With Ben Spies tearing up the World Superbike paddock and already being hotly tipped for the championship, talk has already started of a possible future in MotoGP. Though such talk is perhaps a little premature, just two rounds in the WSBK season, but it is clear that Spies has made a devastating impact, and looks almost certain to end up in MotoGP at some point in the future.
The question is, of course, just where he'll go. That he will stick with Yamaha goes without saying: In recent years, Yamaha has shown itself very astute at selecting riders with championship potential, but this very adroitness leaves the factory with something of a problem. With Valentino Rossi set to stay in MotoGP with Yamaha for at least two more years, and Jorge Lorenzo already his annointed successor, Yamaha's embarrassment of riches leaves them no room for Spies in the factory team.
Knowing that Yamaha will want to keep Spies on board, Tech 3 Yamaha boss Herve Poncharal has already launched a bid for the Texan's throttle hand. In an interview with the French automotive portal Caradisiac.com, Poncharal stated his hope of obtaining Spies' services for next season. "Frankly, Ben Spies has astounded me," Poncharal told Caradisiac.com. "It's obvious that he's an exceptional rider. I want to have him for 2010! We talked to him last year, just as we did with Simoncelli. Ben Spies has made a big impression so far, he has more than earned a place in MotoGP. It's obvious to me that he'll be there in 2010, and I hope it will be with us."
When John Hopkins announced that he would be joining the Stiggy Racing Honda team, it was generally assumed that this would mean the American would be riding alongside the existing riders, Leon Haslam and Roberto Rolfo. Hopper, it was thought, would bring enough money along in sponsorship to allow the team to run a third bike, allowing the team to expand.
It seems we were wrong. Today, Rolfo announced on his website that he would be leaving Stiggy Racing, due to "reasons beyond his control." Those reasons, the Stiggy team made clear, were to do with sponsorship issues: Clearly, John Hopkins had established sponsorship in place, and offered funds which Roberto Rolfo simply couldn't match.
Added to this were health worries over Rolfo's condition - the Italian broke a shoulder at the end of last year, and was advised by doctors to have surgery to correct the problem, advice he chose to ignore, preferring to go racing in 2009 - though Rolfo himself was adamant that these had not played any part in the move. "This has nothing to do with my physical condition, which is perfect at the moment," Rolfo stated.
But if Rolfo's condition was "perfect", his results were anything but. The Italian had scored just three points from the four races so far this season, and was yet to look like posing a challenge for the podium. The move leaves Rolfo without a ride, and with little prospect of one for 2009.
Hopkins arrival at Stiggy Honda, and Rolfo's departure, may have been messy, and rather uncomfortable for all parties concerned, but it can hardly have come as a surprise. The World Superbike field may be healthy with some 31 entries, but the financial crisis has hardly left the field untouched. Even in the relatively affordable world of WSBK, if you can afford to pay the piper, then you get to pay the tune. From Valencia onwards, it's John Hopkins, rather than Roby Rolfo, calling the shots.
During the deluge of stories about the Kawasaki catastrophe and the fate of Marco Melandri with the Hai-Karate, sorry, Hayate bike, there was always one question left unanswered: What about Hopper? For though the news was full of the fate of Kawasaki, Michael Bartholemy, Marco Melandri, Jorge Martinez, Carmelo Ezpeleta and a host of other characters, the one name that seemed always to be missing was that of John Hopkins.
That was mystifying for more than one reason, but most of all, because of money. Though Melandri is a big name in Italy, it was unclear what the Italian's role was in bringing sponsorship to the Kawasaki project. As for Hopper, on the other hand, it was an open secret that the Monster Millions came to Kawasaki through the link to the American. Though it was also said that once you took Hopkins' salary away, there wasn't a whole lot left to fill Kawasaki's coffers. It seemed that the combination of the more marketable Melandri and Hopper's PR faux pas at Misano last year - where the American went missing for a day - had swung the scales in Melandri's favor, leaving Hopkins out in the cold.
Fortunately for Hopkins, he wasn't left entirely out in the cold. There was one rumor that emerged a couple of times, and that was that Hopper was about to make the switch to World Superbikes. There were rumblings that Hopkins would replace Makoto Tamada at Paul Bird's Kawaski WSBK team, but as this flew in the face of Kawasaki's traditional demand for a Japanese rider, this was widely disregarded. But the one rumor that proved more difficult to quell was talk of Hopkins' joining Stiggy Racing, to ride a Honda alongside Leon Haslam.
For European veterans of World Superbikes, Ben Spies debut pole at Phillip Island was viewed with cautious interest but some scepticism. After Spies went on to win race 2 in Australia in convincing fashion, much of that had disappeared. But there was still some lingering doubt over whether Australia was a one-off, or whether Noriyuki Haga would build on commanding championship lead he took away from Phillip Island and reassert his authority in the process.
After all, Haga had taken a win and a second place in Australia starting from the fourth row of the grid, but in Qatar had put his Xerox Ducati on the front row. With a much better starting position, surely Haga would be able to go one better during the races at Losail?
It certainly looked that way from the start. As the bikes roared into Turn 1, Haga followed Max Biaggi on the Aprilia RSV4, the Italian taking the lead and lapping fast, smooth, and looking hard to pass. For the first three laps, Biaggi and Haga were joined by Biaggi's Aprilia team mate Shinya Nakano, the Guandalini Ducati of Jakub Smrz, and Ben Spies on the Yamaha Motor Italia bike, the front five building a comfortable lead over the chasing pack. But while Nakano and Smrz swapped places for third, Biaggi and Haga started to slip away, pulling a gap over the scrap for third.
At this point, Spies decided enough was enough. The Tennessee-born Texan swiftly passed both Nakano and Smrz and chased down the leading duo, closing a 1 second gap in just a couple of laps. Neither Nakano nor Smrz could follow, and the leading trio quickly dropped the Japanese rider and the Czech.
2009 Qatar World Superbike Round, Race 2 Results:
Full results of Race 1 of the Qatar World Superbike Round:
The second ever running of the new knockout Superpole in World Superbikes saw evidence that the teams had learned the importance that tactics would play in this new format. But it also showed that it was still possible to get it horribly wrong.
For the cutoff at the end of the first session saw some surprising names not make the cut, the biggest of which was Johnny Rea. The Ten Kate Honda man had been right on the pace all weekend, but misjudged what it would take to get through to the second session, and found himself just edged out by Troy Corser on the BMW S1000RR. Corser had had exactly the same thing happen to him at Phillip Island, and wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.
Rea was joined on the sidelines by two more big names: Both Leon Haslam and Max Neukirchner had been on the podium at Phillip Island, yet both the Briton and the German were unable to progress to the next session. Neukirchner has been complaining of a lack of rear grip here in Qatar, and clearly hadn't found a solution for Superpole. Tommy Hill was the last man to fail to make the cut, but as the Althea Honda man had had a big crash in the final free practice session.
Troy Corser may have made it through the first session, the Australian was not so lucky during the second session. He was eliminated along with BMW team mate Ruben Xaus, while the fortunes of the other new manufacturer on the grid were quite different. Max Biaggi led Superpole 2, getting well into the 1'57s to claim an - otherwise meaningless - fastest time of the session.
|1||19||B. Spies||USA||Yamaha YZF R1||1'59.064|
|2||66||T. Sykes||GBR||Yamaha YZF R1||1'59.374|
|3||7||C. Checa||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.470|
|4||9||R. Kiyonari||JPN||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.495|
|5||76||M. Neukirchner||GER||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||1'59.519|
|6||67||S. Byrne||GBR||Ducati 1098R||1'59.582|
|7||65||J. Rea||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.605|
|8||3||M. Biaggi||ITA||Aprilia RSV4||1'59.636|
|9||23||B. Parkes||AUS||Kawasaki ZX 10R||1'59.668|
|10||96||J. Smrz||CZE||Ducati 1098R||1'59.958|
|11||41||N. Haga||JPN||Ducati 1098R||1'59.969|
|12||56||S. Nakano||JPN||Aprilia RSV4||2'00.034|
|13||84||M. Fabrizio||ITA||Ducati 1098R||2'00.087|
|14||111||R. Xaus||ESP||BMW S1000 RR||2'00.095|
|15||55||R. Laconi||FRA||Ducati 1098R||2'00.217|
|16||11||T. Corser||AUS||BMW S1000 RR||2'00.261|
|17||91||L. Haslam||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.327|
|18||100||M. Tamada||JPN||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'00.439|
|19||33||T. Hill||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.440|
|20||44||R. Rolfo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.644|
|21||31||K. Muggeridge||AUS||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.803|
|22||71||Y. Kagayama||JPN||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.869|
|23||86||A. Badovini||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.388|
|24||99||L. Scassa||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.392|
|25||24||B. Roberts||AUS||Ducati 1098R||2'01.419|
|26||77||V. Iannuzzo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'01.914|
|27||25||D. Salom||ESP||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'02.158|
|28||15||M. Baiocco||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'02.397|
|1||19||B. Spies||USA||Yamaha YZF R1||1'58.886|
|2||65||J. Rea||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.177|
|3||3||M. Biaggi||ITA||Aprilia RSV4||1'59.499|
|4||66||T. Sykes||GBR||Yamaha YZF R1||1'59.632|
|5||7||C. Checa||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.731|
|6||96||J. Smrz||CZE||Ducati 1098R||1'59.755|
|7||84||M. Fabrizio||ITA||Ducati 1098R||1'59.812|
|8||67||S. Byrne||GBR||Ducati 1098R||1'59.821|
|9||9||R. Kiyonari||JPN||Honda CBR1000RR||1'59.937|
|10||11||T. Corser||AUS||BMW S1000 RR||1'59.954|
|11||23||B. Parkes||AUS||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'00.012|
|12||91||L. Haslam||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.117|
|13||55||R. Laconi||FRA||Ducati 1098R||2'00.193|
|14||56||S. Nakano||JPN||Aprilia RSV4||2'00.238|
|15||41||N. Haga||JPN||Ducati 1098R||2'00.254|
|16||71||Y. Kagayama||JPN||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.264|
|17||76||M. Neukirchner||GER||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.345|
|18||44||R. Rolfo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.374|
|19||33||T. Hill||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.390|
|20||111||R. Xaus||ESP||BMW S1000 RR||2'00.480|
|21||31||K. Muggeridge||AUS||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.738|
|22||100||M. Tamada||JPN||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'00.839|
|23||25||D. Salom||ESP||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.047|
|24||24||B. Roberts||AUS||Ducati 1098R||2'01.165|
|25||77||V. Iannuzzo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'01.560|
|26||86||A. Badovini||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.561|
|27||99||L. Scassa||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.607|
|28||15||M. Baiocco||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'02.663|
After Yamaha snatched provisional pole in the World Supersport qualifying, the factory put on a repeat in the first session of qualifying for World Superbikes. Rookie Ben Spies dominated the session, leading almost throughout, and confirming the Texan's form from Phillip Island. Ten Kate Honda have overcome their poor from from Australia, and their unhappy memories of last year, with Johnny Rea taking second place, ahead of team mate Carlos Checa in third, while Ryuichi Kiyonari, who was quick for most of the session, was eventually edged into 5th by Max Biaggi on the Aprilia.
The day was much less happy for Ducati. The factory team struggled all day, with Michel Fabrizio fastest in 8th, while Nori Haga is way down in 11th spot. Rubbing their noses in it are the two privateer bikes of Shakey Byrne and Jakub Smrz, both ahead of Fabrizio, while Haga also has Regis Laconi ahead of him.
Max Neukirchner, the man who tore up this morning's practice, finished the afternoon down in 13th, and well off the pace. He has a chance to redeem himself tomorrow, along with the rest of the field, when the twenty fastest riders go through to the afternoon's Superpole session.
|1||76||M. Neukirchner||GER||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.486|
|2||19||B. Spies||USA||Yamaha YZF R1||2'00.514|
|3||65||J. Rea||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.676|
|4||9||R. Kiyonari||JPN||Honda CBR1000RR||2'00.744|
|5||96||J. Smrz||CZE||Ducati 1098R||2'00.770|
|6||71||Y. Kagayama||JPN||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'00.945|
|7||56||S. Nakano||JPN||Aprilia RSV4||2'01.162|
|8||11||T. Corser||AUS||BMW S1000 RR||2'01.234|
|9||41||N. Haga||JPN||Ducati 1098R||2'01.261|
|10||66||T. Sykes||GBR||Yamaha YZF R1||2'01.280|
|11||67||S. Byrne||GBR||Ducati 1098R||2'01.457|
|12||44||R. Rolfo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'01.464|
|13||91||L. Haslam||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'01.658|
|14||7||C. Checa||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||2'01.698|
|15||23||B. Parkes||AUS||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'01.755|
|16||3||M. Biaggi||ITA||Aprilia RSV4||2'01.783|
|17||100||M. Tamada||JPN||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'02.204|
|18||84||M. Fabrizio||ITA||Ducati 1098R||2'02.317|
|19||33||T. Hill||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||2'02.529|
|20||111||R. Xaus||ESP||BMW S1000 RR||2'02.587|
|21||55||R. Laconi||FRA||Ducati 1098R||2'02.642|
|22||25||D. Salom||ESP||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'03.075|
|23||31||K. Muggeridge||AUS||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||2'03.363|
|24||77||V. Iannuzzo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||2'03.580|
|25||24||B. Roberts||AUS||Ducati 1098R||2'03.757|
|26||99||L. Scassa||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'03.773|
|27||86||A. Badovini||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'03.941|
|28||15||M. Baiocco||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||2'06.136|
Qatar is weird. A beautifully equipped circuit smack bang in the middle of the desert, with nothing but sand all around. The stands are almost invariably empty, except for a smattering of ex-pats looking for excitement and a bunch of fans flown in from Europe to warm their winter-chilled bones. Meanwhile the facilities are luxurious – well equipped garages, fitted with everything a team could wish for.
The track is as strange as the surroundings. Carefully designed to contain a little bit of everything, from slow hairpins to fast sweepers to a blindingly quick front straight, it still manages to feel vaguely disappointing, the vast, empty desert which surrounds it robbing it of all character.
Still, at least the World Superbike round isn't the freak show that MotoGP's night race is. But without the lighting, the Superbike paddock is left to face the sometimes withering heat of the Middle East. Weather at this time of year can be unpredictable – though not in the European sense of the word. It can be pleasantly mild, warm, or blazing hot, and the unrelenting sun can heat the track surface to 60 degrees C and above.
Add the blistering heat to the sand which blows unstoppably across the track, and you get a recipe for extreme tire wear. No matter what Pirelli bring to the track, they can't be certain the tires will last. And if the sand isn't abrading away the soft rubber on the tires, it's pooling in soft and slippery patches just where you don't want it.
The World Superbike paddock arrive in Qatar to face vastly different conditions to Phillip Island, the track they have just left behind. About the only thing the two circuits have in common is the wind. At each track, the wind brings its own hazards. At Phillip Island, the problem is seagulls, as Troy Corser found out prior to the race. While in Qatar the wind brings sand, and potentially lots of it. With the Arabian peninsula having been wracked by a spectacular sandstorm earlier this week, trouble could literally be just over the horizon for the World Superbike paddock.
More news from the ever-expanding cost cutting front. At the Phillip Island World Superbike round, the Superbike Commission followed in the steps of the Grand Prix Commission, heading down the road of rule changes aimed at reducing expenditure. And like MotoGP, the first casualty was Friday morning practice. As of the Valencia round of World Superbikes in early April, Friday morning practice will be scrapped for the Supersport and Superstock 1000 Cup, while free practice for the Superbike class will be moved to the afternoon. Technical inspection has also been moved from Thursday to Friday morning.
Unlike MotoGP, where the savings came mainly in the form of fewer engine rebuilds, the savings for Superstock and Supersport will come mainly in fuel, tires and crash damage. Both Superstock and Supersport engines regularly last multiple races, with some even lasting for an entire season. And though fuel and tires are fairly low budget items, in the low budget racing format of Superstock and Supersport, these measures could provide real savings.
More drastic than the changes announced at the meeting in Phillip Island is the subject of discussions for the next meetings of the Superbike Commissions. The FIM press release states that practice restrictions and engine limitations are to be discussed next. With limited potential for tuning and parts development, extended engine life for World Superbike machines may not produce the need for extra durability development that it is doing in MotoGP. But it remains to be seen whether such limitations will produce actual savings, or merely lead the teams to spend their money in other areas instead.