Monza, just North of Milan in Italy's industrial heartland, is steeped in tradition going back ninety years. That tradition includes close, hard, aggressive racing as well as more than its fair share of incidents and high drama. If you want to get all the gen on the circuit then there's a more detailed description here.
Coming here, Carlos Checa had built a commanding lead at the top of the table on the not-really-factory Ducati. Funny how Ducati pulled out at the end of last season but the team is still there, albeit with different lead sponsors. Hey, it's good for the championship so that's cool. Anyway, Checa was hot favourite not to get things his own way this weekend as the ridiculously fast Monza circuit will see the twin cylinder Ducati massively outgunned din the horsepower stakes. And here, horsepower trumps sweet handling, lion-hearted riding or even, to be honest, sheer talent. Oh, obviously all of these things are needed to make it all work but power is King.
Which explains why all but one of the practice and qualifying sessions were utterly dominated by BMW and Aprilia. There's little doubt that these two factory teams have the fastest bikes on the circuit. In Aprilia's case the RSV4 is a missile from the start of the race to the chequered flag, while BMW still haven't mastered the art of tyre preservation and the massive power produced by the four cylinder engine still shreds race rubber if the rider isn't very judicious indeed with the throttle. Johnny Rea got the Honda up toward the front on a few occasions, apparently purely on the strength of attitude and aggression, but really it's just the Yamahas that had anything like the pace needed to live with the other two teams. Yamaha Italia, of course, are literally backing onto the circuit so doing well here is always extremely important to them. James Toseland, by the way, ran in the first couple of practice sessions but decided, along with the team and medical advisors, that his injured wrist was still not strong or stable enough to compete safely so he announced that he wouldn't be starting, to the disappointment of his many fans.
Superpole One saw three changes of the lead. Leon Haslam was the early front runner, being edged out by Joan Lascorz on the fast but unruly Kawasaki and Eugene Laverty on the Yamaha before eventual session winner Biaggi took to the front and remained there, with Haslam ending second. The session saw Lascorz, Sykes, Smrz and Berger all drop out. Superpole Two saw early leader Biaggi pipped by Rea then Laverty, who was ultimately beaten by his team-mate Melandri. Badovini, Camier, Checa and Guintoli were the final four to get eliminated at this stage. Superpole Three was a real demonstration by Max Biaggi. The Italian took the lead early and then lost it to a succession of riders, always pushing to get it back again and ultimately setting an apparently unbeatable target. With a few minutes to run, Laverty shaved a fraction of a second off to take the lead. It was clearly right on the ragged edge and there was no way anyone was going to go quicker. Then Biaggi went out and did so. By a full two thirds of a second, to take a new absolute lap record as well as pole position.
That left the grid for Sunday as Biaggi, Laverty, Rea and Corser on the front row, ahead of Melandri, Haslam, Fabrizio and Haga. Badovini headed row three on the BMW Italia machine from Camier, Checa and Guintoli.
Sunday was unseasonably warm, as indeed was the whole weekend, sunny and dry. Warmup saw the top twelve machines inside a second of each other and the top seven all Yamahas, BMWs and Aprilias. It wasn't looking good for the rest, even though as we know warmup doesn't really mean anything.
Light out for Race One, and it was Troy Corser who got a blinding start, slicing through to outdrag everyone in that frantic scramble for the first chicane and coming out at the front of a mercifully intact field, with Biaggi ahead of Laverty, Melandri and Haslam. Corser set a brilliant pace on the BMW but the second lap saw him get shoved aside by Biaggi and rapidly drop down the field as the perennial problem of eating tyres reared its ugly head. A valiant rally saw the twice world champion maintain some valuable points but the lurid slides that he was demonstrating coming out of the Parabolica made his problems all the clear to see. It wasn't Biaggi who maintained the lead, though, as Laverty slipped past despite the Aprilia's clear speed advantage, and though the gap didn't grow to more than a quarter of a second for the first half of the race, it was clear that the young Irishman wa sin control of proceedings.
Which is rather more than could be said for Max Biaggi. Because the World Champion's riding was becoming increasingly erratic as it seemed he was getting sucked into trying to take the win rather than simply settling for second. The result was that he regularly ran into the chicanes too hot and then went wide on the exit, allowing both Haslam and Melandri to go through. What must have been so frustrating, especially to Haslam who had already been forced to take the emergency slip road at the first chicane by a death or glory Melandri passing move and had still got all the way back into contention, was that the Aprilia is so fast that Biaggi could afford to make these mistakes and still simply power past on the straights with a top speed over ten km/h faster than the BMW, even without the benefit of slipstreaming. And that's just so maddening to a racer.
Up at the very front, Laverty was taking full advantage of the scrap going on behind him to put in as many clean laps as possible and make himself a gap, which he did very well. Behind, Biaggi made the most of his power advantage, carried on making stupid mistakes and still crossed the line second, a second and a half clear of Haslam who in turn was two tenths in front of Melandri.
Behind the leading group was a yawning eight second gap before Fabrizio arrived, the Suzuki rider prevailing over the outgunned Honda of Jonathan Rea by half a second. Then it was Troy Corser, bravely holding off Leon Camier on the second Aprilia with Checa and Smrz behind on the Ducatis. Nori haga, who had been going brilliantly, cut a chicane and had a ride-through imposed which essentially shot his race, while Joan Lascorz crashed out unhurt.
Race two didn't start as well. It was still Troy Corser who got the holeshot, and this time Leon Haslam got a better start. But that counted for nothing as, I think, Jakub Smrz went down in the braking zone for the first chicane, taking Rea and Haslam with him. The red flags stayed in this time, so none of the riders got to participate. Haslam might not have been able to anyway, having broken a toe. Happily it is not expected to impact his chances at Miller in a couple of weeks.
Halfway round the lap, Biaggi took the lead from Corser with Haga, Camier and Melandri behind, followed by Checa. That shows how much things were messed up by the first corner melee. A couple of laps later and Camier had climbed to second, sitting behind Biaggi in an impressive show of Aprilia dominance, especially with Haga fourth on the satellite machine. Corser was a steady third and looking good. Melandri was a man on the move, and riding in a manner that personally I would have black flagged him for. He virtually ran Haga off the track passing him into a chicane and a couple of laps later pulled the same do or die move on Corser as he had on Haslam in the first race, going for a non existent gap at the first chicane and forcing the Australian to sit up take evasive action or collide. That so wrecked Corser's corner that Haga and Fabrizio were also able to pass him and from there on the Australian was just playing catchup the whole race.
On lap eight Leon Camier's so far very good ride came to an early end as the front tucked approaching Lesmo Two and the Aprilia fired itself off into the undergrowth. No injury to the rider, though, who could at least say with some justification that he was being pressured by Melandri and the rest of the pack.
No such justification could be offered to Max Biaggi a few laps later though. leading by five seconds, the Italian outbraked himself into the first chicane, violated the rules on exiting the escape road and incurred a ride-through. To everyone's surprise he took it, incurring a nineteen second penalty and rejoining back in eleventh.
As Eugene Laverty slogged his way cleanly but assertively through the field to join Melandri by lap ten, this rapidly became a race of two fights. At the front, the Yamaha pairing were at it hammer and tongs while slightly behind them former Ducati team-mates Haga and Fabrizio duked it out as well. Both would go right to the wire as Laverty's patience and observation put him into a far stronger position than many other riders would have been. Laverty is definitely a thinker and spent several laps lining up his team-mate before finally putting the decisive move on him on the way into the Parabolica, starting wide then switching to the inside line as Melandri started to overshoot and taking the drag to the line while the Italian's Yamaha bucked and weaved like an extremely angry bronco. Behind them, an aggressive but pretty good natured scrap between Haga and Fabrizio was decided in the Italian's favour on the way down the back straight as the factory Suzuki just had the grunt to overhaul the privateer Aprilia.
Biaggi dragged his way back up to eighth to at least salvage some points from a weekend that must have been a disappointment to him and the team. But it speaks volumes that the majority of the crowd were happy to see him penalised.
So next we cross the pond to Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City. It was the turning point in the championship last year, let's see what comes this time around...
1 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
2 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
3 Leon Haslam (BMW)
4 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Suzuki)
6 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
7 Troy Corser (BMW)
8 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
9 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
10 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
1 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
2 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
3 Michel Fabrizio (Suzuki)
4 Nori Haga (Aprilia)
5 Troy Corser (BMW)
6 Ayrton Badovini (BMW)
7 Sylvain Guintoli (Ducati)
8 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
9 Joan Lascorz (Kawasaki)
10 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
after four rounds:
1 Carlos Checa 145
2 Marco Melandri 118
3 Max Biaggi 117
4 Jonathan Rea 89
5 Eugene Laverty 85
6 Leon Haslam 84
7 Michel Fabrizio 74
8 Leon Camier 58
9 Jakub Smrz 55
10 Nori Haga 47