and here we are . . . again

SBK Phillip Island, Australia, 26th February 2012

Words: Simon bradley, pics as credited

Pro-Ride are back with Rafaele de Rosa (Pic: Pro-Ride/Kel Edge)Phillip Island, just off the coast of Melbourne in Southern Australia, has long been the opening round of the season. Something to do with it being the end of their summer, I suspect. Anyway, this year was no change, making the picturesque and challenging circuit the longest uninterrupted use on the Superbike calendar - every year since 1994, though at first it took place at the other end of the season to make the most of the Aussie spring instead.

There have been some changes during the closed season, but not many, really. You can read about the team changes here, but the only important rule change is the introduction of the single bike rule. The what? The single bike rule. In an attempt to reduce, or at least put a lid on, the ever spiralling cost of participating in this or any other championship, InFront and the FIM have introduced a rule that says each rider can only have one bike ready to ride. What this means is that while before the better funded teams all had two bikes for each of their riders, built and ready to go, now there can only be one. They can have another in what they call sub assembly, which basically means it's a chassis complete and ready to go, just needing the engine bolting in. It's a good idea in theory, as it should significantly reduce the spares load for each team, but we'll have to see what happens in practice.

Now this new rule means that if a rider falls off in a session there's no rushing back to the pits, getting on the spare bike and carryng on. Because there isn't a spare bike. And the original may take until the end of the session to be returned to the pits, especially if the rider or team isn't a favourite with the local management. Potentially.

Anyhow. After a couple of days pre-season testing the teams were generally well dialled in and already equipped with some baseline settings. Now the weather changed, which doesn't help much. But it did give us some clues as to who was likely to do what, and there were precious few surprises. However, pre season testing isn't without risk. John Hopkins headed back to the US after breaking his hand in a big highside on the first day. His place would be taken by Josh Brookes, drafted in from the Tyco TAS Suzuki BSB team especially. Leon Haslam crashed hard on the second morning, breaking his right leg a little above the ankle, while Eugene Laverty also had a big crash, breaking his left hand after losing his brakes and having to step off the bike at over three hundred km/h (or about 185mph if you prefer). Haslam elected to have surgery locally and had two forty four milllimetre bolts put in, going through both the tibia and fibia, which made the break stable enough that racing became relatively risk free. Though bloody painful, we suspect. And Laverty too decided that he was still able to race, for which we salute him.

Carlos Checa didn't take pole but still looked incredibly strong all weekend (Pic: Althea Ducati)So qualifying got underway with, as you might expect, still relatively few surprises. The first free session saw Checa top the timesheets from Biaggi and Smrz, with the resurgent kawasaki ZX10 of Tom Sykes in fourth. The top elev riders were inside a second of Checa's opening shot, which boded well for the rest of the weekend. The first timed session was a slightly different story, with Honda's Jonathan Rea leading from Smrz, Davide Giugliano on the second Althea Ducati and Checa again. The second timed session saw yet another change at the top as Tom Sykes rocketed past Biaggi in the last moments of the session, with Checa third ahead of Smrz.

Superpole was cancelled following the tragic death of seventeen year old local rider Oscar McIntyre in the Australian 600cc Superstock race run as part of the support programme on Saturday. And that meant that the grid lined up with Sykes taking pole from Biaggi, Checa and Smrz. Sylvain Guintoli headed row two from Leon Camier, making his debut on the Crescent Suzuki, Niccolo Canepa on the Red Devil Ducati and Jonathan Rea. Maxime Berger led row three on the third Effenbert Ducati, with Michel Fabrizio alongside on the leading BMW Italia machine. Then the injured Laverty with Haslam, who needed to use crutches to get to his bike, a gutsy twelfth.

Warmup doesn't mean anything, but for the sake of completeness I'll tell you that Checa was fastest from Sykes, Fabrizio and Lascorz on the second Kawasaki. Told you it didn't mean anything.

Race One started with a cloudy sky and stiff breeze. Indeed, it looked as though it might even rain, though it was still very warm. But the good thing was that the track temperature was similar to the air - without direct sunlight to heat it up things seemed rather more manageable. Lights out and Tom Sykes made the most of his pole position, comprehensively out-dragging Biaggi and Checa into turn one and comfortably maintaining his lead around the first lap. Marco Melandri made an outstanding start from way down the grid to complete the first lap in ninth place while Jonathan Rea jumped a complete row to finish the first lap in fourth place. Raffaele de Rosa, Pro-Ride Honda's rider, failed to start after a freak accident saw him with a broken handlebar on the grid when something snagged as the technicians removed the paddock stand before the warmup lap.

It was like this for a while, and the podium position could easily have gone to any of these three... (Pic: InFront)Lap two saw Melandri still carving through the field while Checa closed up on Sykes, with Biaggi close behind. And the third lap saw the World Champion slip past the Kawasaki and immediately start to capitalise on it. And a couple of laps later Biaggi was able to follow, blasting past on the straight to show just how ridiculously fast the Aprilia is. Then the unthinkable happened. For the first time in eighteen months we saw Carlos Checa make an unforced mistake. With a clear lead over Biaggi, powering through the final turn the Spaniard overdid it a little and the Ducati snapped into a vicious and completely uncatchable highside that wa sso violent it actually appeared to rip the rear tyre off the bike as it threw Checa into the gravel. Mercifully Checa was unhurt, but his race was completely shot. And with Biaggi and the Aprilia in a class of their own, the result was now a foregone conclusion. Behind the Italian, Sykes and Guintoli got into an almighty scrap which lasted the rest of the race. They were joined, first by Smrz who regrouped after a dismal start, then by Melandri, who fought his way through the field to fourth place by lap five. Smrz dropped off the group again but Melandri kept pushing and eventually got past both Sykes and Guintoli to take second. Kawasaki and Ducati fought hard until the end, but this time it was Guintoli who took the last podium slot from Sykes and Smrz. Fabrizio was a little way back in sixth, ahead of the Honda pair of Rea and Aoyama. Superstock champion Giugliano took ninth after running Leon Camier off the track in a spectacularly amateurish and scrappy dive down the inside at MG which left him unable to stop or turn in time and saw him run so wide that Aoyama was able to get inside him at the same time, with local boy Bryan Staring rounding out the top ten on the Pedercini Kawasaki. Lorenzo Zanetti on the PATA Ducati just pipped Leon Haslam who struggled for grip throughout the race.

The gap between races was a busy one for the Althea Ducati team as they worked like demons to get Checa's bike back into shape. Of course, what that actually meant was they had to build his second bike, which they were able to do. Just. And the sun had come out, raising track temperature considerably and so possibly changing the game for everyone as well.

Max Biaggi rode like a man posessed to complete an astonishing comeback. (Pic: Aprilia)Race two saw everyone get a clean start, including de Rosa this time. Again Sykes made the most of his pole position to take the lead and close off Biaggi's attempted dive down the inside into Turn One. Unfortunately, the Italina overcooked it and clipped the back of the Kawasaki, knocking his front brake lever out of the way and forcing him to take to the grass. An impressive bit of very high speed off roading saw the Aprilia rider regain control befoe either hitting the barriers or cutting back onto the track at Turn three, and he was able to rejoin. Dead last, over eight seconds behind Sykes. Jonathan Rea made a great start again, slipping into second place ahead of Checa while Leon Haslam, broken leg and all, was in an astonishing fourth place by the eld of the first lap. Before the race started the young Englishman had said that he had been struggling with bike setup, not his injuries, and that if they could get it right then he'd be able to do better. It rather looked as though he'd not been bluffing. Behind him, Guintoli had made another solid start and was ahead of Canepa and Lascorz, who had also done rather better this time around. Indeed the only person who really seemed to have a bad start was Leon Camier, who ended the first lap in fourteenth place after getting boxed in at the start and then wrecked his tyres trying to make up time in the next phase of the race.

Max Biaggi, meantime, was riding like a man posessed. From twenty fourth at the end of lap one he climbed to twenty second on lap two. Then twenty first, nineteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth, eleventh, tenth by lap ten, sixth by the end of lap eleven. The next few places were a lot harder, but lap nineteen saw the Italian slot into second place ahead of Rea, a remarkable achievement. Marco Melandri was on the move again as well, joining battle with Guintoli the battered Laverty and Haslam in the battle for eighth by lap nine. Guintoli exited stage left on the next lap, unhurt but definitely out. Lascorz too went for an early gravel bath, as did Mark Aitcheson, though the latter's departure made little difference at the top of the table. Melandri managed to pass Laverty and Haslam, but while the Irish Aprilia rider had little response, Haslam fought back and reclaimed his place. With the various crashes and retirements that put the extremely gutsy Englishman in fifth place, which is where he finished. Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea scrapped for the majority of the race, Sykes winning out in the final drag to the line as the Kawasaki seemed slightly gentler on its tyres than the Honda which was smoking out of every turn.

So the end result was a comfortable win for Checa, who had taken the lead from the battling Sykes and Rea on the fourth lap and simply made the most of a clear track to put in a string of cripplingly fast laps and build a buffer. Biaggi took a well deserved and frankly astounding second place. While much of the credit must go to the engineers who made a bike so fast that it went past the factory BMWs on the Doohan Straight as though they were standard productionmachines, it's fair to say that without Biaggi's considerable talent that power would be somewhat wasted. Tom Sykes took the final podium step by just six hundredths of a second from Rea, while Leon Haslam held off Melandri, finishing over half a second clear, with Maxime Berger a tenth of a second further back in seventh. Eugene Laverty managed to resist Hiroshi Aoyama's advances to retain eighth place, while the top ten was rounded out by Niccolo Canepa.

This round has shown us that really the championship is pretty open, but the Aprilia/Biaggi combination is going to take some beating. The V4 is almost unbelievably fast, and the Italian is able to make the most of the power, the handling and the fact that the bike was effectively built around him. Imola is the next round, and it's a very different circuit to Phillip Island. Let's see how things pan out there.

 Man of the match has to go to Leon Haslam - an outstanding effort. (Pic: Arai/Phoenix Distribution)

Race One

1 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
2 Marco Melandri (BMW)
3 Sylvain Guintoli (Ducati)
4 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
5 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
6 Michel Fabrizio (BMW)
7 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
8 Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
9 Davide Giugliano (Ducati)
10 Bryan Staring (Kawasaki)

Race Two

1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
3 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
4 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
5 Leon Haslam (BMW)
6 Marco Melandri (BMW)
7 Maxime Berger (Ducati)
8 Eugene Laverty (Aprilia)
9 Hiroshi Aoyama (Honda)
10 Niccolo Canepa (Ducati)

Championship Standing after one round:

1 Max Biaggi 45
2 Marco Melandri 30
3 Tom Sykes 29
4 Carlos Checa 25
5 Jonathan Rea 22
6 Sylvain Guintoli 16
7 Jakub Smrz 16
8 Leon Haslam 15
9 Hiroshi Aoyama 15
10 Maxime Berger 12



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