Winning a world championship requires several key ingredients: talent, skill, hard work, intelligence, courage, and a little bit of luck along the way. The ratio of each of those ingredients may vary for each individual champion - with the exception of hard work, the level of dedication to the sport remaining the same for everyone - but the factors involved are always the same.
That skill, talent and bravery are necessary is obvious to even the most casual observer. But the most underestimated of all these qualities is surely intelligence. Yet intelligence is the difference between a race winner and a champion: bravery, skill and luck may win you the odd race, but only intelligence applied over the course of a season will secure you a championship.
The necessity of intelligence in motorcycle racing was manifest during the Monza World Superbike round. For in both the Superbike and the Supersport races, decisions were made which could end up having a profound effect on the championships, and in both cases, the question boils down to a lapse of judgment, and a lack of intelligence used in the decision making process.
The role of intelligence and poor decision making was clearest in the World Superbike races. In race one, Eugene Laverty leveraged his strengths to overcome the faster and more powerful opposition of the Aprilia RSV4. For much of the race, Laverty was engaged in a battle with Max Biaggi, passing Biaggi on the brakes (and thereby preventing the Italian from making a break) while getting passed again by the Aprilia on acceleration. Half a race of this kind of maltreatment was all that Biaggi could take, the Italian eventually making a mistake that saw him give just enough ground to Laverty for the Yamaha rider to get clear and go on to take the win.
The key to the second race revolved around an incident that took place on Thursday. Monza's first chicane is always a problem at the classic Italian track, and the organizers are continually looking for solutions to two problems the chicane presents. The first is the first-lap collision, almost inevitable given that 20+ riders are trying to squeeze into a very tight chicane that has only one line through it. The solution - or rather, the way that the danger is mitigated - is by ensuring an escape route straight on, allowing riders to pick the bike up and skip the chicane entirely, rather than attempting to squeeze in where there is no room, and potentially causing a crash. That strategy often fails - as it did during race two, when Carlos Checa slammed his Althea Ducati into Jonathan Rea's Castrol Honda, bringing the Ulsterman down, taking Leon Haslam and Jakub Smrz along with him.
It also creates a secondary problem: that first chicane is so tight, and is approached at such high speed (over 320km/h, or some 200mph) that running straight on at the chicane almost automatically confers an advantage. Any obstacles placed in the way (such as straw bales) would present a danger to anyone hitting them in the event of a crash, and could also be knocked into the path of other riders exiting the chicane if a rider were to hit them by running straight on.
And so the Monza circuit and the event organizers came up with a solution, a chicane consisting of white lines on the run off area, then a narrow path delineated by more white lines serving as the entrance to the track. The riders were told during the briefing on Thursday afternoon about the situation at chicane, and the rules which were to be observed should they find themselves going straight on at the chicane. Any rider going straight on three times during the race would be penalized with a ride-through penalty, a punishment applied to Noriyuki Haga during race one. Additionally, any rider not returning to the track via the appointed path (by following the white lines) would also be given a ride-through penalty.
One rider had not attended the briefing, however. That rider was Max Biaggi, and so when the Italian found himself running straight on at the chicane - despite sitting on a comfortable lead of nearly six seconds - he compounded the simple error (not braking in time) with a much more severe one (rejoining the race without following the correct procedure). Despite the fact that Biaggi gained little or no advantage, Race Direction had to apply the rules, and imposed a ride-through on the Italian, turning his 6-second lead into a 20-second deficit, and dropping him 11 places in the process. Biaggi had the opportunity at Monza to rake back 32 points from the championship leader Carlos Checa, but his lack of foresight in attending the rider briefing meant that he got less than half that.
In effect, Biaggi's lapse of judgment cost the reigning World Champion 17 points, and it could have been more if he hadn't had a little help from a mechanical problem for Checa in the final laps of race two. 17 points can be a lot, and the title has been settled by less than that four times in the past ten years. Max Biaggi is a five-time world champion, four times in 250s and once in World Superbikes. He really should have known better.
Biaggi will now need a lot more help from the competition if he is to depose Checa from the lead in the title race. Fortunately - or perhaps not, for this is a sword which cuts two ways - that competition is arriving in the shape of faster Yamahas, an improved BMW package for Leon Haslam, and the beginnings of a return to form for Johnny Rea. Melandri has shown he can be a threat since the start of the season, the Italian already having taken one win in his debut season in the series. But Eugene Laverty's double at Monza - and especially the icily calm way in which he collected it - sees the Irishman also get his first wins in the World Superbike class, and gives him the momentum that he was missing in the first three meetings of the season. Laverty's racecraft - keeping the raw power of Biaggi's Aprilia in check during race one, then first fighting his way through the field in race two, only to wait until the final corner to pass his teammate Marco Melandri for the win, despite having clear chances to pass the Italian earlier - mark the Yamaha man out as a significant threat, and Laverty will be a man to take into account for the rest of the season.
The World Superbike class now heads across the ocean to race at Miller Motorsports Park, set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Oquirrh Mountains in Utah. That is a track that Carlos Checa rides brilliantly at, the Spaniard taking the double on the series' first visit to the track in 2008, and looking on course for a repeat in 2010, only to be thwarted by an electronics problem and a transmission issue which scored a double DNF instead of a double win. Checa will be hard to beat in Utah, leaving the competition falling yet further behind.
The World Supersport class do not cross the Atlantic to race at Miller this year, an attempt to cut the costs of the series. Their next meeting is at Misano in five weeks' time, but that meeting will also be dominated by a lapse of judgment. For the joint championship leader Luca Scassa looks set to be be disqualified from taking part there, after the ParkinGO Yamaha rider rode at the track in breach of the World Superbike rules. Misano is not the team's officially designated test circuit, but Scassa has twice held the riding school he also runs at the circuit, and despite Scassa riding on a Yamaha R1 rather than the R6 he races on, the rules clearly state that any such activity must be punished by exclusion from participating in the event in question.
The rules are simple, and publicly available on the FIM website. The team, or Scassa himself, would have done well to check before taking part at the riding school. And indeed, as several other riders are involved in riding schools - including BMW's Leon Haslam, who helps out at his father Ron's riding school - this issue could affect more riders later in the year.
If Scassa is prevented from riding at Misano, that will give Chaz Davies a huge boost towards the championship. The Yamahas are looking on course to take the title this season, with the R6 having taken victory in all four races so far this year, with two a piece for Davies and Scassa. The bike is strong, and both Scassa and Davies have improved a good deal this season, aided to an extent by the weakness of the competition. Sam Lowes has shown a huge amount of promise, as befits a rider for the Parkalgar squad, but the young Englishman is in his first season in World Supersport and is further hampered by having broken his collarbone at Assen three weeks ago. The other competition comes from Broc Parkes on the Motocard.com Kawasaki and Fabien Foret on the Ten Kate Honda, but Parkes does not look capable of challenging for wins, while Foret is getting a little long in the tooth and has been held back by a finger injury.
The stars are aligning for a ParkinGO Yamaha championship this season. Since his win at Assen, Davies has been transformed, the Welshman dominating the weekend at Monza, topping the timesheets in every single session and taking a win that was as tedious to watch as it was impressive in its execution. By violating the rules on testing, Luca Scassa may have settled the championship in Davies' favor, simply by not paying sufficient attention to detail, exactly as Biaggi did by not attending the rider briefing. Intelligence, the intelligence to anticipate such situations and to ensure you are in a situation to cope with them when they arise, looks set to be the decisive factor in the 2011 World Superbike series. Which is as it should be; there is more to racing than raw speed.