Seconds away, round twenty one !

SBK Losail, Qatar

Words by Simon Bradley, pictures as credited

This is the bike we all expected to see at the front. Briefly, before it cleared off. It's fast, for sure, but perhaps not the devastating weapon we expected. Perhaps...So the winter break is over and the 2008 SBK championship is here already, invigorated, refreshed and subtly changed over the closed season. Not I said changed rather than improved - the jury is out on that. But anyway, the early start necessitated a guaranteed sunny location, so the circus decamped to the middle of the desert. Refreshingly, the arid conditions remained as advertised, with just a stiff breeze to add any complications to what should be a very straightforward assessment of track conditions - it's hot and dry, go for hard tyres, then.

The Losail circuit is purpose built, it's safe, fast, flowing and quite technical. Personally I love it, but the riders have mixed views. One of the biggest problems is that, as you might expect, the desert is somewhat featureless and flat. Consequently, there are precious few reference points around the track and it's actually quite easy for a rider to get lost. Not really lost, obviously, because if they follow the track they end up back at the pitlane, but lost in the sense that they can lose their bearings as far as knowing where to brake, where to turn in or, even scarier, which direction to turn in. Gulp. The other problem is that when it's windy the desert has a disconcerting habit of refusing to stay outside the fences. So the track gets coated with sand. On the line it's not really a problem as it gets blown or lifted off. But off the line grip tails off really quite steeply, making overtakes something you really need to plan very, very carefully indeed.

Mr Superpole. Troy Corser slips it in the way only he can.Qualifying didn't really turn up any surprises. The new 1200cc Ducati was a missile, as we all expected, with Bayliss, Biaggi, Xaus, Lanzi and Fabrizio all turning in good performances. But there are a few people you really can't discount in a scrap like this, and at the head of them you'd find the Yamaha pairing of Haga and Corser, both of whom were on excellent form. Well, when I say there were no surprises, that's not totally true. Though we're used to seeing Suzukis up at the front, especially piloted by Max Biaggi or Troy Corser, we're not so used to seeing Fonsi Nieto and Max Neukirchner challenging for front row starts. But there they were, along with old hand Yukio Kagayama, proving that, just perhaps, with a properly competitive bike they could actually deliver something pretty special.

Superpole, rarely a great spectacle, proved to be much the same as Troy Corser took his forty first pole position with one of his trademark super smooth laps, to line up ahead of team-mates Xaus and Biaggi on the private Sterilgarda Ducatis with Max Neukirchner closing off the front row in a sterling performance. Row two was headed by Lorenzo Lanzi, again on a private Ducati, followed by Haga, Bayliss on the leading factory Ducati and Kagayama in what looks like a welcome return to form for the popular but injury prone Japanese rider. The third row saw MotoGP refugee Carlos Checa on the Ten Kate Honda lining up ahead of Michel Fabrizio on the second factory Ducati, Fonsi Nieto and Jakub Smrz on yet another private Ducati, while former British Superbike champion Gregorio Lavilla headed the fourth row on the Paul Bird Honda, ahead of Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu on the second Ten Kate Honda, both of them also in their debut year, though Lavilla rode the GSX-R 1000 in SBK in its first, emasculated, incarnation back in 2003.

So, on to the racing, then. It'll be little surprise to hear that race day (Saturday) dawned warm and dry, though that stiff breeze continued to make people's lives a little more interesting and their sunburn far more ferocious. Ah, the quaint belief that Englishmen won't burn if it's breezy enough for them to fele comfortable - I'll bet a number of my colleagues form the press were just a tiny bit uncomfortable on the flight back...

Race One saw Max Neukirchner nail the Suzuki off the line to take the holeshot from Troy Corser, with Haga, Biaggi, Xaus and Nieto snapping at his heels. Bayliss made a diabolical start, dropping back to eighth. The first lap was relatively sensible as everyone settled in to get their rhythm, then the start finish straight came along and the Suzuki showed something interesting. It's very, very fast indeed. So fast, in fact, that the young German was able to extend a bit of a gap over the following pack. And for the next few laps he rode impeccably, showing that as well as having a storming engine the Suzukihandles pretty well, too. Oh, and obviously the rider has some talent. The fifth lap saw Corser take the lead but only for a single lap, as Neukirchner was able to drive past again with impunity. Behind him, though, things were getting quite exciting as Max Biaggi decided that the timehad come tomake a move. In a series of increasinglyrobust overtaking attempts, Biaggi and Haga jockeyed for position, with the Japanese ridercoming out in front and responding more and more forcefully himself. Eventually, of course, it had to end in tears and so it did. Biaggi managed to make an extremely aggressive overtake stick when Neukirchner shows the old hands how it's done. And he's ill, too.his rear wheel and Haga's front touched. What happened next beggared belief. Haga took his left hand off the bars to gesture. Now I don't know whether it was a "Look where you're going you stupid &%*%$!!!" or a "Sorry, I just ran into you" but the effect was the same. The bike was cranked right over, on the throttle and suddenly unbalanced so it behaved exactly as you'd expect and spat Haga off into the gravel. After an extremely anxious moment while the rest of the field streamed past, happily not hitting the stricken Yamaha, Haga was able to remount and continue, plumb last.

A brief tussle with Corser saw Biaggi take second place after an extremely clean and fast overtake that perhaps made some amends for his earlier boisterousness, and he then set about trying to catch Neukirchner. But from his dreadful start, Troy Bayliss was on the move, slicing through the field like only a hugely talented rider with a 200cc advantage can. And on lap nine, factory Ducati power and enormous skill, coupled with the bunfighting that was going on between the front trio, saw Bayliss take the lead and immediately extend a gap. Then, astonishingly, he made a series of mistakes, seeming to run wide on several corners before going off the track completely and rejoining back in fourth with all that work to do. At the front, the pace was staggering, with only Neukirchner, Corserand Biaggi seeming able to keep up. And at two thirds distance, Neukirchner, suffering from a head cold, started to run out of reserves. As did his tyres. A brave andskilled ride wasn't enough, and the young Suzuki rider yielded the lead to Biaggi before dropping off the podium completely. Bayliss, meantime, had regrouped and was riding the wheels off his Ducati. Corser was soon despatched and the next few laps was a major scrap between factory and private Ducatis, while all Corser could do was sit and hope that the two leaders took each other Max Neukirchner. We all knew the boy was fast, we just didn't realise quite how fast... That's a total of eight world championships behind him - and he's keeping them there...out - a fair possibility given Biaggi's earlier overtakes. The last lap saw Bayliss dive in front to take the lead, but Biaggi got it back very shortly afterwards. Feints and lunges abounded for the rest of the lap before Bayliss got in front on the penultimate corner and took the win in the final drag to the line. Corser finished third, disappointed but still on the podium, while Xaus got past Neukirchner to steal fourth. A long way back, Carlos Checa won his scrap with Nieto, while ten seconds further back Kagayama bested Fabrizio and Smrz who were having their own private battle.

Race two had pretty much the same conditions and most riders opted to run the same setups as race one. This time it was Corser and Haga who made the running, with Neukirchner doing something really wrong and ending up back in eighth. Suzuki honour was maintained by Fonsi Nieto, who fired the bike into third place from the third row of the grid, while Biaggi, Xaus and Bayliss followed on. 2007 Supersport champion Kenan Sofuoglu made a strong start in seventh, ahead of Neukirchner and Fabrizio. Yukio Kagayama highsided out on the first lap, breaking his collarbone yet again and putting him in doubt for the next round. Another fine start to his season. But other than that, things stayed relatively static for a fair few laps before Biaggi got up to his old tricks and gained two places in a single lap, passing both Haga and Nieto. Haga was clearly having some problems as he quickly dropped off the leading group, and indeed just the next lap Corser too found himself unable to sustain that pace and dropped back, yielding to both Xaus and Biaggi. Needless to say, Troy Bayliss hadn't been idle during this period, and had steadily been climbing through the field. A brief session in second place, though, was followed by another slightly ragged period and the double champion dropped back to fourth where he remained for the rest of the race, unable to challenge but still close enough to pick up the bits if it all went wrong.

The Black Arrows formation flying team struggled to get airborne. Though they tried pretty damn' hard...Then it was time for a big surprise. Fonsi Nieto simply barged his way to the front while Xaus and Biaggi were concentrating on each other and used the excellent handling and huge speed of the Suzuki to make himself enough of a gap that neither of the Sterilgarda Ducatis could seriously challenge him. And so it stayed for the last four laps, Nieto taking his first Superbike win ahead of Xaus, Biaggi and Bayliss. Fabrizio and Lanzi both got past Corser who, like Haga, had chosen different tyres for the second race and paid the price. Neukirchner had a similar problem but managed to stay ahead of Smrz while Sofuoglu faded after his initial strong start to finish tenth. But he'll just get better and better as the season goes on.

So there we have it. It looks as though the Ducati's do have an advantage, but perhaps not as much as we expected. It's interesting to see how close the factory and private bikes are in performance, too. Next race is Phillip Island, where there are some very fast bits and some quite twitchy ones. Ducatis go well there, and it's Bayliss' home track. Anyone want to bet against him?



Fonsi Nieto has suddenly come to maturity as a rider. And yes, we're impressed. Hear that noise? It's a bunch of "experts" eating their words...Race One

1 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
2 Max Biaggi (Ducati)
3 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
4 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
5 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
6 Carlos Checa (Honda)
7 Fonsi Nieto (Suzuki)
8 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
9 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
10 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)

Race Two

1 Fonsi Nieto (Suzuki)
2 Ruben Xaus (Ducati)
3 Max Biaggi (Ducati)
4 Troy Bayliss (Ducati)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
6 Lorenzo Lanzi (Ducati)
7 Troy Corser (Yamaha)
8 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
9 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
10 Kenan Sofuoglu (Honda)

Championship Standing after one round:

1 Troy Bayliss 38
2 Max Biaggi 36
3 Fonsi Nieto 34
4 Ruben Xaus 33
5 Troy Corser 25
6 Max Neukirchner 19
7 Michel Fabrizio 18
8 Carlos Checa 15
9 Jakub Smrz 13
10 Lorenzo Lanzi 10




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