Miller Motorsports Park, near Salt Lake City in Utah, is a purpose built track that manages to retain all the attractive features of old circuits while adding the benefits, particularly safety, of newer ones. It's also refreshingly interesting, with a great comination of fast and slow sections, slight gradient changes, complexes, everything you could reasonably ask for. Including fantastic views of the Rocky Mountains. Which can cause problems on occasions. Because being just twenty miles or so from mountains can cause, um, interesting weather patterns.
And so it was this weekend. Salt Lake City is warm, dry, sunny. It's a really nice place, in fact - clean and friendly and actually reasonably priced as well. I don't know for sure but I'd say it's probably one of the safest places in the United States, I know that for a European that doesn't say much, but it's something of note anyway. But this weekend it was, well if not actually cold, certainly not what you'd expect in summer. In fact, at it's best it was pleasant while much of the time it was colder than Bardufoss in Norway. And it rained rather a lot, too. Though not consistently. In other words, it was a pretty miserable place to be.
But of course we had some race action to warm things up. Starting off with, as you might expect, the first free practice. And on Friday the temperature, by the time the track got used for Superbikes, was fairly reasonable and the rain held off as well. Carlos Checa, who had been so utterly dominant here last year but left without a single point after electircal failures in both races, took charge of the session and lead from the front ahead of Camier and Biaggi on the factory Aprilias, Smrz on the Liberty Ducati, Fabrizio on the Suzuki and Rea on the Honda. The Ten Kate team must have been disappointed with the opening session, having tested here earlier in the week as their nominated circuit. The first qualifying session on Friday afternoon gave us a taste of things to come as the temperature dropped notably. The top three were unchanged, Checa leading the Aprilias, but the cooler, denser air perhaps worked with the Kawasaki of Tom Sykes as he charged through to fourth, ahead of Corser and Rea.
Saturday was a different story. In a number of ways. The most obvious was the fact that there were rivers running across the track and the temperature had plummeted, turning a fairly grippy circuit into a slick, unpredictable ice rink. The other change was on the leaderboard. Now obviously the wet times were going to be slower than Friday's dry qualifying, so there was no way that the results were going to change. But if the race turned out to be wet then it would be Aprilia's Leon Camier with the advantage, the young Englishman nearly a second faster than second placed Smrz, with Leon Haslam third and Checa fourth. The second free practice was a similar story, with Camier this time sitting ahead of Corser and Smrz with Haslam fourth and Laverty in fifth. But as long as the top twenty were decided then in truth all of this was fairly academic. It was Superpole that mattered.
Conditions continued to deteriorate as the afternoon went on, with Superpole starting in the rain and with an air temperature of just eight degrees Celsius. That is really pretty cold and nasty. Leon Haslam set the fastest time before being pipped by his team-mate Troy Corser who then out-did himself before in turn being surpassed by Biaggi. Twice. While Leon Camier crashed out after just three laps, fortunately having set a fast enough time to get through to the next session. Taking an early bath, though, were the Castrol Hondas of Jonathan Rea and Ruben Xaus, factory Suzuki mounted Michel Fabrizio, suffering with the 'flu, and Josh Waters on the beautiful Yoshimura Suzuki.
Superpole two again saw Corser take to the top of the timesheet before being usurped by Smrz. The BMW rider got back on top again, only to have Smrz beat his time twice to take the honours in this session. Leon Haslam, meantime, was caught out by the treacherous conditions and crashed out, failing to make the cut for the last session. He was in good company, though, as Camier also failed to qualify after running wide. And ahead of Camier, Tom Sykes made it three Brits not going through, with Nori haga the fastest non-qualifier and an honourary Brit as well.
The last session, then, saw the top spot shared between Corser, Smrz, Guintoli and Checa, with the Spaniard prevailing by the end. Max Biaggi crashed out, unhurt. The final grid lineup, then was Checa on pole from Smrz, Melandri and Laverty on the front row. Row two was headed bySylvain Guintoli from Troy Corser, Biaggi and Ayrton Badovini on the BMW Italia machine. Row three was Haga, Sykes, Camier and Haslam. James Toseland, by the way, still recovering from that badly broken right wrist, couldn't manage better than eighteenth. I should imagine that the cold and damp must have been playing havoc with quite a few people's knees, elbows and wrists as the aftermaths of various injuries made themselves felt. Toseland, being more recently injured than most, will have been feeling it hard.
Race day dawned dry and fairly bright, though still on the chilly side of pleasant. Suffice it to say that I really wouldn't have wanted to be a brolly girl. Then again, you wouldn't have wanted me to be a brolly girl, either, so perhaps that's no bad thing. Warmup, as we all know, is an academic exercise really, but it was interesting to see that the established order had been shaken up and stood on its head. Fastest man on track was Ruben Xaus, followed by Smrz, Haga, Sykes and Corser. Checa didn't even go on track, which was a surprise. Perhaps there was something wrong with his bike. Certainly we were all wondering what was going on.
When we lined up on the grid the track had enjoyed a couple of hours of extra sunshine, which meant that it had heated up ncely and actually had the chance of providing some grip. The rain looked as though it would hold off too, although the infield was essentially a swamp. At least the cold stopped the mosquitoes for a while. Lights out for Race One and it was Troy Corser who got a magnificent start to lead into the first corner with Haga slicing through to second ahead of Guintoli, Checa and Leon Camier. Surprisingly, lap one saw the departure of max Biaggi and Jonathan Rea, the latter complaining that he'd been "Simoncelli'd" while Biaggi protested his innocence as usual. Certainly the immediate post crash body language was plain to see - Rea was incandescent while Biaggi was quiet - but what actually happened will reman between the riders and the marshalls who saw it. Either way, two championship contenders dropped out of the fight.
Checa was soon on the move, using the superior power of the not really works but may as well be Althea Ducati to drive past Guintoli on the really not works Liberty Ducati. And while the Spaniard pushed forward, Troy Corser began to struggle as the BMW's perennial Achilles' heel, tyre wear, came into play and grip from the rear dropped right off. Haga soon yielded to Checa's onslaught, and it was only a matter of time before Corser did the same. Slightly further back, Leon Camier was having a push as well, climbing to second before running wide when the Aprilia dropped out of gear and rejoining back in seventh with it all to do again. Eugene Laverty was having a good run as well, comfortably ahead of his team-mate Melandri and taking the Yamaha to second place on a track he'd never seen before until being repassed by Guintoli. But the man really on the move was Jakub Smrz, the Czech Liberty Ducati rider making the privateer 1198 machine behave in a way that it really had no right to. From seventh at the end of the first lap he carved through the field, every pass textbook clean and smooth as you like. I do believe that the young man has finally found the consistency that his qualifying times suggested he needed, because in just a few laps he was through to the leading edge of the pack, dicing hard but carefully (remember Assen) with Guintoli for second place. Checa was long gone at the front, his lead unassailable provided the bike kept running, but behind him Smrz eventually prevailed over Guitoli after an excellent battle to make it a Ducati 1-2-3. Behind them, Leon Camier fought like a tiger, turning in a string of staggeringly fast laps to take fourth place back from Laverty. In the middle of the race, Ruben Xaus came in for an overtake on Fabrizio, entering the corner way too hot and torpedoing the unfortunate Suzuki rider, leaving both of them in the mud. Happily neither was hurt and Xaus immediately made his apologies for an easy mistake.
Tom Sykes, Ayrton Badovini, Leon Haslam and Nori Haga had an interesting and lengthy scrap as the Japanese rider dropped back to the midfield pack and the rest fought for places. Sykes demonstrated just how fast the Kawasaki is and just how hard a Yorkshireman can race when he's fired up. It wa sa tough but clean fight and a pleasure to watch, as the four riders showed just how much they trust each other not to do anything stupid, and it ran all the way to the wire with Sykes edging Badovini out and the privateer rider beating Haslam and Haga, who dropped off the back as his tyres also let him down. Melandri rounded out the top ten a long way back, while James Toseland rode a lonely and painful race to finish fifteenth and pick up the last point going.
A fabulous bit of post-race comedy took place as Checa went off the track to get a flag...and dropped the Ducati in the mud. Hardly embarrassing at all, I'm sure. You can see it here (MBT is not responsible for content on external links)
Race two saw Carlos Checa capitalise on his pole position, getting off the line first and staying ahead of Leon Camier, who made a brilliant start on the Aprilia to barge through to second place after a couple of corners, followed again by Eugene Laverty. Melandri made a better start this time, slotting in behind his team-mate, with Haga behind him, just ahead of Biaggi. Rea was behind the world champion, no doubt keeping a safe distance until he knew what the mercurial Italian was going to do. Troy Corser didn't get such a good start this time, languishing behind Rea for a couple of laps before starting to push harder and promptly losing the front when he decked the engine cases out on a raised kerb, exiting in a shower of mud. Almost simultaneously Ruben Xaus also went down on the same corner but a different part, rejoining in last place but keeping on going. And Nori Haga crashed out a couple of moments later in an apparently unrelated incident. Haga and Corser crashing out together probably halved the average age on the circuit, but I digress.
Lap two saw Biaggi leapfrog past Melandri into fourth place, while a couple more laps saw him pass laverty as well to take third. And at the front of the field, that's really where the excitement finished. Checa, Camier and Biaggi rode faultlessly. Clear track meant that Checa was able to capitalise on the Ducati's corner speed to run lap times that weren't far off qualifiers while the Aprilia pair didn't quite have the legs to catch him. And with Camier on such good form, Biaggi didn't have any answers for him today.
But further back it was a different story. A battle between Guintoli, Rea, Smrz and Sykes also enjoyed the occasional additional player as Badovini and Fabrizio joined in for a bit. Fabrizio went off to play nearer the front, but Badovini got stuck in and the five of them had another race long scrap that again went down to the wire. Clearly the Liberty Ducati guys hadn't got what they had in Race One, but then again neither had the factory BMW guys as Haslam didn't even make the top ten in a rac weekend that I suspect he would rather have forgotten.
So at the flag fourth place went to a deserving Eugene Laverty from Fabrizio, making up for the Race One debacle. Melandri was next, ahead of Guintoli, Smrz, Badovini and Sykes. Johnny Rea just got edged out into eleventh while James Toseland didn't start the second race, his injured wrist too painful and swollen to race safely.
The championship is young but carlos Checa looks like the man to beat this year. Mind you, a couple of years ago we said the same about Haga at this stage, while last year it was Haslam walking away with it. So let's just see what happens.
Misano in a couple of weeks. Should be good, but a certain Spanish Ducati rider was fastest there in testing...
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
3 Sylvain Guintoli (Ducati)
4 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
5 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
6 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
7 Ayrton Badovini (BMW)
8 Leon Haslam (BMW)
9 Nori Haga (Aprilia)
10 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Leon Camier (Aprilia)
3 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
4 Eugene Laverty (Yamaha)
5 Michel Fabrizio (Suzuki)
6 Marco Melandri (Yamaha)
7 Sylvain Guintoli (Ducati)
8 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
9 Ayrton Badovini (BMW)
10 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
after five rounds:
1 Carlos Checa 195
2 Marco Melandri 134
3 Max Biaggi 133
4 Eugene Laverty 109
5 Leon Haslam 95
6 Jonathan Rea 94
7 Michel Fabrizio 85
8 Leon Camier 91
9 Jakub Smrz 83
10 Sylvain Guintoli 54