With the World Superbike series turning into more and more of a two-horse race, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga sharing all of the series wins between them, the Superbike circus headed to Assen with the hope that a few of the British riders could disrupt the Spies and Haga show. The Assen WSBK round is regarded almost as a home race for the Brits, as UK fans cross the North Sea in large numbers to cheer their local heroes on. They arrived in Assen full of hope, as Cal Crutchlow and Eugene Laverty had both taken wins in World Supersport, and Leon Haslam had had one podium and a streak of strong finishes in the previous three rounds.
Haslam had received a huge cheer in the public superpole press conference on Saturday afternoon, after getting a front row start, but the Stiggy Racing rider faced some pretty formidable opposition. Ben Spies had taken a record fourth pole in a row, an incredible feat for a rookie rider facing new tracks on new tires and a new bike, and with 3 wins from 6 races, was proving that he was capable of more than just a fast lap.
As the lights faded in the first race, the Texan took full advantage of his pole position, rocketing into the first corner in the lead, and opening enough of a gap over 2nd place man Max Neukirchner not to have to worry about an immediate attack. Behind Neukirchner, Noriyuki Haga had closed back the gap that he had lost to the German after being held up by Jakub Smrz on the first lap. Once past Smrz, the Xerox Ducati man closed Neukirchner down and got ready to make his move.
In the event, Haga didn't need to attack, as Neukirchner did Haga's work for him. A mistake in the GT chicane saw the Alstare Suzuki rider thrown from his bike, but that is one of the slowest parts of the track, Neukirchner could rejoin, eventually finishing 13th. With nothing between himself and Spies, Haga quickly closed the Yamaha down, and sat on the Texan's tail.
But Haga wasn't the only rider closing. Leon Haslam was setting a series of blistering laps to chase the two leaders down. As the race entered its second half, the race turned into a thrilling three-way battle between Spies, Haga and Haslam. Haga had been pushing Spies through the Ramshoek and into the final GT chicane for several laps, but Spies kept holding the Japanese rider off. So on lap 13, Haga switched tactics, diving underneath Spies into the Strubben hairpin, and taking the lead.
Haga's pass clearly disrupted Spies' rhythm, as the next corner, Haslam was past as well. Haslam had soon gapped Spies and closed on Haga, but push as he may, he could not find a way past the Xerox Ducati. As the laps started to click off, Spies started to reel Haga and Haslam back in, and with three laps to go, Spies tried a brave move past Haslam into the Ruskenhoek. He was close, but not close enough to get completely past. But he was also determined not to back off, and as they flicked the bikes back left for the long left-hander, Spies held his line, keeping next to Haslam round the outside of the fast part of the Ruskenhoek. Then as they entered the Stekkenwal, Spies was finally past, but only just. Haslam had not given up his position easily, but he couldn't quite hold the storming Texan off.
Once past Haslam, Spies chased Haga down, catching him as they started the final lap. He made his final move in the final section of the track, another brave move through terrifyingly fast Meeuwenmeer, and holding off Haga's final challenge into the GT chicane to take the win. Haga was forced to settle for 2nd, with Haslam finishing third.
Spies' Yamaha team mate Tom Sykes rode his strongest race of the season to take 4th place, while Max Biaggi put on a brilliant display to fight his way through the field to finish 5th, after starting from 10th on the grid.
Piqued by his loss of race one, Noriyuki Haga got off the line fastest in race two, keeping Ben Spies behind him into the first corner, Haarbocht. But by the time the pack had rounded the emasculated Northern Loop, Spies was on Haga, and then up inside him into the Strubben hairpin.
The Texan put the hammer down once again. Spies pulled a gap of a quarter of a second by the end of the first lap, but at the start of lap 2, it all went wrong for the American. Clinging to the outside of the Madijk in the Northern Loop, preparing for the long right hander on the approach to the hairpin, Spies touched the astroturf with his back wheel, and highsided out of the race. The bike cartwheeled dangerously against the fence, and Spies rolled through the gravel, emerging miraculously unhurt.
Noriyuki Haga was not going to look a gift horse of this magnitude in the mouth. Haga set off on a mission, and within 6 laps had built a cushion of nearly 3 seconds. Once Spies crashed out, the race for the win as effectively over, Haga taking the win comfortably and imperiously. Haga's victory brought his win total back level with Spies, but while Haga keeps taking 2nd places when he can't win, Spies has crashed out twice now, giving up valuable points. Haga's championship lead is now up to 60 points, and while Spies looks like a man in a hurry, Haga's brilliance combined with consistency is giving him a firm grasp on his very first championship.
Spies' crash also seemed to end the battle behind Haga as well. Leon Haslam and Max Neukirchner briefly scrapped over 2nd, but when Michel Fabrizio forced Neukirchner off at the Ruskenhoek, Neukirchner rejoining safely after giving up two places, the fight went out of the German, and he dropped back through the field to eventually finish 9th.
Leon Haslam had also been caught out by Fabrizio's pass, dropping down to 3rd behind the Italian. The Stiggy Racing rider was right on the tail of the Xerox Ducati, but it took Haslam 9 laps to get back past, with a courageous pass through the Meeuwenmeer on the final section of the track. Behind Fabrizio, Jakub Smrz had closed on the fight for 2nd place, but the three men maintained such a fast pace that none of them could pass.
The podium seemed settled, but on the final lap, Fabrizio's Ducati developed gearbox problems, allowing Smrz to get past and claim the first podium for both him and his Guandalini Ducati team. Fabrizio lost four seconds on that final lap along with third place, but the gap to the fight for 5th left room for error. Johnny Rea eventually won the battle for 5th, the Ten Kate Honda rider having held off challenges from Tom Sykes, Carlos Checa and Shane Byrne.
In between the two Superbike races, the eagerly awaited World Supersport race had a lot to live up to. The 2008 race had been a classic, with 8 riders entering the final lap with a realistic chance of victory, and the 2009 race did not disappoint. Only the most churlish of spectators would complain that the race featured only 5 men battling at the front, but what a battle it was.
Ten Kate's Kenan Sofuoglu made the early running, but his team mate Andrew Pitt was past him on lap 3, with Motocard Kawasaki rider Joan Lascorz, Parkalgar Honda's Eugene Laverty, and the Yamaha men Cal Crutchlow and Fabien Foret quickly following in Pitt's footsteps.
That Crutchlow was with the front runners was impressive indeed, for despite being on the pole, a bunch of false neutrals off the line left Crutchlow down in 9th at the end of the first lap. But after a superb charge through the field, Crutchlow was quickly snapping at the leaders' heels.
Lascorz and Laverty swapped the lead for most of the race, while behind them, Andrew Pitt mixed it with the Yamaha team mates of Crutchlow and Foret. Foret attempted a lunge inside Crutchlow, into the Strubben hairpin, but his attempt was a little too enthusiastic, and Foret ran wide, forcing Crutchlow wide with him. Pitt saw his chance to pass both Yamahas in one fell swoop, but like Foret, he seized it a little too enthusiastically, losing the front and sliding off. Pitt slid across the track in front of Crutchlow and Foret, Crutchlow not quite missing the Australian, running over his wrist, though fortunately without any serious consequences.
In the end, the race was decided on the last lap. Lascorz led Laverty and Crutchlow into the first corner, but Crutchlow passed Laverty to take 3rd into the Ruskenhoek, Laverty coming straight back at him. The outcome was settled in good Assen tradition on the run into the GT chicane, with Eugene Laverty outbraking Lascorz in a place where the Spaniard had been faster all race, catching Lascorz off-guard to take the win, and allowing Crutchlow through into 2nd. Lascorz was left with the final spot on the podium, but after a disaster at his home race in Valencia two weeks ago, the Spaniard was more than happy to be back on the podium. Frenchman Fabien Foret finished 4th, while Kenan Sofuoglu save a little of Ten Kate's honor by coming home in 5th.
Laverty's second win was more hard fought than his first, but it leaves the Supersport rider with an impressive 50% win record this season. But the field is so strong and so evenly matched in World Supersport this year that a tally such as that is likely to be hard to maintain. Even then, Laverty has established himself as a strong contender for the title. The Supersport Championship is no longer the Ten Kate cup, an achievement that the Parkalgar Honda team is inordinately proud of, their hard work really starting to pay off.