Same stuff, different circuit

SBK Assen, Netherlands, 26th April 2009

Words and pics: Simon Bradley

Leon Haslam had  afantastic weekend on the almost local Stiggy Honda.Assen, in the picturesque province of Drenthe in the North of The Netherlands, is one of the most interesting circuits on the calendar. While, like much of the rest of this country, the circuit and the surrounding countryside are almost completely flat, it differs wildly from most of the other tracks we go to in its layout. Modern tracks like Valencia are compressed into small areas, making them tight and technical, folded back on themselves like a vast tarmac pretzel. Assen used to be a road racing circuit and although it has been santised and steadily shortened it still retains that open flowing nature common to circuits with this background. As a result, Assen is a rider's favourite. It is incredibly fast, despite my own personal favourite section having been removed to improve safety, and although the ground is flat there are enough interesting things around to stop it from becoming featureless in the way that, for example, Silverstone might be considered. Froma photgrapher's point of view it's wonderful too, as access all the way around the circuit is fantastic. The only downside is that unlike, say, Valencia where you can cover a lot of the track without walking very far because of the way it turns back on itself, at Assen if you want to cover lots of the track then you have to walk a lot...

The new, shorter race weekend means that we get less free practice and qualifying time than before, so things kicked off for real on a sunny Friday afternoon. With several riders visiting the circuit for the first time, practice is critical because although Assen isn't especially difficult to ride quickly, getting that last few percent that makes the difference between a quick lap and a race fast lap is difficult. And it needs familiarity and practice. Precisely how Ben Spies, who has never been here before, got to be fastest on the Friday session is beyond me, therefore. I guess he just must be really very good on a motorbike. And it continued in second qualifying, too, the Texan showing a clean pair of pipes to the pursuing crowd, though only managing to take third behind Regis Laconi and championship leader Nori Haga in the glorious Dutch sunshine. Despite Spies' undeniable talent it was Laconi on the privateer DFX Ducati who qualified fastest, two hundredths of a second ahead of factory Ducati rider Haga with Spies just twelve thousandths of a second behind. Jakub Smrz put the Guandalini Ducati into fourth, a distant tenth of a second down while Fabrizio, on the second factory Ducati, was a further tenth of a second behind. Friday's qualifying did see the unscheduled departure of John Hopkins, fired off the Stiggy Honda in a huge highside and too battered to take a further part in the weekend.

Ben Spies has a radical riding style, but it seems to work for him because by Gosh he's fast...But qualifying well in this championship only means you get into Superpole. The new format, remember, has three sessions with the slower riders in each session being cut before the next. Session one saw the departure , from the bottom up, of Xaus on the BMW, Nakano onthe Aprilia, Guandalini Ducati mounted Superstock champion Brendan Roberts in his first ever Superpole and Althea Honda's Tommy Hill, still getting to grips with Superpole and sticky qualifying slicks in his first SBK season. Session two had a few more surprising departures as fast qualifier Ryuichi Kiyonari dropped off the bottom (see what I said about qualifying?), followed by Troy Corser, showing that perhaps BMW still have some work to do when it comes to getting a bike to work properly on qualifying tyres and Sterilgarda Ducati's British Superbike champion Shane Byrne. Karl Muggeridge in his first Superpole of the season on the Celani Suzuki was next to go, followed by top qualifier Regis Laconi and Ten Kate Honda's Ulsterman Jonathan Rea. Max Biaggi went out in this session as well, with Yukio Kagayama being the last to drop out. And then there were eight. Tom Sykes is getting quicker and more consistent on the Yamaha, but he was the last of this group, ending up eighth on the grid. Tom is also getting used to Superpole, of course. Carlos Checa put the Ten Kate Honda into seventh, behind Max Neukirchner and Michel Fabrizio. Nori Haga, despite looking fast and smooth, ended up fourth but still on the front row, while Leon Haslam put the Stiggy Honda into third place, behind the ever improving Jakub Smrz and, inevitabky it seems, Ben Spies. Who is also still getting used to Superpole. And has never been to Assen before, either.

Race day dawned grey and slightly damp, which caused furrowed brows among the teams who had no wet weather setup data whatsoever. And that means all of them, really. The circuit remained dry for the morning warmup sessions, where the psychological advantage was gained by Leon Haslam from Spies and Sykes. But that's all it is - a psychological advantage. And nothing Ben Spies has done so far suggests that he is vulnerable to that sort of thing in any way.

Tom Sykes is a very, very fast rider. That's him in the distance, in fourth place. NOW do you get how fast the leading group were? Race One, then, started bang on time and much in the way we expected. In the very warm Dutch sunshine, Ben Spies nailed the Yamaha off the line and took the holeshot, hotly pursued by Max Neukirchner, who got a fantastic start, Jakub Smrz and Nori Haga. Three quarters of the way around we sadly lost Tommy Hill as the front slipped away on the Althea Honda after he made a terrific start. But at the front, Ben Spies was opening a yawning lead already, with Neukirchner still pushing hard on his tail but a distinct gap forming in front of Smrz. Indeed it seemed that the likeable Czech was holding up Haga and Haslam at first, though Haga only took a lap and a half to get past, Haslam getting held up for a while longer. Behind Haslam, Tom Sykes did his cause no harm at all on the second Yamaha, having finally got to grips with the bike. Next came an interesting battle as Smrz, Biaggi, Fabrizio, Laconi and Rea all scrapped for fifth place. And as the ace went on Smrz got a grip on himself again and really established a good race pace, for a while it appearing that this was going to be the only real action we were going to see.

But up at the front, there was some serious drama as Max Neukirchner had a very nasty looking crash at the last chicane, getting tangled up in the bike which stayed upright and dragged him across the track like some bizarre rodeo trick. Max was incredibly lucky as Haslam used all his considerable skill to avoid running the Suzuki rider over. Neukirchner managed to remount and set off to try and salvage something. Staying at the front, Haga was closing up with Spies and towing Haslam with him. The trouble is, of course, that there is a world of difference between catching and passing. Especially when it's Ben Spies you're trying to pass. And it took up until lap thirteen before the Ducati rider was able to make a move that stuck when Spies lost grip at the back and had a bit of a moment. Astonishingly, just a couple of corners later it was Haslam who was able to force a move past the Texan to demote him to third.

Despite some extremely spirited and close riding, it looked as though that was how it was going to stay at the front. But three laps from the end Spies managed to pass Haslam in an astonishing move, running alongside him for a huge amount of the chicane before just getting the edge on the exit. Haslma pushed back hard but it was apparent that the Englishman, who had needed to try so hard to get there in the first place, had used up his tyres and wasn't going to be able to challenge seriously. On the final lap, Spies fired the Yamaha past Haga and held the lead in a straight sprint to the line to take yet another victory and reduce Haga's championship lead by five more points. Tom Sykes finished fourth while Biaggi finally prevailed in the other big scrap, taking fifth just ahead of Smrz, Rea and Laconi. Michel Fabrizio brought up the rear of the group while Troy Corser won a race long battle with Karl Muggeridge to take tenth. Max Neukirchner, by the way, was completely unhurt and astonishingly managed to maintain a similar pace to that he had before the crash, despite the bke being distinctly second hand, and finished a very credible thirteenth.

Battle of Britain - Northern Ireland's Jonathan Rea scraps with Huddersfield born Tom Sykes for fifth in the second raceRace two looked as though it was going to be a repeat performance as, yet again, Spies shot away at the start, followed by Haga, Neukirchner and Haslam with Smrz keeping a watching brief close behind. But all that changed early in the seond lap as the Texan ran slightly wide while pushing hard to make the break from Haga, touched the astroturf off the edge of the track and launched into a vicious highside. Fortunately Spies wasn't injured and nobody else got caught up in the fracas, but it did rather leave Haga in a class of one. And having already got his head down and set an amazing pace, the Ducati rider just stayed on it and opened a yawning chasm between himself and the following pack that nobody could even vaguely bridge. Haslam had a good tussle with Michel Fabrizio for a while, but had broken the Italian's charge before the Ducati gearbox threw a wobbly. At that point two things happened. First, Smrz, who had been fighting hard with Fabrizio for the last few laps, nearly rammed the Italian as he suddenly slowed. And second, the likeable young Czech achieved his first ever podium. Not his last, though, I suspect. Neukirchner had a miserable time, the Suzuki not behaving properly and forcing him to drop back down the field. Karl Muggeridge, who did so well in qualifying, had a torrid second race as well, crashing hard while ina good position for a top ten finish. Tommy Hill, who had been fighting with, and staving off, Ducati mounted Brendan Roberts for the entire race, was cruelly robbed of three solid points when the Althea Honda ran out of fuel just before the end of the race. Tommy is a great bloke and a brilliant racer, and the success he deserves must come his way soon.

So from a championship point of view, Haga now has a commanding lead. Obviously the fat lady hasn't sung yet, but it would take quite a lot of bad luck for the Japanese not to make 2009 the year he finally lifts the trophy. We're off to Monza in a fortnight's time, where the Ducati's tend to go well. As does Haga - he did the double there last year so who would bet against him this time? Then again, Monza is a fast circuit, and the Yamahas and Suzukis are certanly fast. That Stiggy Honda is no slouch either. Looks like a good time to get your Fantasy Superbikes team in...

A well deserved wheelie from the man of the match. Well, probably the man of the match...Race One

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Leon Haslam (Honda)
4 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
5 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
6 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
7 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
8 Regis Laconi (Ducati)
9 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
10 Troy Corser (BMW)

Race Two

1 Nori Haga (Ducati)
2 Leon Haslam (Honda)
3 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
4 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
5 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
6 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
7 Carlos Checa (Honda)
8 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
9 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
10 Troy Corser (BMW)

Championship Standing after four rounds:

1 Nori Haga 180
2 Ben Spies 120
3 Leon Haslam 94
4 Michel Fabrizio 80
5 Max Neukirchner 75
6 Tom Sykes 70
7 Max Biaggi 65
8 Regis Laconi 64
9 Jonathan Rea 53
10 Jakub Smrz 44

SB

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