The 2005 WSB season begins in a couple of months of time at the new circuit in Qatar, and we are fairly certain who the main protagonists will be. Look no further than the two Fila Ducati boys, current champion Toseland and 04 runner up Laconi, for a likely pair to be in the title hunt. But for the first time in the Championship's history, Ducati is no longer the bike to be on. This could be a truly great year, with the Japanese in-line fours looking like they finally have the upper hand. This certainly seems to be the feeling in the pits, with so many of the satellite teams deserting the Bologna based twins in favour of Japanese machinery.
Honda's challenge will be lead by Chris Vermeulen and Karl Muggeridge on the Ten Kate CBR1000RR. Cult veteran campaigner Frankie Chili will also be in the hunt for podium finishes on the Klaffi Honda. Suzuki have a very serious looking line-up with ex-champ Troy Corser (already quick in testing) paired with Yukio Kagayama on the Alstare Corona GSXR1000. Chris Walker should be challenging for podium places on the Bertochi Kawasaki ZX10R, in what could be a great year for him. But of all the Japanese teams, Yamaha possibly have the jewel in the WSB crown, with Nori Haga reunited with the factory that launched him on the world stage, and with whom he raced so successfully, for so long.
He made his first impact as far back as 1996, when he came 2nd in one race at Sugo as a wild card, and then in 97 he came 2nd and 1st at Sugo again. Having won the Japanese SBK championship in 97, Yamaha unleashed him on the World Championship in 98 on the already ageing YZF750. To everyone's utter astonishment, he won three of the first four races of the season, at Phillip Island and doing the double at Donington. Everything went pear shape at Monza when he crashed twice in qualifying, having to be lifted onto the bike by his team to race. It wasn't until they went to Laguna much later in the season that he stood on the top step of the rostrum again, but along with a customary win at Sugo, five wins in his first full season was some debut. 1999 didn't go quite so well for Nori, managing just one win on the new R7.
But 2000 was his best season ever, with the bike sorted, he mounted a sustained assault on the title that had all his competitors running scared.
The season started in unforgettable style at Kyalami, with Edwards on the Honda SP1 battling it out with Haga, holding him off with a mighty braking manoeuvre. We were treated to more moments of genius by the Japanese maestro at Laguna, Donington and Assen, where he had a no-holds barred battle with Troy Bayliss. But the race for me was at Hockenheim. Having come third in Race 1, he came out of the traps like a rocket in Race 2, defying the hp disadvantage he was racing with. It all came down to the last lap, with Edwards leading him into the stadium section, usually meaning the race is in the bag. But Haga does things differently. He gunned the Yam up the outside and tipped into the notorious left hander side by side with Edwards. As the American took the usual line out, Haga pulled the R7 down and fired it up the inside to take an incredible lead and win. This was truly the riding of a genius, flashes of which were seen in 04, in particular at Brands, where he seemed to outwit Regis Laconi mentally as much as physically.
The only question mark hangs over the bike. The R1 has been dominant in Stock trim, but has had little success as a Superbike. The R7 was a little like the rider in 2000 - short, stocky and light. Haga was dogged by a drug scandal throughout the season, after ephedrine showed up in a urine sample. Haga had lost about 2 stones in the winter, and there was a suspicion it may not have all been down to hard graft. Haga used the lightweight and high-revving characteristics of the R7 to his advantage in 2000, carrying high corner speed and unconventional lines his opponents could not cover. At Laguna he repeatedly attacked on the downward spiral of the Corkscrew, and at other circuits he would habitually slide the Yam up the inside to take the apex - hence the Sumarai of Slide nickname. Will the R1 suit his style? It does look big compared to the Honda and Kawasaki, but it remains to be seen what Team Italia can come up with. If its 90% the bike the opposition is on, Haga will do the rest.