The World Superbike Championship has finally kicked off in Phillip Island, with two days of testing that will lead up to the season opener next weekend. With some significant changes in the roster and new entries such as MV Agusta and Erik Buell Racing joining the already fierce competition, the 2014 WSBK series is officially up for grabs.
Carrying on the momentum gained in Portimão in January, Eugene Laverty and Suzuki topped the combined time sheets with a blistering 1:30.513 scored in the morning session, which is barely three tenths off the best lap of 1:30.234 set by Carlos Checa last year on his way toward Superpole. The Irishman's lap, moreover, was not a one-off effort. In the afternoon, despite not being able to improve his personal best, Laverty lapped in the 1:31 mark for eleven times, slightly more consistently than his closest competitors Davide Giugliano (fastest in the afternoon but 0.205 seconds behind in the combined rankings) and reigning world champion Tom Sykes (0.224 seconds behind), who were the only ones capable of keeping his pace, set on low 1:31s.
"Today's lap time surprised me," Laverty admitted. "I was much faster than my original goal, the bike is working well throughout the track and is just behaving perfectly overall. The warm temperatures and absence of wind did the rest. As far as feelings on the bike go, the GSX-R is the best package I've ever had. I can attack the course more than I ever have done, and that gives me a lot of confidence. The rear tires are working well too; even after 24 laps we are still under my lap record."
Laverty, whose rookie teammate Alex Lowes set the fifth best time (+0.487 seconds) behind Loris Baz, indirectly sent a strong message to his former team, Aprilia, and Marco Melandri, who struggled with the setup throughout the day to finish in sixth position (+0.633 seconds). The Italian, who is still experiencing pain in his right foot after a crash in Jerez during the last tests, voiced an excessive nervousness of his RSV4 in corner exit and direction changes, but did not appear particularly worried. Behind him, Leon Haslam, Sylvain Guintoli, Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies wrapped up the Top 10, all below a second in terms of gaps.
In eleventh position, Niccolò Canepa led the EVO category on Althea's Panigale with a 1:31.897 (+1.384 seconds) despite lacking more than 12 mph in terms of top speed on the straight. "I didn't expect to be so fast as this is actually my first test on this bike," said Canepa. "But I have to give credit to the team for putting together a competitive package in very little time. I felt at ease right from the beginning. To be this close already to the full SBK bikes is a great source of motivation."
On the other hand, the two new manufacturers entering the championship, both in the SBK category, face a steeper learning curve. MV Agusta and its only rider Claudio Corti, who already enjoyed four days of testing, seized 14th position (+2.345 seconds). Geoff May and Aaron Yates, debuting on the world stage with the EBR 1190 RX, were seven and nine seconds off the pace respectively and did not leave the pits in the afternoon session.
Tomorrow, the riders and teams will have a second opportunity to tweak and play with their bikes. Starting on Friday, the competition will get much more fierce.
Day 1 Lap Times:
1. Eugene Laverty (IRL) Suzuki 1:30.513
2. Davide Giugliano (ITA) Ducati 1:30.718
3. Tom Sykes (GBR) Kawasaki 1:30.737
4. Loris Baz (FRA) Kawasaki 1:30.757
5. Alex Lowes (GBR) Suzuki 1:31.000
6. Marco Melandri (ITA) Aprilia 1:31.146
7. Leon Haslam (GBR) Honda 1:31.172
8. Sylvain Guintoli (FRA) Aprilia 1:31.321
9. Jonathan Rea (GBR) Honda 1:31.404
10. Chaz Davies (GBR) Ducati 1:31.419
11. Niccolo Canepa (ITA) Ducati 1:31.897
12. Toni Elias (SPA) Aprilia 1:32.301
13. David Salom (SPA) Kawasaki 1:32.636
14. Claudio Corti (ITA) MV Agusta 1:32.858
15. Sylvain Barrier (FRA) BMW 1:32.997
16. Jeremy Guarnoni (FRA) Kawasaki 1:33.509
17. Fabian Foret (FRA) Kawasaki 1:33.676
18. Sheridan Morais (RSA) Kawasaki 1:33.954
19. Luca Scassa (ITA) Kawasaki 1:33.960
20. Alessandro Andreozzi (ITA) Kawasaki 1:34.140
21. Michel Fabrizio (ITA) Kawasaki 1:34.314
22. Imre Toth (HUN) BMW 1:36.258
23. Geoff May (USA) EBR 1:38.152
24. Aaron Yates (USA) EBR 1:39.656
25. Peter Sebestyen (HUN) BMW 1:42.242