close racing, for sure !

SBK Assen, Netherlands, 17th April 2011

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

Leon Haslam is still chasing that first BMW win. It'll come, we're sure...Assen, in Northern Holland, is a great circuit to ride and watch at. It's actually not so good as a photographer because the corners all look pretty much the same, but that's not really important right now. If you want to know more about this magnificent circuit then you can find out about it here.

At this time of year the weather in Northern Europe is something of a lottery. But this year we got lucky and the skies stayed clear and blue throughout the weekend, with little wind and fair;y low humidity making most of this part of the world a very pleasant place in which to be.

We were without James Toseland again this weekend, the popular Englishman still nursing the wrist he broke in testing. With metalwork inserted but still carrying a plater cast, we hope that James will be back where he belongs, fully fit and ready to go, as soon as possible. But for this weekend his place in the BMW Italia team was taken by local hero Barry Veneman. A welcome reappearance on the grid, though, was Chris Vermeulen who is still battling injuries but is stronger and stronger each round and was optimistic that Assen could be his proper return.

Practice started steadily as always, with everyone unusually electing to remain on their bikes. Jakub Smrz, who always goes well here, showed that this year would be no exception as he placed himself and the exquisite Effenbert Ducati on the top of the timesheets ahead of Checa and Johnny Rea. He stayed there for the first timed paractice, too, this time trailed by Biaggi and Melandri, while Badovini crashed but was able to ride back to the pits and Vermeulen suffered a mechanical gremlin.

Second qualifying saw Rea ahead of Smrz and Biaggi, with Corser the lead BMW in fourth ahead of Haga and Haslam. But at the bottom, Chris Vermeulen was struggling with his recovering knee, failing to make the cut for Superpole but gaining valuable track time nonetheless.

Superpole One, then, was the normal frantic affair with no less than five fastest riders. Laverty and Melandri ended up on top ahead of Haga and Corser, but Rea, Lascorz, Haslam and Haga all had their time at the top as well. And at the other end, Fabrizio just failed to make the cut for the second session, ahead of Xaus, Guintoli and Badovini. The second session saw Leon Camier take an early lead before being ousted by Lascorz again. Then Melandri, Checa and Rea took the top, Checa taking it back briefly and then losing out to Smrz. This session saw the early departure of Camier, Corser, Lascorz and Leon Haslam in what was shaping up to be a pretty ropey weekend for the BMW team.

Johnny Rea has the nicest looking bike on the grid and is unflinchingly fast. So he's going to get his picture taken...The final Superpole session was a straight fight without any real high drama, and when the dust had settled the grid was like this:

Checa on pole from Smrz, Laverty and Haga on the first row. Then Rea leading Biaggi, Tom Sykes and Melandri on row two. Row three was headed by Leon Camier from Corser, Lascorz and Haslam. And so we went to race day.

Sunday was beautiful. Sunny, warm, a gentle breeze. Perfect for watching motorbikes. Or, indeed, for riding them as the temperature wasn't too high. Warmup had Leons Camier and Haslam up the front from Checa and Rea. Which might suggest that their teams had found something to improve upon.

But warmup, as we all know, doesn't actually count for anything. And that was doubly reinforced at the start of Race One as Leon Camier's Aprilia died on the grid, forcing the young Englishman to start from the pitlane on his spare bike. A cruel stroke of luck for a talented and likeable guy whose time must surely come soon. Lights out, then, and it was Carlos Checa who made the most of his pole position to take the holeshot, followed by Biaggi, Rea and Corser who has really got the knack of getting that BMW off the line, then Laverty, Sykes and Smrz who seemed to get rather duffed up in the start line melee. Rea, in fact, got up to second before being mugged by Biaggi in the first turns. Checa immediately got his head down and went for the break, which he very noticeably didn't get as Biaggi caught onto his coat tails and got dragged along. Corser was a man on a misison, passing Rea and heading off after the lead pair. Starting the second lap, Rea got back past the BMW and managed to draft past Biaggi as well, losing out to Aprilia grunt on the back straight. Lap three, though, saw the Ulsterman have another go at the end of the start/finish straight and this time make it stick to take second place. A little further back, Leon Haslam ran off into the gravel, picking himself and the BMW up and carrying on but near the back of the field, with just the luckless Camier behind him. Jakub Smrz and Joan Lascorz were also caught up in the accident, both staying on but being notably inconvenienced.

It could only end in tears...but it went on lap after lap after lap before it all went wrong. Guintoli and Smrz.Troy Corser, meanwhile, was dropping back as the initial promise offered by the BMW again seemed to tail off. Tom Sykes muscled the Kawasaki past the double champion and was soon chasing after Biaggi. Johnny Rea passed Checa on lap four, with Biaggi blasting past the Spaniard a little afterwards. Biaggi was so enthusiastic that he carried way too much speed into the corner, ran wide and was immediately passed again. In fact he was lucky not to have Sykes ram the Kawasaki through as well, ending the lap just a couple of hundredths of a second ahead of The Grinner. On the next lap, though, Checa yielded the place and Biaggi was through to second while at the other end of the pack Roby Rolfo threw his Kawasaki into the gravel and walked away unhurt. Haga also ran off the track, rejoining some way down the field and carrying on for a while before retiring.

For a while it looked as though we were going to have a terrific scrap at the front as Biaggi passed Rea only to get passed back immediately. But no, the Castrol Honda and fired up Ulsterman were just too tough a combination to beat and though the gap was rarely more than around half a second, it remained a gap.

A little further back, things were getitng hot as Sykes and Checa both fell to a hard charging Eugene Laverty while Michel Fabrizio was the fastest man on the track for a while, blasting past Sykes as the Kawasaki faded. Melandri and Guintoli also both passed Sykes, leaving the stage set for a truly epic scrap between the Effenbert Ducatis of Smrz and Guintoli. Melandri and Fabrizio had a good scrap, finally decided in favour of the Yamaha rider while Checa lined up and despatched Laverty to regain the final podium step. After a few laps of really elegant close riding it all went wrong for Smrz and Guintoli as the former highsided having just got ahead of his team-mate. With nowhere else to go, Guintoli ploughed into the wreckage and a spectacular and hard fought race wa sover the team. Fortunately neither rider was hurt in the incident.

So as the final flag dropped, Rea was first across the line, with Biaggi just three quarters of a second behind. Then it was Checa from Melandri, Fabrizio, Corser and Laverty.

Eugene Laverty, Johnny Rea and Troy Corser get all physical... (Pic: Richard Handley)Race two was delayed slightly due to the crashfest that was Supersports. Fortunately none of the injuries sustained were as bad as we thought they were, with Sam Lowes giving us the most cause for concern as he was wheeled off to hospital talking gibberish after a huge highside. The doctors later established that this was business as usual for the likeable Lincolnshire lad, and after sorting out his broken shoulder they sent him home.

But the sun kept shining and the track kept getting hotter. As the lights went out it was Haga this time who got the holeshot from Checa and Biaggi. Eugene Laverty had slotted into fourth ahead of Rea with Haslam getting a rather better start this time to drop into seventh, ahead of Corser and behind Melandri. Biaggi got his head down and went after Haga, outdragging Checa and closing up on the Japanese rider. But by the end of lap three, Checa had capitalised on the softer tyres that the Ducati power delivery allowed him to run and had got past both Aprilias in a couple of hard but fair passes to take the lead. And apart from the penultimate lap, where Biaggi got back in front before losing out to an extremely robust overtake in the final chicane, that was how it stayed.

It's worth noting that Leon Camier, whose luck notably improved and whose bike stayed together this time, put in the fastest lap of the race, just a tenth outside the lap record, on his way to a highly respectable fourth place. Bearing in mind that he started from row three and had a lot of fast riders to overtake, that was a pretty impressive achievement. Marco Melandri was riding a storming race until an unforced error saw him crash out of fourth. And the final, epic, scrap that went all the way down to the wire was Smrz, Guintoli and Haga. The Ducatis flanked the Aprilia across the line, with Haga taking the advantage by five hundedths of a second over Smrz, with Guintoli three hundredths of a second behind his team-mate.

So a pretty good weekend's racing saw Carlos Checa tighten his grip on the top spot in the championship, with arch-rivals Melandri and Biaggi just four points apart. But it's early days yet, and the long straights of Monza will suit the fast Aprilias, Yamahas and BMWs better than the Ducati. Perhaps.

See you there in a couple of weeks...

Leon Camier, man of the match without a doubt after a storming second race.Race One

1 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
2 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
3 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
4 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Suzuki)
6 Troy Corser (BMW)
7 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
8 Ruben Xaus (Honda)
9 Ayrton Badovini (BMW)
10 Mark Aitchison (Kawasaki)

Race Two

1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
3 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
4 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
5 Leon Haslam (BMW)
6 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
7 Michel Fabrizio (Suzuki)
8 Nori Haga (Aprilia)
9 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
10 Sylvain Guintoli (Ducati)

Championship Standing after three rounds:

1 Carlos Checa 132
2 Max Biaggi 89
3 Marco Melandri 85
4 Jonathan Rea 79
5 Leon Haslam 68
6 Leon Camier 50
7 Jakub Smrz 49
8 Michel Fabrizio 47
9 Eugene Laverty 35
10 Nori Haga 34



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