CHRIS WALKER is now eight days into a hectic World Superbike testing schedule in preparation for his return to world championship racing. In contrast, Neil Hodgson has not even seen his new Ducati yet.
Walker spent three days at Kyalami in South Africa last week on his Kawasaki ZX7-RR and says he is starting to feel at home on it after six months without riding following his sacking by the Shell Advance Honda 500 GP team.
He said: " I managed to get three days and lots of laps done without losing the front – which is a big improvement on the whole of last year!
" I am getting there but there’s still a lot of work to be done – mainly building my confidence again after a year of constantly crashing.
" I am happy with the way the test has gone but I was desperately trying to go quicker so I could gain even more feedback to give the Dunlop boys some useful information. Throughout the three days I was learning more about the bike – but I was also having to learn a track I’d never been to before.
" A lot of people assume the bike must be the same as the one I rode in the British championship in 1998 and 1999 but the only similarity is that it’s green and on Dunlops. And even the tyres are completely different now! The chassis is stiffer, the geometry is different plus there’s loads more power. It might as well be a new bike.
" I am enjoying riding again which is one of the main things that will allow me to do better. I didn’t enjoy anything this year really when I was riding the 500GP bike.
" The track was very dirty and the suspension was all new to everyone so there were no base settings to use. I had a bit of a wobble around in the morning of day one but started to go a little faster towards the end of the first day which felt good. "
The test was the first time Walker has been to the challenging Kyalami track.
While Walker was getting valuable track time, Hodgson sat at home and was only due to sling his leg over his ex-Troy Bayliss Ducati 998R next Wednesday in a test at Valencia, Spain.
The reason for Hodgson missing South Africa was that GSE team didn’t have time to rebuild the ex-factory team bikes in time to crate them up and airfreight them for the Dunlop tyre test.
Hodgson said: " It is disappointing not to have got some testing done already. All I have been doing is continuing my fitness training but there has just not been the time for the team to get everything done. I have asked for some tests to be organised but the bikes didn’t arrive in time for us to start any earlier.
" Being out in Spain for a couple of days should be enough time to get a base setting on the bike and at least have some information to work with at the official tests in January at Phillip Island. "
Walker was not alone at the test. His new team-mate Hitoyasu Izutsu was also there as well as the Kawasaki world supersport team of reigning world champion Andrew Pitt and British teenager James Ellison, who now looks almost certain to ride alongside Pitt.
Although the team has tested Ellison three times now there is still no official confirmation he will race for them but the Kawasaki leathers with his name emblazoned across his shoulders are an indication that things have moved on.
The team refused to release lap times for any of the four riders but neutral observers at the track told MCN Izutsu was matching lap times of former Kawasaki rider Akira Yanagawa from the race earlier this year despite not having been to the track before.
Walker’s times were thought to be just over a second slower than those of Izutsu’s best efforts over the three days.
One of the main things the Kawasaki team tested, apart from tyres, was new Ohlins suspension that has been introduced to replace the WP items used for the past three years.
Izutsu has raced with Ohlins in the All Japan championship but the works WSB team has previously enjoyed a close relationship with WP. That recently ended and this change of suspension means the base settings the team had from last year’s Kyalami race was useless and new settings had to be found before serious work could begin.
Sharing the track with the Kawasaki quartet was L&M Ducati rider Ben Bostrom who was able to ride his 2002 998R for the first time.
It was also the first time he has ridden a bike since a shoulder operation to repair damage caused in a crash at Monza earlier in the year.
The Californian was extremely happy, not just with his new bike but also the new spec Dunlops. He said: " I can’t tell you how good the bike and the tyres felt – even though I haven’t been on a bike since the end of the season they combination felt great. I can carry so much more corner speed than before with total confidence in the front tyre.
Bostrom did have a big scare though on the last day when a near highside saw him thrown over the handlebars before he miraculously landed back into the seat and managed to maintain control. He said: " I couldn’t believe I stayed on. I was looking at the front tyre upside down with the bike bucking away underneath me when suddenly I was back in the seat. I was just thinking this is going to hurt - a lot - when it all came back to me. "
Bostrom was straight on a plane to Italy after the test to race a KTM520 supermoto at the Bologna show.
Walker will ride the Kawasaki again at the end of January when he will go head-to-head with Hodgson and the rest of the World Superbike factory riders in the official WSB test at Phillip Island on January 30/February 1.
EDWARDS RECKONS NEW SP-2 IS TITLE-WINNER
YEAR 2000 WSB champion Colin Edwards believes the new factory Honda VTR SP-2 is so much better than last year’s there’s no reason why he can’t win the world title.
Castrol Honda’s Edwards was testing at Suzuka in Japan last week on the 2002 SP-2 before a Christmas break and will not test again until later in January in South Africa.
The 2000 world champion is going to be racing alone as the sole factory Honda rider in next year’s WSB series although Honda Europe is trying to set up a two-rider satellite team with kit bikes.
Edwards said: " The 2002 machine is really shaping up. We made a lot of changes during the test and there’s every reason to believe I can regain the title again next year.
" My best lap on Wednesday was about a second quicker than I’ve ever gone around Suzuka and, after beating the lap record at Sugo six weeks ago, we’re all going into the Christmas period with a smile on our faces. "
The satellite team will use bikes that are almost identical to the specifications of the SP-2 Edwards used at the end of last season and are a far cry from the underpowered and uncompetitive machines that were raced in Britain in 2000.
FOGGY SEES PETRONAS RUN IN SECRET UK TEST
CARL FOGARTY got to witness first-hand what the Petronas Sauber bike looks, sounds and goes like today when it was run at the Bruntingthorpe proving ground in Leicestershire.
The four-times WSB champ has signed a five-year deal with Malaysian petroleum giant Petronas to run his own team in the series.
The four-stroke, three-cylinder 989cc GP1 engine, developed by Sauber Petronas, is in the early stages of being modified to meet WSB rules in time to race in the fifth round of the championship at Monza on May 12.
And Foggy was impressed with what he saw in the straight-line test. Until today he had been unable to see the bike in action due to restrictions on his travel through his recent broken leg. He said: " This thing is like a bullet. I have heard only good things about the bike and, although the engine still needs to be modified and the bike will look a lot different when it is raced, it's obvious it has real potential. I really wanted to get on and ride the bike myself.
" We have the top people in the industry working on the chassis and the design of the bike and, with the ongoing engine expertise of Osamu Goto and his SPE team, we are confident we will soon be running a competitive machine. "
The test was designed to develop the engine management system further, as well as testing the cooling system and noise control.
Team manager Nigel Bosworth, who also saw the bike in action for the first time today, added: " It's awesome, the sort of thing nobody has seen in motorcycling before and it sounds unbelievable. Everything went smoothly and we are all starting to work well as a team. "