It's on days like these that championships are won. In both the World Superbike and World Supersport classes, the championship leaders came in with differing expectations, met with wildly different experiences through practice, yet both Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies leave Silverstone with their lead nicely consolidated and comfortably in charge of their own destinies. They confronted the circumstances that crossed their paths and turned them to their advantage.
In the World Superbike class, Silverstone was supposed to be a tough track for Ducati. A couple of high-speed straights would favor the four-cylinders - especially Aprilia's brutally powerful RSV4 - leaving the Ducatis with too much work to do in the twisty sections to be able to match the fours. The best that Carlos Checa could hope for at the UK round was to limit the damage in both races and see what remained of his lead when he left here for the next round.
So much for the conventional wisdom. Checa was fast in every single session of practice at Silverstone, faltering only slightly in Superpole to end up 4th on the grid, and come race day, the Althea Ducati rider was unstoppable. Held up behind other riders until one-third distance, he took the lead on lap 6 in race 1 and lap 7 in race 2 and pulled a gap he could safely defend. Running two near identical races was a measure of just how in control of the situation Checa was, attacking when it suited him, running the pace needed to build a gap, then backing off just enough to ensure a comfortable victory. In his 100th World Superbike race, he secured his 10th victory of the season, and the 301st win for Ducati. Checa has exuded the kind of calm that championships are made of all year and realistically, only disaster stands between him and his first ever World Championship.
But apart from Checa's exceptional performance, the expectation that the Ducatis would perform poorly at Silverstone had no real basis in fact. Certainly, results from last year were hardly dazzling, but Michel Fabrizio scored a 4th on the (ill-fated) factory Ducati in race 1, and though Shane Byrne crossed the line as first Ducati in a lowly 8th place, the Althea Ducati rider was at the back of a big group battling over 4th, and just over a second from Leon Haslam who won that scrap. Certainly, the Ducatis were giving up a lot of top speed - Checa's best top speed was 10 km/h down on Max Biaggi in race 1, and 12 in race 2 - but their big advantage was the way the V-twin uses the tires. Checa's Ducati 1198R looked like it was on rails all weekend, while the four-cylinder bikes all flopped around like Supersport machines. With tires lasting just about to the flag, Checa was never going to be challenged.
Though you really can't take anything away from Checa's performance over the weekend, the Spaniard was helped - in the championship at least - once again by a little bit of luck. Yamaha's Eugene Laverty was the only rider to have anything like Checa's pace all weekend, the Irishman inserting himself between Checa and his rivals for the title, Marco Melandri and Max Biaggi. Melandri's two 3rd places helped the Italian close the gap on Biaggi, current 2nd in the title race, but up until this weekend, the main threat to Checa's championship hopes was coming from reigning champ Max Biaggi. A clash with BMW's Troy Corser on the first lap of race 1 saw him bend his front brake lever so far that he had to virtually take his hand off the throttle grip to use the front brake, which combined with a clutch problem saw Biaggi stagger home in 11th. Race 2 was better, but a stout defense by his teammate Leon Camier - with little to lose, as the lanky Englishman is not expected to be retained by the Italian factory next season - meant that Biaggi did not get by him until it was too late to try to steal 3rd from Melandri. Melandri dropped 18 points to Checa at Silverstone, but the damage to Biaggi's title defense was much worse. The 30 points that Biaggi trailed Checa by after Brno have more than doubled, with Checa leaving Silverstone with a 62 point lead. With 200 points on the table, and Checa with a strong record at both the Nurburgring and Imola, Checa has at least a couple of fingers on the 2011 World Superbike trophy.
If anything, Chaz Davies' weekend was the reverse of Carlos Checa's, except where it counted. The Yamahas had been hotly tipped at Silverstone, the strong top end of the R6 expected to make it more than competitive at the fast, flowing circuit. Yet practice for both Davies and his ParkinGO teammate Luca Scassa had been little short of disastrous, Davies scraping through to qualifying in 8th. On race day, though, Davies came into his own, and holding off challenges from Florian Marino, Fabien Foret and an impressive David Salom - the Motocard.com Kawasaki rider is getting better with every race - he kept a firm grip on the race and took a highly-deserved and very popular home win. The four races left in the World Supersport championship leave Davies' pursuers - Salom and Foret the only realistic candidates - looking for ways to prevent a runaway. With just 100 points in play, Davies' 42 point lead is looking positively insuperable.
Away from the racetrack, the teams and Infront have been talking about rule changes for next year, and the switch to a single bike is drawing ever closer. The single-bike format forces WSBK to drop the flag-to-flag racing concept adopted first by MotoGP in an attempt to ensure the races fit inside their scheduled TV windows, but the estimated savings of 400,000 euros for a two-bike team is not to be sniffed at. To ensure that riders can be back on track quickly after an off, teams will be allowed to have a spare rolling chassis at the back of the garage needing only an engine fitted for it to be ready to roll. Exactly how what is in effect a second bike without the motor is so much cheaper than a fully-ready second bike is not immediately obvious, but the teams have been convinced by the arguments so who are we to argue?
But the real bone of contention remains the handicapping system for the V-twins and the thorny question of air restrictors. The battle is basically between the two Italian factories, Aprilia pushing for the tightest possible restrictions on the Ducati - especially in light of their new oversquare Superbike expected to be presented at this year's EICMA in November - while Ducati are wary of finding themselves fighting the fours with one hand tied behind their backs, though a better metaphor might be with tight-weave facemask over their mouths.
The problem remains a fascinating one, and the solution previously employed - taking the results of the two best twins and the two best four-cylinders and testing the gap between them - had a lot to say in its favor. The situation is ripe for analysis by students of game theory, with so many elements making balancing between the 1200cc twins and the 1000cc fours immensely tricky. The point is to make the engine formula irrelevant, yet looking at this year's championship it would be easy to say that the twins have an advantage. That would not do justice to the situation, however, as Carlos Checa is having an astonishing year, while his opponents collectively stumble. Checa's huge advantage in the championship is as much down to the compendium of errors that Max Biaggi has accrued during 2011 as it is to Checa's flawless riding.
The problem is further confused by the fact that there is only one factory competing with a twin. Ducati could easily game the system, handicapping any second rider to artificially keep the average performance of its new Superbike low, while pouring resources into a single rider with the sole aim of winning the title. With six other manufacturers producing four-cylinder bikes, no single manufacturer can manipulate the results without damaging its own competitiveness with respect to the other fours, and potentially risking a failure of its own bike while allowing the twin - that is, the Ducati - to go completely unhandicapped.
At the core of the problem lies a single question: how do you equalize performance without thwarting the success of outliers, with Carlos Checa being a case in point. Debate could continue for some time on this point, and will make an interesting subject for analysis at a later date. Racing should be as fair as possible, but life and reality tends to have a nasty tendency to intervene.