and. . . back again.

SBK Imola, Italy, 27th September 2009

Words:Simon Bradley, Pics: Richard Handley

Haslam and Kiyonari. Old sparring partners in BSB continuing where they left off...Imola is a funny place. Last time we were here it was like stepping back in time. Facilities were primitive at best, crowd management was non existent, there was no runoff whatsoever on many of the corners and the racing was among the best we ever saw. Despite the obvious dangers associated with a circuit that essentially went through people's gardens, riders genuinely loved the circuit and appeared to thoroughly enjoy riding it. But safety has become increasingly important, and in 2006 we said "Arrivederci" to Imola for, we thought, the last time. The next couple of years saw the SBK circus decamp to Vallelunga, which is a lovely circuit but utterly unable to support the influx of crowds and teams associated with an event this size. And in the meantime, people argued about the future of the Imola circuit. At one point it seemed likely that it would be gone forever, despite its history. But the owners got their act together and after a couple of years work they were ready for bikes to return to the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. And let's face it, with a name like that it was hardly going to get turned into a supermarket, was it?

So to celebrate the return of top flight motorcycle racing to Imola, the circuit owners organised some other racing. The weekend before the SBK meeting they had European Touring Cars. Fair enough - it's another prestige event and it gets bums on seats. Unfortunately it also gets all sorts of rubbish on the track, as discovered at very high speed by Tom Sykes in the early stages of Friday qualifying. Sykes had a massive highside on the greasy, dirty, poorly cleaned track, destroying the Yamaha and being very fortunate to come away with nothing worse than bruising. But it certainly made free practice and the initial qualifying sessions a little, um, tentative.

Shakey Byrne and Joanathan Rea both rode inconsistent but ultimately strong races...Free practice and qualifying were dominated by two men. Michel Fabrizio and Jonathan Rea took pretty much even honours. Two very different machines and very different riding styles, though both looking a little ragged at times. Ten Kate have certainly worked some magic on the Honda, which seemed to be a little below par at the beginning of the season, and Rea is looking comfortable and happy as he throws it around. Yes, it moves and slides quite a bit, but for someone with a pedigree like Rea, that's hardly a problem. And Fabrizio has his team leader in his sights as he has rapidly closed the gap at the top of the table. Enough to get anyone fired up, but an Italian rider on an Italian bike for an Italian team based just a couple of miles from the circuit...well let's say that the young chap was on the case, shall we?

But what of the two main protagonists? Ben Spies, although he tested here earlier in the year, didn't seem to be able to get things working the way he wanted. And although he was blisteringly fast, he wasn't blisteringly fast enough to topple Fabrizio and Rea. But he was faster than his main title challenger, Nori Haga. Haga seemed unhappy all weekend, looking almost as though he had accepted defeat after losing the title lead in Germany. Not the Haga we've come to know and love at all.

Someone who was doing rather well though, was temporary Aprilia rider Marco Simoncelli. The current 250cc GP champion has been grafted in to replace the injured Shinya Nakano alongside former 250cc champion Max Biaggi. They couldn't be much more different if they tried, the tall, wild haired Simoncelli and the almost petite, immaculately turned out Biaggi, and their riding styles are similarly polarised. But they can both make the Aprilia work, and that's what counts.

The sort of picture we're used to seeing from Imola...and one that has been a little absent so far this season...Superpole wasn't especially exciting until the final session. Jonathan Rea put in an early push, a couple of very quick laps putting him to the front of the grid. Then at around the halfway point, Haga astonished everyone by suddenly pulling an extra special lap out of the bag, being the first rider to drop below the one minute forty eight point. And it looked as though he'd keep it, too, until Ben Spies pulled something even more special out of the bag in the dying embers of the session. But even then it wasn't over. As the clock clicked over the end of the session, there were still two bikes out on track. First over the line was Michel Fabrizio, who took pole from Spies by four hundredths of a second. And the other was Jonathan Rea, who just failed to take pole himself after two fastest sectors were followed by a mistake at the final chicane but still managed to demote Haga to fourth.

So the grid looked like this. Michel Fabrizio on pole from a pretty cheesed off Ben Spies, Jonathan Rea and Haga, who now looked even more depressed. Row two was headed by Jakub Smrz, with Max Biaggi, Shane Byrne and Marco Simoncelli behind. Troy Corser lead the next row from Leon Haslam, Lorenzo Lanzi and Fonsi Nieto.

It's Imola, halfway down Italy's Adriatic coast and just inland from Misano. So it'll be no surprise to hear that raceday was warm, sunny and dry. At least it gave some consistency for getting a setup. But when the lights went out at the beginning of race one we did get a surprise. Because it was Max Biaggi who launched the Aprilia off the line in spectacular style to take the lead from Fabrizio, Rea and Haga, with Spies in fifth place and exchanging paint with Troy Corser on the way around the first chicane. Not only was Biaggi in front, but the Aprilia was proving to be an absolute rocketship, outdragging even the thundering Ducatis as they exited corners, fast and slow alike, and generally negating the best efforts of the Xerox pair to get past. Haga managed to slide past Fabrizio on the inside and make it stick, clean as you like, after passing Rea during the first lap. Jonathan Rea was riding the wheels off the Honda to try to stay with the leading trio, looking increasingly ragged before making a lunge down the inside, outbraking himself and going straight on into the gravel, missing Haga by inches and dropping the bike on its side at the air fence. The Ulsterman managed to remount and eventually rode through to a highly credible seventh place after rejoining dead last. But up at the front it was an Italian party as Biaggi seemed to be able to extend the gap almost at will. Behind him, Haga and Fabrizio exchanged places again, setting fastest lap after fastest lap, but they never seemed to be able to really threaten the Aprilia. And behind them, Spies would get close and look threatening and then would be unable to maintain the pace and drop back again.

Biaggi stuffs it past the young pretender Fabrizio on the last chicane. Spies holds his breath seeing a possible second place if they take each other out...Just after halfway, Haga managed to get alongside Biaggi exiting the final chicane, edging in front by a whisker and everyone thought it would all be over. But the Aprilia demonstrated just how well sorted it is and the lightweight Italian beat Haga to the chicane and regained the lead. It took several more laps before haga to make an overtake stick, again coming over the rise where he previously passed Fabrizio. As soon as he'd done so, the Japanese ace pulled out a gap and really got his head down. Fabrizio too managed a clean and tidy pass, which some may say is a novelty, and took second place from Biaggi. And still Spies had no response.

Further back, Carlos Checa, Shane Byrne and Marco Simoncelli all crashed out at the same left hander. Different laps, identical offs, losing the front and sliding out unhurt but well and truly out of the race. Which is a shame because Simoncelli in particular was riding a corker of a race and had got up to fifth place.

Again back at the front Haga had the race in the bag. With a one point two second lead he could relax. So of course he put in the fastest lap of the race on the last lap. Fabrizio was riding brilliantly, which made it all the more astonishing when Biaggi stuffed the Aprilia up the inside on the final chicane and outdragged the Italian Ducati rider to the line by a couple of hundredths of a second. Spies came in fifth, outgunned and dejected, with Kiyonari finally prevailing in a race long battle with Leon Haslam to take fifth. Rea was a brilliant seventh from Smrz, Sykes and Parkes.

Race two was shaping up to be interesting, with the championship lead down to six points and a front row (and part of the second row) all genuine contenders. Lights out and this time it was Fabrizio who made the holeshot from Haga and Biaggi, with Shane Byrne in fourth and Spies mixed up in the pack behind. By the end of the lap, Spies had got clear into fifth but Simoncelli was breathing down his neck and Rea was just behind them, again riding a bit ragged. Indeed, before long we'd see the Ulsterman go gravel tracking again, this time staying on the bike after an impressive diversion that saw him I have pics of Biaggi getting duffed up by his team-mate from each season he's been in. Wonder why...skate across the gravel trap at well over a hundred miles an hour, rejoining in the same position as he left. It was a very short time before we again saw clear air appearing between the leaders and the rest of the pack. In this case Haga, who had now taken the lead, and Fabrizio pulling slight gap on Biaggi, Spies (who finally got past Byrne after several laps of having to try) and Simoncelli. The young Aprilia rider nearly made himself the most unpopular man on the circuit, though, as he made an extremely forceful move on his team-mate at the last chicane, forcing Biaggi to sit up and run wide. That's all very well, but in a chicane if you run wide in the first part you're in trouble for the second. And while Simoncelli breezed through, Biaggi performed miracles to get the Aprilia turned in time to avoid the gravel, running along the kerb before getting it all under control again. The knock on effect was that the unfortunate Spies had nowhere to go as Biaggi crossed the track in front of him and ended up on the gravel himself. Fortunately everyone stayed on, but Spies lost a place to Shakey Byrne as well as a lot of momentum. And Simoncelli lost a lot of respect through a frankly foolhardy piece of riding that could have had disastrous consequences.

At the front, Fabrizio demonstrated that there are no team orders in the Ducati camp (or if there are, that he's not listening) by retaking the lead with half a dozen laps to go. And despite his best efforts, Haga wasn't able to do anything about it and had to settle for second, a yawning three and a half seconds behind. Simoncelli finished third, taking the podium for the first time in his first SBK meeting, which is impressive in spite of the way he got there, while Biaggi was fourth. Spies and Rea had a race long fight that ended in the American's favour with him taking fifth while Shakey Byrne did a fine job on the underdeveloped privateer Sterilgarda Ducati. Leon Haslam rode a solid eighth ahead of Smrz and Carlos Checa.

So Haga is back in control after a truly thrilling weekend. Some of us thought that his spirit was broken and that he was going to give up. How wrong we were. The Japanese rider came back stronger and more committed than ever. Both he and Fabrizio have signed contracts to ride the Ducati again next season, and it's now looking possible that we'll see someone staying on to defend their number one plate. Which will be nice.

Of course, it's not over until the fat lady sings. And she's just arrived in her taxi and currently being shown to her dressing room. Next weekend we're at Magny Cours for the penultimate round. Haga has just a three point lead so he needs to do the business in France. He gets on well at Magny Cours, as we know, but Spies is just someone you can't dismiss. It's going to go all the way to the wire this year, and frankly right now I can't call it...

Race One

1 Nori Haga (Ducati)
2 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
3 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
4 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
5 Ryuichi Kiyonari (Honda)
6 Leon Haslam (Honda)
7 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
8 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
9 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
10 Broc Parkes (Kawasaki)

Race Two

1 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Marco Simoncelli (Aprilia)
4 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
5 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
6 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
7 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
8 Leon Haslam (Honda)
9 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
10 Carlos Checa (Honda)

Championship Standing after twelve rounds:

1 Nori Haga 391
2 Ben Spies 388
3 Michel Fabrizio 330
4 Jonathan Rea 263
5 Max Biaggi 257
6 Leon Haslam 219
7 Carlos Checa 183
8 Tom Sykes 176
9 Jakub Smrz 155
10Shane Byrne 149



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