WSBK: Haga: Every year I am close...
Having won two races and outscored all but Chris Vermeulen over the second half of last year, Yamaha Italia's Noriyuki Haga enters the 2006 season - which starts this weekend in Qatar - as a clear contender for what would be his first world crown.
After returning from MotoGP to battle for the 2004 WSBK title with Renegade Ducati, Haga made a slow start to the 2005 season as he adjusted to - and developed - the new R1, costing him any championship hopes. However, a breakthrough victory at Brno race two (round seven) was followed by podium finishes in all but one of the remaining 9 races.
That strong end to the season saw Haga climb to third in championship - behind only champion Troy Corser and MotoGP bound Vermeulen - and with an intensive winter test programme under his belt, Haga joins Corser and Ducati's Troy Bayliss as a 2006 title favourite.
"I don't feel any pressure," claimed 'Nitro Nori' ahead of the new season. "It is hard for me to say if I can win the title or not because we have still not tested with our rivals. We have made some good tests in Qatar and the bike is stronger than last year. It looks like Yamaha has been able to make the improvements I asked for at the end of last year so for now I am happy with progress.
"It is still my target to win the title. Every year I am close: second position, fourth position, third position... but never number one. I will always try my best at each race but only when we race with the others can I know how strong we are. All I can say now is that the championship is the one thing that I have never achieved. Every year I always go in with the attitude and focus to win it and this year is no different," added the 2000 WSBK runner-up.
Most of Yamaha Italia's pre-season testing focus has gone into improving traction and rideability of the R1 over a race distance, with a new engine management system improving power delivery and engine braking characteristics.
"I'm happy with the bike," said Haga's team-mate Andrew Pitt, also retained for a second season. "The R1 is really feeling more comfortable now and it's about evolution as much as anything else. Everything is looking good, we made some good progress at our December test in Qatar and I think that the team is well equipped to take on any problems that arise.
"The important thing is that I have a lot of confidence in the bike and that I really enjoy riding it now. The new electronics make it much easier to ride and we've pretty much found a good set-up for the race. The main thing we need to work on is finding a front tyre that will do the race distance. That was our big problem here last year, although it was our first race with the R1 and hopefully it won't be a problem this year," added the Australian.
First qualifying at Losail will take place on Thursday.