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.
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, 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..."
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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