World Superbikes, Race 1
With three poles and three wins in a row, all eyes were on Ben Spies at the start of the first Superbike race, but they would have been better focusing everywhere. Spies fluffed the start, diving into the first corner in fifth place, behind a gaggle of Ducatis. Regis Laconi led the way, ahead of Noriyuki Haga, Max Neukirchner and Troy Corser.
Laconi was not to lead for long, Haga deking out the Frenchman after just a couple of corners, Neukirchner following in his wake. The German waited for the front straight to pounce, unleashing the speed of his Suzuki to take the lead over the line. But Haga had been expecting him, and dived back inside into Turn 1 to take back the lead, and was off.
At one of Noriyuki Haga's strongest tracks, Ben Spies knew that he couldn't afford to let the Japanese Ducati man get way. Gifted one position when Troy Corser crashed out from a promising 4rh place, Spies started to chase Regis Laconi down. The Frenchman was fast losing ground to Haga, but still fast enough to be troublesome, as it took Spies until lap 5 get past the DFX Corse Ducati.
By this time, Haga's lead was up to 2 seconds over Max Neukirchner, and 2.7 over Spies. The Texan turned his attention to the next obstacle in his path, Neukirchner's Alstare Brux Suzuki. Over the course of four laps, he hunted the German down, but as he entered Turn 1 right on the German's tail, he pushed the front a fraction too hard, sliding down gracefully into the gravel and out of the race. Next time around, Haga's pit board read "19 OUT", and the Xerox Ducati rider knew the race was in the bag. He put his head down, and ran fast, smooth laps to take a comfortable win.
While first place was quickly settled, the race for second was much closer. For most of the race, Max Neukirchner looked to have a firm hold on the second step of the podium, but Haga's Ducati team mate Michel Fabrizio was charging hard through the field. Crossing the line in 8th place on the first lap, the Italian fought his way forward, then closed steadily on Neukirchner as the race reached its conclusion.
With three laps to go, Fabrizio was close enough to pull out of Neukirchner's draft at the end of the straight, passing the German into Turn 1. Neukirchner did not just lie down and roll over, but try as he might, he could not get close enough to repass the Italian, and had to settle for third, ceding the top two steps to the Xerox Ducati riders.
Regis Laconi finished just off the podium to make it three Ducatis in the top four, while Leon Haslam, perhaps spurred on by the attention his brand new Stiggy Racing team mate John Hopkins was receiving, took his Honda to finish fifth. Hopkins himself finished 11th on his first World Superbike outing, the second Honda across the line, and ahead of Ryuichi Kiyonari on the Ten Kate Racing machine. The other Ten Kate riders had a nightmare of a race, Johnny Rea crashing out on the first lap, Carlos Checa running off twice, before finally pulling into the pits.
Of the new manufacturers to enter the series, Max Biaggi finished best, fighting his way forward from 18th on the grid to take 8th place on the Aprilia, while Ruben Xaus was the sole BMW to finish, climbing from 19th on the grid to take a couple of points in 13th.
World Superbikes, Race 2
After his poor start in the first race, Spies tried to get off the line better in race two, but the pole position was still not translating into the holeshot for the Yamaha man. Instead, it was Regis Laconi who once again launched into the lead from the line, but the Frenchman ran wide into the first turn, allowing Max Neukirchner and Michel Fabrizio to get by.
To make matters worse, Laconi had a charging Noriyuki Haga behind him, and pushing hard. So hard that the Japanese rider was past before the lap was over. Seeing Haga past Laconi, Spies followed, diving underneath the DFX Corse Ducati into Turn 6 to take fourth place. But try as he might the Texan couldn't follow Haga, who was on another planet at Valencia. Another lap, and Haga was past team mate Fabrizio, and a lap later, Spies followed Haga's example once again, passing the Italian into Turn 1, just as Haga had. As the front runners entered the long and spectacular left hander of Turn 13, Haga was pushing Neukirchner hard for the lead, finally taking it into Turn 1.
Haga was flying, and immediately started to gap the German. Behind Neukirchner, Spies was following Haga's example again, and pushing the Suzuki rider hard. A lap later, the Texan was by Neukirchner, into Turn 6 once again, and off to chase the race and championship leader.
That effort was in vain. Noriyuki Haga was unstoppable at Valencia, and there was nothing Spies could do to stop him. Haga increased his lead lap by lap, to take his second win and a glorious double by over 5 seconds, which included time lost in a big standup wheelie across the line.
Spies was lucky the race was not longer. After giving up on chasing Haga, the Texan spent the last few laps nervously watching Michel Fabrizio and Regis Laconi approach. The two Ducatis had gotten past Neukirchner early on, and set about chasing Spies, Laconi stalking Fabrizio all the while. But their charge came too late, Fabrizio narrowing the gap from 3 seconds to just over 1, holding off Laconi to take the final podium spot.
Behind Laconi, Leon Haslam completed a brace of 5th places on the Stiggy Honda, confirming his standing as the best Honda rider so far, and finishing ahead of local hero Carlos Checa on the nearest thing the World Superbike paddock has to a factory Honda, a Ten Kate machine. After a blistering start, Max Neukirchner had gone steadily backwards to finish the race in seventh.
If the race had been three laps shorter, MotoGP refugee John Hopkins would have taken a very respectable eighth place finish, on a new bike and new tires, with only practice and qualifying to understand the quirks of the machine. But Hopper had used up his tires in the early running, and was forced to allow first Max Biaggi, then Ryuichi Kiyonari, Tom Sykes, and finally even Shakey Byrne past, finishing the race in twelfth. However, given the weakness of last year's Kawasaki, the American must be hopeful of a much better season this year than he had in 2008.
If the Qatar race had seen Ben Spies dominate the races, passing riders at will and winning almost effortlessly, Noriyuki Haga struck back in the same vein at Valencia. Haga and Spies both have three wins to their name this season, and are clear favorites for the 2009 World Superbike crown. But Haga has had three second places to go along with those three wins, and his consistency is starting to pay off.
World Supersport Race
If the World Superbike races were cut-and-dried affairs, the World Supersport event was a good deal more messy. A light drizzle delayed the start by 8 minutes, turning the track damp enough to make the going tricky but not wet enough for rain tires, while the returning sun dried the track surprisingly quickly.
The difficult conditions favored courage over experience, and the Supersport field has both in abundance. Though Ant West led into the first corner, by the time the field was halfway round the track, the lead had swapped at least four times, with Michele Pirro crossing the line on the Lorenzini Yamaha, ahead of Matthieu Lagrive, Ant West and local hero Joan Lascorz.
Lascorz had dominated practice at Valencia, only pipped to pole by Yamaha's Cal Crutchlow in the last few minutes of qualifying. And in the early laps, the Motocard Kawasaki man looked to have the situation under control. But by lap 7, the Spaniard started to struggle, and spent the rest of the race going backwards through the field.
By the time Lascorz started going backwards, the situation at the front of the field had settled down. Early runners Lagrive and Pirro had been dropped off the back of the leaders, while Cal Crutchlow, Ant West and Kenan Sofuoglu started to pull away. It was clear that the winner of the race was one of these three men, but the question of who was far from settled.
The lead swapped regularly at the front, with Crutchlow leading at first, then West hitting the front, repassing the Yamaha when Crutchlow got ahead. Though Sofuoglu threatened in the first half of the race, he faded slowly in the latter half, giving up ground to the Stiggy Honda and factory Yamaha.
With Sofuoglu gone, West slowly started to eke out an advantage, but it was never enough to escape fully. But Crutchlow was biding his time, the British newcomer chasing the Australian down, before pouncing as the bikes screamed down the front straight to start the final lap. Once past, Crutchlow was gone. West had used up his tires holding the Yamaha off, and was forced to settle for second, giving Crutchlow his maiden win.
The Briton's victory was impressive, and capped a mature and intelligent performance for the weekend. Crutchlow had built slowly, improving session by session, capping the surprise pole with a convincing win. And after a disappointing outing at Qatar, West will not have been too sad to only finish second at Valencia. The Australian is continuing his remarkable streak of results in World Supersport, only ever having been off the podium once in six races.
Kenan Sofuoglu finished third, nearly 8.5 seconds behind the leading pair, to equal Crutchlow on points, and put his attempt to recapture the title he left behind for a poor year in Superbikes back on a strong footing. Mark Aitchison added a strong finish to a good start to take fourth, ahead of early leaders Michele Pirro and Matthieu Lagrive.
Barry Veneman improved his results on the Suzuki to finish 8th, while the winner at Qatar, Eugene Laverty, could only manage 9th. Laverty was well on the pace with his Parkalgar Honda, his lap times consistently in the top 3, but the Irishman had been caught out by the damp conditions in early running, and was left with too much to do when the going improved. Andrew Pitt was the biggest loser at Valencia, struggling with a lack of grip to finish just 13th, and slipping from first in the championship to fourth.
The three World Supersport races have given us three different winners, from three different teams and two different bikes. For the past 7 years, Ten Kate have dominated the World Supersport series, earning it the disparaging title of the Ten Kate cup. This year, though, it's different, and while Ten Kate are still very much the team to beat, there are plenty of teams capable of beating them. Once again, the World Supersport series is shaping up to be the most exciting racing series in the world.