The Losail International Circuit in Qatar is the venue for the opening round of the 2007 racing season this weekend as the World Superbike Championship moves into its twentieth year. Very little has changed for last year's championship-winning Ducati Xerox Team, which goes into the new season with renewed hopes of success, judging by the pace set during winter testing by double world champion Troy Bayliss and his Italian team-mate Lorenzo Lanzi, who line up together again. On the technical front the successful Ducati 999 machine, which enters its final year of world championship racing, also remains the same, apart from an updated version of the idle control in the electronics package. With title sponsor Xerox also on board for a third successive year, the Ducati Xerox Team is gearing up for what promises to be another splendid year of World Superbike racing.
And the opposition will not be lacking, coming once again from the four Japanese manufacturers, who will be present in 2007 with brand-new or updated machinery, but it is the rider front that gains the most with the arrival of four times 250cc world champion Max Biaggi in the Suzuki line-up, partnered by Yukio Kagayama. 2006 runner-up (and former world champion with Ducati) James Toseland is back on his Honda, this year partnered by Italian Roberto Rolfo. In the Yamaha Italia team, the ever-strong Noriyuki Haga is joined by double champion Troy Corser, while Kawasaki have Régis Laconi and Fonsi Nieto competing in a two-rider team. A strong outsider could also be Ruben Xaus in the Sterilgarda Ducati team, while two more Ducati 999s will be in the hands of Jakub Smrz (Caracchi) and Dean Ellison (Pedercini).
Bayliss and Lanzi have been setting the pace during the winter testing, the Australian resulting quickest in Qatar and smashing the unofficial lap record at his home circuit of Phillip Island, the venues for the opening two rounds.
Despite these exceptional performances the 37 year-old from Taree remains circumspect about this weekend's race. "Honestly one of the hardest races of the year is going to be the first race in Qatar" declared Troy. "I'm not going to keep my hopes up too much because I know how difficult it's going to be for us. If we happen to win both races, we will certainly be in a great position because it's going to be nearly impossible to do that. Testing there in December looked great on paper but if I come onto the straight first and there's somebody within half-a-second, they're going to pass me. I have to make a break and that's very hard to do. You can try as hard as you can to get away, but you chew your tyres, it's going to be a difficult situation."
"We've basically got the same package as we had last year with a few minor changes but I would say that the team has worked really hard on the settings over the winter. We've had really good tests since we stopped at the end of last year and Pirelli have worked well and come up with some new tyres. Now we're just waiting for the first race but we're confident we can do a good job with what we've got."
A reconfirmed Lorenzo Lanzi has been in terrific form over the winter, recapturing the sort of performance that initially earned him his place in the factory Ducati squad for 2006. Now it just remains for the 25 year-old Italian to confirm those testing results in this year's races.
"I feel quite calm about the season ahead because the winter tests went very well so I am relaxed and in the right frame of mind. We worked really well in the tests, trying a lot of new solutions so let's see if we can have a good championship. I set great times everywhere and this really gives me a lot of motivation. I will need that because there are a lot of fast riders out there. The guys to beat will be those on the Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda, we're all going to be up there fighting for the win. I've always gone pretty good at Qatar, even though I had that bad crash last year, so we'll be looking to start off well in tomorrow's first practice session."
"I am very happy to be back in racing and want to say thank you to Francis and the team for all the support they are giving me. Although Superbike is a new adventure for me, I am looking forward to it. There are many good riders here - and many have a lot of Superbike experience - so I know that my job is not going to be easy. But I'm ready for this new challenge and will give it everything I've got."
"A new season and a new bike and I am happy to be back on the race track to race instead of just testing. Of course, testing is very important - especially with a new bike - and we will see how we will go in these first races. There are many good riders in this series and I know I have to be more consistent this year if I am to have a chance of the title. My plan is to be fast, win races or take as many podiums as possible and try not to crash on a race day!"
Fonsi Nieto: "We have done a lot of testing this winter and now I just want to start racing. The bike has been improving throughout our tests and I think we can race in a good position. You never really know until the racing starts for real but I feel confident that we can score good results at this track, and make a good start. I have a little head cold at the moment but I am sure it should not affect my weekend too much."
Regis Laconi: "I can't wait to start. Testing has gone well and we have made some important improvements to the bike but the only thing that matter about racing is racing. That is when you know where you really are. The team has changed a bit and I have a good feeling with my crew chief and everyone, so we have worked well over the winter. The new suspension is the main thing we have changed from last year and that has not only helped with the suspension itself, but my understanding of the whole machine. Other improvements the team has made to the bike should help us in the early laps of each race, so I am confident that we can start his new season in a good way."
Shinya Nakano - Rider, Konica Minolta Honda;
"The coming three days at the IRTA tests are very important because they are held only 15 days before the first round of the 2007 MotoGP World Championship! It'll be vital to find a good combination of tyres to use for the first and second races, in particular we need to find a good rear tyre during this test. I do not feel 100% ready yet, so I know that I still have much to do and improve, but by the end of this test I hope that we'll be more than prepared for the first two races of the year. I'm happy at how the Team and I have learned to work together over the last few months as good communication will be vital throughout the year. I like Jerez, it is a good technical track and in the past I have obtained good results, so I love riding around there."