In this analysis of practice and qualifying from the opening World Superbike race of the season a fast laptime is a 1’31s lap as this was the typical race pace of both race winners and a “super-fast” laptime was anything in the 1’30s range. We will examine the race pace of the leading contenders later this week.
The opening weekend of the World Superbike championship turned into an Aprilia benefit with factory riders Eugene Laverty and Sylvain Guintoli wining both races and Michele Fabrizio grabbing a thoroughly deserved podium finish. That the Aprilia is exceptionally fast comes as little surprise but Australia also gave numerous indications that this championship will be far from an Aprilia benefit.
While the Aprilia’s were scampering away during Sundays races former champion Carlos Checa was licking his wounds after a huge crash in race one saw the Spaniard suffer a concussion and miss the second race. His pole position time however illustrated just how quick the Ducati Panigale will be this season.
Checa, who also crashed in practice on Friday, was arguably the closest challenger to the Aprilia’s over the course of the weekend and even though he lost running due to his Friday crash he set as many “fast” laptimes as any other rider throughout practice and qualifying.
His concussion from the race one crash, while running in second position, meant that he was unable to start the second race and Checa will go to round two without any points. However there were still a lot of positives for the Ducati racer to take. The biggest positive was the speed of his bike, as shown by his pole time being the fastest of the weekend and while Guintoli and Laverty set more sub 1’31s laps a factor in this was that Checa had less tracktime than his rivals due to his Friday crash.
It may have taken Ducati a lot longer than expected to have the Panigale in competitive hands but with Checa still riding exceptionally well it is clear that the Bologna manufacturer will be in the thick of things this season.
The Aprilia however seems to be the most rounded bike with Guintoli, Laverty and Fabrizio all having set fast times throughout the weekend with their confidence in the bike clear from the beginning of Friday practice. It was especially encouraging for Fabrizio to see results in his opening weekend for Aprilia.
The Italian, a former race winner, has had a difficult time in recent years and bounced from one manufacturer to another but in FP1 he was immediately on the pace with a series of 1’31s laps and displayed the assured ability that made him a title contender when racing for the factory Ducati squad.
The opening three sessions of the weekend saw Fabrizio set the fastest time in each and it was only in Superpole that his dominance and outright pace was truly threatened but a front row starting position was more than sufficient for Fabrizio to use as a springboard to his opening race podium finish.
While Fabrizio was fast and consistent his factory Apilia counterparts showed all weekend that while Max Biaggi may have left the team there is more than enough speed and talent for the squad to retain the riders championship. New signing Sylvain Guintoli struggled in Superpole and was only able to finish with the sixth fastest time but his consistency in practice qualifying was very impressive and his ability to consistently lap in the mid 1’31s was instrumental in allowing him to win the opening race of the season.
The difference between the Frenchman and his teammate, Laverty, were subtle with Guintoli slightly less consistently during his race simulations over the course of the weekend and also unable to quite match Laverty’s out and out pace. However the Frenchman was able to take a deserved win in the opening race.
For Laverty the opening weekend was an unquestioned success with the Irishman showing a great level of maturity in both races to lead the championship standings leaving PhilipIsland. The manner in which he managed the opening race to ensure that he had sufficient tyre life for the end of the race showed his intelligence and while he was beaten to the flag by his teammate it was encouraging to see that in race two Laverty changed his tactics and better understood his tyres better.
Marco Melandri was the unfortunate victim of Checa’s crash in race one but the former 250cc champion showed once that he will be a regular contender this season. Throughout practice and qualifying Melandri was able to match the race pace consistency of the Aprilia’s aboard his BMW with the team showing few ill effects of lacking the factory support that Melandri enjoyed last year.
For the Italian it was perhaps most encouraging that he was one of the few riders who were able to match the consistency of Guintoli and Laverty throughout practice. He had nowhere to go when Checa crashed in front of him in the opening race and his misfortune shouldn’t be something that he focuses upon. His speed in practice and qualifying was impressive but it was his consistency that will give him most reason for confidence ahead of the rest of the season especially as he is still not at full fitness following his winter shoulder injury.
Tom Sykes was the surprise package of 2012 with the likeable Englishman only missing out on the championship by half a point from Biaggi. PhilipIsland however was a difficult weekend for the Kawasaki racer. Last year when Superpole began it was invariably Sykes that set the pace but this weekend he was strangely lacklustre with only fifth on the grid. His pace however over the course of the weekend was quite impressive but with tyre management a key to the weekend, on a recently resurfaced track, it also came as no surprise that the Kawasaki was one of the most affected bikes on the grid and this obviously hampered Sykes as the weekend progressed.
The biggest disappointment throughout the weekend was the factory Honda squad with Jonathan Rea and Leon Haslam off the pace for most of the running. For Rea it was especially disappointing with the Irishman who struggled all weekend and was ultimately unable to come close to matching his teammate.
This was always likely to be difficult for Honda. With their aging Fireblade the Ten Kate run squad are battling against newer bikes while the team await a new machine next season. With their lack of straightline speed this was always going to be a difficult track for the Fireblade but it was startling to see the difference in performance between Haslam and Rea.
Whereas Rea was struggling to extract fast laps from the ‘Blade Haslam was much more comfortable on the bike and was able to set almost twice as many fast laps as his teammate. It will be interesting to see the dynamics of the relationship between both riders throughout the course of the season but it was certainly surprising to see Haslam this much faster than Rea in practice and qualifying.
Leon Camier, riding a Suzuki, had a positive winter testing programme and showed his pace with the second fastest time in Q2 but starting on the third row was obviously a disappointing result for the former British champion. His speed isn’t in doubt but his inability to convert his obvious speed, second fastest in qualifying and as many “fast” laps as any rider bar the factor Aprilia’s, into more than a pair of ninth place finishes is a worry.
It will be interesting to see if this weekend was an aberration for Camier because he has shown a great turn of speed over the winter, and indeed over the weekend, but his lack of consistency in the race was obviously a worry for the lanky Englishman.