Business as usual

SBK Valencia, Spain, April 5th 2009

Words: Simon Bradley, pics: Richard Handley

Ben Spies did his best to interfere with Max Biaggi's qualifying dominance...and ended up on pole.The SBK circus returned to Europe for what is traditionally regarded as the real start of the season at Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast. It's a beautiful, friendly, vibrant city and the circuit Ricardo Tormo, about twenty minutes out, retains that atmosphere. Though Spanish crowds have normally reserved the bulk of their enthusiasm for MotoGP, when it's almost impossible to get into the circuit, the rising popularity of SBK, bolstered no doubt by the reduced MotoGP grid and the prospect of at least two local riders on top quality kit racing in SBK meant that the turnout was particularly good and the atmosphere was buzzing. Add to that the pleasant Spanish weather and a circuit which is fast but extremely compact and the stage was set.

Valencia circuit, as I just mentioned, is very compact. Imagine the sort of layout you'd come up with if you had lots of Scalextric track but a pretty small bedroom to get it into. Oh, and most of the bits you had were corners. Because one thing Valencia doesn't have is massive long straights. In fact most of the straight bits are actually slightly kinked anyway. Grip levels vary wildly depending on the weather and what's been there recently - the circuit is heavily used and some things leave it grippier and nicer for bikes than others - and it's also got a few crests and dips, though it's relatively flat compared to many other European rounds. But it is a great track and the layout normally promises tight racing.

Qualifying was totally dominated by one combination, and it was all Italian. Max Biaggi and the Aprilia were the pair to beat for almost every session, with the occasional appearance by Leon Haslam on the Stiggy Honda and Ben Spies on the Yamaha just keeping Biaggi honest. Shinya Nakano took himself out of contention on Friday as he launched the second Aprilia into the gravel and broke his collarbone, while Yukio Kagayama had a massive crash as well, leaving the Suzuki rider battered and bruised. No change there, then. Haga and Fabrizio went well of course, the circuit layout particularly suiting twin cylinder engine power delivery, with all but five of the wins since racing started there being twins. Regis Laconi has definitely found something special now he's back on a Ducati as he was right up there as well, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Troy Corser taking the new BMW into the upper reaches of the leaderboard as well.

Tom Sykes would have done so much better but for a poor tyre choice in Superpole. He's ever so quick, and consistent with it...But as you'll hear me say with monotonous regularity, qualifying is only a small part of the weekend. Superpole, in its new and improved (well, the jury is still out on that, but new and probably better for TV) format, always throws up a few surprises. And the first surprises were Biaggi, Sykes and Xaus failing to make the cut to the second session. Biaggi and Xaus both found that the qualifier didn't work on the Aprilia or the BMW, with massive chatter the result, while Sykes put himself seventh, decided to save his qualifiers for the next sessions (each rider only gets two pairs of qualifying tyres per round) and proceeded to get overhauled by everyone else who ran their qualifiers early. A lesson I'm sure many others will have to learn as well, as it seems to catch someone out every time. The second session saw Troy Corser discover that qualifiers didn't really work for him, either, as he joined Kiyonari, Haslam, Byrne, Brendan Roberts, Jakub Smrz and Stiggy's new signing, MotoGP refugee John Hopkins, in the walk of shame back to the motorhome. Which left the final eight for the last twelve minute session. A fantastic effort by Regis Laconi put him and the DFX Ducati firmly at the front of the grid for most of the session. Haga made a valiant try but fell short by a tenth of a second while the rest of the field lagged further behind. Apart from Ben Spies who, in the last moments of the session, made a staggering run to go over two thirds of a second faster than the Frenchman and snatch his third pole position in three rounds. So the front row consisted of Spies, Laconi, Haga and Fabrizio. Kagayama just pipped Neukirchner to head the second row from the Ten Kate pairing of Rea and Checa while Kiyonari put the third Ten Kate machine at the front of the third row, ahead of Haslam, Smrz and Shakey Byrne.

Regis Laconi has been in the wilderness too long. Now he's well and truly back...Race day dawned clear and bright, with a light breeze and a very high level haze that took the worst of the glare away as well. Basically, in fact, perfect weather to go motorbike racing. The warmup proved nothing as always, except that Ben Spies likes Valencia and clearly Valencia likes the new Yamaha. That's about all warmups ever prove anyway, though if a psychological advantage needs to be gained it's a great place to gain it.

Lining up for Race One on time and with no issues is always a good start, and so it was here. And as the lights went out and things got properly underway it was Laconi who made a fantastic start, mugging all the others and going into the first corner in front. The Frenchman yielded the lead on the exit to that first corner, running wide and allowing Haga to drop under him while Neukirchner camped out on the tail of the blue and white Ducati. Fabrizio made an awful start and Spies was slow off the line as well, getting passed by Corser who came from right back on the fourth row to slot the BMW in front of Spies in fourth position by halfway round the first lap. Three corners in Jonathan Rea and Brendan Roberts had a coming together, punting the young Ulsterman off into the gravel and out of the race, the start of what was to prove a disappointing weekend for the usually so strong Ten Kate squad. Kagayama was pushing Spies hard from the outset, with Parkes and Fabrizio behind him. Just into the second lap as everything seemed to be going so well, Corser lost the front on the BMW at the slow turn two and crashed out unhurt. And at the front of the field, Neukirchner drafted past Haga to take the lead. It was short lived, though, as Haga returned the compliment a lap later and immediately proceeded to make some space behind himself, little by little. Behind Neukirchner, Laconi was turning in a great performance and keeping Spies in fourth for the next few laps. Indeed, Spies had his own problems as while he needed to work on getting past Laconi he also had to defend his position from the maraudingKagayama behind him. Good timing saw the American slip pastthe Ducati and use Laconi as a temporary block to give him somespace, but he was running wide on some corners and clearly Fabrizio and Neukirchner carried on like this for ages. Think of the tyre wear they are saving, though...riding right to the ragged edge of the Yamaha/Pirelli combination and at the beginning of lap tenhe went too far beyond the edge and sent the Yamaha cartwheeling through the gravel to produce what I suspect is the most comprehensively destroyed bike so far this season. Spies himself was clearly utterly unhurt, much to our relief, but it was very clear that he is human and fallible if pushed hard enough. Talking about human and fallible, Fabrizio had recovered from his poor start and was carving through the field to eventually find himself able to close on the leading group. Well, not on Haga who, by this time, was several seconds clear, but on Kagayama, Laconi and Neukirchner. Close on, and, indeed, pass them as three laps from the end the factory Ducati rider drafted past Neukirchner to take second place. And despite some truly herculean efforts by the German, the race ended as a Ducati one-two. To compound the misery for Ten Kate, Carlos Checa crashed out and, though he rejoined, finished outside the points while Kiyonari ended up in a race long brawl with Hill, Xaus and Hopkins, finishing twelfth. At the front, Laconi finished just off the podium, ahead of Leon Haslam who rode a brilliantly strong race and muscled past his old sparring partner Kagayama in great style. Kagayama was sixth from Tom Sykes on the sole surviving Yamaha , Biaggi on the Aprilia in a disappointing performance, Byrne who had fought with Biaggi all race long and Broc Parkes in an outstanding effort on the PBR Kawasaki.


Spies, Fabrizio and Laconi. Quite a combination...Race two promised more of the same, and to an extent it delivered as well. This time it was Neukirchner who made the start and immediately set about creating a buffer for himself. Remember that this time last year the young German was set to take his first ever SBK win here before being torpedoed by Checa on the last corner and ending up with a bust collarbone for his efforts. He wasn't going to have that happen again if he could avoid it, that's for sure. Behind him it was Fabrizio who had made the better start, followed by Haga and Laconi, with Spies in fifth, having been comprehensively duffed up by a hard charging Haga in a very physical first few moments, pursued by Jonathan Rea who happily completed the first lap without incident. It took Haga a couple of laps to get past his team mate, by which time Neukirchner was a considerable way ahead after turning in two stormingly fast laps. So the fact that it took the Japanese rider just two more laps to reel in and pass the Suzuki is quite astonishing. But that's what happened, a combination it transpires, of Haga pushing really hard and Neukirchner encountering some grip problems, perhaps as a result of the warmer track. Spires pushed past Fabrizio a lap later, passing Neukirchner the lap after that and setting off in pursuit of Haga. A pursuit that very quickly became obvious would be futile as the Ducati rider matched the best that Spies could do and maintained a yawning lead. At the front nothing changed really, with laconi running fourth again and not really threatening. Haslam again rode a superb race to climb all the way to fifth while Kagayama was unlucky, catching a false neutral and running into the gravel while running sixth, dropping the Suzuki at walking pace and ending up dead last. Sore from his qualifying crash and with no possibility of getting points, the Japanese rider retired after a few more laps. Johnny Rea's early promise faded as his tyres went off and he dropped back, as did Corser who started strongly before fading. Biaggi, too, managed to climb to eighth eventually, a poor showing considering the potential he was showing earlier in the weekend.

Fabrizio leads Laconi. Laconi is pushing hard...So race two wasn't actually that exciting. Though close, there wasn't actually much overtaking after the first few laps and the leader never really looked as though anyone would catch him. But on the plus side, Tommy Hill continued to improve and pick up points as he gets back into the groove, John Hopkins showed that he's a talent to be reckoned with and will soon be a real threat to the leaders and several other riders demonstrated that they too have what it takes.

As an aside, congratulations to Cal Crutchlow on his first World Supersport win, taken from Anthony West in fine style in a last lap frenzy.

The next round is Assen in three weeks time. Don't forget to check your team's performance on Fantasy SBK and see if you're up for a prize!





Nori Haga, man of the moment. Could this finally be his year?Race One

1 Nori Haga (Ducati)
2 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
3 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
4 Regis Laconi (Ducati)
5 Leon Haslam (Honda)
6 Yukio Kagayama (Suzuki)
7 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)
8 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
9 Shane Byrne (Ducati)
10 Broc Parkes (Kawasaki)

Race Two

1 Nori Haga (Ducati)
2 Ben Spies (Yamaha)
3 Michel Fabrizio (Ducati)
4 Regis Laconi (Ducati)
5 Leon Haslam (Honda)
6 Carlos Checa (Honda)
7 Max Neukirchner (Suzuki)
8 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
9 Ryuichi Kiyonari (Honda)
10 Tom Sykes (Yamaha)

Championship Standing after three rounds:

1 Nori Haga 135
2 Ben Spies 95
3 Max Neukirchner 65
4 Michel Fabrizio 60
5 Leon Haslam 58
6 Regis Laconi 56
7 Max Biaggi 54
8 Tom Sykes 47
9 Yukio Kagayama 35
10 Jonathan Rea 33


PS Don't forget to register for Fantasy Superbikes and get playing for a chance to win great prizes!


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