The 2017 Superbike World Championship kicks off this weekend at Phillip Island in Australia.
Jonathan Rea has been dominant for the past two seasons, but with revised technical regulations, some new bikes on the grid and an increased effort from the likes of Aprilia and Yamaha, this year’s edition is shaping up to be a corker.
What’s more, the novelty of reversed starting grids for Sunday’s race (with the top three riders of Saturday’s race starting from row three in reverse position, fourth to sixth on the front row and the riders from seventh to ninth on the second row) means that there will be some added spice this year.
But superbike racing has always been about the bikes and the riders and, with the testing over, we take a look at the main teams and riders that will be fighting for honours over the next eight months.
The Kawasaki Racing Team has been dominant in recent years, with our very own Jonathan Rea lifting the title for the past two seasons and he’ll be the man to beat as he aims to become the first rider to win three world superbike championships in a row.
New technical rules mean that Kawasaki will no longer be able to run their innovative split throttle body set up, which drops off two cylinders mid corner to aid traction, but all testing suggests that the new ZX-10RR has lost none of its competitiveness, with Johnny topping the time sheets at the pre-season tests at Phillip Island.
Rea’s toughest competition could once again come from team mate Tom Sykes. The 2013 champion has been with Kawasaki since 2011 and in terms of pure speed, there are few faster than the Huddersfield rider, who goes into the season with a massive 38 pole positions to his name. If he can find a good feeling and get consistency from the Kawasaki, he will be a serious contender for the title in 2017.
Also a title threat is Chaz Davies. The Welshman was in sparkling form in the latter part of 2016 on board the Aruba.it Ducati 1199R Panigale. The recently turned 30-year-old won 11 races last year, more than any other racer, including seven of the last eight. That’s championship winning form in anyone’s book. His team-mate is the returning Marco Melandri, the veteran Italian who makes a surprise comeback after a disappointing season in MotoGP, followed by a year out. Melandri’s return has been a real PR coup for superbike racing in Italy, but pre-season testing suggests that he should be a podium contender as well.
There was a real gulf in class between Ducati, Kawasaki and the rest of the pack last year. Best of the rest, through consistency if nothing else, went to Honda, although with a new Fireblade to develop it could be a tough season for the rebranded Red Bull Honda squad. They have a class squad though, with 2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden remaining with the Dutch-run team and being joined by 2011 Moto2 world champion Stefan Bradl, who enters superbike after a five year spell in MotoGP.
Honda’s top man last year was Dutchman Michael van der Mark, who earned the unofficial title of ‘best of the rest’ with six podium finishes and fourth overall in the title race. He’s made a surprise move to the British-run PATA Yamaha team, which struggled to make much of an impression in their debut season with the YZF-R1 last year. That said, the outgoing Sylvain Guintoli did manage a podium in the last round of 2016 and the Yamaha factory has put a lot more resource behind the project for 2017. There’s no doubt that the bike will be improved, but whether it can bridge the gap to the Ducati and Kawasaki remains to be seen. Popular Brit Alex Lowes remains at the team for a second year. The former British champion crashed a lot as he tried to overcome the R1’s speed deficit last year, but the 26-year-old is as quick as anyone on the grid and should be a podium finisher this time around.
Also fighting for podiums could be Althea BMW pairing Jordi Torres and Markus Reiterberger. Ever since the S1000RR joined world superbikes, in 2009, the bikes have had a reputation for being powerful but aggressive in their power delivery. The new rules mean that the German factory will need to dump its split throttle body system and, if they can make a bike that’s easier to ride, they have two hungry young riders that can battle at the front.
One team leaving BMW this year, after a single fruitless season, is the British run Shaun Muir Racing team. They ran British champion Josh Brookes under the Milwaukee BMW banner but for 2017 they’ve joined forces with Aprilia to create the Milwaukee Aprilia squad. They’re led by popular Irishman Eugene Laverty, who won 10 races for Aprilia between 2012 and 2013, finishing runner-up in the championship in that second year. He’s back in superbike after some strong years as a MotoGP privateer and if Aprilia can give him the hardware, he could well be the man to break the domination of the Ducatis and Kawasakis. His team-mate, young Italian Lorenzo Savadori, is a former Superstock 1000 champion who showed plenty of pace on his superbike debut last term.
Completing the factory entries is the tiny MV Agusta Reparto Corse squad, who once again run former British superbike champion Leon Camier as its sole superbike rider. Despite the factory’s financial woes, the team continues to punch above its weight on the racetrack. Camier finished eighth overall on the aging F4 and bagged a trio of fourth places in 2016, and although its hard to see them top that this year, a spot of rain could see the lanky Kent rider battling for the podium – or even better! Top 10 in the championship would be another heroic result.
2017 World Superbike Championship Calendar
24 – 26 February – Australia – Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit
10 – 12 March – Thailand – Chang International Circuit
31 March – 2 April – Spain – MotorLand Aragón
28 – 30 April – Netherlands – TT Circuit Assen
12 – 14 May – Italy Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari di Imola
26 – 28 May – United Kingdom Donington Park
16 – 18 June – Italy – Misano World Circuit “Marco Simoncelli”
7 – 9 July USA – Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
18 – 20 August – Germany: – Lausitzring
15 – 17 September – Portugal: – Autódromo Internacional do Algarve
29 Sep. – 1 October – France: – Circuit de Nevers Magny Cours
20 – 22 October – Spain, Jerez
2 – 4 November – Qatar
About world superbikes
Often abbreviated to WSB or WorldSBK, the Superbike World Championship is the world’s leading race series for production based motorcycles.
All bikes start life as series production road bikes of either 1000cc (for four-cylinder) or 1200cc (for two-cylinder) engine capacity. Fully tuned, the bikes put out more than 220bhp and have high end race suspension. The top bikes and riders set lap times that are very close to that of the premier MotoGP class.
Since the series started in 1988, Italian manufacturer Ducati has won more races than any other and the most successful rider of all time is Britain’s Carl Fogarty, who won 59 races and four world titles in the 1990s.
British fans can watch all races live on Eurosport, or via a season pass on the championship’s official website – www.worldsbk.com