Italy could produce its first Superbike World Champion this weekend, with Aprilia’s Max Biaggi on target to wrap up the title in front of his home fans at Imola on Sunday.
Biaggi, already a four-time world 250 Grand Prix Champion, sits a commanding 58 points ahead of Suzuki’s Leon Haslam with just four races – and a maximum of 100pts – left in this year’s championship.
If Biaggi’s rich vein of form continues at Imola, and Haslam fails to rally, the odds are that Biaggi will seal the championship deal on Sunday, making him the first Continental winner since Frenchman Raymond Roche back in 1990.
The genesis of Biaggi’s commanding lead is straightforward – he won seven of 10 races in a mid-year blitz, just as Haslam’s form began to plateau. Since then, the veteran has been metering his lead with precision, and the ultimate reward could come his way on Sunday night.
“As I already said, at Imola I will be have to be a ruthless calculator,” said Biaggi. “I’ll fight for the win if possible without ever holding back but, at the same time, I always have to bear in mind the situation in the championship and the importance of every single point.
“Experience teaches me that, to win the world championship, I need to be constantly focused, never leaving anything to chance. This is why, even more than the other weekends, it will be so important to find the best set-up right from the first practice. Imola is a track with a few too many bumps, so we’ll have to work hard to stay in the positions that count.”
But the WSBK title is nothing if unpredictable, and Biaggi knows that the likes of Australia’s Troy Corser (BMW), Jonathan Rea (Honda), Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha), Carlos Checa (Ducati), the resurgent Noriyuki Haga (Ducati) and Michel Fabrizio (Ducati) would love nothing more than to put the Aprilia party on ice for another round – and open up a small window for Haslam to attempt a highly improbable last round heist in Portugal.
Once again, Corser will be the only Aussie WSBK rider in action at Imola. And after a recent run of outs, a podium or two in the final few rounds will set the Wollongong rider up for a serious tilt at the title in 2011.
By then, Corser’s compatriot Chris Vermeulen should also be back to full fitness after a debilitating knee injury, ready to unleash with an all-new machine from Kawasaki.
“After the poor luck I had at the Nurburgring, I’m looking to turn our potential into race results at Imola,” Corser commented. “Under normal circumstances, we’d have secured a podium finish at the Nurburgring.
“Imola is a very different kind of race track, but I’m confident that, with our bike, we’re in the position to compete at the front of the field again. My aim is to clinch a place on the podium.”
The WSBK paddock is returning to Imola for the first time in three years, and it will be confronted with an extensively remodelled pit complex, as well as a few on-track tweaks which have created a faster flowing layout – inching back towards the original Imola template.
The circuit has produced some classic WSBK battles over the years, none more memorable than the ferocious tussle between Australia’s Troy Bayliss and American Colin Edwards in the final race of 2002 to decide the championship.
Edwards wore down Bayliss in that epic, but the Australian now holds the honour as the last rider to win at Imola, in 2006.
Earlier this year, all the WSBK top runners took part in a two-day test session at the circuit, 45 minutes’ drive from Ducati headquarters in Bologna, with Crutchlow the fastest ahead of Fabrizio, Haslam, Rea, Haga and Checa. Biaggi was ninth and Corser 12th.
Rea is safely ensconced in third position in the championship, but the battle for fourth is set to go down to the wire between Checa, Crutchlow and Haga. After a harrowing few rounds, Corse has slipped back to 11th.
The World Supersport title is delicately poised heading into Imola, with Kenan Sofuoglu a slender 12pt leader over fellow Honda rider and last start winner Eugene Laverty. Imola is now shaping as crunch time for both riders.
And then there’s the X factor in the shape of Newcastle’s Broc Parkes, who will continue his deputisation role in the Kawasaki factory team.
Parkes was third in his first outing on the Kawasaki, and with even more familiarisation could be pushing for a win at Imola – and taking big points away from Sofuoglu and the WSBK-bound Laverty in the process.
“It was good to get some time on the race bike outside of a race weekend,” Parkes said of a recent Valencia test. “We could fine-tune some things that I couldn’t do in Germany. I was quite satisfied with the test and we found some good developments, especially to do with improving my feel with the bike.
“I think we achieved quite a lot in that Valencia test. The times were good but I was not there to try and set records; mainly I wanted to get the bike set-up more the way I wanted it. I was a lot happier with the new front-end set-up after the Valencia sessions. Imola is a nice track, and it has been good to me over the years.”
Another Aussie, Mark Aitchison, will also be competing in the Supersport race at Imola.