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it never rains in the desert. . .

Words by Simon Bradley, pictures as credited

The good people of Qatar must really love World Superbikes. For several reasons. First of all of course, it’s a welcome influx of people who aren’t interested in hauling oil out of the ground and wrecking the environment nor indeed are they interested in invading, which is always going to be a good thing. But there is another, perhaps more interesting reason. Qatar, for those of you who didn’t know, is a small country in the desert. In common with most desert countries, indeed, the reason why it’s called a desert country, is that it doesn’t rain very much. Now last year World Superbikes arrived in Qatar early in the season relying on the fact that it didn’t rain very much and thinking that they could get another good race in when it was dry. Of course, it threw it down. This year, of course, it wasn’t going to happen again. Was it? Actually…yes.

Free practice was wet and, well, quite British actually. Indeed the grotty weather continued for much of the time, only easing properly in time for the last bits in qualifying and for race day. Practice and open qualifying saw, well, maybe no real surprises but certainly a few eye openers and a small indication of what’s to come in the rest of the season. Surprisingly, considering their lacklustre performance last year, Ducati were on the case from the very beginning with returnee and 2001 champion Troy Bayliss showing that he is definitely going to be a man to be reckoned with, proving spectacularly fast and consistent. His new team mate Lorenzo Lanzi, Ducati’s 2005 wunderkind, was also proving to be very quick, although a little ragged.

Defending Champion Troy Corser is also fast and smooth, as always. His team mate Yukio Kagayama was also on the case from the beginning, the popular Japanese rider delivering a string of consistent fast laps. The big Suzuki has had very little in the way of development over the closed season, but as it was a pretty good package in the first place, that’s not a bad thing. Suzuki have a third rider in the form of Supersports star Fabien Foret, riding the satellite Alstare engineering machine.

Corser leads Haga, Pitt, Toseland and Bayliss  halfway through race 2. (Suzuki Racing) Nori Haga and Andrew Pitt on Yamaha Italia bikes were also going well. The only change that seems to be made to their bikes this year is a change of colour scheme from blue and white to red, black and white. But, again, as the R1 seemed to be working very well to the end of last season, that’s no problem. The three man Yamaha France team seemed to be struggling, though, and were no threat to the leaderboard at any time.

Kawasaki have changed their bikes back to being a proper green racing under the PSG1 team, which is only right and proper. They’ve also made a few other changes because the ZX-10 is now been a lot faster and apparently easier to ride. At least at first - Chris walker suggested that after the few half a dozen laps or so things get a little hairy. I suspect with the enormous power the bike produces the tyres get a rather hard time and simply throw in the towel early. Certainly Walker is the only one of the team to really get to grips with the bike. New team-mates Laconi and Nieto both struggled and Laconi failed to make the cut for Superpole.

The Ten Kate Fireblades are proving to be again fast, consistent, reliable, everything we came to recognise from the team at the end of last season. Toseland and Muggeridge are working well as a team and both spent a fair chunk of time at the top end of the leaderboard. GP refugee Alex Barros, on the sole Klaffi Honda, rode well on a clearly well sorted bike and showed himself to be the professional we know he is. While Frankie Chili and his ever so young team-mate Michael Fabrizio also had a reasonable session on the DFX Fireblades.

In fact, the only team to have a really grim practice and qualifying was Foggy Petronas. Though stalwart Steve Martin had affair time, at one point making a welcome appearance in the top half dozen, his young team-mate Craig Jones sent more time in the gravel trap and the medical centre than on the bike. He’s certainly fast, and when he stops crashing he’ll be a real contender. I just hope for the sake of the Malaysian economy that he gets it together soon.

On to Superpole, which was dry, warm and quite pleasant. Karl Muggeridge looked as though he was going to be the man to beat with a storming ride which unfortunately went horribly wrong as he threw the bike down the track and failed to finish his flying lap, happily avoiding injury. That left the field open for Troy Bayliss who didn’t need a second invitation and in fact was the only rider to break the two minute mark in his Superpole lap. His team mate Lorenzo Lanzi was just half a second behind and took second place on the grid with Andrew Pitt, a surprise, in third. James Toseland got it all together and rounded off the front row of the grid in front of Troy Corser, Nori Haga and Yukio Kagayama while Karl Muggeridge had gone quick enough in regular qualifying to slot into eighth place. Steve Martin, having a fantastic start to the season on Foggy Petronas was in ninth place ahead of Alex Barros in tenth.

Race one.

Steve Martin wrings the FPR's neck to try and remain competitive (FoggyPetronas)No unpleasant weather surprises on race day. A cloudless azure sky and air temperature in the mid 20s meant that a good day’s racing looked on the cards. And as soon as the lights changed it became apparent that the 2006 season is going to be a good one. Pitt, Haga, Bayliss, Corser, Kagayama and Lanzi making the running. Toseland seemed to get caught out at the start as he shot backwards through the field to a disastrous tenth place by the first corner. Craig Jones decided it was all to much and crashed out on the first lap – coincidentally in almost the same spot that he crashed in practice. Muggeridge made a good start but faded quickly, as did Walker. Toseland, meantime, set about redeeming himself. He clawed back two places in lap two, another one in lap three and lap four then spent a few laps getting settled in and homing onto the pack of the leading pack, which he did shortly after halfway distance. Lorenzo Lanzi set a highly respectable la record before utterly destroying his bike in a huge, fast highside that fortunately saw only mechanical mayhem, the young Italian walking away from the wreckage without real injury.

Up at the front, Haga and Pitt were squabbling over first place until Kagayama came along and broke up the party, the young Japanese rider having proven no respecter of team status by mugging Corser for fourth the previous lap. Toseland, meantime, had swapped places with Bayliss a couple of times before managing to make it stick and then, a couple of laps later, stuffed the Honda underneath Corser in a very robust overtake that pushed the champion wide and allowed both Toseland and Bayliss to slip through.

The chase was on, then, as Toseland put in a string of fastest laps to reel in Pitt, assign him in impeccable style at the same time as Kagayama took Haga for the lead. Bayliss managed to follow through shortly afterwards, but Toseland had a podium in his sights and was relentlessly closing down the Japanese pair ahead of him, who were tripping each other up and making it a little easier for him.

Then it happened. On the last lap, as Kagayama turned into the hairpin, Haga tried for the inside line. Realising that Yukio hadn’t seen him and would cut across, all Haga could do was brake harder. The front wheel locked, the Yamaha went down and both Haga and Kagayama, who was collected by the sliding bike, took an early gravel bath. Which left Toseland and Bayliss to make a drag for the line, which the Englishman managed to make the most of to take the first victory of the new season, ahead of Bayliss and Pitt in his first visit to the SBK podium.

Corser came in fourth, ahead of debutantes Fabrizio, Barros and Rolfo with Frankie Chili a well deserved eighth, Borciani ninth and Max Neukirchner rounding off the top ten.

Race two

No mistake from Toseland this time as Bayliss went backwards, leaving Haga, Pitt, Toseland and Corser ahead of him. Muggeridge made a good start ahead of Lanzi, Rolfo, Chili and Nieto, while Walker joined the top ten on the second lap. At the front, Corser managed to pass Toseland on lap five, gaining a place on each of the next laps to take the lead on lap seven. Frankie Chili departed the race in spectacular fashion, nearly taking Barros with him as his bike careened back onto the track on the next corner. Frankie was battered and bruised but otherwise unhurt. Craig Jones did little to endear himself to his team boss as he crashed out again Bayliss was on the move too, managing to edge past Toseland on lap eleven and then taking both Pitt and Haga to move into second place on lap fourteen. Then battle really commenced, as the two Australian champions slugged it out for the lead with Haga and Toseland fighting hard for the last podium spot and Pitt hanging in close enough to pick up the pieces if it all went wrong.

It carried on like this for a while,  A Bayliss sandwich. (Suzukiu Racing)What was apparent straight away is that the Ducati does not have the legs or the outright grunt to win a drag to the line, though Bayliss was riding the wheels off it to try to maximise his corner speed advantage. Corser was able to stay in front through a mixture of racecraft and simple power, and took the win, despite a few very close moments. A couple of seconds behind, Toseland finally managed to get past Haga on the penultimate bend for third place, only to be mugged literally at the line as the wily Japanese rider dived out from the slipstream to pip the Englishman to the line by just 1.6cm. Pitt took fifth to complete an excellent day at the office for the young Australian who finally seems to have come good after a disappointing season last year.

A yawning fifteen second gap then passed before sixth placed Lorenzo Lanzi crossed the line, pursued by Alex Barros, Fabrizio and Muggeridge with Ruben Xaus, complete with crutches, rounding out the top ten.

So the championship is already shaping up to be a good one. Bayliss, by virtue of his brace of second places, takes the lead by just two points from Corser and Toseland, tied for second. Pitt is fourth with new boys Fabrizio and Barros both tied for fifth. Haga is seventh while Kagayama failed to score any points as a mechanical DNF made his weekend just get worse and worse.

What have we learned from this weekend? Well, we have learned that James Toseland is back from the wilderness and is a force to be reckoned with. We have learned that Troy Bayliss is faster than his bike, and that the Ducati is comprehensively outgunned on fast straights. We have learned that both Nori Haga and Andrew Pitt have got what it takes, both in terms of machinery and ability. And we have learned that while Troy Corser and Yukio Kagayama are still immensely competitive, the big Suzuki is no longer the unstoppable force it was last year.

What else?

Oh yes. We’ve learned, in case we forgot, that SBK is probably the best racing anywhere on the planet…

James Toseland saves Gerrit Ten Kate some money on front tyre wear (Ten Kate Racing)Race One

1 James Toseland (Honda)
2 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
3 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
4 Troy Corser (Suzuki)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)
6 Alex Barros (Honda)
7 Roberto Rolfo (Ducati)
8 Pierfrancesco Chili (Honda)
9 Marco Borciani (Ducati)
10 Max Neukirchner (Ducati)

Race Two

1 Troy Corser(Suzuki)
2 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
3 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
4 James Toseland (Honda)
5 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
6 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
7 Alex Barros (Honda)
8 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
9 Karl Muggeridge (Honda)
10 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)

Championship Standing after one round:

1 Troy Bayliss 40
2= Troy Corser 38
2= James Toseland 38
4 Andrew Pitt 27
5= Michel Fabrizio 19
5= Alex Barros 19
7 Nori Haga 16
8 Roberto Rolfo 12
9 Karl Muggeridge 11
10 Lorenzo Lanzi 10



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