Imola is generally regarded as one of the finest circuits in the world on which to race and ride. It's picuresque, set as it is in the middle of a park. It has a fantastic atmosphere, which goes hand in hand with it being in Italy, just down the road from Bologna. It's fast, with a couple of decent length straights, but manages to be technical as well with a few interesting complexes, a couple of really tight chicanes and some very challenging elevation changes which can have riders facing both long uphill drags and fairly scary downhill sections which challenge braking and bravery in equal amounts. But there is one distinct disadvantage with this otherwise idyllic place. It's been developed to accomodate Formula One. And that means massive runoff areas, huge, solid fences and very limited access for photographers. It's also kind of liiting for the general public, too, should you find yourself visiting.
Free practice isn't that big a deal in the scheme of things, but it does give the riders a chance to remember (or, in some cases, to discover) where the circuit goes, gives the teams a chance to try some settings and gives the assembled pundits a chance to second guess what's going to happen in the race. Usually the latter is well wide of the mark. The first session was headed up by Ayrton Badovini on the BMW Italia machine from Guintoli on the Effenbert Ducati and Carlos Checa on the Althea Ducati. Imola, as you might expect, seems to suit the locally built vee twins. Session two, coming after the first qualifying session, is generally more meaningful, and was headed by Checa from Biaggi on the factory Aprilia and Tom Sykes on the factory Kawasaki. This session also saw crashes from Melandri, Laverty and Canadian Brett McCormick on the fourth Effenbert Ducati. Happily no injuries resuted from the crashes, though the post session briefing may have been more painful.
Qualifying is another matter, of course. Tom Sykes stamped his authority on proceedings early in the day, pipped by a tenth of a second in the last moments of session one by Jakub Smrz on the second Effenbert Ducati, Joan Lascorz on the other factory Kawaaki and Max Biaggi who came in a thousandth of a second faster. But session two saw the Yorkshireman take, and retain, control with a blstering lap that was well over a tenth faster than second placed Sylvain Guintoli who in turn edged out his neighbour, BMW rider Leon Haslam. The provisional front row was completed by Carlos Checa, just over a third of a second behind Sykes. Then we had Melandri, Laverty, Camier and Smrz ahead of Lascorz, Rea, Biaggi and Zanetti on the PATA Ducati. Niccola Canepa was next, from Maxime Berger and Badovini, with David Giugliano as the last Superpole qualifier. Chaz Davies, Fabrizio, John Hopkins, David Salom, Mark Aichison, Brett McCormick, Hiroshi Aoyama, Luis Mercado and Lorenzo Alfonsi all failed to make the cut for Superpole. It's worth noting that Davies and Hopkins are both effectively on their first race of the season after injuring themselves before, or during, the Phillip Island round, while Alfonsi is a new entrant to the championship, riding for the ProRide team who did not take part in pre-season testing here.
Superpole one saw the surprise departure of Leon Camier, the Suzuki reacting poorly to a quaifying tyre. Behind Camier on the fourth row we have Ayrton Badovin, while ahead of him the Ducati mounted Canepa and Berger. The second session left the third row of the grid made up by Zanetti, Smrz, Laverty and Giuliano, which left the final eight to fight out for the front two rows. Sylvain Guintoli nailed his colours to the mast early on, though to be fair his was the fastest out lap of the session and therefore the fastest by default. Max Biaggi recorded the first properly quick lap, a full ten seconds faster than the Frenchman's earlier time, while Joan Lascorz went nearly half a second quicker, demoting the Aprilia rider just a second later. Guintoli then got himself back into the running on a qualifier with a seemingly unbeatable time, thirteen seconds faster than Lascorz, only to be robbed by Tom Sykes in the dying seconds of the session, the British Kawasaki rider going half a second faster to take an new lap record at the same time, as well as taking his second pole in a row. Jonathan Rea had a huge crash on the last lap of the session, emerging sore but fundamentally unhurt.
So the front two rows looked like this. Tom Sykes half a second ahead of Guintoli who in turn was two tenths ahead of Checa, with Haslam five hundredths behind. Row two had Biaggi, who apparently also had a problem with a qualifying tyre, ahead of Melandri, Rea and Lascorz. All the top eight riders were within a second of pole.
After three days of glorious sunshine and clear blue skies, race day dawned grey, foggy and distinctly chilly. Warmup doesn't mean anything at all, but in this case it was a literal proposition as riders were on track trying to get soke heat into themselves as well as checking their settings.
Race One saw a lightning start from Tom Sykes, capitalising on his pole position, while Max Biaggi also got a scorcher to come through into third place behind Checa. A bit further down the pack, Leon Camier was pushing hard and making up places when he clipped the back of Joan Lascorz's Kawasaki and pitched himself off into the gravel. The drama continued on the next lap as Leon Haslam, Sylvain Guintoli and Max Biaggi were all bunched up coming into the first turn - the infamous Tamburello. It seemed that both Guintoli and Haslam made a move on Biaggi, without much success, but Haslam then kept the pressure on Guintoli with a block pass that worked all too well. Both of them ran wide onto the gravel, Haslam rejoining and narrowly missing Eugene Laverty while Guintoli lost the front of the Ducati and got spat off. The bike continued across the track and skittled Chaz Davies, who was left with nowhere to go apart from upwards. Fortunately nobody was really hurt, but it wasn't pretty. Leon Camier managed to remount but just continued the lap to avoid the long walk back to the pits, the bike being too badly damaged to safely continue at race pace.
Pro Ride Honda's new signing Lorenzo Alfonsi fried the clutch of the CBR1000RR at the start, pulling away very slowly and running well off the pace. With no chance of getting back to a competitive state and, frankly, being so slow that he posed a danger to other riders, Alfonsi retired at the end of the first lap. Leon Haslam, in the meantime, had lost surprisingly little time in his little excursion and was now riding the wheels off the BMW in an attempt to regain lost ground. By the fifth lap he was back in contention, hunting down third placed Biaggi, while Sykes and Checa had a slight gap in the front. Behind Haslam, Jonathan Rea, sore and battered after yesterday's highside, held off a determined and impressive Lorenzo Zanetti on the PATA Ducati, Maxime Berger on one of the many Effenbert Liberty Ducatis, Ayrton Badovini and Michel Fabrizio on the pair of BMW Italia machines. A couple more laps and while things stayed fairly static at the front apart from some gaps getting rather smaller, Eugene Laverty had recovered from an earlier trauma and hauled himself back up to seventh while Marco Melandri was also on the move, climbing to tenth.
By this stage Carlos Checa really ahd the hammer down, and turned in the fastest lap of the race on lap eight, getting perilously close to Sykes. There's no doubt that there were certainly some places on the circuit where the Kawasaki had the edge, but it's equally true that there were more places where the opposite applied.
Lap ten saw Michel Fabrizio go straight on into pit lane instead of taking the chicane at the beginning of the start/finish straight. It looked as though he had suffered a brake failure, as reather than doing a ride through as one might expect he simply killed the engine and rolled straight into his pit box.
The inevitable happened on lap twelve, when Checa dived down the inside of Sykes to take the lead. And on the next lap he cemented his position by turning in a new lap record. behind, Haslam was now right with Biaggi and harrying him constantly. Checa just carried on pulling away, while Haslam showed his mettle, riding straight through an enormous slide and wobble without losing time at all. Biaggi also had a big moment as the front of the Aprilia lifted on a bump and the whole bike shimmied violently. It took Haslam until lap seventeen to get past, and Biaggi fought back immediately, retaking the place and then losing it again on the next corner. This time the English rider made it stick and managed to eke out the smallest lead by the end of the lap. In fact, both Haslam and Biaggi were now starting to close down Tom Sykes, while behind them Rea succumbed to the pressure from melandri and Lascorz, yielding seventh. Biaggi outdragged Haslam on the next lap before being firmly slapped back into his place at Tamburello, while Tom Sykes had not only defended his cushion from the pursuing pair but had also closed slightly on Checa. But that's all. Checa took a safe but well deserved win from Sykes, with Haslam third. Biaggi stayed ahead of his team-mate Laverty, who had ridden an extraordinary race to recover from the near disaster of lap two, with new boy Zanetti a credible sixth from Melandri, Lascorz, Rea and Canepa.
Race two was a different matter entirely. For a start the sun was out and it was a good few degrees warmer, both on and off track. An earlier red flag and subsequent restart in the Superstock 1000 race hadn't delayed things but had resulted in a line of chalk dust across the start/finish straight. Max Biaggi got the holeshot this time, leading into Tamburello but being bested by Sykes before the corner was over. Eugene Laverty also got a fabulous start, fighting for third place with Checa who came out on top and also passed Biaggi on the same lap. Haslam and Guintoli were in fifth and sixth respectively while Melandri hade made a rather better start and was in sixth. Lap two saw the early retirement of Fabrizio, who again rode into the pits, while Checa was pushing so hard that he ran wide and kicked up masses of mud on the exit to a corner. It didn't affect him at all but will have been nasty for those following. Sykes, meantime, had his head down and bum up and was really going for it, extending a couple of seconds lead over Checa and the following pack. Checa's team-mate Guigliano passed Melandri on lap three, while Canepa got by the slightly battered Leon Camier. And up at the front, Biaggi managed to close the gap on Checa to start the battle for second.
On lap four, Haslam passed Laverty to take fourth, while Melandri repassed Giugliano for seventh. Laverty and Guintoli were fighting hard for fifth, allowing the Italian BMW rider to close on them. Guintoli again had a big moment, running onto the gravel and dropping to fifteenth. New lap, new lap record. This time it was Leon Haslam taking the honours as he again sought to close the gap to the podium. And the leading four had pulled away from laverty, who in turn was making space ahead of the rest of the field. Leon Haslam broke his new lap record next time around while Checa and Biaggi scrapped for second, slowing both of them down and allowing the brit ahead of them to draw further clear while the Brit behind closed. Biaggi go past Checa on lap seven, while John Hopkins lost the struggle for fitness and retired on lap eight. To be fair, the American has only just got back onto a bike, and Imola is a very physical circuit. It was Tom Sykes' turn to set a new lap record this time, while Checa and Biaggi swapped places again. Biaggi repassed Checa on the start/finish straight, towing Haslam past with him though the Spaniard managed to retake third from haslam at Tamburello. Just to prove a point, he then went on to pass Biaggi and immediately give himself some breathing space as the Italian also had to fend off Leon Haslam's attentions. A couple of laps later and Checa was reeling in Tom Sykes at a prodigious rate, passing him on lap fifteen. A couple of laps earlier Haslam had blasted past Biaggi after a couple of laps of cat and mouse as in race one. Laverty had yielded to Melandri and Giugliano to drop to seventh, while Hiroshi Aoyama had encountered a technical problem and retired. On lap eighteen Niccolo Canepa crashed at the chicane marking the beginning of the start/finish, his bike missing Jakub Smrz by a ridiculously fine margin.
So at the chequered flag, Carlos Checa took another fairly comfortable win from Tom Sykes and Leon Haslam with Max Biaggi fourth to make the top four unchanged between races. Jonathan Rea overcame pain and discomfort to take a solid fifth from Eugene Laverty, with Jakub Smrz a good seventh, Leon Camier a slightly disappointing eighth, lascorz ninth and Melandri closing out the top ten.
Checa has now won three out of the first four races - in fact he hasn't finished a race in anything other than first place. Which does say something for the prodigious talent the man has, as well as the extremely well developed bike.
But the season is yet young; with a total of
fourteen rounds this year there's an awful long way to go
and there are realistically at least half a dozen riders in with a real shot at the title. Assen is the next round, in three weeks. Maybe it won't suit the Ducatis as well. Perhaps the four cylinder bikes will be able to make use of their superior power down the long straights. Or perhaps the tight technical sections will still suit the Bologna vee twins. We'll see soon enough...
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
3 Leon Haslam (BMW)
4 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
5 Eugene Laverty (Aprilia)
6 Marco Melandri (BMW)
7 Joan Lascorz (Kawasaki)
8 Lorenzo Zanetti (Ducati)
9 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
10 Niccolo Canepa (Ducati)
1 Carlos Checa (Ducati)
2 Tom Sykes (Kawasaki)
3 Leon Haslam (BMW)
4 Max Biaggi (Aprilia)
5 Jonathan Rea (Honda)
6 Eugene Laverty (Aprilia)
7 Jakub Smrz (Ducati)
8 Leon Camier (Suzuki)
9 Joan Lascorz (Kawasaki)
10 Marco Melandri (BMW)
after two rounds:
1 Carlos Checa 75
2 Max Biaggi 71
3 Tom Sykes 69
4 Leon Haslam 47
5 Marco Melandri 46
6 Jonathan Rea 40
7 Jakub Smrz 30
8 Eugene Laverty 29
9 Sylvain Guintoli 21
10 Maxime Berger 20