The first round of the World Superbike Championships was held in Australia on the weekend at the Phillip Island racetrack with strong indications that the 2014 championship will be won on one of five bikes: an Aprilia RSV4 1000, a Kawasaki ZX-10R, a Ducati Panigale, a Suzuki GSX-R1000 or a Honda CBR1000RR.
"The Island" is a racetrack of majestic sweeping proportions and it is unquestionably the best riders' track in the world - when veteran race journalist Matt Oxley asked the world's leading MotoGP and WSBK riders to name their favourite corner on any racetrack anywhere in the world, four different Phillip Island corners were named among the favourites.
Only twelve riders were asked and the Phillip Island corners nominated were Turn 12 (chosen by Cal Crutchlow, Stefan Bradl, and Jorge Lorenzo), Stoner Corner (Mick Doohan), Turn 1 (Colin Edwards) and Lukey Heights (Scott Redding). In total, six of twelve riders chose a corner from the Phillip Island circuit. Phillip Island is the best riders circuit in the world! QED.
The first round of any major championship is always worth watching - new riders, new bikes and new rules often portend a new order and this year is no exception.
Most of the field is comprised of the usual suspects, with Tom Sykes, Sylvain Guintoli, Marco Melandri, Eugene Laverty and Davide Giugliano the most likely to take the championship at the end of the season, at least as divined by the bookmakers.
The table below represents the odds from odds aggregator Oddschecker, where if you decide you're going to back your judgement with hard-earned Baksheesh, you can find which bookies will give you the best odds for your money. I'm a longtime student of the odds, though I never wager a cent - across four decades of journalism, I have found the bookies are the most credible assessors of probability for just about anything, mainly because it's their job to get it right, and they lose money if they get it wrong.
Just below the most favoured contenders, you'll see the name of rookie Alex Lowes. Lowes was the 2013 British Superbike Champion, and certainly made a mark in his first race under the rejuvenated Suzuki team which will this year go under the name Voltcom Crescent Suzuki.
Lowes was the fastest rider in the first three timed sessions on the track, finishing sixth on the grid in superpole and showing enough promise to indicate that he's not lacking anything to compete at this level. Riding a racetrack at world championship pace is extremely difficult and only a handful of people in the world can do it at any given time - Lowes showed that he can do it when seeing a track for the first time, but in the end, he wasn't the fastest.
On the machinery side of things, this year is the beginning of a superbike renaissance, with nine marques competing: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Ducati, BMW, Aprilia, Bimota, MV Agusta and EBR (Erik Buell Racing).
Bimota won't be joining the fray with its Bimota BB3 until the second round of the titles in Aragon (Spain), but the marque's long time hallmark, being extremely fine handling characteristsics, will no doubt play a role when the mock-up above becomes real a month from now. The engine in the BB3 is based on the BMW S1000RR and with a top flight rider in the form of Ayrton Badovini who has already ridden the BMW for two season's successfully, the Rimini-based manufacturer might surprise once the season proper gets underway.
Erik Buell Racing 1190RX
For the Hero - Erik Buell Racing team, the weekend showed that it will need more development to run at World Superbike pace, and the two-rider team finished the weekend one man down (Geoff May broke a collar bone) and a long way short of the pace on the fast Island circuit. The machinery has previously been competitive in the American Superbikes series, and can be expected to be competitive in WSBK too, given more time to develop the entirely new bikes.
Aprilia RSV4 1000
Honda last won the World Superbike title in 2007 in the hands of James Toseland, and its bikes have won races in every season since, though it has never really been a serious competitor for the title since Toseland's narrow 2007 win over Nitro Noriyuki Haga's Yamaha R1. The PATA Honda World Superbike Team lacks for nothing, with two stellar talents in Jonathon Rea and Leon Haslam - if luck runs its way, the CBR1000RR is capable of winning the title.
Ducati 1199Panigale R
After featuring strongly in World Superbikes since the beginning, Ducati had a season worth forgetting in 2013, failing to win a single race. This season the Ducati team looks more settled and with Giugliano continuing to improve every season, there's every chance the Panigale will return to the winners circle, though perhaps not enough to take the crown.
The BMW Motorrad Italia Superbike Team lost Silvain Barrier to injury before the race, and local rider Glenn Allerton deputised at short notice to great effect, though never challenging for a podium. Barrier is a great natural talent, having won the Superstock title for the last two years. If he can regain fitness quickly, he can play a role in shaping the title, and though it's unlikely he can take the outright championship this year, he might well claw back the lead in the EVO class before the end of the series. That's the BMW Team Toth S1000RR undressed above.
MV Agusta 1000 F4
The win was Agostini’s 122nd GP win, his last and the last for the once dominant MV Agusta marque. Corti cannot be expected to emulate those exploits just yet, though the MV Agusta Reparto Corse Yakhnich Motorsport Team has the talented Corti (runner-up in the last two Superstock titles) and the famous MV Agusta brand at its disposal, and Corti is confident he will be a contender in 2015 once the EVO rules are fully implemented.
With a young bull (Alex Lowes) and an old bull (Eugene Laverty) sharing the riding duties, a completely new Yoshimura-infused K14 Gixxer and an old hand steering the rudder (Paul Denning), the Voltcom Crescent Suzuki Team looks very well placed to give the title a shake this year. Laverty's first race win was a masterful display as he found himself well down in the field during the opening lap, crossing the line in seventh after the first full circuit.
From there, he had to fight his way into clear air and when he'd done that on lap six, he still had more than three seconds to make up just to get on the back of the Guintoli-Melandri-Giugliano freight train in the lead.
He slowly but surely hunted the breakaway trio down and six laps later had latched onto the rear of the lead group, taking another five laps to find his way through to the lead. From there, he quickly established a small lead, building it to a very convincing three second win at the chequered flag.
A mechanical failure whilst in the lead almost certainly cost the Irishman a double win, but he's as hard-as-nails, with racecraft to match, and will be amongst the leading points scorers at the business end of the season. Another title for Suzuki looks more than possible.
The Rule Changes
This year the biggest change in the rules is the introduction of the EVO class. EVO class bikes are much closer to the bikes everyone can buy in the showroom. It's a prelude to 2015 where the entire class of superbikes will follow EVO rules and become immediately more relevant to the man in the street. The EVO class follows superbike technical regulations for chassis, suspension and brakes, while the engines will follow the same tech regulations as the FIM Superstock rules.
Many other new regs came into force for the championships contenders for 2014, all of them designed to lower the cost of competing in the 13 event series, and all of them levelling the field so that electronics genii don't establish performance margins that teams of modest budgets can't overcome. There is now a limit of eight engines per season per rider in the superbike class and six engines for EVO riders, the number of gear ratios has been limited, and both suspension and brakes now have a price cap.
This will make for much closer racing in 2014, and even closer racing in 2015.
Just for the record, the results, fastest laps, ideal times and everything you could possibly ask for in terms of statistical performance, are all available at the official World Superbike site.
Our pictorial coverage of the Phillip Island event covers far more than who passed who on which lap - it's a wholistic look at the entire experience, both inside and outside the pits.
Please note: All of the images in our Phillip Island gallery are published under the CC BY 4.0 License. You are free to use in any way you wish, as long as you link to and acknowledge Gizmag.com as the source, whether you're a media outlet, advertiser, PR company or private citizen.