The track of myths and legends awaits as WorldSBK heads to Ducati heartland
Italy is a country steeped in both motorsport history and modern glory, with a passion for motorcycling on another level to many other nations. Two wheeled heroes and motorcycle manufacturers from one of the cultural capitals of Europe make up a gallery that tells its own story, and the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is a showpiece that crowns the exhibit.
Imola. The word is enough, for most, to conjure a photo album of people, places, moments and memories. Snaking around the Parco delle Acque Minerali, the mythical ribbon of tarmac kisses the Santerno river on the right at Tamburello before curving around Tosa as the echoes of the Ayrton Senna grandstand fade into the peace of the park; the undulating layout lined by trees on the ride home round Rivazza. The secrets of Imola are revealed only to the brave.
Jonathan Rea is the most successful rider at Imola, alongside Carlos Checa, and arrives in Emilia-Romagna as a fan of the track and the winner of the last four races held at the circuit. As the only rider in 2016 to have been on the podium in every race, the reigning Champion comes from a double win at Assen to take on the track on which he first won in 2011, before he was the benchmark. No one would bet against a strong Rea, least of all the men who are trying to figure out how to beat him.
Tom Sykes shares the record for most podiums at Imola with Noriyuki Haga, however. On a track that separates those who dare from those who fear, Sykes is a consistently frontrunning challenger at the Italian track and is the only rider to have started from pole more than once: three times. With good form in 2016, the number 66 Kawasaki is sure to put up a fight.
The Ducati factory in Borgo Panigale is the closest to Imola, and the Italian manufacturer from just outside Bologna will want to put on a good show so close to home, and on the 90th Anniversary of the marque. Chaz Davies pulled out a bigger gap in his battle with Tom Sykes to take P2 in the Championship standings after the Yorkshireman failed to score in Race 1 at Assen, and Davies professes to be happy with the bike and with the base setup the Italian squad have found. The bike is certainly closing in on being a favourite for race wins every Round and updates such as the new exhaust rolled out at the start of the European season have proved successful. After not finishing either race in 2015 however, Davies will want to turn back the clock a year further to when he was on the podium twice as he tries to gain some momentum in his title bid. Last season, Imola also saw the return of second Aruba.it rider Davide Giugliano, as the Italian came back from a difficult period of injury following a crash in pre-season. The Ducati rider came back in style, too, and started from pole despite still struggling with fitness. With home motivation for both Davies and Giugliano, they will equally be strong competitors.
After the double podium joy for Honda at the TT Circuit Assen, where Nicky Hayden took his first podium in WorldSBK, the strong line up of the 2006 MotoGP World Champion and the 2014 WorldSSP Champion face down a different challenge in Imola. Hayden, a veteran of Assen, has never raced at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari and van der Mark, now a consistent podium challenger, had a difficult rookie weekend at the track last season. The Honda, however, took pole, fastest laps and the double win in 2014, and development has seen the bike keep improving. There is no doubt that both riders are also keen to keep improving and learning, with their sights set further than only getting on the podium.
Aprilia and MV Agusta both scored their best results of the season so far last time out at Assen, with rookie Lorenzo Savadori taking a career best P4 in Race 2 for the Noale factory, 24 hours after Leon Camier brought the MV Agusta 1000 F4 home in the same position in Race 1. Aprilia lost out on the skills of Alex de Angelis at the Dutch track too, as the San Marinese rider suffered an injury to his hand but is hoping to be back at his closest track to home. Imola will see both Aprilia and MV Agusta put everything into some more big hauls of points.
Yamaha, with the new YZF R1, will be keen to find out where they lie in the shuffled pack at the Italian track. With Lowes and Guintoli well knowing how to score points at Imola, the race will be on to keep the Japanese factory’s roll of front row starts going. Milwaukee BMW, with Josh Brookes having appeared at the track once paired with Imola novice Karel Abraham, will want to quickly unlock the potential of their S1000RR around the 4.936km circuit, and Althea BMW will have the added incentive of racing at home. Both Althea riders have participated in previous race weekends at Imola, with Reiterberger taking two top six finishes in STK1000 and Torres taking his first WorldSBK podium in his rookie year. In addition, Pedercini rider Sylvain Barrier is hoping to race at Imola after being sidelined following a crash in Aragon, with the Frenchman wanting to get back on the bike as quickly as possible and race in his team’s home race.
At Imola, fortune favours the brave. WorldSBK will be back at the Italian track from the 29th April to the 1st May, to let loose the best production motorcycle racing Championship in the World.
At a certain point in any season, there comes a time when the points start to matter. Not in terms of a true favourite or a mathematical impossibility, rather a sense of who has momentum and who is struggling to find traction. Every rider will have an unlucky race or make the odd mistake, and Rounds such as Assen with weather complications can leave some suffering more than others. In WorldSSP after Assen, key pre-season title favourites Jules Cluzel and especially, PJ Jacobsen, find themselves with an unexpected deficit.
Cluzel knows the pressure of fighting to keep up from behind, having chased Sofuoglu a number of times in his quest to be crowned World Supersport Champion. With the added incentive of knowing there are still traces of injuries from his 2015 crash in Jerez that he hasn’t yet lost, and having had his determination tested and verified in recovery, the French MV Agusta rider will not give up and will do everything in Imola to get back to his Thai form from Buriram this year.
PJ Jacobsen had a crescendo of a 2015, coming home second in the title after gaining momentum. It’s a situation that is slowly becoming a reality in 2016 as the American has shown great pace but suffered big losses of points. In Aragon the Honda rider pushed a little too far fighting for the lead, before in Assen he failed to see a red flag before crashing in increasingly difficult conditions, repeating the feat after the restart.
Kenan Sofuoglu, after a crash with a tyre problem in Phillip Island, has shown the most consistency since. The reigning Champion keeps raking in the front row starts and big hauls of points, cutting the lead to his teammate Randy Krummenacher as his title defence starts to take shape.
Krummenacher, however, has not had to gamble as yet. The Swiss rider leads the standings and has done since Round 1, when he took victory in his first ever race in WorldSSP. The gap to Sofuoglu may be getting smaller, but the Puccetti rider on the other side of the garage is a constant force to be reckoned with at the head of the race. Knowing he needs consistency rather than a gamble, he may yet have more up his sleeve.
Imola is a track known to all the key players of the season so far, except the Swiss rookie. It’s a track that rewards bravery and trust, and a track that seems sculpted rather than designed. To stop himself losing more points, Krummenacher will need to tame the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari as soon as possible.
Kyle Smith and Gino Rea, the winner and P2 in Assen respectively, used their great haul of points to move up in the Championship, with Smith especially moving up above both Cluzel and Jacobsen. The Brit, who had a strong 2015 in which he also took a victory, will want to keep that going in Imola and see if he can get amongst the top echelons of the Championship once again.
As the paddock prepares for the spectacular track, who will feel the pressure most? The lights will go out at 11:20am local time (GMT +2), to see who comes out on top.
In years gone by, Imola staged chariot races. Nowadays, it hosts horsepower of a very different kind as young Italian Raffaele de Rosa returns to his home country in the lead of the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup.
So far in 2015, Superstock 1000 has witnessed two different winners on as many different types of motorcycle: Aragon saw Leandro Mercado return to the category with victory on the Aruba.it Racing – Junior Team Ducati bike before, last time out at Assen, aforementioned de Rosa broke his duck with the Althea BMW Racing Team.
Two races down, de Rosa leads compatriot Michael Ruben Rinaldi by five points, with Mercado third and nine behind the Cup leader. Jeremy Guarnoni of France and Andrea Mantovani of Italy complete the top five, each 21 points adrift of de Rosa. Others have ground to make up, not least Roberto Tamburini – the Cup runner-up of 2015 has yet to score any points in 2016.
Sadly, others will not make the start at Imola: notably Florian Marino and Riccardo Russo, as the PATA Yamaha Official Stock Team riders (each a pole-sitter at the first two rounds) both suffered broken legs in separate incidents at Assen. Andrea Tucci was also declared unfit in the Netherlands, while the likes of Toprak Razgatlioglu (tipped pre-season as a title contender) and Luca Oppedisano are more than keen to get back to racing follow untimely layoffs due to medical reasons.
A couple of wildcards will bolster the line-up. Lorenzo Baroni (BMW Gomma Racing) will make his 42nd Superstock 1000 start, having previously finished on the podium at Misano and MotorLand in 2012. Also on the grid will be Matteo Ferrari; the RS125 GP Trophy winner of 2011 will make his debut in WorldSBK following three seasons in the Moto3 World Championship.
Those who do take part will be hoping to avoid the chaotic start to last year’s race: the opening stages included incident after incident with jump starts, penalties and a memorable highside at the Rivazza when Marino lost control and wiped De Rosa out of action. Lorenzo Savadori prevailed to take victory from Tamburini and the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Jezek, who had taken a career-first pole position on Saturday.
Sunday’s Superstock 1000 race at Imola will begin at 14:20 local time (GMT +2).