The following preview is from InFront Sports...
Following the opening round of the season at Phillip Island in Australia, the FIM Superbike World Championship arrives in Italy for its first appearance on European soil at Imola, one of the most spectacular circuits on the calendar. For the production-based racing series it is also the first of three rounds to be held in Italy this year: Monza on 6 May and Misano on 10 June are the other two. Max Biaggi (Aprilia Racing) scored a win and a second place in the first round and comes to the Enzo & Dino Ferrari circuit as leader on 45 points, 15 ahead of Marco Melandri, BMW Motorrad's new signing, who finished second and sixth at Phillip Island. With two Italians in the top two slots, the massive partisan crowd expected at Imola will surely witness a memorable weekend of racing.
World Superbike has written some of the most outstanding pages in its 25-year history at this famous Italian venue. In 2002 Texan Colin Edwards (Honda) won a terrific battle against Australian Troy Bayliss at Ducati's home circuit in front of 100,000 spectators. Two years ago Max Biaggi clinched the WSB title, becoming the first Italian to do so, but last year he did not take part due to a broken bone in his left foot. The wins in 2011 went to Jonathan Rea (Honda) and Carlos Checa (Ducati) who then clinched the title at the final round.
Since its debut in 2001 this is the first time the Imola round has been held in the spring, but the date evokes memories of the 200 Mile race which in the early 1980s opened up the racing season, with pioneering battles between the American specialists and the European aces. At that time Superbike racing was almost unknown in Europe, now it is a sporting phenomenon that has millions of passionate fans throughout the world.
In the previous nine editions (17 races in total because race 2 in 2005 was cancelled due to pouring rain) Ducati have won 11 races, Honda 5 and Aprilia 1, back in 2001 at the hands of Frenchman Regis Laconi. The most successful riders, with three wins apiece, are Laconi, Carlos Checa and Ruben Xaus. The only Italian to win at Imola is Michel Fabrizio (Ducati) in 2009. In four races Biaggi has scored a second, a fourth, a fifth and an 11th place, while Melandri only raced here in Superbike last year with a Yamaha, finishing eighth and sixth.
With three wins in the last four races, Checa is again the favourite because his Ducati, which comes out of the Borgo Panigale factory just 40 kms up the road, adapts perfectly to the Imola track. Biaggi however is on superb form and in Australia, where he had never before won, his Aprilia showed a far greater potential than the previous season. It won't be a two-way battle however because some tough customers are looming on the horizon. Riders like Tom Sykes, the 26-year-old Brit from the Kawasaki Racing Team, who was phenomenal in pre-season testing as well as in last week's supplementary test session at Aragon (Spain). Sykes started from pole at Imola in 2010 and in the opening round this year he was on the podium with a third place.
All eyes will also be on BMW Motorrad, who appear to have found in Marco Melandri the talent and experience required to score their first win. Local man Melandri, who lives 40 kms away in Ravenna, scored BMW's best ever result in Australia, a second place, and he and his equally impressive British team-mate Leon Haslam successfully tested an evo-spec engine and a new swing-arm in Spain. Imola is also a turning-point for Jonathan Rea, the talented Honda rider who could only manage seventh and fourth in Australia and who has bitter-sweet memories of Imola: a painful injury in the 2010 warm-up and a magnificent win last year.
Other men to watch will be the returning American John Hopkins (Crescent Fixi Suzuki), who has been given the all-clear by his hand surgeon to make his 2012 debut following his crash at Phillip Island testing, as well as the other Brits Leon Camier (Crescent Fixi Suzuki), Chaz Davies (Aprilia ParkinGO) and Ireland's Eugene Laverty (Aprilia Racing), the latter two both emerging from the injuries they received in their separate Phillip Island crashes.
Proceedings get under way on Thursday with the traditional Open Paddock, during which fans can enter the circuit for free to meet the champions, go autograph hunting and have a look inside the pit garages the day before the action starts on the track.
Points (after 1 of 14 rounds): 1. Biaggi 45; 2. Melandri 30; 3. Sykes 29; 4. Checa 25; 5. Rea 22; 6. Guintoli 16; 7. Smrz 16; 8. Haslam 15; 9. Aoyama 15; 10. Berger 12; etc. Manufacturers: 1. Aprilia 45; 2. Ducati 41; 3. BMW 31; 4. Kawasaki 29; 5. Honda 22; 6. Suzuki 4.
The second World Supersport round takes place between the two Superbike races, with action guaranteed in this mid-sized production-based racing category. Turkish hard man Kenan Sofuoglu blitzed his way to an opening round win in Australia on a Kawasaki Lorenzini machine run by the Italian team. It was the two-time Supersport champion's return to the category after a break of one year. Kawasaki will surely be a force to be reckoned with this year, as demonstrated by an excellent second place in Australia for another former champion Fabien Foret (Kawasaki Intermoto Step). But the Hondas are not far behind, in particular the Ten Kate Racing Products machine of Aussie Broc Parkes, third at Phillip Island. World Supersport rookie Jules Cluzel from France could also spring a real surprise on the PTR Honda machine after going well in the opening round, while British hopes lie in Sam Lowes on a similar PTR prepared Honda in his second full year of Supersport racing.
Points: (after 1 of 13 rounds): 1. Sofuoglu 25; 2. Foret 20; 3. Parkes 16; 4. Cluzel 13; 5. Lowes 11; 6. Morais 10; 7. Quarmby 9; 8. Baldolini 8; etc. Manufacturers: 1. Kawasaki 25; 2. Honda 16; 3. Triumph 8; 4. Yamaha 5.