Australia’s Phillip Island Circuit hosts the season opener, but without native son Troy Bayliss. The Ducati rider retired after winning the 2008 title, opening the door for a new champion to be crowned in 2009.
BMW and Aprilia enter the 2009 WSBK series, joining Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha on the grid. Nearly every manufacturer has a rider (in some cases, two) with a good chance at claiming the title.
Bayliss retired after winning his third title but Ducati is still the favorite to claim the manufacturer’s title. The Italian manufacturer has dominated the WSBK series, winning the manufacturer’s title in 15 of the last 18 seasons.
Losing a rider of Bayliss’ caliber can be tough for any team, but Ducati Xerox may have found a worthy replacement in Noriyuki Haga. “Nitro Nori” has never won the WSBK championship but he has come close, finishing as the runner-up twice and third three times. With the Ducati 1098R, Haga may have found the bike that will finally give him his first title.
Haga’s teammate Michel Fabrizio enters his fourth WSBK season still looking for his first win. Fabrizio finished a career-best eighth in 2008 with seven podium finishes, but the excellent times he recorded in the off-season tests in Phillip Island and Kyalami, South Africa suggest Fabrizio may be ready to climb up the ranks.
Troy Corser and Haga finished second and third for Yamaha in 2008 but both riders have moved on to other teams. Yamaha replaced the two veteran riders with a pair of WSBK rookies, but when one of those rookies is three-time AMA champion Ben Spies, a 2009 championship is not out of the question.
Riding the new Yamaha R1 with its crossplane crankshaft engine, Spies has been among the leaders in every pre-season test. Spies has the talent to win the title in his first year, but the question is whether he can adapt to a new manufacturer, a new bike and new circuits. Helping him with his transition is crew chief Tom Houseworth who follows Spies from the AMA Rockstar Makita Suzuki team.
Spies’ new teammate Tom Sykes hasn’t shown the same success in the off-season tests but the former British Superbike racer has shown some promise in four wildcard races in the 2008 WSBK season including a second-place finish at England’s Donington Park Circuit.
Carlos Checa had a strong start for Ten Kate Honda in 2008 with six podium finishes in the first 12 races including two wins at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park. Checa’s performance began to tail off after the visit to the U.S. with just one podium finish in the second half of the season. The Spanish rider still finished fourth in the final standings. Checa injured his head and shoulder in a crash during the final test session but Honda says he is expected to compete in the season opener.
Honda will race two more factory CBR1000RR bikes in 2009 with pilots Jonathan Rea and Ryuichi Kiyonari. Rea finished second overall in the 2008 World Supersport series. Kiyonari finished ninth in the 2008 WSBK season with three victories for Honda. Kiyonari also teamed up with Checa to win the 2008 Suzuka 8-Hours endurance race.
Max Neukirchner finished fifth in 2008 for Alstare Suzuki. The German rider broke his collarbone in a third round race in Valencia, Spain but came back to top-five finishes in the next nine races including two victories. Neukirchner topped the timesheet in the first day of the Phillip Island test on the 2009 GSX-R1000 but rear grip problems led to slower times on day two.
Neurkirchner’s teammate Yukio Kagayama also struggled with tire issues on the second day of testing, and the Alstare Suzuki team hopes it will resolve those problems for the season opener.
Kawasaki shut down its MotoGP program due to the poor economy but its WSBK efforts will continue in 2009 with the support of the Paul Bird Motorsport team. Broc Parkes joins Kawasaki’s WSBK team following a fourth-place finish in the 2008 World Supersport series. He’ll be joined by former MotoGP racer Makoto Tamada to ride the 2009 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R.
BMW will make its debut in the WSBK Championship with the all-new S1000RR. The team and its machine may be new to WSBK competition, but BMW has balanced that inexperience by signing a pair of veteran racers in Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus.
Corser will be ready for the season opener after surviving a high-speed collision with a bird during the Phillip Island test. Corser’s left arm was bruised and swollen after the collision but that won’t stop him from competing on his home circuit in the season opener. The former WSBK and AMA Superbike champion finished second to Bayliss in 2008 and brings instant credibility to the BMW squad.
Xaus finished 10th in 2008 with a victory at Italy’s Misano World Circuit but finished at the bottom of the timesheet at both the Phillip Island and Kyalami tests.
Aprilia also opted for a pair of veteran riders for its new WSBK team by signing Max Biaggi and Shinya Nakano. Pre-season test results suggest the Aprilia RSV4 may be farther ahead in development than BMW’s S1000RR.
Biaggi returns to his roots with Aprilia. The Italian racer won three consecutive 250cc Grand Prix titles for Aprilia in the ’90s and will play a key role in developing the RSV4.
Nakano will make his WSBK debut at Phillip Island after ten years of Grand Prix racing. Nakano has kept pace with Biaggi in the test sessions and took part in Aprilia’s wind tunnel testing for the RSV4.
Spies ready for WSBK title chase