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And the fat lady sings. . . sort of

Words and pics by Simon Bradley.

Troy Bayliss came here with very little to do and every intention of doing it. Oh, and maybe a bit more...Imola is a quaint little town just sitting in the verdant countryside between Rimini and Bologna, about a third of the way down Italy. It has quiet, leafy avenues, attractive and largely unspoiled houses and squares and a racetrack. Slap in the middle of the town. Not an occasional, close the roads for racing type circuit either, but a full blown permanent GP track. To say it's anachronistic is an understatement. It's truly bizarre. And traffic, as you can probably imagine, is an utter nightmare. But that's beside the point. The circuit itself is demanding and rather scary in places with blind bends over crests and armco that's a little too close to the circuit for comfort. The location also makes some areas difficult to get to as a spectator and worse still as a photographer, some corners facing out onto people's gardens rather than acres of clear land as is more common.

Last year the championship was decided here after torrential rain made caused the cancellation of the second race and brought the inevitable victory forward by a round. This year the forecast wasn't much better so it was a pleasant surprise to see clear skies and sunshine as the riders took to the track for practice and qualifying.

The circuit has been slightly amended this year, so Bayliss' hot lap in free practice served as the benchmark for the new lap record. A lap record which was absolutely destroyed a couple of hours later by several people, not least James Toseland. Then Saturday qualifying saw Toseland's new lap record shattered again by both the Alstare Suzukis, Kagayama just pipping Corser by a few hundredths of a second. Further back, Chris Walker had a disappointing time with the PSG-1 Kawasaki, just missing out on the Superpole cut for the first time in his career. Bayliss didn't fare as well as expected, qualifying sixth behind Xaus and Barros, while Haga could do no better than tenth in a qualifying session cut short when Josh Brookes left his Kawasaki in spectacular style, dumping the contents of the sump all over the track.

Reuben Xaus looks as though he's falling off, even when he isn't. Sadly for his legion of fans, that isn't very often...Superpole always throws up a few surprises. Or at least upsets to the apparent form as riders who seem off the pace miraculously pull something out of the bag to stand everything on its head. And this was no exception as first of all Lanzi put in an excellent time to out him at the top of the leaderboard. Then seemingly off form Haga scorched through, beaten into second by the very next rider, Max Neukirchner. Andrew Pitt was the next upset, knocking nearly half a second off the German's time and staying at the top for about four minutes, being beaten by Troy Bayliss. The Ducati rider who struggled for form all weekend, put in an unbeatable lap which was a whole half second faster than Pitt and Toseland, who slotted into the second place on the grid. Corser and Kagayama sit in fourth and fifth places respectively, with Neukirchner sixth ahead of Haga and Barros. Xaus starts ninth, ahead of Lanzi.

Race day continued to confound the meteorologists, dawning clear, dry and rather warm and promising an excellent day's racing. Morning warmup demonstrated that Troy Bayliss hadn't lost anything overnight as he lapped quicker than anyone else, followed by Barros and Toseland. Haga, still suffering from the wrist injury he picked up at the Lausitzring, ran in a respectable fifth. Mind you, with the top dozen all within a second, overall times clearly didn't mean a great deal. Just ab tenth of a second split Bayliss from third placed Toseland, boding well for an interesting and close race.

In reality, though we can talk about mathematical possibilities, we're looking at several real battles for championship position this weekend. First of all is the fight for second between Toseland and Haga, currently running in the Japanese rider's favour but very, very close. Then there's the fight for fourth, with Corser and Pitt split by just one point;, Barros and Kagayama scrapping for sixth, then Walker, Lanzi and Nieto going for eighth, Walker currently leading Lanzi by one point with Nieto six points back. Bayliss, it's fair to say, is probably going to wrap it up today. Though I'm writing this before the race starts so may well have to do some hasty editing before publishing...

James Toseland is immensely popular in Italy - no surprise there - so his outstanding ride in Race 1 raised quite a few smiles...Race One saw the champion elect set off in a style that clearly suggested he wanted to take the title in style. Scorching off the line, Bayliss was hotly followed by Pitt, Haga, Corser and Toseland. Just a few corners in, Alstare team-mates Kagayama and Neukirchner tried to occupy the same piece of track, with predictable results. Four laps later and the previously all-conquering Suzuki team had a clean sweep of DNFs as Corser rolled into the pits and retired. Back out on the track, though, Bayliss' lead lasted just one lap before Andrew Pitt surged past, staying ahead for five laps himself before a massive slide relegated him to fifth behind Alex Barros. Barros, who must surely have booked himself into "how to start" classes for the closed season, had been steadily coming up the field from his dreadful eighth place at the end of lap one, the Klaffi Honda going as well as it looks. Reuben Xaus, massively popular as he is, caused great upset when he crashed out at the last chicane, stalling the Ducati and dropping out of the race after just three laps. And talking of perennial popularity, Frankie Chili rode hard and with all his old commitment, demonstrating why it's time to go. The old man of the circuit (and I mean that with the greatest affection) is simply outgunned by younger, fitter and less pain-aware riders, often on lesser machinery.

Anyway, up at the front end, Bayliss retook the lead after Pitt's big moment, holding it for just two laps before James Toseland slipped the Ten Kate Honda past to the very vocal approval of the crowd. Bayliss may be on the local bike, which makes him automatically popular here, but Toseland seems to be regarded as some sort of hero, a sign perhaps of the almost universal respect with which he is viewed, as much for his character as for his riding skills. And behind Toseland, Barros was on the move again, closing to third after a couple of very neat passes on the Yamahas of Pitt and the fading Haga. And it was Barros who was on the move generally, as after just three laps he dived underneath Toseland to take the lead. And extend it, too, putting an astonishing amount of clear air between himself and the essentially identical Ten Kate machine. Behind the two leaders came the real fight, as Bayliss struggled (unsuccessfully) to hold off Pitt while Haga tried (generally unsuccessfully) to get past the other two. Pitt managed to make a bit of a gap towards the end while Bayliss slowed right down crossing the line to let Haga just pip him for fourth.

Further down the field, the race long battle between Muggeridge, Nieto and Lanzi was finally settled, after being led by Muggeridge for the vast majority of the race, with the Australian finishing at the back of that little pack in eighth place. Nieto just beat him while Lanzi managed to create a bit of a gap by the end of the race.

Regis Laconi, having soundly beaten Norick Abe for ninth, ended up losing the place as his Kawasaki died just before reaching the line, allowing him to be mugged by the Japanese Yamaha rider a couple of yards from the line.

So. Despite finishing a lowly fifth, Troy Bayliss became World Superbike Champion, 2006 with three races still to go. Time for things to really hot up as those other position battles we spoke about are closer than ever. Toseland leads Haga by just one point, Corser and Barros are level while Pitt has overtaken them both, but not by much. Lanzi has overtaken Walker who is now just two points ahead of Nieto...

Race Two started in much the same way, the Ducati mounted Troy Bayliss ignoring the fact that he's already won the championship and going off like a scalded cat. Outgoing champion Troy Corser was hot on his heels, though, followed closely by Nori Haga who was no doubt anxious to make up for his relatively poor showing in race one. Andrew Pitt followed, with Yukio Kagayama and Reuben Xaus lined up behind. Max Neukirchner also made up for his disastrous race one, ending the first lap just ahead of James Toseland who made a diabolical start to end up in eighth place. Muggeridge finished lap one in ninth, ahead of Alex Barros who again went backwards off the start line. Haga swept past Corser on lap two, fellow Yamaha pilot Pitt slicing through the next lap to take third place. And slightly further back, Toseland passed Neukirchner and started to hunt down Xaus.

I don't know what they've been feeding Alex Barros but Andrew Pitt would like some...As before, the race split into several small battles. At the very front, Bayliss showed no sign of easing off or, indeed, of being under any pressure whatsoever as he extended a gap over Pitt and simply gave a masterclass in riding fast and smoothly. Pitt and Haga were battling between them, Pitt gaining the advantage on lap six, while Haga yielded to the pressure being brought to bear by Kagayama and Corser a lap later. Toseland, meantime, had closed up with Xaus to the extent that he could almost have dragged him off the bike were he so inclined. But Alex Barros clearly ate his Weetabix this morning, because he was going through the field like asparagus through the system. I don't know what Klaffi has said to him, but it worked. On lap eight he was still tenth and going nowhere. By half distance he was eighth and four laps later he was fourth. It looked possible for a while that he could do the double, but in the end Bayliss was too strong and the Brazilian had to settle for an extremely respectable second place. Xaus managed to get ahead of Haga, climbing to fourth before a major moment dropped him back down to seventh. Then an even more major moment put him high in the air and into the kitty litter after an enormous highside. The lanky Spaniard was lucky to get away without serious injury, but will no doubt be sore as anything tomorrow. Toseland, who had been putting huge pressure on Xaus, now turned his attention to Haga. But though he was able to close right up with the Japanese rider, it was Barros passing them both that gave the young Englishman the impetus to barge past and reinforce his championship lead. Further ahead, Pitt succumbed to the relentless attack of Yukio Kagayama and dropped back into Barros' clutches, lasting just three laps before being toppled from the podium. And Kagayama too was unable to stop the Brazilian attack, losing out with four laps to go.

Barros probably gets Man of the Match, despite Bayliss lifting the title. Further back, Muggeridge resumed his fight with Lanzi and came out second best again, though managing to get past the fading Corser in the last few laps. Judging from the volumes of smoke he was producing, Corser and the Alstare team hade made an error in their choice of rear tyre. Either that or he'd decided that he wasn't going to win so he may as well showboat... Laconi came out on top of a race long tussle with Abe while Nieto just managed to beat Walker who was reeling him in in the last laps.

We can't leave without mentioning Frankie Chili, whose fan club set up a welcoming committee at the end of the race, complete with deckchair, umbrella and garden table. Frankie arrived with a man in a tiger suit on the back of his bike and proceeded to cry and hug everyone in reach. That is a man who is secure enough in his masculinity to cry like a girl when the circumstances demand it...

So next week we're at Magny Cours. The title is decided but there's still plenty to play for as the gaps between the various runner-up factions have reduced even more.

I can't wait...

Troy Bayliss, 2006 World Superbike Champion. And deserving of the title, too...Race One

1 Alex Barros (Honda)
2 James Toseland (Honda)
3 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
4 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
5 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
6 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
7 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
8 Karl Muggeridge (Honda)
9 Norick Abe (Yamaha)
10 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)

Race Two

1 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
2 Alex Barros (Honda)
3 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
4 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
5 James Toseland (Honda)
6 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
7 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
8 Karl Muggeridge (Honda)
9 Troy Corser (Suzuki)
10 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)

Championship Standing after eleven rounds:

1 Troy Bayliss 393 (World Superbike Champion, 2006)
2 James Toseland 295
3 Nori Haga 293
4 Andrew Pitt 239
5 Alex Barros 231
6 Troy Corser 218
7 Yukio Kagayama 193
8 Lorenzo Lanzi 152
9 Chris Walker 140
10 Fonsi Nieto 139


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