And the fat lady sings. . .

SBK Portimao, Portugal. 25th October 2009

Words: Simon Bradley, Pics:simon bradley and Richard Handley

Haga pushing it about as hard as it can be pushed...Portimao is a fatastic circuit. It's the third time I've been here, and I'm still blown away about just how great it is. It truly is the circuit that has it all - fast, flowing sections, elevation changes, tight technical bits, the lot. Last year the weather was rather changeable, but this year practice, qualifying and Superpole were all warm, dry and sunny. Very warm, in fact.

The circus rolled into town with the two leaders just ten points apart in the championship. Nobody else was in woth a shout, at the end of race two either veteran Noriuki Haga or rookie Ben Spies would be world champion and the other would be second. Michel Fabrizio was almost certain to take third, though Max Biaggi was mathematically able to beat him. And Biaggi himself was under threat from the ever improving Jonathan Rea, just seventeen points behind. So there was little likelihood of anyone taking it easy or just runing for points - basically if Spies could pull ten points or more back on Haga then he'd lift the championship from under the Japanese rider's nose. Even on even points, Haga would still lose out on the number of race wins. So the die was cast for one of the closest down to the wire showdowns in SBK history.

Of course it's not just between Spies and Haga, though, and things could potentially end up being decided by riders uninvolved in the actual title chase. Jonathan Rea, Jakub Smrz and Michel Fabrizio, for example, all of whom showed spectacularly good form during free practice and initial qualifying, and all of whom could spoli the party. Biaggi, too, seemed to have taken to the Algarve circuit and was extracting the very best from the Aprilia, while his new team-mate, recently crowned BSB champion Leon Camier, continued to make progress geting used to a very different machine indeed from his normal Yamaha. Leon Haslam, too, has fond memories of the circuit from last year and appeared to be capitalising on them.

But it was still Ben Spies who, as is so often the case, came from nowhere and laid down the gauntlet for everyone as soon as it really mattered. Superpole saw all the usual suspects working their way through to the last eight, except for one. And the end result was never in much doubt. Session one was won by Jonathan Rea in fine style, and had the initial twenty entrants whittled down to sixteen with the departure of Broc Parkes, Matthieu Lagrive, Luca Scassa and, surprisingly, Ruben Xaus. Session two got exciting as Spies put the hammer down to take an emphatic win, while at the other end Leon Camier, Sylvain Guintoli, Jakub Smrz, Yukio Kagayama and, astonishingly, Nori Haga all failed to make the final eight. Despite falling off partway through the session, Troy Corser wound up with a solid eighth behind Fonsi Nieto, Max Biaggi and Leon Haslam on the second row. While row one, after a pretty nailbiting climax that saw plenty of lurid sideways action and not a few major moments for the key players, had Jonathan Rea behind Michel Fabrizio while Shakey Byrne had achieved miracles to put the privateer Sterilgarda Ducati in second place on the grid. Second. Because, yet again, Ben Spies qualified on pole. And that was goimg to make life interesting for Haga, languishing in tenth behind Smrz - a notoriously difficult rider to pass at the best of times. Well if nothing else it was going to be interesting...

Race day came, heralded by brilliant sunshine. Which is always nice - at least it makes the choice of tyres and settings easier. Warmup, though it means nothing, was dominated by Ben Spies from Jonathan Rea and Michel Fabrizio - an ominous sign for Haga and his title hopes.

Ben Spies on his way to yet another Superpole...So as the riders lined up for Race One, a few things were clear. It was going to be hard and it was going to hot. And it was, in more ways that we might have expected.

Lights out and Spies made a strong start, chased by Biaggi, Rea and Byrne. Haga wasted no time in moving up, climbing to seventh by the end of the first lap before getting stuck behind the fast and difficult to pass Leon Haslam. And that was a problem. Because at the front, Spies was extending his ead with Biaggi seemingly the only person who could get close. Rea and Byrne were pushing each other hard and going well but not posing that much of a threat. And to make matters worse, Haga was soon joined by Michel Fabrizio. Just what nobody wants - a fast and occasionally wayward team-mate potentially getting in the way. Although he'd made a cushion, Spies wasn't pulling away as much as we expected. That Aprilia is ever so fast. But on lap seven, as Haga pushed harder and harder to make that breakthrough and hunt down the rapidly dwindling lead he had, it all turned to dust. The Japanese rider slid off at the hairpin that last year saw Fabrizio and Biaggi collide. Haga didn't even attempt to restart - either he'd seen something break off that meant there would be nothing he could do or he was so disgusted that he couldn't face it. Either way, as it stood his ten point lead would be reduced to a fifteen point deficit with just one race to go.

And so it transpired. In what turned out to be, frankly, a rather pedestrian race, Spies could afford to relax, but of course didn't, extending his lead over the by now embattled Biaggi while the Italian tried to keep the on form Rea behind him. Unsuccessfully, as it happened, a brief counterattack putting the Aprilia back into second place before Rea blasted past again to take a worthy second. Shakey Bryre, after a brilliant Haslam, Fabrizio and Haga duke it out...start, dropped to fourth but held off Fabrizio's factory Ducati. Leon Haslam looked to be in for a strong finish but crashed out on lap eleven while Troy Corser, also running strongly, encountered a mechanical problem that send him into the pits twice for investigation before finally retiring. Leon Camier repaid the faith Aprilia have shown in him by finishing an excellent sixth ahead of Carlos Checa and Ruben Xaus, while Matt Lagrive did well to put the Althea Honda into ninth and Baiocco rounded out the top ten on the Guandalini Ducati, his team leader and one of the favourites Smrz crashing out earlier.

With one race to go, then, for Haga to take the title Spies needed not to finish AND Haga needed to take a podium. That's a tall order.

Race two was set out from the start as being do or die for Haga. And when the lights went out it was indeed a Ducati that took the lead. But not Haga, or even Michel Fabrizio. No, it was Shane Byrne who fired the Sterilgarda machine off the line in front of Ben Spies, with Jonathan Rea, Max Biaggi and Leon Haslam snapping at their heels. By halfway around the first lap this lead group was joined by Haga, riding like a man posessed. As well he might. Two laps in and Rea elbowed his way past Spies to take second while Biaggi was all overthe back of the Yamaha and Haga was breathing down his neck having despatched Haslam in short order. Fabrizio then came and joined in, and I'm sure that his passing Haga was definitely not in the script, even if the subsequent moves on Biaggi and Spies were fully in accordance with the game plan. So while Shakey Byrne and Jonny Rea almost guaranteed that we'd have a Brit on the top step of the podium at the end, Fabrizio carried on hunting them down. And Haga hadn't given up either, forcing his way past Spies in a clean but fair pass, doing the same to Biaggi a few laps later. Up at the front, Rea and Byrne were swappingplaces and tripping each other up, which played into Fabrizio's Nori had it all to ride for...hands and allowed the Ducati rider to join the scrap properly. Which in turn played into Haga's hands, the three leaders slowing each other down and allowing the Japanes rider to close up. In fact the initial ferocious pace had taken a toll on Byrne's Ducati and he gradually dropped off the front, succumbing to Haga's attacks with just five laps to run. Further back, Spies saw that Haga was moving forward and managed to do a number on Biaggi to try to keep the points gap down. Fabrizio and Rea were swapping the lead almost corner by corner in a fabulous race that was only decided on the final lap when Rea left his braking just a touch too late and ran wide with three corners to go. That allowed both Fabrizio and Haga through and put the Japanese rider onto the second step of the podium. For a while during the race we'd thought that Haga would do it, would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but it wasn't to be. With Spies finishing fifth, ahead of Biaggi, it still left the Texan six points clear and made him World Champion in his rookie year. that's the first time a rookie has taken the title, the largest points deficit ever closed and the first SBK title for Yamaha. Which is pretty impressive.

All in all, this was a fitting end to a generally excellent season. Jonny Rea sadly finished fifth overall after his last lap hiccup, while a win would have made him fourth. Haga of course was second from Fabrizio and Biaggi. Wonder what will happen next year?

Congratulations, by the way, to Cal Crutchlow and the Yamaha Supersport team who lifted the World Championship by just seven points from race winner Eugene Laverty. We're looking forward to seeing Cal in SBK next season, alongside Toseland.


Ben Spies, a deserving World Champion...Race One

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
3 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
4 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
6 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
7 Carlos Checa (Honda)
8 Ruben Xaus (BMW)
9 Matthieu Lagrive (Honda)
10 Matteo Baiocco (Ducati)

Race Two

1 Michel fabrizio (Ducati)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
4 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
5 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
6 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
7 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
8 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
9 Troy Corser (BMW)
10 Sylvain Guintoli (Suzuki)

Championship Standing after fourteen rounds:

1 Ben Spies 462 (2009 SBK champion)
2 Nori Haga 456
3 Michel Fabrizio 382
4 Max Biaggi 319
5 Jonathan Rea 279
6 Leon Haslam 241
7 Carlos Checa 209
8 Shane Byrne 192
9 Tom Sykes 176
10 Jakub Smrz 169



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