ROME – The 2012 eni FIM Superbike World Championship enters into a crucial phase this weekend as the title battle is virtually whittled down to three names on the eve of the penultimate round at the Autodromo Internacional Algarve circuit at Portimao.
Max Biaggi and Marco Melandri, two of the most famous riders in world motorcycle racing, will be fighting it out on Sunday together with the revelation of the year, the 26-year-old Tom Sykes from the UK.
It will also be a terrific battle on the manufacturer front as well, with three makes still in with a shot of winning this classification. Two rounds are left, and that means four races and 100 points up for grabs.
The venue for this weekend’s race will be the Portimao track in the Algarve region of Portugal, with its spectacular ups and downs, with the grand finale coming in two weeks time at Magny-Cours, in France.
A second major upset in two rounds saw the pendulum swing back towards Max Biaggi. At the Nurburgring in Germany the 41-year-old Italian from the Aprilia Racing Team celebrated his fifth win in 2012 (and his 21st in WSB), gaining 28 points over his rival Marco Melandri, who for the first time came away with no points in a double DNF.
Biaggi now leads the table with a 9.5 point lead over Melandri, but the two Italians are being pushed hard all the way by the increasingly menacing Tom Sykes, the Kawasaki Racing Team talent who is now just 26.5 points behind Biaggi and 12 behind Melandri.
In case of equal points the final positions will be decided by the number of wins in a season. Currently Melandri has six to his name, Biaggi five and Sykes two.
The title battle is now virtually a three-way affair, even though the reigning champion Carlos Checa – 70.5 points behind – and Northern Ireland’s Jonathan Rea – 92.5 points behind – are still mathematically in with a chance.
In the Manufacturers battle things are just as precarious. Aprilia moved back to the top again but BMW are just 7.5 points behind, followed by Ducati at minus 42.5 and Kawasaki at minus 62. Honda and Suzuki are no longer in the battle for the title.
Portimao will be the venue for World Superbike for the fifth time. The Algarve circuit was the decider in the 2009 edition, which saw a terrific duel between Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga, but the previous editions have seen equilibrium all the way: Biaggi did the double in 2010, on his way to the world title, while Melandri won here last year.
The most successful manufacturer however in Portugal is Ducati with four wins, the last one in 2011 with Carlos Checa, while Aprilia and Yamaha have each won twice.
Superbike, as always, offers numerous points of interest and one of the main ones is those riders who are no longer involved in the final standings but who can easily have a say in the outcome. Althea Racing’s Carlos Checa has lost contact with the top three, more through misfortune than anything else and so finishing off the season in the best possible way is priority for the Spanish rider.
The same can be said for Jonathan Rea who in this period is racing on two different fronts as Honda HRC has also chosen him as stand-in for Casey Stoner in MotoGP.
One man on form at the moment is Chaz Davies, the 25-year-old British rider whose rookie year so far has culminated in an extraordinary win at Nurburgring: on the Aprilia RSV4 introduced in 2009 the only winner so far had been Biaggi. Next season the 2011 Supersport World Champion will be switching to BMW alongside Melandri.
In Germany the FIXI Crescent Suzuki team was the only one capable of preventing the podium from being an all-Aprilia lock-out as the final place went to a determined Leon Camier. After various problems in the early part of the season the GSX-R is now moving on up, and Camier will surely be a threat at a circuit that exalts his riding style.
The other rapidly-emerging rookies include Italy’s Davide Giugliano, the 22-year-old reigning Superstock 1000 champion who is consolidating his top 10 position with some encouraging performances.
One missing rider will be the injured Niccolò Canepa, replaced in the Red Devils Roma team by Matteo Baiocco, the two-time Italian CIV champion who raced as wild-card at Misano, finishing tenth. Another youngster to watch is Loris Baz, the 19-year-old Kawasaki Racing Team rider who already has one win at Silverstone and three podium finishes to his name.