New kid on the block

SBK Losail, Qatar, March 14th 2009

Words: Simon Bradley, pics: as credited

Race two, and Haga takes an early lead (Ducati)Losail in the Gulf state of Qatar, is one of the most challenging circuit on the calendar. As well as being a tricky mix of extremely fast and highly technical, it's (obviously) very hot, and once off the racing line the track has a fine coating of sand which can make unconventional approaches to corners a very high risk strategy indeed. But despite this, it's a popular track with the riders and usually offers good racing because it is very well designed.

Happily this year the rain stayed away, falling on the MotoGP test session last weekend instead, so practice and qualifying were punctuated only by motorised dramas rather than meteorological ones.

And dramas there were, of course, as always, though very few of them ended up with riders taking the walk of shame back to the pits. In fact, the attrition rate was unusually low, perhaps as the financial crisis bites and riders are having to pay for their own bodywork instead of it coming from the seemingly bottomless pit of sponsor's funding... The biggest surprise about both practice and qualifying was that Ben Spies, the new boy, topped the timesheets in all but the first timed session. Where he was second. It seems that the new Yamaha is well suited to the Losail circuit. Johnny Rea, Max Biaggi and Max Neukirchner all made strong showings, as did Shane Byrne after his disappointing trip to Australia. But it was the AMA champion Spies who utterly dominated, and who continued to do so through Superpole as well. Though the second session saw him Shakey Byrne appears to have found some of the form that made him 2008 BSB champion...( to a surprising seventh, almost failing to make the cut, before rising again to take his second Superpole of the season from an all-weekend strongJakub Smrz by just a tenth of a second, with Biaggi and Haga snapping on the heels of the leading pair. The second row was headed by Tom Sykes, getting used to the Yamaha and staring to show his abilities, from Shinya Nakano and Carlos Checa, with Shane Byrne at the other end. Row three saw Roby Rolfo making a good fist of the ever improving Althea Honda to take ninth from Michel Fabrizio, Regis Laconi and Ryuichi Kiyonari.

Superpole is important, of course, because your starting position decides how much work you're going to have to do at the beginning of the race to get into the points. But it's not as important as getting a good start. Something Max Biaggi clearly understands very well as he fired the Aprilia off the line as though all the demons in Hell were chasing him at the beginning of Race One . They weren't, of course, though he did have some very close attention from Nori Haga and the Xerox Ducati while Jakub Smrz joined in, relegating pole sitter Spies to fourth. Nakano managed to force the Aprilia past Spies during the second lap, setting off in pursuit of the leaders in his own inimitable style. Behind, Regis Laconi, Shakey Byrne, and Troy Corser all got down to business as well, Corser making an even better start from his lowly fourth row start to be eighth by the end of the first lap. Clearly the double world champion hasn't forgotten how to ride a motorbike. And clearly BMW haven't forgotten how to make one, though their progress is somewhat eclipsed by Aprilia. The brand new RSV4 is clearly a motorbike with something to prove. And Max Biaggi is clearly a rider with something to prove as well, in this case that the pair of them are at least the equal of anyone else in the series. For more than half of the race we were treated to the rare sight of a factory Ducati being unable to out-drag another machine, and indeed not even being able to get past in the slipstream. It took Haga sixteen laps to get past Biaggi and make it stick, the Italian fighting hard all the way. The way the two of them interacted on track, it's clear that the shenanigans of the last coupe of years, where both of them have ended up in the gravel together more than once and contributed to each other's demise on other occasions, is behind them both and they rode with a new maturity and mutualrespect. Behind them a furball developed, with overtakes andscraps galore going on. But it was some way behind them, as the leading trio had extended a ten second gap over the rest of the pack. Kagayama exited into the gravel, though was able to remount and get back into the fray. A lap or so later on the same corner, Neukirchner went across the gravelbut stayed upright and also rejoined, only to highside out of contention a few laps later. Jakub Smrz also bit the dust after a promising start, while a little later Michel Fabrizio crashed hard, knocking the wind out of himself And it stayed like this for most of the race. The order might change, the proximity didn't... ( appearing not to do anything worse.

Up at the front, regardless of how polite Haga and Biaggi were being to each other, Spies picked them both off in the same lap, passing Haga as the Japanese tried to draft past Biaggi on the long main straight and then diving inside Biaggi in a move very reminiscent of something the Roman would have done himself a few corners later. Slow the Yamaha is not, because although he wasn't able to make a break away from the pursuing pair, they weren't able to do anything to get back either, and the young American took his second win on the trot by nearly two seconds from Haga, with Biaggi a third of a second behind. Then there was a yawning ten second gap back to Shinya Nakano on the second Aprilia, half a second clear of Checa on the first Ten Kate Honda. Tom Sykes brought the second Yamaha in seventh, just over half a second shy of Shakey Byrne on the Sterilgarda Ducati who was himself half a second behind Checa. Kiyonari beat Corser to eighth by just eight hundredths of a second while Regis Laconi in tenth was a full second behind, though under a quarter of a second clear of Haslam who had made a typical late charge.

Race two again saw Biaggi get a lightning start, followed by Haga who managed to get through into the lead before the end of the first lap. Spies managed to get a better start, settling into third for a spell, while Shakey Byrne got up into fourth, just ahead of Troy Corser, whose start technique is simply incredible. Remember he started in sixteenth, fourth row, and was in fifth at the end of the first lap. Tom Sykes, too, made abetter start. In fact the only real casualty at the start was Jakub Smrz who encountered some sort of issue and ended up starting from the pitlane. This time, Spies wasted no time in getting to the front, taking the lead during the sixth lap afterpassing Biaggi a couple of laps earlier. It certainly wasn't easy for him, but the young American didn't get a 90% podium presence in the AMA championship without having some talent, and by riding the wheels off the Yamaha he gradually extended a lead over the ravening pack following.Haga and Biaggi chased hard and though they themselves extended a bit of space over the rest Neukirchner and Nakano scrapped throughout race two, ending up just two thousandths of a second apart... (Suzuki)of the field, nobody really made a massive break. In fact, rather the opposite. Haga and Biaggi were within fractions of a second from start to finish, with a whole series of other titanic scraps behind them lasting the whole race. Kiyonari battled his way up through the field, finally prevailing over Sykes and pulling clear with the young Englishman backing off in the dying stages and accepting fifth as a reasonable reward. Behind him, Nakano and Neukirchner had been trading places for at least ten laps, the German finally prevailing by just two thousandths of a second in a photo finish while Corser, Xaus and Haslam took ninth, tenth and eleventh separated by four hundredths of a second across the three of them. Ahead of Corser by a second or so was Johnny Rea in a better performance than race one, while Shakey Byrne dropped back after his initial strong showing to finish twelfth. Fabrizio rounded off his dire weekend by retiring with a technical problem, while Tommy Hill sadly retired as well, his first non points finish so far this season.

Overall it wasn't the most exciting race ever, with rather a lot of following and not enough overtaking. But the following was close, the overtaking was clean and exciting and the championship is certainly wide open. It would be a brave, and foolish, person to discount Nori Haga as the Man Most Likely to Win, but Ben Spies is certainly a force to be reckoned with. It will be interesting to see how he performs on the more technical European circuits, as well as how he deals with the inevitable wet Donington...

Next stop Valencia at the beginning of April. Don't forget to check your team's performance on Fantasy SBK in time for the real start at Valencia!

Ben Spies powers away from Biaggi and Haga at the end of Race One. He's quite good, you know... (Yamaha)Race One

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
4 Shinya Nakano (Aprilia)
5 Carlos Checa (Honda)
6 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
7 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
8 Ryuichi Kiyonari (Honda)
9 Troy Corser (BMW)
10 Regis Laconi (Ducati)

Race Two

1 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
2 Nori Haga (Ducati)
3 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
4 Ryuichi Kiyonari (Honda)
5 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
6 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
7 Shinya Nakano (Aprilia)
8 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
9 Troy Corser (BMW)
10 Ruben Xaus (BMW)

Championship Standing after two rounds:

1 Nori Haga 85
2 Ben Spies 75
3 Max Neukirchner 40
4 Max Biaggi 38
5 Leon Haslam 36
6 Tom Sykes 32
7 Regis Laconi 30
8 Jonathan Rea 30
9 Shinya Nakano 27
10 Yukio Kagayama 25


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