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High drama down under. . .

Words by Simon Bradley, pictures by Richard Handley

Fonsi Nieto enters the annual "How low can you go" motorcycle limbo competitionValencia in Spain has been the scene of some of the closest, hairiest racing we've ever seen on two wheels. It's a highly technical circuit with very few places that a rider can relax as bend flows into bend flows into complex flows into elevation change. The weather doesn't help either, being notoriously fickle and often offering teams little time to get a working setup for the conditions on race day. And this in spite of being one of the official test locations on the SBK calendar, too.

Certainly the Ten Kate team were struggling to find a working configuration for their bike. Gerrit Ten Kate, in his usual frank way, simply stated that Valencia was going to be a struggle for them. Certainly the absence of stalwart Karl Muggeridge, sidelined after breaking his back in testing, wasn't helping. Muggas is replaced on the grid by Giovanni Bussei - the popular Italian being the very same who gave Chris Vermeulen a lift back to the pits on the warmup at Imola a few years ago. Despite their problems, though, Toseland's sheer hard work and ability kept things going through lurid slides and there was at least some progress as the Honda dragged its way up the timesheets.

At the other end of the scale, both the Xerox Ducati and Alstare Suzuki teams were right on top of things, trading places at the head of the timesheets and clearly in possession of the magic formula that they needed to make their bikes work best. The two main Yamaha teams were both doing well, too, as Haga, Abe and Pitt battled among each other for front row honours.

Superpole, on Saturday afternoon, followed a wet and frankly miserable morning of slides and huge crashes. Crash of the day probably belongs to Yukio Kagayama who destroyed his GSX-R 1000 in spectacular style and smacked himself around sufficiently to miss Superpole completely. The rules dropped him six places to twelfth. Save of the day is most certainly an honour that Andrew Pitt should claim, the Australian catching a massive slide by digging his elbow in and saving himself from a gravel trip visit.

Troy Bayliss attempting (unsuccessfully) to wrest the "Mr Superpole" title from CorserWhen all the excitement had subsided, Troy Corser had just pipped Bayliss to pole, with Lorenzo Lanzi doing a lot to silence those gainsayers who suggest he doesn't deserve his factory ride with a sterling third place. Even more impressive, Steve Martin hustled the underpowered but ever improving Foggy Petronas FP-1 to a remarkable fourth place to round off the front row. Nieto made the most of his home track advantage to lead his team-mates Laconi and Walker on the second row, with Abe in eighth. And James Toseland was the top Honda by a long way, heading the third row from Haga, Pitt and Kagayama.

Race day was dry and warm, with a stiff breeze. Typically, there hadn't been much qualifying time in these conditions so everyone was winging it a bit. Warmup saw that Toseland was still struggling for grip but that race tyres were closer to everyone else than qualifiers.

So as the lights went out for race one it was Bayliss who got the drop off the line and into the first corner. Less than halfway round the lap, though, Corser simply blasted past and set about building a commanding lead. Behind them, Lanzi, Nieto, Haga, Abe and Walker led the pack which, for once, got away cleanly. Things soon strung out quite well as Corser made the most of the Suzuki's power and pace to extend a big gap while Bayliss in turn pulled away from the following scrap for third. Nieto retired a few laps in with a mechanical problem while Haga surged past Abe and Lanzi to move up to the last podium spot. Toseland was fighting the mother of all battles to keep his Honda both on the track and going reasonably fast plus, even more importantly, in front of Pitt and Barros.

Troy Corser demonstrates how to kill a rear tyre in under 23 lapsUp at the front and tyres were starting to come into the equation. That Suzuki is fast but all that power takes it out of the back tyre. And Bayliss could see his countryman losing grip. Not being a man to pass opportunities by, on lap eighteen the Ducati rider slipped into the lead under braking and immediately created some clear air behind him. And so it stayed until the line, with Bayliss leading Corser home by over two and a half seconds. Both had time for a cup of tea and some cake before third place Lanzi arrived ahead of Abe and Haga with Kagayama just two tenths back. Ruben Xaus finished his first race of the season without needing crutches in a very respectable seventh with Laconi in hot pursuit. Toseland slithered home ninth, ahead of Pitt. Chris Walker had an off track excursion late in the race and dropped to twenty third while Steve Martin's heroic efforts came to naught as he retired with ten laps to go.

Race two saw raised track temperatures which would mean that tyres were even more important. Again we saw Bayliss get the holeshot before being passed by Corser on the first lap. This time, though, the start wasn't so clean as Laconi barged local hero (and his team-mate) Fonsi Nieto almost off the track, pushing the Spaniard back to fifteenth place. So at the front, Corser led Bayliss who led Haga, Lanzi, Abe and Walker. James Toseland went backwards off the line to finish the first lap in eleventh place, perhaps after needing to take avoiding action due to the fracas ahead of him.

Yukio Kagayama was going very well when he had another big fast crash, destroying his second bike of the weekend as well as contributing to the growing collection of scars and bruises he'll be taking home from Spain. And a few laps later, Xaus spectacularly disassembled his Ducati in the gravel trap by turn eleven. Although he had to be helped away, it's difficult to tell how much of the difficulty he was having was fresh and how much was from his earlier injuries.

Well, you can't knock the boy's commitment, can you?Now promoted to tenth, Toseland was fighting hard to stay ahead of Klaffi Honda pilot Fabrizio, putting the Ten kate machine into huge rear wheel slides that looked fantastic but must have been very scary indeed. Quite how he stayed on I'm not sure, but he really rode the wheels off that bike in difficult circumstances. Similar problems were starting to befall Troy Corser as the big Suzuki again overpowered its rear tyre and delivered him back into the clutches of the following Bayliss. This time the process took longer as Corser rode harder and with more commitment than I have ever seen before to hold onto the lead. Massive slides and smokey corners heralded a huge effort by both riders but, on the first corner of the penultimate lap, Bayliss did the deed under braking and took an unassailable lead.

Behind the two leaders, Haga and Abe had yielded to Lanzi, determined to get another place on the grid after a two thirds race length three way scrap. And just behind them, Nieto had fought his way back up the field, getting past Walker with just a few laps to go while Pitt succumbed to the pressure of Laconi on the last lap. The bitterest blow came to Toseland who, having regained tenth from Fabrizio after being overtaken, lost it again on the final lap.

So Valencia delivered a few surprises as always, produced some outstanding performances as always and gave us some pretty good racing to boot. As, um, always. Some riders and teams will probably want to forget the whole thing but overall everyone did pretty well under difficult conditions. James Toseland in particular should take heart that not only did he ride as well as he possibly could on a bike that just wasn't working properly but also he stayed on when probably three quarters of the field would have been chewing gravel several laps before the finish.

Monza is next - a speed circuit if ever there was one. Expect a strong showing from the Suzukis but remember that the Ten Kate Honda won there last year and that Toseland always does well there. Oh, and there's this Ducati team as well... It's going to be tight, I'd say.


There are those who would say this was showing off...Race One

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

Race Two

1 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
2 Troy Corser (Suzuki)
3 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati
4 Norick Abe (Yamaha)
5 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
6 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
7 Chris Walker (Kawasaki)
8 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
9 Andrew Pitt (Yamaha)
10 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)

Championship Standing after three rounds:

1 Troy Bayliss 125
2 Troy Corser 103
3 James Toseland 86
4 Nori Haga 64
5 Alex Barros 62
6 Andrew Pitt 58
7 Lorenzo Lanzi 47
8 Norick Abe 40
9 Michel Fabrizio 34
10 Ruben Xaus 33



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