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slip sliding away. . .

Words by Simon Bradley AND DICK HENNEMAN. pics by richard handley

Troy Bayliss demonstrates the new Ducati chargrill at a private session. Optional barbecue rack and hot dogs not pictured.Assen, up in the North of The Netherlands, is the unofficial third British round of the SBK championship. It's a regular pilgrimage for several thousand Brit fans, as befits one of the oldest and most welcoming circuits on the calendar. Plus the Dutch almost all speak better English than most of us do, which makes the whole thing easier to deal with. And they're friendly as anything, too. It used to be called the “Cathedral of Speed”, but since they chopped two kilometers (just over a mile) off the circuit at the end of last year in order to make way for additional parking and corporate events areas, some people have said that Assen is now more like the parish church than the cathedral. That’s perhaps a little unkind, because a lot of the circuit is still blindingly fast, but you don’t carry out major surgery like that on any racetrack without altering its character significantly.

This was the first time that the SBK circus had visited the “new improved” but truncated Assen, and in free practice on Friday it was Troy Bayliss who managed to get to grips with it best, followed by Alex Barros, Noriyuki Haga, Regis Laconi and Yukio Kagayama. For the first qualifying session on Saturday it was Bayliss still topping the time sheets, followed by Lorenzo Lanzi, Michel Fabrizio and James Toseland, while the defending World Champion Troy Corser was way down in twelfth, just ahead of Chris Walker. That was just enough to get the both of them into Superpole qualifying, but there was obviously still some work to be done here for Mr Superpole.

And work on it he did, Corser emerging from Superpole with a time of 1min 38.965secs and claiming his third pole of the season, with Haga, Kagayama and Bayliss filling the rest of the front row slots. James Toseland could only manage seventh, putting him on the second row and just behind his team mate Karl Muggeridge, while Chris Walker was down in thirteenth. No complaints about the circuit, though, which was grippy and flowed nicely in the pleasantly warm and dry conditions.

Josh Brookes (25) sheds bits of bike as he attempts to get past Gimbert while Fabrizio surfs off ahead...But this is Assen, a circuit in a country which has significant proportions below sea level. It's not unheard of for it to be a little damp there, and for conditions to change radically and rapidly, So come Sunday it was all going to be a bit of a lottery – because it rained. Boy, did it rain. We’re not talking a light shower here, this was rain of positively biblical proportions. And of course it arrived just before the warm-up session. But if that wasn’t enough, Steve Martin’s Petronas decided to vent the entire contents of its oil sump onto the already slippery track on his out lap, bringing out the red flags and delaying everything for ninety minutes while the track was cleaned up and inspected. When everything got going again – yes, it was still raining – it was Bayliss who came out fastest, followed by Chris Walker and Ruben Xaus. Fourth went to Noriyuki Haga, who had been leading the way on his Yamaha until he crashed out along with Karl Muggeridge. And then with just five minutes of the session to run it was Max Neukirchner’s time to crash his Alstare Suzuki, but it was left to Lorenzo Lanzi to be the last to fall off, as he managed to crash on the way back to the pits on his “in” lap at the very end of the session.

If anyone had hoped that the delayed warm-up session would have meant that the skies would have cleared by the time that the first race started, then they were to be severely disappointed. As the riders left the pit garages to line up on their grid positions for the start of race one, the conditions could best be described as being on the awful side of atrocious. Was this a bike race or a jet-ski contest? Then, on the “green flag” lap, Walker’s bike developed a misfire, so he returned to his garage to get it fixed, so when the red lights went out to start the race, "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside..." Chris Walker and Craig Jones teach Fonsi Nieto and Vittorio Ianuzzo the basics of English beach holiday etiquette, Buckets, spades and optional dog doo not pictured.his thirteenth grid slot was empty and Chris started from the pit lane. Corser got a poor start from pole and it was Bayliss that got the holeshot into the first corner. Behind them things got a little frantic, and a number of the riders ran wide onto the Astro Turf, amongst them a fast-charging Walker, trying to make up too much too quickly. But no one went down. Barros and Xaus made good starts, but at the front it was Bayliss in the clean air, followed by the Suzukis of Corser and Kagayama, and then a small gap to Haga, Barros, Toseland and Andrew Pitt. By lap four, Haga had closed the gap to the leading trio and then slipped past Kagayama into third place, with Xaus leading the rest of the pack some six seconds behind. Corser was now beginning to threaten Bayliss, and halfway around the lap he slipped under his fellow countryman and into the lead. In spite of the evil conditions, Corser started pushing hard and quickly opened up a gap, but further down the field it was all going wrong for Barros, in spite of the seemingly good start, and he pulled into the pits and retired. On the next lap Haga squeezed past Bayliss into second place, but Troy was not going to take that lying down and fought back immediately, but unsuccessfully. Behind them Yukio had a scary moment as the back wheel stepped out big-time.

As the leading four came down the back straight on the sixth lap, Haga was closing right down on Corser and pulling Baylis with him, Haga going under Corser into the corner at the end of the straight and then Bayliss going round the outside of him at the next curve. First to third for Corser in the wipe of a visor. And indeed that was the problem, as the Australian's visor was steaming up and affecting his vision. Two corners later and Bayliss was back in the lead as Haga ran wide, but Haga was straight back onto Bayliss like a dog snapping at his heels as they crossed the line to start lap seven. The conditions might be awful and the rain intensifying, but the quality of the racing was excellent! But not for Corser, as he appeared to lose both the back end and the front end of the Suzuki at the same time and exited stage-left into the gravel trap on the right-hander after Haarbocht. The rider was OK, but the bike was less so. In his own words "My visor started fogging up and I was having to try and look out of the side of it just to see where I was going! At the kind of speed we were going, that isn’t good enough and when I looked up one time, I was off line and heading into a large patch of water. Next thing I knew I was down..."

Karl Muggeridge graphically demonstrates how sideways isn't necessarily fastest. Chris Walker learns and reacts accordingly...Bayliss meantime was still under serious pressure from Haga, and on lap eight the Japanese rider was back into the lead again, the two of them having dropped-off Kagayama to some extent, but he was soon to have the attention of Ruben Xaus, who was closing quickly. Too quickly as it turned out, and the lanky Spaniard was the next to succumb to the slippery track conditions. Toseland was now up to fifth behind Fabrizio.

On lap nine Haga slowed as he appeared to lose grip and run out of tarmac on the exit of the first corner, and Bayliss ran wide onto the gravel to avoid him, dropping him back to third place behind Yukio Kagayama who immediately lost it and crashed out in almost exactly the same place as his Suzuki team-mate two laps earlier. It was beginning to look as though this was going to be a race of survival, and with the rain coming down harder every minute it was just about anyone’s guess as to who was going to end up on the podium. Toseland ran out of track on turn one, going off into the gravel but managing to restart after what seemed an age, getting bak on in twelfth place. Two laps later and Bayliss repeated his gravel trap excursion at the first corner and once again he managed to keep it upright. But could his luck hold out? Er – No. Lap twelve saw the Ducati on its side in the grass through the gloom and the spray, and when the engine stalled as he attempted to rejoin the circuit, it was game over for Troy.

Meanwhile, and almost unnoticed by the crowd and the media, Chris Walker had been having the ride of a lifetime on the PSG-1 Kawasaki, fighting his way up to sixth place from dead last on the opening lap, and now attacking Karl Muggeridge on the Ten Kate Honda for fifth. Sorry, make that fourth, as ahead of him by lap thirteen, were only Haga, Fabrizio and Pitt. But as Walker was lapping one second faster than Haga and three seconds faster than the other two, the 20,000 British at the circuit could begin to believe that Chris was odds-on for a podium finish. Or maybe more, because at the end of lap thirteen Haga crashed out!

And the crowd went wild (1) as Chris Walker took the lead...Turn One on lap fourteen, and Walker eased past Fabrizio into second place to the absolute delight of the British fans, and looked a certainty to take the lead off Pitt before very much longer. Behind all this, the Australian Josh Brookes on his first WSB ride had made it up to fourth place and was poised to make history if he could end up on the podium. Lap fifteen and Walker was glued to Pitt’s back wheel, lining him up for a beautiful overtaking manoeuvre into the chicane and sending the crowd wild as he came across the line and past the main grandstand to start the sixteenth lap. Could he keep it on the island for the next six laps and take his first WSB win in one hundred and thirty one starts? Time to start biting the nails.

But three places back it finally all went wrong for Brookes as he crashed out in the atrocious conditions, which by contrast didn’t seem to be affecting Walker as he upped his pace, leaving Pitt trailing in the spray and pulling out a lead of over three seconds by the start of the penultimate lap. This was extended to 4.9 seconds by the time the chequered flag fell at the end of lap twenty two, and Chris Walker claimed his first SBK victory to the delight of the British fans. Not only that, be he also got engaged to his girlfriend that morning, so all in all a good day at the office for the lad from Nottinghamshire.

Karl Muggeridge's great race took a turn for the worse on lap twelve, the likeable Ten Kate rider crashing out from fourth place though again managing to demonstrate that there are sometimes advantages in having a nearly standard road bike by restarting it on the button and getting back into the race, ending up ninth - one place ahead of team-mate Toseland.

Race Two. It finally it stopped raining and the sun came out, drying most of the track in short order but leaving a few damp patches for the unwary. When the lights went out and everyone charged down to the first corner, it was Haga who got the initial break, but Bayliss got the holeshot followed by Kagayama. But a little bit further back things were going wrong for Corser who hadn’t got the best of starts and collided with Haga’s bike. Something flew into the air, which transpired to be a critical part of Corser's Suzuki. Like his front brake. The champion reached turn one and discovered exactly what he'd lost when he tried to slow down. The result was Corser, Haga and Toseland hitting the dirt. Only Toseland remounted and continued on his extremely secondhand looking Honda, while Haga and Corser took the short walk back to their pit garages.

And the crowd went wild (2) It's damp, he's already been knocked off, the bike's bent and he's on the slippery paint. With the front wheel off the ground. James Toseland shows what heroes are made of...Up front, the leading trio of Bayliss, Kagayama and Xaus, who had made a tremendous start from twelfth on the grid, had pulled a small gap on the chasing pack headed by Andrew Pitt. Then, at the end of lap four Kagayama sneaked through underneath Bayliss to take the lead and expose Troy to the threat of the closing Ruben Xaus. The following pack had also closed on the leaders, and there was now a six bike train of Kagayama, Bayliss, Xaus, Pitt, Muggeridge and Laconi, with Fonsi Nieto closing fast on his team mate on the second PSG-1 Kawasaki. Walker meanwhile was running down in tenth position, suffering from the wrong tyre being fitted (unintentionally - not a wrong tyre choice), while Toseland who had rejoined the race after the first corner incident, was way down in twentieth. On lap five Xaus made his move on Bayliss, taking second spot from the Australian and moving quickly up and on to the tail of Kagayama. By lap eight Nieto had closed down on his team mate and then went past Laconi like he wasn’t there, and then immediately dispatching Karl Muggeridge in a similarly disdainful manner. Muggeridge's Honda had eaten the rear tyre and it was all the Australian could do to keep it on the grey stuff, let alone maintain a really competitive pace. Just ahead of Fonsi was now Ruben Xaus, whose second-place reign had been short-lived as he had been pushed back to fourth place, first by Bayliss and then by Andrew Pitt. By lap ten he was back to fifth place as Nieto swept past and started to close the gap to the leading trio.

On lap eleven Kagayama got things a little bit sideways and Bayliss pounced like a rat up a drainpipe to reclaim the lead as they turned onto the back straight. By the next lap Bayliss had managed to ease a bit of a gap on Yukio, while further back Nieto had attached the Kawasaki to the rear tyre of Pitt’s Yamaha and finally made the pass on the inside on the run down to the last corner. But there was more to come. While Kagayama appeared to be flagging, the exact opposite was true for Fonsi Nieto, and as they braked for the first corner on lap fourteen, the “Green Meanie” slid smoothly underneath the yellow Suzuki and up into second place. It was beginning to look like a very good weekend for the Kawasaki boys. Kagayama was obviously beginning to struggle now, as Pitt moved up to a rostrum position and demoted Yukio down to fourth place. Now the question was “could Nieto close down Bayliss and take the lead?” The Spaniard may very well have been thinking that himself instead of concentrating on the race, because on lap sixteen he took his eye off the ball and went straight on at the chicane, soaking his tyres and demoting himself back down to fourth place in the process. It was now Pitt who was heading off after Troy Bayliss, while Fonsi was immediately attacked by Xaus, losing yet another place.

Toseland again. Check out the broken screen, scuffed helmet, battered fairing...and the sheer level of determination. he may not get that number one plate back this year, but it won't be for lack of effort or commitment..By lap seventeen Bayliss had shrugged off the attentions of Andrew Pitt and pulled a comfortable gap on him. But Nieto’s tyres were now fully recovered from their dip in the lake and he was able to get back fourth place from Xaus at the end of the back straight, immediately setting off after Kagayama. By the time they crossed the line to start lap nineteen Nieto had closed the gap, and he then made the pass at De Strubben as they came onto the back straight. But Yukio wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and he retook third from Nieto as they came into the new part of the circuit. Xaus decided he was also up for it and wanted to join in the fun, and when Nieto ran a little bit wide going through Duikersloot, Ruben pounced and Fonsi found himself back down fifth again. Toseland meanwhile had made it all the way up to ninth place, spurred on no doubt by the roaring approval of the crowd. Ten Kate being a local team and Toseland being a Brit was always going to make them a popular pair, but the young Englishman's determination to race and do well made the support even stronger.

Lap twenty, and it was just about anyone’s guess as to who was going to get on the third step of the podium. Kagayama, Nieto and Xaus were in a serious battle to get the last of the silverware, while Bayliss and Pitt, someway up the road, had the first two steps neatly sewn up. At the end of the back straight Nieto got back past Xaus (again) for fourth place, and then at turn one on lap twenty one he took third place off Kagayama - again. Was the battle now finally decided? Er – not quite. Two corners later and it was Xaus who got past Kagayama (again) as they turned onto the back straight, and this took some of the heat off Nieto who was able to grab a small but significant gap over his pursuers. But then on the final lap Yukio got back in front of Ruben and despite an incredible “all or nothing” attempt by the Spaniard, Kagayama just managed to hold off Xaus as they crossed the line.

So for race two it was “Bayliss – business as usual” after a first race that gave him no points at all, and a second disaster for Corser who leaves Assen without a single extra point in the bag and now with little likelihood of retaining his title.

However, the real winners of the weekend were the Kawasaki team, with two podium finishes and one of them a win to boot! That's the first time a Kawasaki has won since wild card rider Isutzu did the doub;e at Sugo in 2000, and the first time we've seen a green bike on the podium for both races since Yanagawa got a brace of thirds at Monza in 2001. Well done lads.

Next stop is the Lausitzring in Germany on the 8/10th of September. Don’t miss it.

The face of a very happy man. And deservedly so - congratulations Chris Walker from all of us at MBTRace One

1 Chris Walker (Kawasaki)
2 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
3 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)
4 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
5 Norick Abe (Yamaha)
6 Max Neukirchner (Honda)
7 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
8 Roberto Rolfo (Ducati)
9 Karl Muggerridge (Honda)
10 James Toseland (Honda)

Race Two

1 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
2 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
3 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
4 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
5 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
6 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
7 Alex Barros (Honda)
8 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
9 James Toseland (Honda)
10 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)

Championship Standing after nine rounds:

1 Troy Bayliss 332
2 James Toseland 232
3 Nori Haga 230
4 Andrew Pitt 197
5 Troy Corser 193
6 Alex Barros 175
7 Yukio Kagayama 139
8 Chris Walker 123
9 Lorenzo Lanzi 115
10 Fonsi Nieto 112

 




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