WSB Season Review
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WSB Rookies Melandri and Laverty
Riding the YZF-R1 brilliantly to rank 2nd and 4th for the season!
Riding the YZF-R1 brilliantly to rank 2nd and 4th for the season!
The Yamaha World Superbike Team started the 2011 season with two WSB rookie riders in Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty looking to take back the WSB title Yamaha won in 2009. Although new to World Superbike competition and coming from different backgrounds, the two worked together and learned from each other to reach new heights, and by the end of the season they had the best overall team performance and brought Yamaha 2nd place in the Manufacturers ranking. The success of their 2011 season was symbolized in their dramatic 1-2 finish in the final race of the series. That finish also marked the end of 17 years of challenge by Yamaha in WSB racing that began in 1995.
High expectations for regaining the title
The Yamaha World Superbike Team entered the 2011 World Superbike Championship (WSB) with a new pair of riders in Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty. Again this year, the competition machine was the production supersport model YZF-R1 with a crossplane crankshaft.
For both Melandri and Laverty, this was their rookie year in WSB. Melandri came as a seasoned race veteran with 13 years of experience as a top-level rider and many memorable performances to his name, having begun GP racing in 1998 (in the GP125 class) before moving up to the pinnacle MotoGP class in 2003 and competing there for eight years. He took the move to WSB in his stride, proving himself immediately with a podium finish in the 2011 opening round. The Yamaha World Superbike Team had great expectations for Melandri's ability to help win back the WSB title it had last won in 2009.
However, Melandri faced a formidable rival in another former MotoGP rider, Carlos Checa (Ducati), who had ranked 3rd in last year's WSB championship. This season, Checa showed awesome strength, grabbing the ranking lead from round one and continuing to build his lead throughout the series. Melandri would go on to win four of the 26 races in the season's 13 rounds and place 2nd seven times and 3rd another four times to finish the 2011 season with 395 series points. But, it was never enough to close the gap on Checa.
His teammate Laverty came to WSB this year after having finished 2nd ranked in the World Supersport Championship (WSS) in 2009 and 2010. He came to the team replacing his former rival, fellow Briton Cal Crutchlow, who moved up to MotoGP as a member of the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Team. Improving in leaps and bounds through the season, Laverty applied himself diligently to his racing and exceeded everyone's expectations by winning both heats of round four early in the season. He went on to mount the podium a total of six times in the season to compile a total of 303 series points and finish out the year ranked 4th, just behind last season's champion, Max Biaggi (Aprilia).
Qualifying rounds proved an issue in early season
The 2011 series started on February 27 at the Phillip Island circuit in Australia. Laverty quickly became the center of attention in the first race. Charging hard in his first-ever WSB race, he would lead the pack for the first two laps and go on to finish 4th, holding off his teammate Melandri. After finishing 5th in that first race, Melandri came back to show his experience in race two, staging a fierce battle with Biaggi that saw the lead change hands several times. With this performance, he placed 3rd overall and mounted the winners' podium for the first time since 2009. It was an impressive start for Melandri in WSB.
A month later, round two was held in the U.K. (Donington Park). Here he proved his prowess by winning the first race and finishing 2nd in race two. However, at this point he was already 19 points behind Checa in the series ranking. That gap continued to widen as the season progressed, which left Melandri always playing catch-up. One of the reasons for this was an inability to place high in the qualifying rounds. In the races, he could use his experience to pass rider after rider and eventually finish among the leaders. However, team manager Andrea Dosoli said, "We need to improve on qualifying results in order to get a better position on the grid" and it was clear that having to start from the rear of the grid was hindering performances. In round three in the Netherlands (Assen), that disadvantage led to the worst possible result. In his desperate effort to catch the lead group, Melandri put excessive wear on his tires and eventually took a fall as a result. With this no-pointer, Melandri dropped to 3rd in the rankings.
However, gradual progress was made on the qualifying performance problem. In round four in Italy (Monza), Laverty qualified 2nd and in round five in the U.S.A. (Miller Motorsports Park), both Melandri and Laverty qualified for positions on the front row. This set up the kind of competitive advantage manager Dosoli had been hoping for. Then in round seven in Spain (Aragon), Melandri finally won his first WSB pole position. In the race, he got a perfect start and battled with Biaggi after that to win the first race and then take 2nd in race two. With this result, the series point gap with Checa that had spread to 95 points at one point was now down to 66. In the next round (8), Melandri repeated that performance by winning the first race and coming 2nd in race two, succeeding in narrowing Checa's lead to 53 points.
The team pulls together for a charge to the finish
Having overcome the challenge of poor qualifying performances, Melandri was now on the attack. With his unwavering consistency and speed, he was virtually assured a podium finish when things went well, and when conditions were bad, he would still put in a solid performance and finish high among the field. But the season was already into its second half and only five rounds (ten races) remained. Theoretically, Melandri still had a shot at the title, but considering Checa's consistent strength and the size of his lead in the title race, the chances looked slim. In round nine in the U.K. (Silverstone), Checa won both races. Melandri had managed to finish 3rd in both races, but the point gap broadened to 71, making the chances of an upset even slimmer.
Meanwhile, Laverty was making steady progress and now had his eyes set on 3rd in the rankings. Round nine was on his home circuit and he proved his knowledge of the track by qualifying in 2nd. He got a good start and led in the early stages of both races. Eventually, he was passed both times by Checa to finish 2nd, but it was a great sight to see him joined on the podium both times by Melandri and to have their results propel Yamaha into 2nd place in the Manufacturers ranking.
Laverty continued to race well and at round 12 in France (Magny-Cours), he succeeded in inching ahead of Biaggi to take 3rd place in the season ranking by two points. This set up a head-to-head duel for 3rd place in the season ranking between the WSB rookie Laverty, and last year's champion Biaggi for the final race of the season in Portugal (Portimao). However, the first race was a disappointing one for Laverty. After starting well from the front row, a problem developed in his machine's rear assembly and he had to return to the pit for repairs. Returning to the race, he was only able to finish in 19th place with no points. Meanwhile, Biaggi had finished 4th to add 13 points to his season tally. This made the prospects of Laverty defending his 3rd place ranking decidedly slim. Nonetheless, he went into race two with determination and ran in the lead until the final stages of the race to eventually finish 2nd. Biaggi came home in 7th place, giving Laverty 20 points and Biaggi nine to tie them at 303 points each. The tie-breaking rules gave 3rd place to Biaggi however, and Laverty was relegated to 4th place for the season.
The one who passed Laverty at the end of race two to take the win was none other than his teammate Melandri. Although he had been unable to close the point gap with Checa after round 10, Melandri ended the season with a brilliant win and stood atop the podium with his teammate in a spectacular 1-2 finish to end the 2011 season. Throughout the season, Melandri and Laverty had been good teammates and rivals edging each other on. Together they had won six races to have the best overall team performance and power Yamaha to 2nd in the Manufacturers championship, proving the high competitive potential of the YZF-R1.
The Yamaha World Superbike Team began full participation in WSB from 1995 and had achieved much, including a Manufacturers title in 2007 and a Rider championship in 2009. However, the decision has been made that Yamaha will withdraw for the time being from factory participation in WSB as of this season.