The brand new Superpole format adopted by World Superbikes for the 2009 season threw up a great many conundrums at Phillip Island on Saturday, as well as a few surprises. But perhaps most of all, it also threw up confirmation of what some had suspected, and many had hoped.
The format is relatively simple, and borrowed from Formula 1:
- The 20 riders who set the fastest times during the two ordinary qualifying practice sessions go through to the new Superpole;
- At the end of the afternoon, Superpole is run, consisting of three 12 minute sessions, with a 7 minute break between the sessions. The riders are given two qualifying tires, which they can use at any time during any of the three Superpole sessions. But only two super-soft qualifiers spread over three sessions means that they will have to use race tires only in at least one of the sessions;
- At the end of the first Superpole session, the 4 slowest riders are excluded, and grid positions 17 through 20 assigned in order of time;
- At the end of the second Superpole session, the 8 slowest riders are excluded, and grid positions 9 through 16 are awarded in order of the time set in the second session;
- In the third and final Superpole session, the 8 remaining riders compete against each other in a straightforward fight for grid positions, with places awarded based on the times set in this third and final session.
Easily understandable, but the subtleties and difficulties arise in the interplay between the number of qualifying tires and Superpole sessions. And those subtleties claimed their first victims in the very first session: both BMWs failed to make it through to the second session, after gambling on a soft race tire, and saving their qualifiers for later on. As it happened, neither Ruben Xaus nor Troy Corser ended up using them, the race tires leaving them just short of making the cut. They were joined by Roberto Rolfo and Tommy Hill, Hill victim of an earlier blown engine, and not enough laps to set a fast time.
The fastest riders at the end of the first session were Johnny Rea on the Ten Kate Honda, who had been quickest in both the qualifying and free practice sessions on Saturday, along with Yamaha's Ben Spies and Ducati's Noriyuki Haga. But as we shall see, being quickest is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is being quick enough.
The second session caught more people out. The lead switched constantly, the list of qualifiers shifting all the time. It was Regis Laconi who put a fast lap in right at the death to take the lead, setting a time of 1'31.050, which was to turn out to be the fastest lap of the weekend. Laconi led from Xerox Ducati's Michel Fabrizio and Stiggy Honda's Leon Haslam.
The biggest victim of the second Superpole session was Noriyuki Haga. The factory Ducati rider was tipped as title favorite for this season, but a tactical gamble saw Haga slump to 13th fastest, and eliminated at the end of the session. Haga was part of a veritable Japanese exodus, with Ryuichi Kiyonari, Shinya Nakano and Yukio Kagayama all missing the cut. The Japanese riders were joined by two Brits, a German and an Australian, with Tom Sykes, Shane Byrne, Max Neukirchner and Broc Parkes all sharing the fate of Haga et al.
With the exclusions over, the final session turned into a straight fight for supremacy and a front row start. Early in the session, Ben Spies used the first of his two available qualifiers to set the quickest time, and set pole with a 1'31.069. His second qualifier went back to Pirelli unused, the time good enough for pole at his first attempt. Max Biaggi took the brand new Aprilia RSV4 to second on the grid, the Aprilia faring much better on its first outing than the BMWs. Johnny Rea, who had been fast all day, claimed third on the grid, with Jakub Smrz, the satellite Ducati rider who shook up the field yesterday, taking the fourth and final spot on the front row. Michel Fabrizio ended up 5th, ahead of Leon Haslam, Carlos Checa and Regis Laconi.
In the end, the grid showed the importance of strategy, of choosing the right moment to set a fast time, and the need for the judicious use of qualifying tires. Laconi's time in session 2 was a fraction quicker than Spies' time set in session 3, yet the Frenchman will start from the back of the second row. Similarly, the times of Michel Fabrizio and Leon Haslam would have put them ahead of Max Biaggi, had they set them in the final session, rather than session 2. As the season develops, we can expect to see a range of tactics being tried in the knockout-style Superpole, before all of the teams have figured out the best strategy for the whole session.
Most of all, though, is the impression made by new boy Ben Spies. There were a lot of people who still harbored considerable doubts about Yamaha's recruit from the AMA. He may have won three championships in a row, but without a way of measuring the AMA against the rest of the world, fans were left with little but speculation as to Spies' worth. Any such doubts should now have been dispelled: Spies is the real deal - in qualifying at least. Tomorrow, he gets two chances to show he can do it in the race.
By comparison with the intriguing WSBK Superpole session, World Supersport qualifying was rather flat. Kenan Sofuoglu made his intention clear to take back his title, and so far looks quite capable of extending Ten Kate Honda's dominance of the series. Fortunately for the fans, Joan Lascorz could turn out to be the fly in the ointment, the Spanish rider helping to wipe the memory of a horrific winter from Kawasaki's memory. Lascorz is the green filling in a Ten Kate sandwich, with reigning champion Andrew Pitt third on the grid, ahead of Yamaha's British rookie Cal Crutchlow.
Further back, local hero and GP legend Garry McCoy couldn't keep up the strong form he had shown all weekend, dropping down to 8th on the Triumph. Crutchlow's team mate Fabien Foret suffered a big crash at the start of the session, and is in doubt for tomorrow's race. His Friday time sees him take 6th on the grid. Ahead of Foret is Irishman Eugene Laverty on the Parkalgar Honda. Laverty is on the late lamented Craig Jones' bike, and after a couple of seasons riding underpowered private Aprilias in 250s, looks much more at home on a Supersport bike. His Portuguese team mate Miguel Praia has also made a big step forward over the off season, finishing a much improved 14th on the grid. Fastest Suzuki was Dutchman Barry Veneman, yet to recapture his late season form from 2008.