topsy turvy down under . . .

SBK Phillip Island, March 1st 2009

Words: Simon Bradley, pics: Simon Bradley and as credited

So the 2009 Superbike Season kicked off in traditional style at Phillip Island. Well, traditional in as much as nothing happened quite the way we were expecting, rather than anything else.

Jonathan Rea continued the fine form he showed at the end of last season...Qualifying saw everything turned on its head as the established old guard generally got out gunned and out performed by the vanguard of new riders bursting onto the scene. Oh, and a couple of riders simply given a better opportunity than before. Like Jakub Smrz, who finished the first qualifying at the top of the timesheets or Johnny Rea who did the same for the next two sessions. New boy Ben Spies, who has never seen Phiilip Island before and is adapting to a totally new bike as well, acquitted himself pretty well, while Maxes Biaggi and Neukirchner were really the first old school riders to appear. Leon Haslam also showed that the Stiggy Honda isn't short of pace, while Shane Byrne and the Sterilgarda Ducati struggled outside the top ten. Not just him, though, as the BMW pairing of Corser and Xaus were way down the field as well, though in fairness it is a brand new bike. But in the new qualifying regime it's the top twenty that go through to Superpole. So from the bottom, after some pretty tough times, we got Xaus, Superstock champion Bendan Roberts, Laconi, Tom Sykes, Rolfo, Broc Parkes, Corser, Checa, Haga, and Byrne. Top ten were Nakano, Fabrizio, Kagayama, Haslam and Biaggi behind Kiyonari, Neukirchner, Spies, Smrz and Rea in provisional pole. An unusual lineup, I think you'll agree.

So this year Superpole is split into three sessions. There's no single flying lap. Instead the fastest twenty go out for a session together. The fastest sixteen of them go throigh to Superpole two, and the fastest eight do Superpole three. And thus the grid is decided. The first session saw the departure of Tommy Hill, Ruben Xaus, Roby Rolfo and Troy Corser, though the gap from first to twentieth was just a second and a half, with Corser under a second behind provisional pole sitter Johnny Rea. Session two whittled the field down further until just Checa, Spies, Smrz, Biaggi, Rea, Haslam, Laconi and Fabrizio remained.Notably, Haga, Sykes, Byrne and Neukirchner all had a dismal session. And when the dust settled it was new boy Ben Spies on pole, the twenty four year old Texan debutant lining up the new Whatever else you may want to say about him, you can't accuse Tommy Hill of not trying...Crossplane crank Yamaha ahead of Max Biaggi on the even newer Aprilia RSV4, Johnny Rea on the unchanged Ten Kate Honda and Jakub Smrz on the Guandalini Ducati.Row two saw Fabrizio on the Xerox Ducati ahead of Haslam on the Stiggy Honda, Carlos Checa on the second Ten Kate Honda and an astonishingly on form Regis Laconi on the DFX Ducati. Row three started off all Japanese, with Nakano on the second Aprilia, Kiyonari on the last Ten Kate Honda and Kagayama on the first Suzuki heading another newcomer, former BSB hero Tom Sykes on the second Yamaha. Haga headed the fourth row from Neukirchner, Shakey Byrne on the Sterilgarda Ducati and Broc Parkes on the factory Kawasaki, while row five was headed by lap record holder Troy Corser on the new BMW ahead of Roby Rolfo on the second Stiggy Honda, Ruben Xaus on the second BMW and Brit Tommy Hill in his first Superbike race and indeed his first race at all for over a year.

One of the things that affects Phillip Island more than some other circuits is the weather. It's very changeable indeed, often windy and the seagulls are suicidal as well. Though pleasantly warm during practice and qualifying, race day saw the temperature drop several degrees as the stiff breeze came in from the Southern Ocean, direct from the Antarctic with just a brief detour around Tasmania to take a bit of the chill off. This, of course, as well as making it challenging for anyone trying to hold a large lens and take steady pictures, really mucked up the tyre selections that had previously looked so clear. Especially as the clouds had gathered and rain looked a distinct possibility.

Warmup, though technically irrelevant, proved that there is at least some hope for our expectations as Shakey Byrne stormed up into third behind new lap record holder Laconi and Spies. But that doesn't mean anything, and the likeable Englishman had one heck of a mountain to climb fighting up from the fourth row.

This went on for twenty laps. Sometimes closer than this. A truly epic battle.But as we've all said so many times before, qualifying, superpole, warmup, they're not the actual race. That's a different matter entirely. As the lights went out for race one, it was Johnny Rea who made the start from Biaggi and Spies with the rest of the field streaming in behind. As the American got himself established and settled down he first of all got embroiled in a ruck with Regis Laconi and then got entagned with Max Biaggi, coming off distinctly second best and getting punted off into the gravel. Though he stayed on the bike, it's an awfully long way around the gravel trap on the Southern Loop and Spies ended up rejoining back in twentieth place. Which left Johnny Rea fending off the attentions of Regis Laconi for, ooh about half a lap. Because who should appear on the scene but Nori Haga. Yes, Haga carved his way through the field from the fourth row to second place in under a lap, doing some truly astonishing overtakes and showing the sort of form on a twin cylinder motorbike that nearly won him the championship in 2004. In fact this was a good race for people demonstrating spectacular returns to form. Regis Laconi rode the wheels off the DFX Ducati, funnily enough also in a manner reminiscent of his 2004 near glory, while Yukio Kagayama followed Max Neukirchner up through the pack in a viruouso display of clean, committed riding. Leon Haslam, too, demonstrated excellent style in fourth place. Not such a good day for Ryuichi Kiyonari, unfortunately, who tangled with Xaus early on and lobbed the bike into the gravel at the notorious Honda hairpin. Indeed Xaus seemed not to be having such a good time overall, while Corser got settled down and, after a ropey start, began steadily to pick the other riders off.

Three laps in and Haga made full use of that factory Ducati power, blasting past Rea and towing Laconi with him. Within a couple of laps both Neukirchner and Kagayama had passed the Ulsterman, with the German going a couple of places better and drafting past Haga to take the lead a few laps later. And so for the next twelve laps or so it continued. Nobody really made a break, with Nekirchner and Haga glued together, Kagayama a second or so back and a big furball of Rea, Haslam, Biaggi and Laconi behind him. Places swapped regularly in the front pack, something that got even more complicated as a hard charging Michel Fabrizio arrived and joined in with gusto. Shakey Byrne took this opportunity to park the Sterilgarda Ducati in the gravel and retire from a not particularly impressive debut. Biaggi too had a bit of a moment as things got rather physical and he was punted back to ninth.

Ben Spies. He's really quite good and the new Yamaha seems pretty impressive. Now if he can just be consistent...Up at the front, with five laps to go Haga made a move and again slipped past Neukirchner. It looked as though it would all be over, but at the very end of the penultimate lap the German got superb drive onto the back straight and blasted past the Ducati to take the lead before the line. And it looked as though he would hold it, too, until peeling into Lukey Heights, Neukirchner tapped on the power just a little too hard, too soon, and launched the Suzuki into a vicious highside. Quite how he managed to save it I don't know, and how he managed not to lose a vast distance is astonishing. But despite his herculean efforts he crossed the line thirty two thousandths of a second behind Haga, with Kagayama a fine third ahead of Fabrizio. A last half tussle between Haslam, Laconi and Rea was decided almost at the line, Rea just out-dragging Haslam with Laconi close behind.

From the way things had gone in Race one, we had high hopes for Race two. This time Spies managed to get off the line cleanly, took full advantage of his pole position and set about extending a lead immediately. Max Biaggi also got away well, initially taking the lead before the young American rode around the outside of turn two and just pulled away, while Michel Fabrizio made the most of his second row start to get third from Leon Haslam. For a while it looked as though things would settle down like that. A while, in this case, being roughly two corners as haga again scythed through the field, climbing to fifth by the end of the first lap. Suprisingly, Jonny Rea, Troy Corser, Max Neukirchner and Yukio Kagayama, all front end runners in the first race, were languishing in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, going backwards. It seems that whatever changes had been made in the pits between races had been wrong in several cases.

Broc Parkes had a thin time despite excellent pre season testing. Still some work to do with the Kawasaki, it seems...Up at the front, Haga was doing what Haga does best. Challenging for the lead. Lap three saw him in second place, lap six saw him take the front before Spies came back past again on lap eleven. Haga got it back on lap thirteen only to be passed again five laps from the end. Behind this battle was another three way scrap between Fabrizo, Biaggi and Haslam, joined toward the end of the race by Regis Laconi. Somewhere back in the middle, Shakey Byrne was pushing hard and making progress before taking his second early bath of the weekend and crahing out, unhurt but with no points. Both Corser and Xaus had a disappointing time, though the Spaniard managed to finish just outside the top ten while Corser was near the back. Early days for the BMW team. Biaggi rode a storming race on the Aprilia, mounting several serious challenges but fading a little towards the end. Caught up in the scrap between Fabrizio and Haslam, when they touched the Aprilia rider had little choice but to take evasive action which ultimately put him on the gravel. He managed to keep the bike running and upright, but the race pace was such that by the time he rejoined he was in fifteenth place, takinga single point froma valiant effort.

At the very front, Spies managed to prevail over Haga while Haslam came out the better in his scrap to take the last podium place. All in all a brilliant couple of races with nobody obviously running away with it. Qatar will be interesting for sure, because it always produces great racing. It's early days but I think this could be a very, very good season indeed...

Kagayama, Xaus and Laconi all together. The main customers for replacment bodywork through the years...Race One

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

Race Two

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Leon Haslam (Honda)
4 Regis Laconi (Ducati)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
6 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
7 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
8 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
9 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
10 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)

Championship Standing after one round:

1 Nori Haga 45
2 Max Neukirchner 30
3 Leon Haslam 26
4 Ben Spies 25
5 Yukio Kagayama 24
6 Michel Fabrizio 24
7 Regis Laconi 22
8 Jonathan Rea 18
9 Jakub Smrz 16
10 Tom Sykes 12

SB

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