February 28, 2009 The 2009 World Superbikes season is off to a cracking start, with an action-packed qualifying stage and Superpole now decided. Boasting a huge grid of superstar riders, some ominous new faces, a raft of new bikes and brand new teams from BMW and Aprilia, we've tipped WSBK 2009 as the one to watch over MotoGP in our detailed season preview a few weeks ago. And what a start! Texan Ben Spies has taken an astonishing Superpole victory on his international debut for Yamaha, ahead of veteran Max Biaggi on the brand new Aprilia RSV4 and newcomer Jonny Rea on his Hannspree Honda CBR1000RR. The new Superpole format has proven itself to be pure cut-throat desperation and a great spectacle - and the races tomorrow should be absolutely stunning. A crack team of Gizmag bike-heads reports from Australia's Phillip Island GP circuit.
Ben Spies, fresh from humbling the previously untouchable Mat Mladin by taking the last three AMA Superbike championships in America, has sent the World Superbike paddock a sharp warning by taking a stunning pole position this afternoon at Phillip Island in his international debut.
To put his achievement in perspective, Spies has never ridden at Australia's storied Phillip Island racetrack before; he's had precious few sessions on track to learn which way the track goes, master it and then post a staggering 1'31.069 lap time well under 2008 champion Troy Bayliss's previous lap record.
Perhaps even more amazing is 'Roman Emperor' Max Biaggi's second position on grid. Biaggi, multiple world 250cc GP champion and a famous rival to Valentino Rossi in MotoGP, has had only a handful of tests to develop his Aprilia RSV4, a brand new bike and engine that has been put together for the 2009 SBK series. For the Aprilia to qualify faster than any Ducati, Honda or Suzuki in its debut race meeting is astonishing.
The other new bike on the grid, the BMW S1000RR, didn't fare so well. 2005 WSBK champion Troy Corser made a critical tyre choice mistake in the new Superpole qualifying session and was relegated to 17th position after finishing with a top-5 time in early qualifying rounds.
The new Superpole format shines
The new Superpole format will be an event in itself for 2009 - the sudden-death knockout format sees the top 20 riders from qualifying go out for 12 minutes, after which the top 16 are let through for another 12 minutes, and then half are eliminated before the final eight fight for pole position and the front two rows of grid positions.
The nail-biting new format bit a couple of expected front-runners as Haga and Neukirchner bowed out in the second session - but Troy Corser's Team BMW must be kicking themselves for assuming that they'd make the final eight on race tyres, preserving his qualifiers for the final session. A flurry of surprising quick laps from riders like Leon Haslam, Regis Laconi, Jakub Smrz and Carlos Checa relegated Corser to a disastrous 17th on the grid.
Ben Spies' dominant performance in Superpole comes on the back of consistently fast times throughout the weekend - and he's got a proven ability to thrive in the most heated and desperate race conditions. We'd have to say he's looking like a strong chance to take at least one victory in tomorrow's races.
Other consistent front-runners have included Hannspree Honda's Jonny Rea, who looked almost certain to take Superpole until Spies and Biaggi pulled scorching laps out of the bag in the final session. This is Rea's first look at Phillip Island as well - the BSB-bred youngster is looking fast, confident and very dangerous this weekend.
Biaggi's Aprilia has had the odd reliability issue, and Nitro Nori Haga is starting from a difficult 13th place, which might take either or both of them out of contention for a win. Still, it's a fool who would bet against either of these fierce and experienced competitors. Ducati riders Jakub Smrz and Michel Fabrizio have been strong throughout - and Regis Laconi posted a jaw-dropping time in the second session of Superpole, but none have been hugely consistent yet and Smrz in particular hasn't shown himself to be a contender on race days in the past.
Shakey Byrne has struggled to come to grips with the Phillip Island circuit, rarely troubling the top 10 in qualifying times - but he's a phenomenal rider and is bound to feature through the series, whether or not he makes an impact tomorrow.
Weather conditions at Phillip Island are notoriously variable, so we won't know until the last minute what to expect tomorrow - but one thing's for sure, our eyes will be glued to the track for some excellent racing - if the Gizmag team manages to avoid severe overindulgence at any number of Superbike weekend parties tonight! Wish us luck... Incremental updates as they happen over at TheBikerGene.
- Final grid positions:
Following grid positions decided by Qualifying 2