Days like Sunday at Imola always remind me of what Nicky Hayden says after particularly poor qualifying sessions: "That's why we line up on Sunday; you never know what's gonna happen." Two championships were up for grabs at Imola on Sunday; one looked a dead cert to be wrapped up by Sunday night, while the most likely scenario for the other is that the race would still be open after the second World Superbike race.
It didn't quite work out that way. Sure, Carlos Checa and Chaz Davies are still the hot favorites for the World Superbike and World Supersport titles, but the dreaded "events" got in the way of seeing a double coronation in Italy. Every Sunday brings a surprise, and this Sunday was no exception.
Chaz Davies was the worst casualty of the weekend. The Welshman came into Imola leading by 59 points, and all that was required was for Davies to put it on the podium to bring home the title. But Davies was doing more than that: after a decent qualifying practice, he seized the race by the scruff of the neck and was dominating, as he has done so often this year. Leading the race by over 10 seconds, with less than 5 laps left to go, his engine let go in a big way, thick white smoke pouring from behind the fairing, a sure sign that something very major has failed. Davies cruised to a halt, any chance of securing the championship gone, and "completely gutted" as he described it himself.
Davies wasn't the only Yamaha rider to suffer, though, his teammate Luca Scassa suffering a similar fate. Imola was not meant to be for the Yamahas, but Davies heads to France still with a healthy 35 point lead. One more 6th place finish should be enough to wrap it all up.
Even though he still has a mathematical chance of taking the title, French veteran Fabien Foret has more or less given up on the championship. Interviewed after the Imola race, he said he had banished any thoughts of the title, and was content just to enjoy the victory. It was well-deserved after a strong charge through the field, but realistically, without both Yamahas being forced out with mechanical problems, 3rd place would have been the best he could hope for. But that's racing, as the saying goes.
In the World Superbike class, Marco Melandri also still has a mathematical shot at the championship. After a podium and a win, Carlos Checa leads the title race by 97 points with two rounds (and four races) left to go. If Melandri wins all four races, and if Carlos Checa cannot score more than 2 points in four races, then the Italian can prevent Checa from becoming the 2011 World Superbike champ. Given that Checa is averaging nearly 19 points a race, the likelihood of that happening is vanishingly close to zero.
Even if Checa should be ruled out of the next two rounds - as happened to the luckless Max Biaggi when he broke a foot at the Nurburgring, effectively ending his title defense - the competition in the World Superbike class is ferocious, with any one of three or four different riders capable of winning. Biaggi will return next week at Magny-Cours, and certainly be competitive enough in three weeks' time at Portimao. Eugene Laverty had a double at Monza, and can fly when things gel. Johnny Rea is back on the pace, the new ride-by-wire system giving him the confidence he lacked in the previous races; only a loose battery connector prevented him from taking a double at Imola, and the Castrol Honda rider is very strong at Portimao. If Checa scoring fewer than 3 points in four races is unlikely, Melandri winning the remaining four, at two tracks he has never raced at before, is equally improbable. Could it happen? Yes it could. That, as Nicky Hayden likes to say, is why they line up on Sunday. Unfortunately, though, for 23 of the 24 guys who line up on Sunday, it doesn't happen. You've got to get lucky.
Johnny Rea can tell you an awful lot about luck after race 2, and most of the things he would have to say would have to wait until after the watershed to go out on air. Race 1 was a stunning victory for the Castrol Honda rider, after having battled the setup of his CBR1000RR all year. Race 2 looked like being a repeat, Rea cruising home with the situation in hand, until a battery connector worked itself loose and killed his chances of a double, the bike cutting out intermittently, forcing Rea into the pits. Yet Rea was optimistic at the end of the day: for the first time in a long time, he was competitive again.
Rea's loss was Checa's gain, the Althea Ducati rider taking victory in the second race of the day. He celebrated that win as if he had actually won the title, the Spaniard elated as he rolled into Parc Ferme. But it was just the boost that Ducati - and its diehard Italian fans - needed, taking a win so close to home. After the disaster of Rossi aboard the Ducati - last year at Imola, the track was hung with banners protesting at the withdrawal of the factory Ducati team from the World Superbike series, the fans accusing the Bologna factory of pulling out of its core series to help fund the signing of the Italian legend to Ducati - some good news was badly needed, and the win and near-clinching of the WSBK title at what is essentially Ducati's home round went a long way towards pouring oil on troubled waters.
With rumors that Ducati's 1199 Panigale superbike - the replacement for the 1198 being raced this year and probably next by Carlos Checa - is suffering the same kind of corner entry problems that Ducati's MotoGP machine also suffers, both bikes using the monocoque subframe that is the brainchild of Ducati's chief designer Filippo Preziosi, the future is not looking as bright as it should for the Bologna factory. Ducati can afford to lose in MotoGP, prototype racing being a notorious money pit with no guarantee of success. But Ducati and World Superbikes are synonymous, and failing there would impact Ducati's image enormously. They need all the wins they can get.