A new venue to the series, Losail has already shown that the leading Honda riders are on the pace in readiness for the 18-lap/97.2km race on Saturday 26 February. The Honda CBR600RR has been a phenomenal success in the past two years since its launch, and the revamped 2005 model, complete with USD front forks and a host of upgrades to the base road machine, has already posted positive results in testing.
For the past three years Ten Kate Honda riders have won the Riders's Championship itself, and in this season's 12-round competition Ten Kate has attracted sponsorship from Winston, plus two new riders. Sebastien Charpentier is a well-known and respected figure in this class of racing, as is his team-mate for 2005 Katsuaki Fujiwara, a four-time WSS race winner.
Charpentier, a full-time rider in the Klaffi Honda team in 2004, has made a quick transition to the new CBR600RR in testing. He recently topped the Losail test results with a 2'04.259 laptime, after two days of extensive preparations at the 5.380km circuit in the Qatari desert.
Having secured the 2002 world title for Ten Kate on a CBR600FS, Honda's second factory Frenchman, 32-year-old Fabien Foret (Team Megabike CBR600RR) returns to the Honda fold in 2005, alongside 2004 WSS wildcard rider and 2003 European Superstock Champion Michel Fabrizio (Team Italia Megabike Honda CBR600RR). Only 20 years of age, Fabrizio already has MotoGP experience, and a burning desire to succeed every time he gets on a race bike of any kind.
A lone Team Klaffi Honda CBR600RR competes in 2005, with the reigning European Champion Tatu Lauslehto on board. Having shown promise in pre-season testing the 20-year-old Finn is in no way overawed by the challenge in the year ahead.
After his remarkable Losail performance in testing, finishing over 0.8 seconds faster than second placed rider Foret, Charpentier is understandably upbeat about the forthcoming race and season.
"I'm more than happy with the recent test at Losail," he said. "And, not just with a good outright lap time, but we were also able to do some longer distance runs to simulate a race. I tried two potential race set-ups and I think that I can even improve on the testing times once race weekend begins."
Katsuaki Fujiwara, new to Honda machinery this year, has made himself ready for the new challenge by concentrating on the first race in pre-season testing.
"What gives me the most confidence is that I was able to maintain similar lap times right the way through an extended 12-lap run ay Losail," he said. "I tried to put in a fast lap in the tests but made a small mistake. That shows me I still have things to learn about the bike and the track!"
Foret, the 2002 Supersport World Champion and a man with an enviable reputation on any form of Supersport machinery, brings his vast experience to bear in the team, and after hard work in set-up, was second quickest at the recently completed Losail tests.
The final analysis of the test was very good for us," said Foret in the run-up to the race. "I'm here in Qatar for the first time, with a new team and a new bike. Now, with the help of the technicians I have made good work on the set-up of the new bike. We can still do better on the front fork, but for now is all okay."
After hard but enjoyable work at Losail, Fabrizio looks forward to the two qualifying days and then the race on the 26. I like the track very much, it is really fast," said the determined Italian. "The circuit has many sections that we can to run at high speed on and also the grip is good in some places, after so many rider have now done so many laps on it. For Saturday's race, I hope to fight for the podium – but there are five riders who can also finish in the top three."
For rookie Lauslehto, the race will be another big step on a steep learning curve. "For the first time ever in a full world championship turnout, on a track with 16 corners, I suppose finishing 12th fastest in the tests was OK. I am very happy to be here and will do my very best."
World Superbike Round 1 of 12 – Qatar
In the revamped World Superbike Championship, with a permanent field of 30-riders, a host of 1000cc four-cylinder machines will try to emulate the success enjoyed in the 2004 season by Ten Kate rider Chris Vermeulen, who took the then all-new CBR1000RR Honda to four wins, including an outstanding double at Laguna Seca.
Finishing overall fourth in the 2004 SBK series, 2003 World Supersport Champion Vermeulen has the most CBR1000RR saddle time of all his fellow 2005 supported riders, who will blaze a Honda trail five machines wide.
The 2004 World Supersport Champion, Karl Muggeridge is moving up to the join Vermeulen in the Winston Ten Kate Honda set-up, and has already shown class and pace on his CBR1000RR.
In the Klaffi Honda team, youth meets experience, as Max Neukirchner joins Superbike legend Pierfrancesco Chili in a two-man assault on the championship. Chili's career in the series is over ten seasons long and 17 wins deep, thus 2003 World Supersport 'Rookie of the Year' Neukirchner is well placed in his debut Superbike season.
Superbike racing's very own prodigal son, Ben Bostrom has elected to return to the unfinished business he has on a global stage, and has teamed up with serial 2004 Superbike race winners, Renegade. The Anglo-Italian team has already won six Superbike races in a single year of SBK competition, and in Bostrom they have a seven times WSB race winner and former AMA Superbike Champion.
Preparations have been unexpectedly handicapped for the Winston Ten Kate
Superbike wing of Ten Kate's impressive thrust, largely due to illness experienced by each of their riders, Vermeulen and Muggeridge.
"Some riders have done well over 100 laps at last week's tests, but I've barely done 40," affirmed Vermeulen, fighting off a severe bout of flu. "I've struggled to do even that many, to be frank. I know there's more to come but only when I'm feeling better. The circuit's good and the bike has had a lot more to offer than I could use at the Doha tests. It'll be different when we're back there on Thursday for first qualifying."
Muggeridge, a new rider to the class, is especially conscious of losing valuable testing time, even if he has already shown great aptitude in his switch from 600cc to 1000cc machines. "It's frustrating because we lost a lot of testing time because I've been feeling so rough and that's not what you need when you're getting used to anew bike and a new circuit," said Muggeridge. "But it's race weekend that matters and that's what we'll be working towards – after I spend the next couple of days in bed."
Chili, a man with enviable experience of every type of machine from 125GP bikes to full on factory Superbikes, intends to meet his latest new challenge head on."We were running only a first stage engine at the tests so I did not have the power to push hard," stated Chili. "We spent time getting used to the bike and the track. We have higher spec race engines coming for the race itself, so I will be looking forward to that."
Neukirchner, who finished his rookie WSS season in ninth place overall, finds himself ready for more power in more ways than one. "The engine we used in the Losail test was completely standard but the team is good and worked very hard to help me," said an appreciative Max. "We have a better engine for the race so maybe I'll win my first points at the first attempt! This year will be harder than Supersport was last year, with so many good bikes and riders in Superbike."
Bostrom, still at the early stages of getting used to his 2005 bike and team, nonetheless is looking to a restart in Superbike. "It's nice in this team, very personal. It feels good to be back, and I've been smiling the whole time I've been here. It's been fun tuning the bike to a new team and the boys had to work through the night to get us here in time. The bike feels better every single hour that passes, so that's the best thing of all."
Two World Superbike races, and one Supersport race will take place at Losail on Saturday 26 February, and each championship comprises 12-rounds this year, sited from Europe to Australia and the Middle East. The championship denouement takes place at Magny Cours, France, on 9 October, some nine months ahead.