If Assen is the Cathedral of motorcycle racing, then Monza is its Hoover Dam - a track built with a grand purpose, steeped in history, and as impressive today as it was when it was first conceived and completed. The circuit is located on the outskirts of Milan, Italy's industrial capital, in a huge park that was once part of the Villa Reale, a palace that belonged to the Habsburg dynasty. And so the casual visitor can find themselves wandering through the Arcadian beauty of the heavily wooded park only to find the peace abruptly shattered by the bark of a Ducati Superbike, or the shriek of a Ferrari Formula One car, or the massed howl of Monza track day.
Originally built in 1922 as a test track for testing for prolonged periods at high speeds, the circuit is still renowned for its very fast nature. It is basically series of high speed corners interrupted by a handful of chicanes, and topped off by the Parabolica, one of the great and frightening spectacles of racing, the corner opening up as the bikes head back onto the front straight. The brave just pin the throttle and change up through the gears, but the corner is so fast that you can draft the rider ahead of you, pulling out just before you cross the line to take a spectacular last lap victory.
As you might expect of a nation which is happy to locate a race track in the middle of a city park without complaining, winning is important for the Italians at Monza, and nothing could make the Italians happier than to see an Italian rider on an Italian bike take victory at the fifth round of the World Superbikes series here this weekend. Luckily for the Italians, they have two real chances of that happening at Monza on Sunday.
Both candidates have their problems, though. Max Biaggi got off to an excellent start aboard the Aprilia RSV4, bagging a pair of podiums at the Qatar round, but since then, he has struggled a little. Biaggi's particular problem is the new Superpole format, where the Italian has been caught out a couple of times and left to start a long way down the grid. But if there's one thing the Aprilia is, it's fast, regularly being the fastest bike through the speed traps. Monza is a track where that could well pay off, as long as Biaggi isn't stuck behind traffic for too long.
As much as Ducati's Michel Fabrizio would like to win at Monza, he still has question marks hanging over his consistency. The Italian is certainly stronger this year than last, and has been on the podium twice and just off it twice more. But he also has a 9th place and a couple of DNFs to his name. Fabrizio had a mostly indifferent weekend at Monza last year, and though he should do better this weekend, he is still more likely to finish in the top 5 rather than on the top step.
The truth is that Ducati's best hope of victory lies with Noriyuki Haga. The Japanese rider has looked nigh on invincible this year, with only one man finishing ahead of Haga so far. Haga has been reliable as clockwork, and has looked incredibly smooth on the Ducati 1198F09. So much so that the tinfoil hat community are starting to speculate about some kind of Stepford Wives-style apparatus being secretly installed in the bowels of Ducati's Borgo Panigale factory, the "real" Haga being kept in suspended animation.
Haga's record at the races this season echoes his record at Monza: in the past two years, he's had three wins and one 2nd here, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Nitro Nori knows how to win here. Only the most foolhardy of betting men would consider wagering against Haga taking at least one victory at Monza on Sunday.
The only man capable of stopping Haga at Monza is the only man capable of beating the Ducati rider all year. Ben Spies has made a sensational start to his rookie World Superbike season, taking four straight poles and sharing the victories with Haga. Spies' problem is that rather than the four 2nd places that Haga has, he has two DNFs, a 2nd and a finish outside the points. The 16th place finish was beyond his control, but the two crashes - one at Valencia, one at Assen - were down to Spies and Spies alone. Spies results may have been good enough to land the Yamaha Motor Italia team a major sponsorship deal with Italian yogurt maker Sterilgarda, the crashes have cost Spies dearly. Spies is a safe bet for one victory at Monza - he was fastest here at the tests a few weeks ago - but his rostrum or hospital finishes so far spell busy times for the track marshals in Italy.
Yamaha's sponsorship deal will be adding to the air of gloom hanging over Shane Byrne's Sterilgarda Ducati team, run by Marco Borciani. The team has already had to let Alex Polita go - now Barry Veneman's Suzuki team mate in World Supersport - due to a shortage of sponsorship funds, and if Sterilgarda pulls out of the title sponsor role, then the future of BRC Racing (as the team is called when it doesn't have a title sponsor) must be at stake. That would be a blow for Shakey Byrne, who has had a rough start to the season, nowhere near as competitive as his preseason testing form would seem to indicate. But after winning the CIV Italian championship Superbike race by 16 seconds last weekend at Monza, he will at least be ready for the track.
The man who gave Haga a run for his money last year could yet pull a rabbit out of hat here in 2009. Max Neukirchner won race 1 by less than 6/100ths of a second, then lost race 2 by just 9/1000ths of a second last year. The German has been much less competitive on the Alstare Suzuki so far this season, but it has been luck rather than talent which has been holding him back so far. Neukirchner arrives at Monza with happy memories, and will be looking to add a few more before the weekend is over.
Before the season started, all eyes were on the Ten Kate team to mount a serious challenge for the title. But so far, the Netherlands-based Honda team have been very disappointing, the team's best result Ryuichi Kiyonari's 4th place in Qatar. Since then, Kiyonari has been mediocre at best, while Carlos Checa is starting to show signs of the bad old days that earned him the moniker Careless Chucker, crashing out with alarming regularity. Even Johnny Rea, the young Ulsterman who showed so much promise last year in World Supersport and during testing has been mostly indifferent. At least Rea's form has shown the first signs of a renaissance over the past couple of races, but he will have to build on that at Monza.
The big surprise in the Honda camp has been that not Ten Kate, but Stiggy Racing has been the team to beat. Leon Haslam has been on the podium three times so far this year, and at Assen even looked like disrupting Spies and Haga's monopoly on the top two podium spots. If anyone is going to break up the American-Japanese podium party, Haslam is the most likely candidate. With John Hopkins having taken himself out of racing at Assen for the second year in succession, Haslam will be joined at Monza by another American, Jake Zemke. Zemke was due to race here last year, until paperwork problems prevented him. Bureaucracy permitting, Zemke will finally get his chance to race in World Superbikes this weekend.
If the likely podium candidates look all too familiar, there could still be a couple of riders who could wreck their plans. Two more Ducati riders have looked strong this season: Regis Laconi has been coming home 4th almost more often than not, having a much better year on the DFX Ducati than he did last year on the Kawasaki. Laconi had an awful weekend at Monza in 2008, and so 2009 can hardly be worse. Jakub Smrz had his first ever podium at Assen last time out, and the Czech rider is starting to find the consistency that he has previously missed. He has always been fast, qualifying well, but that has never translated into race results. With one podium under his belt, Smrz will be hungry for more.
While Aprilia have had excellent results with a brand new bike, BMW have struggled with their new Superbike. It would be hard to blame the riders, both Troy Corser and Ruben Xaus seasoned veterans and multiple winners in World Superbikes, with Corser a double World Champion. But the bike is just not where it needs to be yet, a state of affairs that is unlikely to change at Monza.
Much the same could be said for Kawasaki. No matter who runs the factory-supported Kawasaki World Superbike team, and no matter who rides the ZX-10R, the results remain the same. For whatever reason, Kawasakis just refuse to be competitive in World Superbikes, no matter how hard the parties involved try.
The odd thing is that the World Supersport series is the only class that Kawasaki seems to be capable of performing. WSS veteran Katsuake Fujiwara and especially the young Spaniard Joan Lascorz have been very tough competitors this year, Lascorz coming with one corner of victory at Assen. Lascorz is in sparkling for this season, and should show well at Monza.
The Glaner Motocard Kawasaki team haven't been the only team to be competitive in World Supersport this year. Indeed, what's remarkable about the series in 2009 is the depth of competition. Ten Kate cup no more, any one of seven men have looked capable of winning, sometimes even as the race entered the final lap. Probably the best and closest racing on the planet at the moment, the strength of the field has made for a deeply entertaining series.
Though it may not be the Ten Kate cup this year, that doesn't mean that Ten Kate have forgotten how to be competitive. With a win and three podiums, Kenan Sofuoglu and Andrew Pitt have still been the men to beat in the World Supersport class. The problem is that other riders have managed that feat rather too easily this season, the team struggling with the '09 version of the CBR600RR - despite the bike being little changed from last year - and either failing to finish or being well down the field on a couple of occasions.
No such problems for the Parkalgar Honda team. Despite appeals by other Honda teams that the Parkalgar bikes have been using illegal parts - a claim disproved every time they have been inspected - the team run by Simon Buckmaster has been nothing but impressive this year. Much of that is down to Irishman Eugene Laverty, the revelation of the season. After several years struggling in the 250 World Championship, Laverty finally bagged himself a competitive ride. And he has grabbed that opportunity with both hands, his win rate up at 50% so far this season. Laverty will feature at the front in Monza, despite never having raced here before.
Ant West is proof of that. West came here in 2007, and in his first ride on a World Supersport bike, the Australian put the Yamaha R6 on the podium. Now back in World Supersport after an abortive year in MotoGP aboard a - surprise, surprise - Kawasaki, West has consistently run at the front this season. West will be keen to repeat his Yamaha podium for his new team, Stiggy Honda, on Sunday, and only the closeness of the competition is likely to keep him off it.
Yamaha will be keen to keep their podium record at Monza going this weekend. The Yamaha Supersport team took 1st and 3rd here last year, and Fabien Foret will be dead set on a repeat of his win this year. So far, the Frenchman has been outclassed by his rookie team mate, Cal Crutchlow, whose 4th place finish in his first race is his worst result of the year. Crutchlow is young, fast, and learns quickly, and will be keen to keep a hold on his championship lead at Monza. But in the World Supersport class, that is an awfully tough task.
Monza is not just a magnificent circuit in a magnificent location, it also seems to produce some of the best racing imaginable. The top three Superbikes finished within yards of each other here last year, and there's every reason to believe that this year could well be the same. Monza is a circuit that has gone down in racing legend, and every year, we get to see just why that is. This Sunday will be no different.