Imola, just down the road from Bologna, is an anachronism in today's safety and environmental impact obsessed world. Despite a three year break while safety improvements were made to the remarkably urban circuit, the fact remains that there isn't really room to improve runoff or to make some of the sections more forgiving. And the location, backing onto residential gardens, is about as far removed from any modern circuit with its vast buffer zones to isolate any residents from noise or other motorsport brouhaha as it's possible to be.
And as a result, Imola is a loved by riders as one of the last true race tracks, loved by spectators as a venue with some of the best atmosphere you'll find anywhere, loved by TV companies because the racing is always truly spectacular and loved by the residents because it's one of the defining points of their pleasant, friendly but otherwise unremarkable little town. Everyone's a winner, then. Perhaps there is a lesson to be drawn from this - instead of corralling our motorsport into faceless anonymous autodromes, miles from anywhere, we could embrace them and allow the community to benefit from the influx of visitors and sport related business...
Anyway. Enough soap-boxing for the day, let's look at the event. Unusually for this area of Italy, this visit to Autodrom Enzo e Dino Ferrari (with a name like that, how can the place not be brilliant?) was accompanied by rain and a preponderance of grey cloud. Not quite what we expect for a region more associated with azure sky and sunburn. And of course that throws up a whole special set of complications. Because apart from anything else, the track surface becomes slippery and unpredictable. Two things that I can assure you are most unwelcome when encountered on a motorbike travelling at high speed. One thing that looked pretty likely from the outset, then, was that the teams would all be kept busy getting gravel out of places it shouldn't be and replacing bodywork. We all hoped Dr Costa and the Clinica Mobile wouldn't be too busy, but it looked likely that they'd at least be getting a fair amount of passing trade.
The first free practice session, just to keep everyone on their toes, was warm and dry. The first three spots were all local machines as well - Carlos Checa, Shane Byrne and Michel Fabrizio showing that Ducati isn't a spent force just yet. The rest of the field was quite spread out as teams made adjustments and the riders got to grips with the only circuit on the SBK calendar that goes counter-clockwise. Best not pay too much attention to the first session, then. However, the first timed session was quite important, because it looked likely to rain on Saturday. That could make Superpole entry dependent on the dry, Friday session. Checa clearly thought so as he stayed on the top spot, with Johnny Rea, Leon Haslam and Nori Haga up there with him on the provisional front row. Fabrizio sat just ahead of Byrne, with Crutchlow and Corser behind. Tom Sykes parked the Kawasaki in the gravel but was unhurt, while Rea had a technical problem and had to pit in.
Saturday was wet. Not torrential, monsoon style rain, but rain nonetheless. Which made the decision to push harder on Friday look quite good, as second session times were a good eight to ten seconds slower than the previous day. And as the riders started to resign themselves to the possibility of a wet race they started to push a little harder. Especially in the second practice session. With the result, of course, that while some merely approached their limit, some passed them. Roger-Lee Hayden and Lorenzo Lanzi took each other out, though both were able to ride back, while Rea had a technical problem before crashing, again unhurt.
And then we came to Superpole. Which was also wet, but at least offered some consistency. Toseland came out of the blocks like a man on a mission, setting a respectable time and immediately disappearing back into the pits to fit new rubber for the next session. The trouble with this otherwise sound strategy was that Lorenzo Lanzi suffered a sudden rush of blood to the head, remembered how to ride a motorbike and proceeded to go quite a lot quicker. And Toseland wasn't there to respond, so joined Roger-Lee Hayden, Lai and Sandi in not making the cut for the second session. Not a happy hector.
The second session, still wet of course, saw a few more notable names drop by the wayside. Luca Scassa ran off onto the gravel on his out lap while Shakey Byrne, Cal Crutchlow and Ruben Xaus all crashed out within a minute of each other. Jakub Smrz also took to the gravel before Checa crashed a couple of minutes before the end. No injuries, which is always good news, but it did mean that the session finished with some notable names not going through to the final eight. From the back, we lost Guintoli, Haga, Rea and Byrne; while the third row would be made up of Crutchlow, Neukirchner, Fabrizio and Checa, missing out by just over a tenth of a second.
So that brought us onto the final session of the day. Superpole three, in the wet, on a circuit that has already seen questions raised about grip. And when the dust settled and jaws were picked up from the floor in the media centre, it was Tom Sykes on the aging, under-rated Kawasaki who was sat at the top of the timesheets The first time a Green machine has taken pole in SBK since 2007, and richly deserved for one of the nicest guys in the sport, as well as one of the hardest working teams. Alongside Sykes, Jakub Smrz lined up on the privateer Aprilia, pretty impressive for his first wet ride, while Leon Haslam defied the pain from his knee injury to take third. And completing the front row, the spectacular to watch Luca Scassa on the private Ducati. Lorenzo Lanzi headed up row two from Troy Corser with Biaggi the Aprilia meat in a BMW sandwich ahead of Xaus.
Then, just to confuse things further race day dawned with a dry, warm track.
Warmup saw the departure of Johnny Rea who, despite remounting after crashing, transpired to have hurt himself a little more than it appeared, with current reports suggesting his collarbone and scaphoid both in need of attention. Ruben Xaus crashed as well, while Carlos Checa, Lorenzo Lanzi and Leon Haslam went quickest overall.
So on to race one, then. Lights out and Tom Sykes made the most of his pole to take an immediate lead from Haslam, Smrz and perennial strong starter Troy Corser. The real mover, though, was James Toseland who started in a lowly seventeenth, heading the fifth row of the grid, and was up to tenth by the end of the first lap. Cal Crutchlow, in his first non top ten start this season, dropped a place while Haga also did well to climb from his fourth row start to ninth in the first lap. Max Biaggi, championship leader, was getting bounced about as the Aprilia did its best impression of a bucking bronco, occasionally unseating the Roman rider completely as it demonstrated its reluctance do do as it was told in no uncertain style.
Though the action was close, hard and exciting, positions remained fairly static at the front for the next few laps as Haslam pushed hard but Sykes used the excellent braking and acceleration of the Kawasaki to its best advantage. Haslam could carry higher corner speed and was no doubt capable of going faster overall, but with the big green machine in the way there was nothing he could do to exploit that fact. Getting desperate, he pushed hard into a corner, lost the front slightly and went across the gravel, joining a couple of places back behind the hard charging Carlos Checa. Biaggi too had a major gravel moment, nearly collecting Cal Crutchlow as he rejoined in all sorts of trouble, back in thirteenth.
James Toseland had meanwhile fought his way up to a highly respectable sixth and was looking good when the Yamaha broke, forcing his retirement. But it was Checa who was really the man on the move, going from ninth on the grid to third by lap eight. Even more of a surprise, Lorenzo Lanzi, former factory Ducati rider who has in all honesty done very little to distinguish himself since getting that ride back in 2005, was now all over the back of Sykes' Kawasaki and challenging for the lead. In fact, a lap later he drifted past and set about making a gap. Three laps later, Checa also passed Sykes as the Kawasaki overwhelmed its tyres and started heading backwards. Sykes may not have been going to get a podium but he was by far the most spectacular rider to watch as he drifted the Kawasaki through Imola's swooping curves in beautiful style.
Having given himself a mountain to climb again, Leon Haslam prove well up to the task, climbing back up to third as Sykes dropped back and then remorselessly hunting down and passing Lanzi three laps later. Then it was time for Checa to come under pressure. As the veteran Spaniard should have been expecting things to ease off as tyres degraded, Haslam was upping the ante and closing fast.The last five laps of the race were as close as we've ever seen, and on the last lap it looked certain that the Englishman would get through to take the win as he was so much stronger on the brakes. But as he dove down the inside of Checa at the left hand Rivazza curve, he again locked the front briefly, having to pick the bike up and take to the gravel in order to avoid a crash. So Checa sailed through to take a clear lead, followed by Lanzi, Haga (who had been quietly picking other riders off on his way through the field) and Smrz. Haslam recovered to finish fifth, ahead of Sykes. Max Biaggi picked up just five points for an eleventh place finish, leaving the championship still quite open as Haslam's eleven points helped close things down. Early front runner Corser finished fifteenth as the BMW struggled for grip on worn tyres.
Race two came along on a warmer track, now liberally coated with rubber from the barely controlled axe-fight that was World Supersport (outstanding effort from Eugene Laverty that could only have gone one of two ways, but which he had to go for, and congratulations to the leading trio of Pirro, Sofuoglu and Laverty for a race well run) plus the Superstock guys, and with a far more predictable level of grip. Mainly.
Lights out and again it was Tom Sykes who blasted the big Kawasaki off the line fastest to take an early lead. No messing around from leon Haslam, who slotted straight into second and pushed ultra-hard from the outset. Haslam had to beat Biaggi to remain in the runni9ng for the championship, and the further he could do it by the better. Lanzi ended the first lap in third place, while Biaggi made it as hard for Haslam as possible by charging straight up to fourth from his second row start. Smrz had an appalling start, dropping to ninth while Crutchlow, Haga and Toseland all began in a rather steadier manner than race one. Toseland's campaign came to an end on lap four when the Englishman lost the front pushing hard and crashed out. Before that, though, Lorenzo had a huge moment and found himself behind both Biaggi and Checa who again was pushing for the front.
Lap five saw the Spaniard breeze past both the Englishmen ahead of him to take the lead and never look back. Some serious pressure by Haslam was resisted by Sykes, who held onto second place while Haslam briefly yielded to Biaggi before again taking to the gravel and dropping back to sixth. A few laps of hard charging saw Haslam making good progress again when, in a massive gout of smoke rather reminiscent of Chris Walker's BSB demise a few years ago, the Suzuki grenaded in a big way, dumping the contents of the engine into the belly pan and ending the young Englishman's championship hopes for this year.
Biaggi may have won the title at this point, but he wasn't having an easy time of it. The Aprilia was still behaving like an enraged wildebeest, and there was every chance that the Italian would get spat off into the bushes before finishing. Which would, of course, give Haslam another shot at the title. So he was being reasonably circumspect, and didn't fight too hard when Haga, riding for his job, came past. Unlike Sykes, who fought tooth and nail to hold second place, yielding only when there was clearly nothing else he could do. And again with Crutchlow, who had ridden a storming race to climb from his lowly grid place to challenge for the podium. For a while it looked as though Sykes would be able to hold his fellow Briton off, but the Crutchlow was really on it, and the Yamaha is an extremely good package. The Coventry rider passed Sykes with just four laps to go, and that was it really.
Michel Fabrizio left proceedings shortly after Haslam, throwing the Ducati into the scenery, while Smrz had exited a few minutes beforehand. Shakey Byrne got the better of Lanzi in the dying stages of the race after a lengthy stalk.
So that's it then. While there's still another round to be raced, at Magny Cours, the top two places are fixed and nothing can change them. Johnny Rea's third position is in danger, though, as he is now only fourteen points clear of Checa, while Toseland can do no better than seventh, regardless of how badly Haga and Crutchlow do in France.
Congratulations to Max Biaggi, whose campaign has been pretty well faultless and who richly deserves the title, and to the Aprilia team for making such huge strides with a new bike in such a short time. Biaggi is the first ever Italian SBK champion, surprisingly, and only the second ever non native English speaker to lift the title (the first being Raymond Roche back in the glory days of 750s).
We now have an idea of who is going where next season, though some seats remain unconfirmed.
Aprilia will remain as they are, with champion Biaggi again partnering Brit Leon Camier.
BMW are retaining troy Corser, who will be joined by Leon Haslam
We think that the Paul Bird Kawasaki team will stay as is, with Tom Sykes and Chris Vermeulen campaigning the new ZX-10.
Yamaha have signed MotoGP rider Marco Melandri to replace Cal Crutchlow, who is going to the Tech3 Yamaha MotoGP team. Their second rider is not yet confirmed.
Ten Kate haven't confirmed anything except that Max Neukirchner will not be with them next season.
Suzuki will be running a single bike, but the rider is unconfirmed.
Checa has signed for Althea Ducati again.
We don't know what is happening with Toseland, Haga, Fabrizio, Byrne, Xaus, Neukirchner, Scassa or Guintoli, though no doubt their managers are working like beavers to sort something out.
I suspect all will be revealed in France next weekend. See you there!
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
3 Nori Haga (Ducati)
4 Jakub Smrz (Aprilia)
5 Leon Haslam (Suzuki)
6 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
7 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
8 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
9 Sylvain Guintoli (Suzuki)
10 Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha)
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha)
4 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
5 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
6 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
7 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
8 Sylvain Guintoli (Suzuki)
9 Ruben Xaus (BMW)
10 Luca Scassa (Ducati)
after eleven rounds:
1 Max Biaggi 413 (2010 World Superbike Champion)
2 Leon Haslam 350
3 Jonathan Rea 288
4 Carlos Checa 274
5 Cal Crutchlow 239
6 Nori Haga 238
7 James Toseland 187
8 Sylvain Guintoli 184
9 Michel Fabrizio 169
10 Troy Corser 165