WSBK: Preview - Losail.
The 'phoney war' finally ends at Qatar this Saturday, when the secrecy of pre-season testing is shattered by the roaring reality of the 2006 World Superbike Championship season opener.
An eye watering entry of almost 30 permanent riders (representing six manufacturers) contains three WSBK champions - reigning title holder Troy Corser, returning 2001 champion Troy Bayliss and 2004 winner James Toseland - while Alex Barros, Ruben Xaus, Roberto Rolfo and Franco Battaini have confirmed WSBK's growing status by joining Bayliss in the switch from MotoGP.
Those five have been 'traded' for 2005 WSBK runner-up Chris Vermeulen, who moves the opposite way, but - in addition to Corser and Toseland - the grand prix group will face fierce competition for SBK glory from the likes of Noriyuki Haga, Lorenzo Lanzi, Karl Muggeridge, Yukio Kagayama, Pierfranceso Chili, Andrew Pitt, Chris Walker, Regis Laconi and Steve Martin.
2006 will be the third year of Pirelli control tyre competition - a ruling that was predicted to cripple the championship, but has instead helped to produce arguably the most technically equal road racing world championship on two wheels. The close racing has in turn helped rebuild SBK's prestige in the face of a sustained four-stroke MotoGP onslaught, while simultaneously convincing manufacturers and star riders to participate in the production championship.
For reigning double WSBK champion Corser, Losail will mark the first of 13 rounds over which he will aim to keep his coveted prize - and further confirm his place among the all-time SBK greats. With 31 race wins to his credit, the Alstare Suzuki rider is already tied for second (with Colin Edwards) on the all-time win list and eager to prove his talent against the highly rated 2006 grid.
Corser will be teamed with Yukio Kagayama once again this season and the Japanese, who took a race win at Qatar last season, will be out to prove that his mid-season dip in form was a never-to-be-repeated aberration, as he sets about his task with his usual mix of experience and unrivalled exuberance.
While Corser and Kagayama will ride the 'official' factory backed Suzukis, there will be four permanent GSXR1000 riders this year with a third rider in Alstare colours, 2002 World Supersport Champion Fabien Foret, plus the Celani Team Suzuki Italia machine of 2002 European Superstock Champion, Vittorio Iannuzzo.
However, the Suzuki number one is undoubtedly Corser - who starts the year as the man to beat, but is expected to face a stiff challenge from fellow Australian Bayliss in what is being dubbed 'the battle of the Troys'.
Returning to his 'alma mater' after a MotoGP career punctuated by podium finishes, Bayliss has been on fire in testing, readapting to the latest Ducati 999 in record time; all despite the lingering effects of a severe left forearm injury, suffered late last year on a Camel Honda MotoGP machine.
Forming the second prong in a fierce factory Ducati Xerox attack is double race winner Lorenzo Lanzi. His two 2005 race wins came in his rookie season, and each success underlined that a new Italian talent was in town - but can he keep up with Bayliss?
Completing the preseason trio of proven title contenders - alongside Corser and Bayliss - is Haga, in whom Yamaha Italia has a proven race winner. Third in the championship last year, 'Nitro Nori' now has one season with the R1 under his belt and faces his best chance since 2000 of a first world title.
Pitt's battling qualities and front-running in '05 saw him re-signed for his second season alongside Haga, and a podium finish is his first priority for 2006. Former grand prix hero Norick Abe has a similar aim as the Japanese again leads the Yamaha Motor France charge.
Abe's team-mate of 2005, Sebastien Gimbert, is also back once more but the team also features new talent ion the form of Japanese rider Shinichi Nakatomi, who will run a different suspension set-up from his immediate peers.
Honda's hopes will again be lead by the factory backed Winston Ten Kate Team, which has drafted in Toseland to replace Vermeulen alongside Muggeridge. JT suffered a disappointing title defence at Ducati Xerox last year, claiming one win on his way to fifth, but is determined to rebuild his reputation during his first four-cylinder season. For Muggeridge, the first 2006 target will be a debut SBK podium.
Battling with the Ten Kate duo for the honour of top Honda will undoubtedly be Barros, who has joined a one man Klaffi team after ending a grand prix career of record breaking proportions. Although deprived of anything like an adequate pre-season testing programme, the Sao Paolo superstar has already proven his SBK ability during Suzuka 8-Hour appearances and is firmly focussed on finally winning a world title.
Despite being 36 years of age, Barros is by no means the elder statesman of SBK racing. That honour, along with many race wins over the years, goes to a certain Pierfrancesco Chili, who is currently 41 years young. Chili's latest challenge is to run in an all-Italian Honda team, in conjunction with traditional SBK participants, DFX Treme.
He shares garage space with a new talent to the Superbike ranks, Michel Fabrizio. The squad thus features the oldest rider in the series with one of the youngest, as Fabrizio is only 21. The Italian has been promoted from World Supersport where he enjoyed a modicum of success last year. Fabrizio's raw talents have already delivered him the 2003 European Superstock Championship and his experience also includes four-stoke MotoGP rides, despite his tender years.
Meanwhile, despite the growing four-cylinder presence, a total of eight full time Ducati riders will be in attendance at Qatar, the factory squad heading an impressive array of proven desmo-powered talent, plus the odd new inductee.
Spanish star Xaus (Sterilgarda Berik Ducati) teams up with Marco Borciani this year, even if he may not be able to ride in the first couple of rounds, thanks to an injury suffered in training. A serial race winner in the 2003 season, Xaus is expected to make a strong impact once fully fit.
A serious challenge to the 250GP crown in previous years, Roberto Rolfo is another fast SBK rookie in the 2006 series, as he takes the field for the Ducati SC Caracchi squad. A one-man effort, the new partnership is nonetheless laden with exciting possibilities.
Rolfo's single rider effort is in great contrast to the three-rider festival of speed fielded by the Pedercini Ducati squad. The eponymous team-leader Lucio Pedercini heads up his countryman Ivan Clementi and the already proven talents of young German rider, Max Neukirchner. The latter is a first time Ducati pilot, yet has already impressed in winter testing - despite not having the newest tyres or a full factory machine at his immediate disposal.
Carrying Kawasaki's colours will be the PSG-1 Kawasaki Corse squad, which will sport a green livery in Qatar and, more importantly, enjoy the benefits of a new design of ZX-10R machine, complete with greater manufacturer support than in 2005.
The team has increased to a three-rider set-up, each of them a proven entity in many forms of motorcycle sport. Walker scored a podium on the 2005 PSG-1 Kawasaki, and has already voted the 2006 version as a distinct improvement after good tests in Sepang and Phillip Island.
Laconi - runner-up to team-mate Toseland in 2004, a multiple SBK race winner last year and one of the few riders to have won both SBK and MotoGP races - is a new face in the squad, while Spanish star Fonsi Nieto carries on at the team he joined for just two races in 2005. Nieto has already matched times with the more experienced Walker, as the man from Madrid continues the transition from a 250cc past to a Superbike shaped future.
Battaini (Kawasaki Bertocchi) is another proven MotoGP and 250GP rider to opt for the charms of SBK in 2006, and much is expected of the privateer rider in his first season.
The unique Petronas FP-1 triple will once more be campaigned by the Foggy Petronas team, with 2005 signing Martin returning after successful kidney surgery and after having set impressive test times at Phillip Island in January.
Young Briton Craig Jones may find the outgunned FP-1 not an ideal platform from which to launch his rookie SBK season, thanks solely to its 100cc capacity handicap compared to all other types of eligible SBK machines, but his youthful enthusiasm will nonetheless see him gunning for the maximum possible rewards.
In the World Supersport championship, Winston Ten Kate Honda's reigning title holder Sebastien Charpentier may not have things all his own way this year, as a frontal assault of talent and all-new machines attempt to depose last year's clear winner.
Charpentier's new team-mate is 2005 Superstock 1000 FIM Cup runner up Kenan Sofuoglu, but his greatest challenge may come from the two-rider Yamaha Motor Germany squad, now equipped with the all-new R6.
Both Broc Parkes and Kevin Curtain won races in 2005, despite their machines' relative venerability, and with a full 15 new R6s on the grid, plus 13 well-proven Hondas, this year's contest is expected to be a true class act on all levels.
An all new Suzuki GSX-R600, plus some fast Ducatis and Kawasakis, makes WSS a five cornered manufacturers' fight again, in what is a massively resurgent class.
With race day in Qatar on Saturday, track action begins on Thursday, with Superpole for the Superbike class on Friday and points scoring races on Saturday 25th. Shortly thereafter, the paddock decamps to Phillip Island for round two, on Sunday 5 March.