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brits 6 - rest of world 0

All three podium places filled by british riders in both rounds
Sunday 27th july 2003

Words & Pictures: Simon Bradley

Oh the joys of an English summer. Qualifying for the all-important European round of the World Superbikes Championship was a whirlwind of beautiful sunshine, light breezes and...torrential rain. As a result, nobody knew where they were supposed to be on the grid and few people had even a clue as to what the actual race day was going to be like. New teams, or teams with new bikes like Ducati Fila and Foggy Petronas, were really suffering as they struggled to get any useful data on the circuit at all, but then things started to dry out and everyone began grinning again.

Then, with 5 minutes or so of qualifying practice to run, it started to rain. By Superpole, the track was awash, and in atrocious conditions everyone did brilliantly to stay on at all, but the grid makeup was not exactly usual for an SBK race. Pole setter John Reynolds (British Superbike) had done the business, the first time in as long as I can remember, by the way, that a four cylinder bike has been on pole. Next to him was the resurgent Chris Walker, with Shane Byrne to Walker's right being the second British Superbike rider on the front row. Regis Laconi qualified fourth while Michael Rutter and Sean Emmett, both from the local series, joined Xaus and Toseland on row two. Neil Hodgson, having had a torrid time in Superpole, was back in 11th, barely getting onto the third row.

Still, a far wiser man than me once said that the race isn't over 'til the chequered flag, and although lots of other people have dragged that quote out since, it's still true. Despite a few spatters of rain first thing, come the mid-morning race start the sun was trying to shine and the track was most certainly dry.

Regis Laconi made a blinding start in race one - so much so that everyone watching expected a stop-go penalty for a jumped start - but got mugged almost immediately by Reynolds and Byrne, who proceeded to set a crippling pace and extend a healthy lead. By lap 11 they had built an almost unheard of 5 second gap, but then a couple of really lurid rear end slides made Reynolds drop back, fearing an oil leak, before retiring, still in second place, with what transpired to be a failed slipper clutch. Behind them, an almighty tussle had built up between Walker, Xaus, Laconi and Hodgson, which continued until the occasional puff of smoke from Xaus' turned into something rather more substantial and the unfortunate Spaniard retired. Further down the field Toseland and Lavilla were beating each other up on every bend until the young Ducati rider finally managed to break away from the still injured Suzuki pilot and give himself some clear air.

Up at the front, Shakey Byrne rode his Monstermob Ducati in textbook style, building a colossal and completely unchallenged lead . Which was rather more than could be said for the snarling, slobbering pack of riders behind him. Until the last few laps, you'd have been pushed to separate the next four, and crossing the line Walker trailed Hodgson by just two tenths of a second, with Laconi less than a second behind. Sean Emmett who, you may remember, has recently parted company with Renegade Ducati and has literally just joined the ETI team with an old bike and no real setup time, rode to a storming 6th place, three tenths of a second ahead of James Toseland who was followed less than half a second later by Gregorio Lavilla.

If race one had us on the edge of our seats, race two made us spill our coffee and dribble ketchup down our fronts. For a start, all Hodgson had to do was get eight points more than Xaus and he'd have won the championship. Plus, of course, all this local talent that was showing just why we're so proud of the British Superbike championship. And the weather had remained fine to boot.

Sean Emmett made a cracking start, spoiled only by the fact that it was rather obviously before the lights changed, to take an early and commanding lead from the renewed Reynolds/Byrne battle. This time the two local championship riders were joined by their old mate Chris Walker and wildman Xaus - definitely trying to make a point - as well as by James Toseland and Neil Hodgson. Emmett's inevitable stop-go penalty was ignored (which was probably also inevitable) and was followed, of course, by the equally inevitable black flag and disqualification. All credit to the guy, though - he rode at a fantastic pace, he didn't hurt anyone's championship hopes and he kept his sponsor's names in the limelight for a good few laps before coming in. Nonetheless, his retirement left an eight wheeled monster with four riders circulating so closely that it was rare to see a camera shot that didn't include them all. The pace was phenomenal, and this time nobody was really able to make the break. Indeed, running in isolation it is likely that all the riders could go quicker as the pack was caught quite convincingly by Gregorio Lavilla, although he wasn't able to get past.

When the pace is as intense as this it isn't unusual for someone to take a trip to the beach, and unfortunately the first retirement this time out was Walker, who lost the front going into Clearways and retired rather forcibly. Happily the ever popular rider was unhurt, as was Michael Rutter who exited a few laps later.

Ridiculous amounts of tyre smoking and sidewise riding from Xaus and Toseland took place in the latter stages, but despite pushing hard Xaus was unable to close up with the leading trio although he was able to remain ahead of Hodgson, whose challenge seemed to fade towards the end of the race - a tactical move to score safe points being the reason, I suspect, for Hodgson's relatively pedestrian progress. But up at the front things were anything but pedestrian as Reynolds and Byrne fought tooth and nail in a replay of the BSB round a few weeks ago which saw them take a win apiece. This time, though, Byrne managed to hold on to take an impressive and well earned double, beating Reynolds over the line by just a tenth of a second. Toseland eased off on the last lap, coming in a second and a half later with a similar gap back to Xaus in fourth. Hodgson came in fifth, just under a second adrift of his team mate but with a comfortable four second cushion over sixth placed Lavilla. An honourable mention is definitely due to young Leon Haslam - just 19 years old and riding his third ever superbike race the lad managed an outstanding 10th place in the second round. Someone to watch for, perhaps?

So at the end of all that, Hodgson simply has to score 10 points more than Xaus anywhere to guarantee winning the championship. I'd go get those tee-shirts printed for next season now, and avoid the rush...



Race 1

1 S Byrne, Ducati
2 N Hodgson, Ducati
3 C Walker, Ducati
4 R Laconi, Ducati
5 S Emmett, Ducati
6 J Toseland, Ducati
7 G Lavilla, Suzuki
8 M Rutter, Ducati
9 P-FChili, Ducati
10 Y Kagayama, Suzuki

Race 2

1 S Byrne, Ducati
2 J Reynolds, Suzuki
3 J Toseland, Ducati
4 R Xaus, Ducati
5 N Hodgson, Ducati
6 G Lavilla, Suzuki
7 P-FChili, Ducati
8 R Laconi, Ducati
9 Y Kagayama, Suzuki
10 L Haslam, Ducati

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