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the four seasons come to donington ?

Words: Simon Bradley. pics: simon bradley, richard handley & Becci Stubbs

Karl Muggeridge and Giovanni Bussei tussle for position while trying to figure out who numbr 96 (Jakub Smrz) is..."It was twenty years ago today..." Well, though The Beatles quote isn't totally accurate, it is twenty years since SBK started, and appropriately enough it was right here at Donington Park that the first ever SBK round took place. Roger Burnett, who now manages James Toseland, set pole position and Davide Tardozzi, manager of Xerox Ducati, took the first ever win. Times change, of course, and over the years there have been quite a few major changes to the detail of Superbike racing. The most obvious of these saw the inclusion, despite protests from certain Italian factories, of 1000cc four cylinder bikes and, a couple of years later and despite protests from everyone apart from the Italians, the adoption of a single tyre brand across the entire championship series. But the spectacle and excitement of SBK has never changed. As far as Donington Park is concerned, there have been other fairly unique events in its SBK history. Nori Haga making his first foray outside Japan and utterly destroying the opposition after Superpole was snowed (!) off sticks pretty clearly in my mind, for example.

Talking of snow, though it stopped short of that we were treated to just about the entire gamut of other conditions normally encountered in this green and pleasant land. Friday practice was cold and wet, Saturday alternated between cold and dry, warm and dry and very windy. It certainly made the technical managers keep on their toes as they tried to decide on tyre and suspension choices. Not everyone got it right, as Friday saw the unscheduled, and rather violent, departure of several riders in both SBK and Supersport. Indeed, the Supersport championship got seriously stood on its head as Charpentier, Curtain and Parkes all ruled themselves out of the rest of the weekend's activities in heavy crashes. Charpentier may well require surgery after exacerbating old injuries as well, so the defending champion will have a massive hill to climb on his return. SBK saw the temporary, but no less sad, loss of Yukio Kagayama, again after injury.

Troy Bayliss rode a faultless Superpole lap and was looking seriously threatening...Saturday stayed dry, though cold for much of the time. When the sun broke through it was really quite pleasant, despite the strong, gusty wind that accompanied it much of the time. When I say strong wind I do mean strong, as not only was it enough to blow several marquees around the paddock, it was also sufficient to severely disrupt things for some of the riders. As I'll explain later.

Qualifying started well and just got better. Though the usual suspects were as quick as you might expect, there were a few other interesting faces popping up near the top of the timesheets. In particular, Ruben Xaus made a welcome return to the top, as did Fonsi Nieto and Michel Fabrizio. Happily, Steve Martin had a ride, the DFX team having announced that they did not have the funds to support two riders after Philip Island. Steve managed to secure extra sponsorship and is now riding on a race by race basis. He's a smashing guy, fast and smooth, and we wish him all the best. As the day got warmer and the wind dropped, some pretty astonishing things happened. Not least of which was both Troy Bayliss and Troy Corser smashing the lap record for the circuit. No big deal, you might think. Except that they broke the absolute motorcycle lap record. Yes, Superbikes being ridden round Donington Park faster than MotoGP machinery. Not just a little faster, either - over half a second faster than Valentino Rossi can get round. That really is impressive. And so it's no big surprise that both Bayliss and Corser went into Superpole at the top of the timesheets, followed by Xaus. Lorenzo Lanzi seems to have found some of the form that had deserted him until recently, getting around four hundredths of a second faster than local hero James Toseland. And that was the class of the day, with a huge, nearly half a second, gap back to Max Biaggi, Fonsi Nieto, Regis Laconi and Nori Haga. Fabrizio rounded off the top ten, with Muggeridge, Brookes and Rolfo split by just two hundredths of a second behind him.

Formation flying by the PSG-1 team. Laconi manages to hold off Nieto for another lap...Superpole threw up a few surprises. The first was Giovanni Bussei, who came in at the bottom of the cut and rode a blinding lap, faster than either of the DFX Hondas to end up twelfth. That's a popular result for a rider who is renowned as one of the nicest guys on the grid. What was rather more of a surprise was Roby Rolfo failing to negotiate the Melbourne Hairpin on his warmup lap, going straight on and out of contention. Josh Brookes, riding the Alto Evolution Honda brilliantly, got caught out by the wind as a strong gust lifted the front wheel as he hurtled around Hollywood and dumped him into the gravel. Which surprised us but probably surprised him rather more. But we were all flabbergasted to see Troy Corser go the same way, the front lifting and sliding away at Redgate at the start of his flying lap. No such misfortune for Bayliss, though, who rode faultlessly to take pole a full seven tenths faster than second placed Nori Haga. Regis Laconi took a surprise third, pipping Toseland by twenty two thousandths of a second. Lanzi, Xaus and Biaggi headed the second row, with Corser's regular qualifying lap fast enough to put him eighth. Muggeridge rode an excellent lap on the second Alto Evolution Honda to head the third row from Nieto, Neukirchner, Bussei and Fabrizio. Steve Martin was the last Superpole rider to actually finish, with Josh Brookes being placed ahead of Rolf by virtue both of his performance in qualifying and his actually getting onto the timed lap rather than crashing out beforehand...

On to race day, then. A cold and fairly gripless start saw British wildcard Zanotti crash out during warm-up, happily without injury, and generally lap times were something over a second slower than Saturday qualifying. Men of the moment, again, were the two Troys, Corser obviously none the worse for his Superpole mishap. James Toseland was third, a full half a second slower than Bayliss but half a second ahead of Laconi. Biaggi was snapping at the Kawasaki rider's heels, seeming to still struggle with the Suzuki's setup.

Ruben Xaus still always looks as though he's crashing, but he's deceptively smooth and as fast as you like. When he stays on. Nice guy, too...(Pic: Becci Stubbs)Race one, and it was Troy Bayliss who made the initial running with a blinding start from pole position. But James Toseland made the most of his front row position, launching the Ten Kate Honda into a close second place and sticking doggedly to the back of the Ducati. Behind the lead pair, Regis Laconi lead Ruben Xaus with Lorenzo Lanzi following the two former factory Ducati riders. Fonsi Nieto made a good start as well, slipping through into sixth with Troy Corser a disappointing seventh, just ahead of an off-form Nori Haga. Even more of a surprise, Max Biaggi was in ninth at the beginning of the race, only just holding of Giovanni Bussei.

Laconi managed to hold off the hard charging and exceptionally popular Xaus for just one lap, the lanky Spaniard sliding past early in lap two. And Troy Corser charged up the field, finishing the second lap in fifth place, rapidly reeling in the Frenchman to pass him just a lap later and climb to third by lap five. Then on the sixth lap, as Toseland started to close on Bayliss, the Australian had a huge tankslapper which resulted in him crashing violently at Coppice, virtually severing a finger and ruling him out of the second race as well. Toseland was able to capitalise on Bayliss' misfortune, extending a huge lead over second placed Corser while Max Biaggi rampaged up through the field from an appalling start to take third by half distance. And so, at least at the front, it stayed. Nori Haga was on something of a charge as well, a titanic scrap for fourth with Ruben Xaus only finishing when Xaus crashed out a couple of laps from the end. Alessandro Polita had a massive crash on the Suzuki Italia GSX-R, being taken away to the medical centre and taking no further part in proceedings for the afternoon.

So the end result was a hugely popular win for James Toseland, who didn't put a single wheel wrong for the whole race, with Troy Corser a second and a half behind and Max Biaggi a further second back. Haga came fourth from Lanzi, while Laconi yielded to the pressure from his team-mate to finish seventh. Max Neukirchner rode to an excellent eighth on the Suzuki Germany GSX-R and Roby Rolfo came ninth. Jakub Smrz (who?) rounded out the top ten on the Carracchi Ducati, just ahead of the Alto Evolution Honda pairing of Muggeridge and Brookes.

A home win was always going to be on the cards with Toseland's current form, but was no less welcome for that...(Pic: Richard Handley)Race two, then, had a rather depleted grid. Pole was empty with the enforced absence of Troy Bayliss, and Polita was sitting things out as well. Toseland was in the happy position of being able to stay in the lead of the championship no matter what the result of the race, and reacted to the lack of pressure by immediately going into the lead. Nori Haga slotted into second this time, with Corser third, Laconi fourth and Biaggi fifth. Xaus continued his good form with a sixth after the first lap, again ahead of Lanzi on the factory bike. Nieto sat just ahead of Neukirchner with Roby Rolfo closing the top ten. It looked like a carbon copy of race one for a few laps, as Toseland extended a lead and looked comfortable for a double. But on lap four the Ten Kate Honda just stopped on the exit of Redgate. The Englishman could only look on in disgust as the field streamed past, leaving him to walk back to the pits. So Troy Corser had the lead and set about extending it. But to no avail, as both Haga and Biaggi worked their way through until they were all in a bunch and swapping places. It could easily have been any of their races, or indeed none of theirs as they tripped each other up and threatened to take each other out of the picture. But that didn't happen.

Further down the field, Ruben Xaus climbed up to fourth in an unusually controlled display, staying ahead of Lorenzo Lanzi in what must have been a very important psychological battle. Lanzi stayed ahead of Laconi in a similar battle while Roby Rolfo hauled himself up to seventh. And this Smrz bloke, of whom nobody has heard, finished eighth, just ahead of Karl Muggeridge. Muggas finally got the better of a race long battle with Neukirchner and Steve Martin, the Suzuki rider ending up tenth and Martin twelfth having been pipped to eleventh by Giovanni Bussei in the last few seconds. Nieto ran ever so wide at Coppice, going onto the gravel at walking speed and dropping the Kawasaki in a moment of pure comedy. The Spaniard was last seen being pushed down the track by a couple of out of breath marshals trying to bump-start his bike.

At the front, when the dust settled and the banged fairings had been repaired it was Haga who got across the line first after Biaggi ran wide at the final corner. Corser finished third in what turned out to be a good afternoon for Yamaha.

So we go off to Valencia with Toseland retaining a slim championship lead over Biaggi. It's all going to get exciting...


Nitro Nori returned to form in devastating style at the circuit where he first burst onto the scene back in 1998...(Pic: Richard Handley)Race One

1 James Toseland (Honda)
2 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
3 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
4 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
5 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
6 Fonsi Nieto (Kawasaki)
7 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
8 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
9 Roberto Rolfo (Honda)
10 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)

Race Two

1 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
2 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
3 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
4 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
5 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
6 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
7 Roby Rolfo (Honda)
8 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
9 Karl Muggeridge (Honda)
10 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)

Championship Standing after three rounds:

1 James Toseland 115
2 Max Biaggi 110
3 Nori Haga 88
4 Troy Corser 81
5 Lorenzo Lanzi 66
6 Troy Bayliss 64
7 Max Neukirchner 46
8 Ruben Xaus 45
9 Roby Rolfo 36
10 Fonsi Nieto 30



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