After Friday practice at Assen, and even after the morning session, having a Ducati on pole seemed like a pretty safe bet. After all, Jakub Smrz had ended every session before Superpole in either first or second. The Effenbert Liberty rider looked just about unstoppable at Assen, but once the dust settled after Superpole it was a different Ducati on pole, the Althea machine of Carlos Checa.
That can hardly come as a surprise: Checa has started from pole for every World Superbike race of the year so far, so extending his reign to Assen should come as no surprise at all. Checa was clinical in his approach, scraping through Superpole 1 on a race tire, before dropping the hammer in Superpole 2 and 3. He secured pole on just his second flying lap in the final session, and returned to the pits to rest on his laurels. Nobody had the measure of the Spaniard.
Smrz still managed to bag 2nd spot on the grid, but the Effenbert Liberty rider was disappointed not to have taken pole. The team lost their collective nerve during SP1, with Smrz languishing dangerously close to the cutoff point, and so they stuck in one of the two qualifying tires each rider has for the three Superpole sessions and ensured their progression to Superpole 2. The penalty for that gamble left Smrz without a qualifier for the final session, but the softer race tire was still good enough for 2nd.
Eugene Laverty secured the 3rd spot on the grid, and he would have been joined by his teammate Marco Melandri if the Italian hadn't made a mistake on his second run out of the pits. A crash left Melandri on the end of the second row, directly behind Noriyuki Haga, who had secured the final spot on the front row. Asked if he was pleased to be ahead of the factory Aprilias, Haga waved the question away, saying what was important was to have a good race for the fans back in his native earthquake-stricken country of Japan.
After finding a solution for the engine braking problems which had slowed the Ulsterman on Friday, Johnny Rea was back on the pace on Saturday. The Castrol Honda rider entered Superpole the fastest rider after qualifying, but the scorching pace by the Ducatis left Rea to start from 5th on the grid. Rea has Max Biaggi beside him, the reigning World Champion looking calm and concentrated, leaving the distractions of his weekend in Donington behind him, while Kawasaki's Tom Sykes continues his forward progress by securing a start from 7th.
For the race, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Carlos Checa is looking ominous. The Spaniard was calm and analytic speaking to the media after Superpole, explaining that the key to the race would be tire choice. A lot of riders have still to make a choice between the softer and harder compound Pirellis, and had spent time during practice experimenting with the two options. The softer tire was clearly quicker, but Checa did not believe that they would last the distance, with grip dropping off drastically after 8 to 10 laps.
Instead, Checa had quickly dismissed the softer option, and concentrated on race setup with the harder tire. "It will be close for the first 8 laps," Checa said, "but we will see after that." He would not be worried if he is down on pace early, as he firmly believes he has the pace to last to the end. "I believe in our pace," Checa said.
So who can challenge the Althea Ducati rider? Johnny Rea is the rider who worries Checa most, the Castrol Honda rider having taken a double here last year. Apart from Rea, Checa reckoned the Yamahas could be tough to beat, both Laverty and Melandri capable of lasting the race. Biaggi, too, has Checa worried, but the BMWs would not be able to make their tires last. "But this is Superbikes, anything can happen," Checa said.
In the World Supersport class, the Yamahas still look like the bike to beat, though Chaz Davies spoiled his chance at a front row start by crashing during the second session of qualifying. His Yamaha ParkinGO teammate Luca Scassa seized pole on Saturday, leading by a comfortable margin by another Parkalgar prodigy, Sam Lowes. The young Englishman has been impressive since entering the series, and will be in the mix starting from 2nd on Sunday. Motocard.com Kawasaki's Broc Parkes is 3rd on the grid, with Ten Kate Honda rider Fabien Foret rounding out the front row.
The worry for Lowes - and some of the other Honda riders, including the struggling Gino Rea - is the clutch. A broken bearing caused problems for Lowes, Ellison and Rea at Donington, and the teams still aren't completely sure they have the situation under control. If the problem can be solved, then Lowes will give Scassa - and probably Davies - a run for his money. If it isn't, there could be more heartbreak.