All change at the top ?

SBK Nurburgring, Germany, 6th September 2009

Words:Simon Bradley, Pics: Richard Handley

Fabrizio and Sykes - both brilliant, both fast, both nice guys...and both overshadowed by their team-matesThe Nurburgring seems to bring out different things in different people. Preconceptions are a terrible thing, and while many hear the name and immediately think of a vast snaking track going through the woods with the ghosts of riders (and drivers) past loitering on every one of the 168 corners, others picture an emasculated, contrived modern safety-conscious joke of a circuit. Probably because they've never seen it. The truth is that the new Nurburgring (or GP-Strecke as it's more correctly called) is a fine circuit blessed with a wide variety of corners and elevation changes and cursed only by sharing the name of its more illustrious neighbour. Think of the 2003 version of The Italian Job - a film widely panned as being a pale imitation of the brilliance of the 1968 version, while in truth it was a totally different movie that stood up well in its own right but would never be able to live up to the name. That's the problem here.

Last year Nori Haga mounted one of his strongest assaults on the title, taking the double from eventual champion Troy Bayliss in race one and then team-mate Troy Corser in a red flagged race two. It's a circuit the Japanese rider excels at, and with rookie Ben Spies rapidly closing Haga's lead at the top of the table, one at which he needs to take a stand this time around.

Free practice and the opening qualifying sessions showed a lot of promise as Haga stamped his authority at the top, taking first place in half of the four sessions with only Jonathan Rea spoiling Haga's clean streak. But with Rea, Spies and Fabrizio all taking their turns near the top, the stage was set for an interesting race.

Leon Haslam doing his best with the Stiggy Honda...The weather didn't help, with a couple of the sessions being cold and wet, perhaps even unseasonably so, while the rest of the time it was cool and dry. The problem being that the first two sessions were cold and wet while the second qualifying session was dry. So it was a gamble on settings, and one that, for example, BMW don't seem to have got quite right yet. Troy Corser was up in third place after the first, wet, qualifying session while the dry session saw him down in nineteenth and barely making the cut for Superpole.

Superpole was, at least, dry and consistent. And reasonably warm, too. The first session saw the departure of Muggas, guesting on the Alstare Suzuki; Kiyonari who continues his dismal season on the Ten Kate Honda, Hopper on the Stiggy Honda and Ianuzzo on the Corse Italiana Honda. Session two had a few more surprises as Tom Sykes just failed to get through on the factory Yamaha, with a quarter of a second gap back to Shakey Byrne on the Sterilgarda Ducati. Then Fonsi Nieto, standing in for the injured Regis Laconi on the DFX Ducati and Makoto Tamada on the factory Kawasaki, Yukio Kagayama on the second factory Suzuki, Jakub Smrz, Broc Parkes and Matt Legrive all fell by the wayside. So far, fastest laps had been split between Jonny Rea, Ben Spies and Nori Haga, with Haga prevailing at the top for each session. And the final session saw no exception. Haga set pole, a quarter of a second ahead of Rea, with Leon Haslam just a couple of hundredths slower and Fabrizio another tenth or so behind on the second works Ducati. Ben Spies headed up the second row from Troy Corser, Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa. The gap from Haga to Checa was just over a second, and Tom Sykes and Shakey Byrne rounded out the top ten.

Race day started cool but dry. The meaningless except for head games warm-up session saw Spies fastest from Haga andSykes, with the top six split by just a second. But that really is meaningless. What matters is the race.Spies shows haga a clean pair of heels, somewhere in Race One...

Race one started off with some high drama. Lights out and Haga got a storming start, but just a few seconds behind him it was all going horribly wrong for a few fellow racers. I'm not entirely sure what happened, but there seemed to be some contact between John Hopkins and Mokoto Tamada, with both of them going down and taking Broc Parkes with them. Attempting to avoid the carnage, Vittorio Iannuzzo had nowhere to go and rode over Hopper. The American was rendered unconscious for around ten minutes, coming to in the ambulance on the way to hospital, and although his injuries aren't life threatening the unfortunate Honda rider will be out for at least six weeks while the bruising to his brain reduces. That'll give him time to recover from the broken shoulder and wrist, of course, which is a handy co-incidence.

So the restarted race again saw Haga get the holeshot from Rea and Spies, with the welcome return of Troy Corser to the front end of the field in fourth. Max Biaggi made a good start to come through to fifth, whiloe Leon Haslam started well but had a slide going into turn one and ran wide, getting pushed back and out of contention for the lead.

Haga was making as much space as he good in front of the battling pair of Rea and Spies, but on lap five the Texan passed the Ulsterman and got his head down in pursuit of the Ducati rider. And further back, Fonsi Nieto was making the most of his guest appearance, robustly attacking and passing MichelFabrizio and battling with Max Biaggi, though never being able to make either of the passes stick, before suddenly dropping off the Young Jonny Rea mixing it with the big boys...and coming off best.pace and then retiring. By the halfway point Spies was all over the bac of Haga's Ducati, and in what has apparently become his trademark passing move the Texan slipped up the inside on the way into the NGK chicane and took the lead. At this point everyone expected him to clear off. But it seems that he had used up a lot of tyre fighting wth Rea and then closing down Haga, and he just didn't have enough left to open a gap. So for the next ten laps we were on the edge of our seats as arguably the two best superbike riders in the world treated us to a display of close formation riding that would make the Red Arrows proud.

There were places where Haga was faster, and he'd come slicing through and it would look as though Spies was going to have to run wide and cede the corner. Then somehow Spies would get the Yamaha turned in and Haga would have to back off to avoid a collision. And there were places where Spies was faster, especially on the exit to corners, and he'd just open a gap. It was going to be anyone's race until the beginning of the last lap, when haga pushed alittle too hard, too close and had to really back off. No danger of being caught from behind but he lost momentum and that was it - Spies was gone.

Behind, and it was a long way behind, Jonny Rea, riding his number two bike after the clutch started misbehaving on the number one bike after the first abortive start, finally got caught and passed by a hard charging Carlos Checa and simply wasn't able to do anything about it so had to see that final podium place slip away. Troy Corser hung onto a top five position until near the end, when he also suddenly lost pace and dropped back, getting passed by Fabrizio and Haslam who finally managed to make up for the turn one debacle.

The start of Race Two. Yes, that's troy Corser at the front behind Haga...So going into race two, Haga's early season lead had been reduced to just two points. Two points, of course, is one point more than you need to win, but at the start of the race there were still one hundred and seventy five points on offer so complacency was not an option. And when the lights went out it was again Haga who got the holeshot, this time pursued by a fired-up Checa and Corser while Spies went backwards in a dreadful start, ending up seventh behind Haslam, Rea and Fabrizio. By lap two, Rea had got the bit between his teeth, climbing to third in a spectacular display of controlled aggression while Checa worried at Haga and Spies languished, unable to get past the determined Fabrizio. Lap three saw Checa make a move on Haga and take the lead, while lap four saw Rea and his team-mate swap places. The fifth lap is where it all went wrong. Approaching the start, Haga got into the lead but wasn't able to make a break. Rea slipstreamed him and drafted past on the approach to turn one. Haga ran wide as he tried to outbrake the Ulsterman and Rea slipped underneath him to regain the lead. But it seemed that Haga had either not seen or not expected the move and turned in on Rea. The two riders touched and it looked as though Haga's front brake got knocked on because he went down like a sack of spuds. Though unhurt, Haga's Ducati had obviously stalled and his race was run. And his championship lead had just evaporated.

The rest of the race was slightly anti-climactic. Though still good. Spies made some extremely forceful passes to get himself into second place and set off after Rea, but the young Ulsetrman didn't out a wheel wrong all race and managed to maintain his margin most of the time, breaking the lap record on the final lap and taking a richly deserved second win. For a while it looked as though Leon haslam would be the second man on the podium. In fact, for a while it looked as though it would be an all Honda affair, with Checa strong in third, but Spies passed Checa and then seemd to push Haslam onto the grass when taking second from him, the young Englishman being sufficiently shaken to also cede a place to Checa. Then Biaggi managed to pass him as well, though that seemed to wake Haslam up and he mounted a spirited, but ultimately futile, defence.

So Nori haga is no longer sitting at the head of the championship after a string of devastating performances from Spies allied to a run of misfortune for the Ducati rider. Imola, of course, is a strong Ducati circuit, and Haga has a good track record at the next circuits - Magny Cours and Portimao - as well. It's going to be an interesting end to the season, that's for sure...

Man of the race (though perhaps no longer on Haga's Christmas card list) Jonathan Rea.Race One

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

Race Two

1 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
2 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
3 Carlos Checa (Honda)
4 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
5 Leon Haslam (Honda)
6 Troy Corser(BMW)
7 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
8 Ryuichi Kiyonari (Honda)
9 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
10 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)

Championship Standing after eleven rounds:

1 Ben Spies 364
2 Nori Haga 346
3 Michel Fabrizio 289
4 Jonathan Rea 244
5 Max Biaggi 224
6 Leon Haslam 201
7 Carlos Checa 177
8 Tom Sykes 165
9 Shane Byrne 140
10 Jakub Smrz 140




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