The opening round of the World Superbike championship had a lot to live up to. Billed as the most open championship for many years, the series once again looked completely unpredictable, and capable of producing close, exciting racing. And after a long, dark winter, the fans would not be disappointed, in either the World Superbike or World Supersport classes.
In World Superbikes, all eyes were on Ben Spies. Still an unknown quantity with no points of reference between his native AMA championship, where the Texan is coming off three consecutive titles, and the current World Superbike field, one of the biggest questions in the paddock was just how good Spies would be once the flag dropped. Taking pole position in the new Superpole format had proven that Spies was fast, at least over a limited number of laps and with a clear track, but WSBK fans were yet to be convinced of Spies' ability to stand his ground amidst the hurly burly of an average World Superbike race. Taking on a single rider, even one of the caliber of Mat Mladin, is one thing; taking on the charging horde of Haga, Biaggi, Neukirchner, Checa, Rea, Corser, Fabrizio et al is quite another.
World Superbikes Race 1
In race one, the fans worst fears seemed to be confirmed, after Spies ran off the track when he got caught up in an incident at Turn 2 with Max Biaggi and Leon Haslam. The Texan ran a long way through the grass, and rejoined way back in 26th place. It was another rookie who led the way, though, Ten Kate's Johnny Rea taking the lead at the start.
Rea's lead did not last for long. Within half a lap, Noriyuki Haga had battered his way forward to take 2nd behind Rea, starting from the third row of the grid. The leading duo were not alone, though, and had been joined by Leon Haslam, Max Neukirchner, Yukio Kagayama, Michel Fabrizio and Jakub Smrz, after Max Biaggi dropped quickly down the order. Rea hung on at the front for three laps, before Haga got past bearing Frenchman Regis Laconi in his wake.
Three laps later, Max Neukirchner muscled his Alstare Suzuki past Laconi's private Ducati, and Neukirchner and Haga started to edge away from the pack. Laconi, Kagayama, Rea, Haslam and Fabrizio were still close up until lap 10, but after Kagayama passed Laconi to take 3rd, the gap to Haga and Neukirchner started to grow.
What followed was a classic tightly fought duel. Haga's long experience and comfort levels with the Ducati looked like giving the Japanese rider the edge, but Neukirchner's youth, determination, and growing experience in the class kept the battle very close. There was little to choose between the two, with Neukirchner leading for the middle section of the race, until Haga snatched back the lead on lap 18, as the young German's tires were getting to be the worse for wear.
But the Alstare Suzuki man was not going to go quietly. He sat in Haga's shadow, following as closely as possible, biding his time and hoping for a chance to strike. That chance came on the last lap, Neukirchner lining Haga up along the front straight, snatching the lead going into Doohan. Forced to defend round the back section of the track, with an impatient Haga pushing hard behind him, Neukirchner's tires cried enough at the top of Lukey Heights, momentarily letting go, jolting the German out of the saddle, and letting Haga past round the outside.
It gave Haga just enough of a lead to hold Neukirchner off round the remaining long left handers, crossing the line to take the win on his debut on the factory Xerox Ducati. But it really was close: Neukirchner had closed up as they came onto the front straight, and crossed the line just 0.032 seconds behind the Ducati.
Neukirchner's Alstare Suzuki team mate Yukio Kagayama held off Michel Fabrizio to take the final spot on the podium, forcing Fabrizio down into 4th, ahead of Ten Kate Honda's Johnny Rea, Stiggy Honda's Leon Haslam and the DFX Corse Ducati of Regis Laconi, all within a quarter of a second of each other.
Troy Corser scored the first points in World Superbike history for BMW with a creditable 8th place, while Max Biaggi was first Aprilia home in 11th. To his credit, Ben Spies fought his way through the field to end up in 16th, just outside the points, while his Yamaha team mate Tom Sykes came home in 10th.
World Superbikes Race 2
The second race gave Spies a chance to redeem himself. Though once again caught behind Biaggi away from the line, the Texan quickly made amends, riding round the outside of the Italian at the Southern Loop, clipping across the nose of Biaggi's Aprilia to take the lead. Nori Haga had once again sliced his way forward to get up into 5th by the end of lap 1, behind Michel Fabrizio and Leon Haslam.
This fivesome quickly formed a breakaway group, after Johnny Rea lost touch with them, dropping back through the pack, but with none of the men who passed him capable of crossing the divide that separated the leaders from the rest. In this front group, it was Haga who was in the biggest hurry. The Samurai of Slide - a complete misnomer on the rock-solid, smooth Ducati 1098R - took 4 laps to catch and then pass Spies, and then set about trying to escape.
Try as he might, though, his lead never extended much more than half a second, and by lap 10, Spies was on the Japanese rider and past him a lap later. This was not a situation Haga was prepared to tolerate for long. Two laps to be precise, before Haga passed the Texan back, riding round the outside of the Yamaha at Turn 11.
If passing Spies was easy, shaking him off was impossible for Haga. The young American stalked the Ducati for the next six laps, learning all he could from the Japanese veteran. At the start of lap 19 he pounced, diving up the inside into Doohan and taking the lead. This time Haga had no answer. He followed, but in the end Haga had to admit defeat, allowing Spies to take his first World Superbike win at only the second time of asking, a fabulous debut, and one to rival Max Biaggi's entry into the World Superbike paddock in 2007.
Behind Haga, a tense battle had spun out over many laps. Biaggi held the upper hand for all but the final few laps, as Michel Fabrizio closed then passed. Behind Biaggi, Leon Haslam tried a number of brave passing maneuvers, getting ahead Fabrizio and Biaggi only to have to hand back the places gained in the next corner. Shortly before mid-race, Regis Laconi had managed to bridge the gap which separated the front five from the rest of the pack, creeping onto Haslam's tail but unable to do much more than that.
As the penultimate lap started, all hell broke loose between places 3 through 6. Haslam sliced past Biaggi into Doohan Corner and closed on Fabrizio. The Stiggy Honda rider put the classic Phillip Island move on Fabrizio: At Lukey Heights, Haslam took the faster wide line, dropping into the MG hairpin with his Honda ahead of the factory Ducati. But he also paid the classic Phillip Island price for that move, not being able to hold his line, and Fabrizio cutting tight inside and snatching back 3rd.
Across the line and into Doohan, Haslam was back past again, pushing Fabrizio back down to 4th, while Biaggi and Laconi sat inches from the Ducati's back wheel. But again Haslam couldn't hold the line, and though he tried to fend Fabrizio off by taking the outside line round the Southern Loop, Fabrizio was back past. Haslam was back once again into the Honda hairpin, and behind him Laconi sneaked past Biaggi at the same point.
Not content with just passing Biaggi, the Frenchman then stuffed his bike past Fabrizio into Siberia. But that action had claimed an innocent victim: Max Biaggi had finally run out of grip, running wide on his Aprilia and into the grass, and completely out of contention. The final podium place would be disputed between just Haslam, Laconi and Fabrizio. As they lined up to enter Lukey Heights, the gaps were just too big for moves by any of the three men to pay off, and so they crossed the line in unchanged order, Haslam taking third, ahead of Laconi and Fabrizio.
Max Neukirchner crossed the line in 6th, cementing his second place in the championship behind Nori Haga. Ruben Xaus was the first BMW to cross the line this time, though scoring only 5 points in 11th, while it was Shinya Nakano's turn to be first Aprilia in 12th. Max Biaggi had rejoined the race and managed to score a single point in 15th.
The big losers of the weekend were the Ten Kate Honda team. Johnny Rea had the best of the weekend, with a 5th and a 9th, but Carlos Checa could not manage to crack into the top 10 in either race, and Ryuichi Kiyonari was T-boned in race 1 and had a dismal 23rd in race 2. But at least the Ten Kate men finished: the other hotly-tipped rider, Shane Byrne, crashed out of both races, ending the weekend with two DNFs.
World Supersport Race
If the racing in the Superbike races was good, in the Supersport class it was absolutely insane, living up to the reputation of what one Internet wag referred to as the "Suicide 600s". Spaniard Joan Lascorz got the holeshot on the Kawasaki, but for the first 12 laps the race was absolutely anybody's. The lead did not so much change hands as get shared out equally, with a bunch of some 12 riders battling at the front.
As the race neared the two-thirds mark, the field began to break, and the huge group started to fracture into smaller groups fighting for positions. At the front, the Ten Kate Hondas of Kenan Sofuoglu and Andrew Pitt fought it out with the Yamahas of Cal Crutchlow and Fabien Foret, with Stiggy Honda's Ant West and Parkalgar Honda's Eugene Laverty joining the fray. But the pace was too much for Foret, still in pain from the dislocated shoulder he suffered in qualifying yesterday.
By lap 16, Sofuoglu, Pitt and West had broken away from the two Supersport rookies, leaving Laverty and Crutchlow to fight it out over 4th. The leading trio swapped places continually, no one gaining a clear advantage, the win uncertain all the way down to the line. At the flag it was Kenan Sofuoglu who took the win, ahead of his Ten Kate team mate Andrew Pitt, with Ant West relegated to 3rd. If the gap between 1st and 3rd was tiny, the gap separating 4th and 5th was virtually irrelevant. Cal Crutchlow was awarded the honors, crossing the line just one thousandth of a second ahead of Eugene Laverty, or about half a tire width.
Joan Lascorz finished as first Kawasaki in 8th, while Gianluca Nannelli was first Triumph in 10th. After scrapping with the front group for the first half of the race, Barry Veneman slipped back through the field to finish as 13th and first Suzuki.
The Supersport race made clear that the racing is close in the class, but the title is still Ten Kate Honda's to lose. But just maybe Ant West is the man to take that title from them: After a long and utterly miserable year in MotoGP aboard the Kawasaki, West is once again showing what he's capable of. In four World Supersport rounds, West has never finished off the podium. It's going to be a great season.