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World Superbike – Phillip Island Preview: Better than MotoGP?

The 2009 World Superbike (WSB) season-opening round at Phillip Island, Australia is almost upon us, and it’s shaping up to be quite a race. Not only are two new manufacturers jumping in the ring, but we also have an American among the top-ranked riders, and other rider changes could make this season of Superbike competition the most memorable in the series’ 21-year history.

The tough world economy has chipped away at MotoGP, with factories eliminating or reducing their efforts in that series. But WSB is stronger than ever, buoyed by the addition of two new marques – BMW and Aprilia – and increased interest in the series worldwide.
We’ve told you already about the BMW S1000RR, and the factory racers – Ruben Xaus and Troy Corser (unhurt and ready to ride after a 140-mph get-off testing last weekend) – that will be campaigning them. And racing veteran Max Biaggi is the great hope for nascent WSB challenger Aprilia. Looks like Aussies, Germans and Italians will have something at stake this weekend; how about the US of A?

AMA champ Ben Spies will be flying the flag for his homeland, but thanks to his characteristic laid-back charm, Spies seems relaxed. Is he nervous about competing at such a high level of competition at a new track, racing against so many veteran legends of motorsport? “I knew the layout of the track before I got here [thanks to video games],” he told an interviewer. So even though taking the WSB crown this year would “take some good luck for sure,” there was still no place Spies would rather be “than on a Yamaha in World Superbike.”

But when the single-make rubber (Pirelli) meets the roadcourse on Sunday, it will all come down to who’s the fastest rider on the fastest bike, and these are some fast guys indeed. Battle-scarred Noriyuki Haga, now in his 12th season of WSB and racing for Xerox Ducati on a 1098R, turned the second-fastest time at the Island during the first qualifying session on Friday afternoon. Shinya Nakano was just .6 seconds behind the quickest laps on the new Aprilia RSV4, with Spies trailing behind him (although Spies was turning the fastest times in the free practice earlier in the day.) Corser and Xaus were struggling on the BMWs, but if anybody can get a bike around Phillip Island quickly, it’s native Aussie Corser.

Even if you don’t have a head for numbers, this looks like some good racing. It’ll be broadcast on SpeedTV as well as on the WSB website. This season looks like it may eclipse MotoGP for close racing, and that can’t be a bad thing.