For any rider the prospect of racing at Monza promises two very different but linked experiences - ultra-high top speeds on the many straights and long curves, and heavy braking for the multitude of chicanes. Brought in over the last decades to reduce speeds, the chicanes at Monza are frequent and on a large scale, the continual full throttle to closed throttle demands of the circuit layout adding more complication to an already difficult set-up task.
In World Supersport few machines are quite so capable of high top speeds and stability under braking as the Honda CBR600RR, now in its second guise since taking over from the CBR600FS in 2003. Honda riders have won the last three Monza Supersport races, with a host of supported CBR600RR entries out to extend that run to four in the 2005 event.
Winston Ten Kate Honda riders Sebastien Charpentier and Katsuaki Fujiwara have scooped all the wins this year, with Fujiwara taking the opener in Qatar, while Charpentier has now won the subsequent Australian and Spanish affairs. He leads the championship battle by 12 points from 'Kats'.
They are not alone as pedigree Monza entries mounted on fast Honda machinery, with no less a rider than 2002 World Champion for Ten Kate Honda, Fabien Foret (Team Italia Megabike Honda CBR600RR), teamed up with 2003 European Superstock Champion Michel Fabrizio in the Italian-based Megabike squad. Foret was the victor of last weekend's Italian Championship race at Monza, by a full 12 seconds, with his young team-mate practicing at a high pace, but electing not to race, due to an injured foot.
Rounding out a high-class quintet of supported Honda talent is Finnish rider Tatu Lauslehto (Klaffi Honda CBR600RR), a 2005 WSS rookie, but one with sizeable experience in the European Championships.
Charpentier, having secured all three pole positions this year, in addition to two wins and a second place in race conditions, acknowledges that he has to build on his success so far.
"Yes, it's been a fantastic start to the season for me and for my new team," acknowledged Charpentier. "Perhaps without the problem in Qatar I might have three wins to go with my three pole positions. Valencia was as good as it can be for a race weekend because I had pole position, a win and the fastest lap. Everything is just working really well and there's not much more to say. The bike is great, the atmosphere in the garage is really strong and my team-mate is pushing me all the time so I cannot relax for a minute."
Fujiwara, like Charpentier a new inductee into the Winston Ten Kate Honda squad, also reflects on the first quarter of his championship season.
"I have a new bike and a new team this year so I cannot be unhappy with my championship position - especially after winning the first race of the season," said a smiling Fujiwara. "Valencia was a great battle between me and Sebastien and I think I gave my team a bit of panic when I tried to pass him on the last lap! But I am desperate to win again, not just for me, but also for this new team who have made me feel so at home. I think on a Ten Kate CBR I have the best chance to succeed here at Monza. I was third here in 2002 and dropped out of third place with a technical problem last year. I like the circuit and now I want to win here."
Foret, after his recent race experience and set-up breakthroughs at Monza, feels he is now in a position to challenge for the biggest prizes again.
"On Friday at Monza I was not completely satisfied with practice," said Foret of his Italian Championship race at Monza, "but after fantastic work with our suspension technician and the team we understood the set up problems that have made us slower then the Winston Ten Kate bikes during the opening rounds of the season. In qualifying and the race I ran with the same tyres that I will use in the World Supersport race. I kept a rhythm of 1'53"400 consistently, the same as Muggeridge's race winning times in 2004. I was very happy with that and on Sunday I think I can run a fantastic race."
Fabrizio, not wanting to risk further injury to his recuperating right foot, is nonetheless bullish in the run-up to his home race.
"I preferred not to run in the Italian Championship race because my right foot is not OK again," quoted Fabrizio. "I pushed so hard with my feet on the pegs during the practice sessions that I wanted to rest my injury. We worked hard in practice and I think that we resolved all the problems we had with the suspension settings, especially in the new forks. Fabien was so fast at the Monza race and I ran with 1'53"500 times, which put us on pace with the 2004 race already. So I am smiling."
Lauslehto, a rookie to the class, is still learning many of the circuits as he goes along.
"This is my first race at Monza but the Klaffi Honda CBR600RR is one of the fastest bikes in the World Championship," said the young Finn. "Our technical conditions are optimal, so now it is my task to realise good results."
World Superbike Round 4 of 12
SPEED KINGS PREPARE TO JOUST FOR GLORY AT MONZA
As the World Superbike series approaches Monza the resurgence in the depth of field has had many knock-on effects, even after only three rounds. With more competitive entries than there are points available on many occasions, Chris Vermeulen (Winston Ten Kate Honda CBR1000RR) has once more proved capable of podium finishes, despite the sudden increase in competition for the top places. Vermeulen, four times a race winner on a Ten Kate CBR1000RR in 2004, has already taken three podium finishes in 2005.
Max Neukirchner (Klaffi Honda CBR1000RR) has been the new find of the year, with a podium finish in Australia and two front-row starting positions. Experiencing a dramatic high-speed highside crash on lap one of Valencia race one, Neukirchner was eventually diagnosed with a broken bone in his throttle hand, and on expert medical advice has had to withdraw from the Monza event.
Once more Karl Muggeridge will compete alongside his Aussie countryman Vermeulen for the Winston Ten Kate Honda team, the 2004 World Supersport Champion looking for his first big result in the bigger class. Pierfrancesco Chili (Klaffi Honda CBR1000RR) returns to action once more, having spent the last two weeks since his gritty rides at Valencia recuperating after racing at Valencia with a broken and plated collarbone, suffered in Australia.
Ben Bostrom (Renegade Honda Koji CBR1000RR) posted highly encouraging results of 12th and then sixth at Valencia, hoping to enhance his championship position of 14th at the classic venue of Monza, most of which he knows well from his earlier SBK career.
For Vermeulen, his CBR1000RR is a strong part of the possible key to ultimate Monza success, and he is particularly motivated to make up for an ultimately disappointing 2004 raceday. With a new exhaust system to handle the sustained high speeds at Monza, and extensive work on the front forks, Vermeulen has every right to look forward to Monza.
"I've just had a positive medical scan on the wrist that I broke at the end of last season and I'm really looking forward to Monza - it's a special place and always a great event on the SBK calendar," said Vermeulen. "It's a fast track, and technical, but in a different way to Valencia, and I've had some decent results there in the past. Last year was our first on the CBR1000RR and I managed to lead race one for a while until clutch problems dropped me back to fourth. Then I finished second in race two, but we were excluded because of a technical problem. With a year of development behind us, the Honda should be strong at Monza, although Troy (Corser) is bound to be fast again. Brakes are really important here but hopefully, the issues we've had with the front of the bike in the first three rounds won't create so many problems."
Muggeridge, battling against illness in round one, and on-track misfortune since then, wants to put all this behind him and get on with his rookie SBK season.
"As they say, Valencia was not a good weekend for me - just one to forget," said Muggeridge. "I left feeling pretty sore with a sprained right ankle and thigh muscle from the second race crash but I've had some rest and I'm feeling fine now. I would've gladly taken those points from a safe seventh place in Valencia and I'd eased off a bit just to bring it home. But now we head to Monza - it's a place I like and I've some good memories from winning the Supersport race last year. I've spent a lot of days thinking about how the CBR1000RR will work there and I reckon we should be OK. As long as we can stop the bike coming up as fast as it has been and gas it out of the corners well, speed won't be a problem. I'm still getting used to the bike I guess, and we've still got work to do, but I'm definitely feeling positive about it."
Chili, on home tarmac, has two main points to provide extra impetus for his home weekend, a friendly crowd and memories of riding another type of machine in 2004.
"Monza - that means a lot of fun for me - action and thousands of fans. Only last year it was not so much fun. In race one I had an engine blow up and then I crashed in the second heat. The result was a little bit disappointing, to say the least. But now I can attack again. My Klaffi Honda Fireblade is perfect - and I want revenge for 2004."
For Bostrom, an encouraging Valencia race two experience could be bettered at Monza, if his team continues to improve set-up and full race readiness, and he himself gets more aggressive during qualifying and starting.
"If we can get good launches, from better places on the grid, then we will be in with a good chance for even better results soon," affirmed Bostrom. "It's taken a while to get used to the tyres and to get the bike ready after our late start in the winter, but it felt really good to post a top six finish at Valencia. Now we have to work to get inside the top positions consistently."
Neukirchner, forced out this weekend but with one eye on his long-term 2005 prospects, is philosophical about his current predicament, looking to the next round for inspiration.
"It is such a pity that I cannot ride at Monza. Last year I finished 6th in the Supersport race, which was a high point for me. I like the track and the slipstreaming 'games' you can play there. But it is better to stay at home for one round than suffer a disadvantage for all the rest of the season. After two weeks I can get rid of the plaster cast. Then I'll have special therapy and at Silverstone I'll ride again."
After the high speeds and history of Monza, another renowned and rapid track beckons on May 27 - 29 - Silverstone, Great Britain.
Source: Honda Motor Company, Ltd - Motor Sports Division