1997: The first half of the 10th Superbike World Championship season
The anniversary year of the Superbike World Championship promised a lot of excitement after it had taken until the penultimate race, as was so often the case last year, until the titleholder was determined. Carl Fogarty had returned to the Ducati factory team and in his place Castrol hired Honda as his 1996 employer to succeed John Kocinski. After his move from the 500cc World Championship, the American had immediately successfully staged in the near-series World Championship. There were some new faces among the permanent guests in the paddock like the Spaniard Pere Riba (on a Honda), who had already participated in Albacete last year. The Englishman James Haydon (Ducati) and the Japanese Akira Yanagawa (Kawasaki) were among them. Scott Russell, on the other hand, was well-known as the 1993 world champion on a Kawasaki. The US boy started for the Yamaha factory team on the YZF750, as a teammate of Colin Edwards.
The calendar for the 1997 WorldSBK season
The season opener took place in Australia for the first time, which was to prove itself from then on and which has continued to do so after more than 20 years. No new routes were added in 1997, even if one of them had a different name earlier than the Österreich-Ring. However, due to the renovation last year, the A1-Ring had received a terrible layout, which decades later, under the name Red Bull Ring in MotoGP, would give rise to shaking heads year after year. With Donington Park, the Hockenheimring and Sugo, 3 tracks have remained unchanged in the calendar every year since the premiere in 1988.
Rainy season opener Down Under
Ironically, after the decision to put the round from Australia at the start of the season, this courage was initially anything but rewarded. The rain race for the first run saw countless falls with some celebrity victims. A total of 16 pilots did not see the target, including Pierfrancesco Chili, Neil Hodgson (both Ducati), Jamie Whitham (Suzuki), local hero Peter Goddard (Kawasaki), Vice World Champion Aaron Slight (Honda) and Piergiorgio Pontempi (Kawasaki).
The Yamaha factory team with an almost total failure and a new face
Colin Edwards and his Yamaha team-mate Scott Russell had also left, but the latter was able to continue and in the end even finished 7th. The winner was John Kocinski (Honda) ahead of Carl Fogarty (Ducati), Simon Crafar and Akira Yanagawa (both Kawasaki) . 5th place went to the Australian Troy Bayliss in a Suzuki, from whom one should hear a lot later. Behind his compatriot Marty Craggill on a Kawasaki and behind Russell Andy Meklau (Ducati), Shawn Gilles and Pere Riba (both Honda) completed the top ten.
The second race from Phillip Island
This time it was dry and at least 21 drivers instead of just 18 should see the checkered flag in the first run. Goddard and Chili stopped injured and after the start a fierce battle for the lead broke out. Initially, Yanagawa was ahead of Slight, Crafar and Foggy, but the Japanese was overtaken by the New Zealander shortly afterwards. After that, it was his compatriot Simon Crafar who led the field before Fogarty took the lead. A little later, Yanagawa was back in front, but the Englishman fought back the lead. In the meantime, Colin Edwards had joined the team when Yanagawa misjudged himself while lapping straggler Jan Orchard and missed Turn 1. In the end, Aaron Slight was just ahead of Edwards and Crafar snatched third place from Foggy. Bayliss finished fifth on his Suzuki ahead of Russel and Kocinski. Ranks 8 to 11 all went to local riders Damon Buckmaster, followed by Graggill (both Kawasaki), Gilles and Craig Connell (Ducati).
WorldSBK round 2 with the rainy Europe opener in Misano
At the Autodromo di Santamonica, as it was called back then, 9 drivers should not see the checkered flag in the first race. As in Australia, the first run in Italy took place again in the rain. With Kawasaki rider Akira Yanagawa, it was the rider who was hit on the first lap, of all people, who crashed shortly before the end of the second round of Australia, not entirely of his own fault, when he had to avoid a straggler. At that time, the race was still going counter-clockwise and the Japanese crashed while in the lead in today’s Turn 8, called Quercia, when he accelerated too early with a highsider. In the second lap, Carl Fogarty took the lead, which was previously Piergiorgio Bontempi (Kawasaki) ahead of Scott Russell (Yamaha). Pierfrancesco Chili and Aaron Slight lurked behind it.
The demonstration run by the “host”
On the third lap, Russell was leading and Chili had just passed Foggy. After passing the American shortly after half of the race, the local hero irresistibly pulled away. Shortly before the end, Russell, who was in second place, flew off and crouched close to a concrete wall, crouching on the ground. Fortunately, the Yamaha rider wasn’t seriously injured in his crash and he was able to compete again for the second race. The landlord won on his Ducati ahead of Kocinski, Fogarty, Slight and Crafar. Colin Edwards was fifth, one lap behind, ahead of Neil Hodgson, Piergiorgio Bontempi and Pere Riba. Only 17 drivers saw the checkered flag and from the thirteenth Igor Jermann from Slovenia all of them had even experienced two laps by Chili.
The second run of Misano
After the start, Piergiorgio Bontempi took the lead, but before the Curva Tramonto he was already overtaken by Scott Russell and Neil Hodgson. The second race had also started in the rain and the drivers had to manage the risk. In the third round, Pierfrancesco Chili had worked his way up again. Foggy was third behind Russell before he was caught on lap 5 by Kocinski, whose Castrol Honda team-mate Slight was about 50 meters behind the Englishman. On lap 12, Kocinski passed Chili, who had been the leader until then, and which was to retire on his Ducati a little later due to an electrical fault. Victory went to the Honda drivers with a lead of over 30 seconds, ahead of Slight, Fogarty and Hodgson. Akira Yanagawa brought the best Kawasaki home in P5, followed by Scott Russell, Simon Crafar and Colin Edwards. Pere Riba in ninth place was already one lap behind the winner.
Round 3 at Donington Park
At least in England it was dry when the first run started and local hero Carl Fogarty took the lead right after the start. After three laps he, Neil Hodgson and “Franky” Chili formed a Ducati trio, followed by Colin Edwards on a Yamaha. Shortly afterwards, Hodgson passed his compatriot and took the lead. Slight and Crafar followed behind Edwards, almost 3 seconds behind, in 4th and 5th position. Four laps later, Foggy was back in front and at the halfway point of the race Aaron Slight had caught up to the leading trio. With two laps to go, the New Zealander was ahead of Fogarty and the Italian was eliminated with a crash. Hodgson had lost touch and was still cashed by Crafar on the Kawasaki. In the end, Slight triumphed over Foggy, Crafar, Hodgson, Edwards and Russell. Behind them were the three English riders Niall Mackenzie (Yamaha), Jamie Whitham (Suzuki) and John Reynolds (Ducati). Kocinski had to be content with 10th place.
The second race from Donington
This time Pierfrancesco Chili should finally get rid of his bad luck and stay seated. The fearless Italian finished second this time behind two-time world champion and Ducati brand colleague Carl Fogarty. Just behind, Aaron Slight took third place, his second podium on Sunday. Behind his fellow New Zealander Crafar on the best Kawasaki on P4 in front of Kocinski, Edwards and Russell. From rank 8 the 5 Englishmen Mackenzie, Hodgson, Whitham, Reynolds and Sean Emmett (Ducati) tortured.
World Championship round 4 at the Hockenheimring
With an average speed of around 200 kph (124.27 miles) for the superbikes, the track at Hockenheim in Baden-Württemberg was no longer up-to-date at all. But it was still driven on, even if the spectators on the 6.792 km long circuit only got to see the drivers briefly in the Motodrom. Video screens came much later, so you saw a lot more on TV at such races than the paying visitors on site. After the start of the first race, Aaron Slight returned to the front in the Motodrom, followed by Carl Fogarty, Akira Yanagawa, Simon Crafar and John Kocinski. One lap later, the New Zealander was slightly ahead of the rest of the field.
The decision in the first race
In the course of the following laps, John Kocinski was able to fight his way up place by place. In the sixth of 14 laps, the Kawasaki of Simon Crafar, who was at that point in time, started smoking threateningly and the Kiwi had to give up with a major engine failure. On the third last lap, Kocinski in second place was 2.101 seconds behind his leading Castrol Honda team-mate. A good bit behind, the Ducati riders Hodgson, Chili and Fogarty fought for P3 with Scott Russell close behind. With two laps to go, Kocinski had caught up with Slight and passed him. On the last lap, the New Zealander was the first to enter the Motodrom and won a wafer-thin ahead of his Honda team-mate. Russell managed to get past all 3 Ducatis to the finish and took 3rd place ahead of Foggy, Chili, Hodgson and Edwards.
The second run at the Hockenheimring
This time there was a completely different finish than at noon. After two and a half laps, Neil Hodgson was leading in front of Ducati brand colleague Carl Fogarty, Aaron Slight on the front Honda, Scott Russell (Yamaha), Simon Crafar and Akira Yanagawa (both Kawasaki). But the positions kept changing from the slipstream on the many fast sections of the route and by the third destination passage Crafar was already in front. In the fourth to last lap a group of three with Hodgson, Slight and Foggy had formed at the front. In the first chicane, however, the New Zealander flew over the front wheel as the winner of the first race.
Dramatic finale with a surprising podium
Shortly afterwards, Chili braked herself and landed on the grass. Hodgson entered the final lap as the leader of a group of four, ahead of Yanagawa, Fogarty and Whitham on Suzuki. When entering the Motodrom, however, the leader misjudged himself and when trying to make up ground again in the last left turn. As a result, Foggy won ahead of Yanagawa, Whitham and the two Yamaha riders Russell and Edwards. Crafar was sixth ahead of Chili, Hodgson, the German Jochen Schmid (Kawasaki) and the Austrian Andy Meklau (Ducati). John Kocinski, on the other hand, had to make do with 14th place.
Back in Italy for the 5th round of WorldSBK
Two weeks later, the traditional racetrack in the royal park of Monza in northern Italy continued in Europe before it was the turn of Laguna Seca in California. As in the first race in Germany, the two Castrol Honda drivers were at the top again in the end. But this time it was John Kocinski who won ahead of his teammate Aaron Slight. Third place went to Carl Fogarty ahead of Simon Crafar on the best Kawasaki, Scott Russell, Jamie Whitham, local hero Pierfrancesco Chili and Akira Yanagawa. Russell’s Yamaha team-mate Colin Edwards was injured and not even started.
The second race of Monza – another wet race
This time the hour of the local hero struck after “Franky” Chili had only reached the finish in P7 in the first run. Only Kocinski was able to follow him to some extent as the Italian drove towards his third win on the rainy home track since the 1994 season. But not only the first two riders in the second race in Monza were interesting, but also the man who came third and especially his bike. Jamie Whitham took a podium with his Suzuki GSX-R750, which was almost historic. Finally, a rider on the forefather of all modern superbikes had made a podium with the model that was already very successful in endurance racing. Fogarty had to be content with fourth place ahead of Slight. Sixth place went to Piergiorgio Bontempi, ahead of Simon Crafar (both Kawasaki), Scott Russell on the best Yamaha, Mike Hale (Suzuki), Jochen Schmid (Kawasaki) and Pere Riba (Honda).
World Cup round 6 in Laguna Seca
With the track in California it was the turn of an event where, as in Japan and Australia in the past, some wildcard pilots had often provided a lot of variety. It was the same in 1997, when the strong Canadian Miguel Duhamel, a driver on the podium after the first race, who was only at the start in the USA. Victory went to John Kocinski with just 0.139 seconds ahead of Carl Fogarty. This made the Castrol Honda rider the first driver to have already won 4 wins this season. Simon Crafar crossed the finish line in fourth place, followed by his Kawasaki brand colleague Doug Chandler. Yamaha ace Scott Russell followed in 6th place, while his team-mate Colin Edwards did not start. The man with the number 45 should be the big absentee for the remainder of the season. Aaron Slight finished 7th ahead of Jamie Whitham, Piergiorgio Bontempi and Akira Yanagawa from Japan.
The second run of Laguna Seca
This time, John Kocinski managed to break away from his pursuers while in the lead. Carl Fogarty was flagged 4.862 seconds behind the local hero. With Honda rider Miguel Duhamel in third place, the podium was a copy of the first run in California. Scott Russell finished 4th on the Yamaha ahead of Yanagawa on the best Kawasaki, Chili (Ducati), Piergiorgio Bontempi (Kawasaki) and the American Tom Kipp on a Yamaha. The first ten were completed by Ducati riders Neil Hodgson and Aaron Slight, behind whom his first namesake Aaron Yates saw the checkered flag on Suzuki. Only 14 riders crossed the finish line and prominent crash victims included Simon Crafar and Suzuki ace Jamie Whitham.
Unless otherwise stated, this applies to all images (© WorldSBK).
Second half of the year 1997: coming soon..
Back to 1996: http://www.motoracers.eu/wsbk-history-part-17/?lang=en