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the rain in spain. . .

Words by Simon Bradley, pictures by simon bradley and richard handley

Josh Brookes was absolutely flying on the Alto Evolution Honda......can't make up its mind what the heck it's going to do! Valencia is a port town and the circuit, just a few convenient kilometres outside, is at the foot of some mini-mountains. As any amateur meteorologist will tell you, that's a combination almost guaranteed to give you some rather interesting weather. And so it was, as Friday was dry for qualifying and practice, with occasional wet bits and Saturday was, um, wet with occasional dry bits.

One thing that any racer or suspension guru will tell you is that the hardest thing to deal with is inconsistent weather. The difference in setup between wet and dry conditions is huge - not just in terms of using treaded or slick tyres but in suspension stiffness, tyre sizes, engine mapping, everything. And for a rider, not knowing whether the track is wet or dry around the next corner can make life rather more exciting than it really needs to be.

Valencia is a fairly complicated circuit. Actually that's an understatement. Valencia is a highly technical circuit that adds elevation changes and a highly unusual counter-clockwise direction to its climatic peculiarities to make possibly one of the most demanding tracks on the calendar. And surface conditions which were changing between laps conspired to make things distinctly interesting.

James Toseland struggled for grip over much of the weekend...Friday qualifying saw the usual suspects topping the timesheets - Troy Bayliss, apparently none the worse for his Donington crash, James Toseland and local hero Ruben Xaus, with Troy Corser, Max Biaggi and Nori Haga all in the chase as well. But Saturday's wet weather made things far more even as Josh Brookes took the slightly power disadvantaged Alto Evolution Honda to the top of the timesheets and kept it there. Now when it's raining, Superpole is a confusing affair for everyone - riders, circuit officials, journalists and so on - so chaos reigned for a short time while people figured out exactly what was going on. For those of you who don't know, wet Superpole is a fifty minute session where each rider is allowed up to twelve laps. It's more tactical than normal, as some riders go out, do their absolute best and then stop, some wait until the last minute and some go out, set a time, see how everyone else is doing and then have another go. A bit like regular qualifying in MotoGP, in fact, but shorter and more highly pressured. Some people obviously know when they've got more to give and when they haven't. Ruben Xaus, for example, did just three laps but put himself second on the grid. Until very near the end of the session, in fact, he was in the lead. Troy Bayliss eventually pipped him by just a tenth of a second in the dying stages, while Josh Brookes stormed through to third place, a tenth of a second behind the local hero. Troy Corser, struggling for grip on the changeable circuit, came in fourth, over half a second behind the Alto Evolution Honda rider, while championship leader James Toseland came in just seven hundredths of a second later to take fifth and head the second row. Lanzi, Haga and Kagayama lined up alongside Toseland, with Haga just under a second slower than Bayliss and Kagayama a full seven tenths behind him. Fabrizio just beat Muggeridge to ninth, making the Alto Evolution riders the top qualifying Honda team - pretty impressive for a private entry with a relatively limited budget.

Race day dawned, as race days do. Indeed, as all days do. The weather, we all recognised, was going to continue to be an issue as it essentially continued the same as yesterday. So the assembled photographers got wet in the warm-up, properly wet in Superstocks and then alternately damp and dry in the first race. Grip, it's fair to say, was at a bit of a premium. It was dry enough for slicks, but there were distinctly iffy areas around the circuit where the possibility of it all going wrong was very real.

Ruben Xaus is a popular rider everywhere, and winning race one made him even more popular at his home round...(Pic: Richard Handley)When the lights went out for race one, the power differential between the Alto Evolution Hondas and the other front runners was obvious straight off the line as Brookes was swallowed up Corser, Haga and Toseland, being relegated to sixth within the first few hundred yards. But it was Corser who really flew, taking the lead from Bayliss while Toseland fired the Ten Kate machine up into third, ahead of Haga. Further back, Muggeridge had also suffered from the lack of off the line grunt, dropping to twelfth behind Kagayama and Laconi, with Biaggi moving the opposite way and using the immense power of the Suzuki to climb to ninth ahead of Laconi. Fonsi Nieto attached the Kawasaki to the back of Lanzi's Ducati and chased him for a lap before diving past to the delight of the crowd. Not for long, though, as Muggeridge took the race by the scruff of the neck and climbing to ninth by the end of lap two, passing Nieto to take eighth just a few laps later. Up at the front, it was Xaus on the move, the lanky local following Haga past a struggling Toseland on lap two, passing Haga and Bayliss on the next two laps and then barging past Corser to take an immensely popular lead. And, other than a one lap hiccup when Haga got past again, that's where he stayed. Corser dropped back steadily as, presumably, a poor tyre choice saw him losing grip, traction or both, while Toseland stabilised in fifth place, fighting off an early challenge from a hard pushing Josh Brookes. Brookes also suffered from tyre fade towards the end, dropping from a solid sixth to ninth in the space of just a couple of corners. Karl Muggeridge, who had been going so well, suffered a big highside at the end of the start straight, ending up in the Clinica Mobile after clouting his head. Fonsi Nieto and local wildcard Morales both succumbed to the pressure of the home crowd and crashed out, while Max Biaggi, Lorenzo Lanzi and Michel Fabrizio all profited from Brookes' problems to move up the field.

So a hugely popular win for the likeable local Ruben Xaus, who celebrated so hard that he and his Ducati had to get a tow back to the Parc Ferme from one of the safety cars...

Max Biaggi gets stronger and stronger at every round...Race two saw something of a stabilisation in the weather to something akin to what we normally expect in Spain - warm, dry, sunny. Well, warm and dry, anyway. The sun was proving rather reluctant to come out. A spectacular case of spontaneous self-disassembly in the preceding GSX-R cup had left a trail of oil on the track. Copious amounts of chalk dust later, the line was still distinctly there but it was probably slightly less hazardous than before. Certainly when the lights went out everyone cleared the first corner without a problem, though progress was perhaps a little more circumspect than usual. Corner two was a different matter, though, as Giovanni Bussei barged up through the inside and punted Karl Muggeridge into the gravel and out of the race for the second time. Bussei remounted and continued the race but Muggeridge was out though unhurt. At the front, Haga had made the break off the line this time, leading Toseland and Xaus with Corser, Bayliss, Lanzi and Laconi following. Brookes again suffered with the lack of off the line grunt, ending the first lap back in tenth place behind Fabrizio and Biaggi. Staying with the leading group, things got and stayed very tight as both Xaus and Toseland passed Haga before Haga repassed Toseland to take second, going one better after just two laps. The crowd were on their feet and it was all getting exciting as Toseland also passed Xaus, climbing all over the back of the leading Yamaha for half a dozen laps before slipping past. Three laps later and it was a reversal as Haga retook the lead, while two laps after that it was the Englishman's turn to lead the field, staying in front to take the chequered flag by just under three tenths of a second. Max Biaggi, after a terrible start, began to claw his way up through the field, taking sixteen laps to reach the last step of the podium. But Max is a smart guy, and he hung back while Haga and Toseland banged fairings and swapped paint for the last couple of laps, diving in at the very last moment and mugging Haga for second place, beating the Japanese rider by under a tenth of a second.

Josh Brookes, meantime, was riding the wheels off the Alto Evolution Honda, climbing to seventh place and battling hard with Troy Bayliss, bringing at least some good fortune to the team in payment for their exceptionally hard work. Troy Corser had a dismal day, slipping from fourth to ninth as he continued to struggle with setup problems on the Yamaha. And Bayliss was obviously not quite as on form as his race one performance would have us believe as he too slipped down the field, being beaten by his team-mate for one of the first times ever. Regis Laconi was the first Kawasaki rider home, Fonsi Nieto having retired earlier in the race with a mechanical problem. Christian Zaiser crashed the MV hard, though apparently unhurt, but all the local wildcards finished safely in a race which was unusually well attended by Spanish SBK standards but which attracted almost no interest by Valencia standards. My guess would be that there were over a hundred thousand empty seats here in a circuit seating a hundred and forty thousand.

Anyhow, the championship is as interesting as ever. Though Toseland has extended his lead there are still plenty of other riders who could take it away from him. It's Assen in a couple of weeks, and it's a popular circuit with Brits, it's Ten Kate's home track and James goes well there. But Max Biaggi has raced there before, Troy Bayliss should be fit then and Nori Haga is always quick. It's going to be a cracker...


Race OneThe lad earned this, so let him show off a bit... (Pic: Richard Handley)

1 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
2 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
3 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
4 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
5 James Toseland (Honda)
6 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
7 Michel Fabrizio (Honda)
8 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
9 Josh Brookes(Honda)
10 Robi Rolfo (Honda)

Race Two

1 James Toseland (Honda)
2 Max Biaggi (Suzuki)
3 Noriuki Haga (Yamaha)
4 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
5 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
6 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
7 Josh Brookes (Honda)
8 Regis Laconi (Kawasaki)
9 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
10 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)

Championship Standing after four rounds:

1 James Toseland 151
2 Max Biaggi 138
3 Nori Haga 124
4 Troy Corser 101
5 Troy Bayliss 60
6 Lorenzo Lanzi 87
7 Ruben Xaus 83
8 Max Neukirchner 56
9 Roby Rolfo 46
10 Regis Laconi 37



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