Motorcycle racers, journalists and fans tend to talk about the sport in terms of a physical struggle. Riders and teams are always fighting or battling for the lead, championship or what have you. To be sure, there are parallells between the sweet science and racing; fighters and racers both spend endless hours training to be in top condition and both have to ply their trade hurting as often as not. Strategy is important too, as the combatants look to defend their position or deliver a knock-out blow that will defeat their opponent. The two men that are left in the ring in the 2009 World Superbike series championship, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga, came into the next to last round at Magny Cours, nearly too close to call on points, each looking for the advantage that would KO their rival or serve to let them live to fight another day.
Race 1: Don't Look Back, Something Might be Gaining on You
Ben Spies got a rare hole shot and led all but a millisecond of the race en route to his 13th victory of the season. Jonny Rea was pressuring Spies ahead of Max Biaggi and Noriyuki Haga until with 16 laps to go, Rea got in too hot, ran wide and subsequently retired with some sort of mechanical problem. Biaggi and Haga beat on each other hammer and tongs for the next ten laps, Haga unable to get by the suddenly wide-bodied Aprilia until 7 laps to go. Spies was maintaining his lead over the pair +/- one second but couldn't stretch it out due to a series of what he called small mistakes. After Haga managed to get by Biaggi, he was the fastest man on track, taking a tenth or two out of Spies on every lap. On the last lap, exhorted on by a wildly gesticulating Davide Tardozzi atop the pit lane wall, Haga closed the gap by over 4 tenths and when Spies made another small error, Haga pounced and passed Spies with a half-lap to go. Spies immediately returned the favor por fuero and held off Haga at the line by .181.
Race 2: Enter the Samurai
If Ben Spies was dominant in race one, Noriyuki Haga was more so in race two. Max Biaggi got a great start and slotted into the lead, which lasted for about a half lap, then the master of Magny-Cours took over and the race was, for all intents and purposes, over, although Rea and Biaggi passed Haga (very) briefly on separate occasions. Biaggi and Rea fell into a battle between themselves while Haga maintained a lead a second or so in front of the scrappy duo. Ben Spies shadowed the top trio in fourth, unable to push hard enough to make a move. In the second half of the race, Spies dropped back from the leaders at an alarming pace, coming perilously close to falling into the clutches of eventual 5th Place finisher Leon Haslam. Spies blamed his front tire, claiming it felt like something that belonged on the front of his motorhome. Haga crossed the line nearly a second and half ahead of Biaggi, the 5th win at the French track for the Rider Formerly Known as Nitro and the 8th for Ducati.
Rumble in Portimao
Like a couple of heavyweights answering the bell, worn out and weary from the long battle, Ben Spies and Nori Haga will meet in Portugal in 3 weeks time to decide who'll claim the title. Both have the same goal -- win at all costs. Spies' goal is simple -- he has to win both races to ensure a championship in his rookie season. Even if Haga places second in both races, thereby tying Spies, the Texan will win the title by virtue of his surfeit of race wins. If Haga wins race one, it's all but over and he only has to finish in fifth place or better in race 2 to become the first Japanese World Superbike World Champion, a goal that he's striven and sacrificed for over a decade. The stage is set for a barn-burner, be sure to reserve your ringside seat.