli tires continue to lack compared to the Michelin and Dunlops that pr0ceeded them. Lap times in 2005 were similiar to 2004 and still generally slower than 2003. Additionally, the tires were visibily sliding after the first third of each race. While the spec tire does level the playing field and put all the riders on an equal footing, I think the tires are actually holding the riders back and perhaps leveling things too much. Also, when these greasy tires do let go, it generally results in a nasty high side. Removing a competitive advantage is a good thing but decreasing the safety of the racing is another. Pirelli needs to step up to the plate in 2006 with a better tire.
Fourth, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Corser seemed washed up and ready for the retirement home after three years on the dodgy Foggy Petronas FP1 but he showed the world that he’s faster now than he’s ever been. His utter domination of the races in 2005 make him a worthy champion to carry the World Superbike #1 plate for a second time.
Finally, I do think that despite being dominated by one of the most experienced riders in the paddock, the series still showed a lot of hope for the future. Clearly Vermeulen backed up his incredible 2004 year with a second season of contending for the title. Likewise, it is hard to ignore the two wins by the young Lanzi as a sign that he will play a big role in the future of the series. Kagayama looked like a championship threat at the beginning of the season but faded in the middle before returning to form with strong finishes at the end. He is clearly someone who will help shape the future of the sport. Finally, Neukirchner’s initial podium pegged him as a future star but his five DNFs during the season show that he still has plenty to learn.
Alright, with the series review out of the way, let me take a second to rate my own predictions. As I mentioned at the top of this article, I did a posting before the 2005 season where I ranked each rider. I had some misses but I also had a few direct hits.
I forecast that Laconi would win the championship. Survey says “Baamp”. However, I also said that if he didn’t win he would be out at Ducati and perhaps the series. He did get shown the door out of Bologna and nearly missed riding in ‘06 altogether until PSG-1 Kawasaki came up with a third bike.
I also predicted that Vermeulen would be the biggest threat for the championship. I hit the bulls-eye there, though it was Corser he challenged rather than Laconi.
As for Corser, I said that I thought he and Alstare would struggle getting the GSXR into WSBK trim. Oh, could I be more wrong. He not only booted the Ducati guys off the podium, as I’d hope, he nearly locked them out of the top step.
I won’t bother going through them all but I think I did a pretty decent job with my predictions. I certainly think I had a greater than 50% success ratio. I’ll do a similar preview for WSBK in a couple of weeks and then rate myself again at the end of the season to see how I do.
Alright, well, the 2005 season was a fantastic one for World Superbike. In fact, the return of the Japanese factories, even if it is only with back door help to their support teams, so completely reversed the previous trend of the grid being dominated by Ducatis that ‘05 may have been the most important season ever in the series history. With experienced big name riders like Corser, Laconi, and Chili being joined by ex-MotoGP guys in 2006 the competition will only improve. Then add in the young bucks like Lanzi, Neukirchner, Pitt, Muggeridge and Kagayama who are trying to dethrone the elders of the sport and you have a whole other level of excitement. 2005 was great and I expect even more to come in 2006. Tune in and enjoy!
[image from the Suzuki web site.]