So far this year, the World Superbike races have followed an almost clockwork pattern: If Noriyuki Haga doesn't win the race, then the man chosen as Troy Bayliss' heir apparent at Xerox Ducati comes second to Ben Spies. And if the Yamaha Motor Italia rider doesn't win, then he either comes second to Haga or is involved in some bizarre incident which sees the American crash out or finish out of the points. With Haga and Spies having dominated the races so completely so far this year, the World Superbike paddock arrived at Monza expecting little to change.
Haga's team mate Michel Fabrizio had other ideas, though. The Italian was quickest in every session of practice and qualifying on Friday and Saturday and was clearly the man to beat. Only another masterful qualifying performance during Superpole saw Ben Spies take his 5th pole in a row, a feat never before equaled in any form of motorcycle racing. With Haga only qualifying on the second row, the Japanese/American stranglehold on race wins looked like being broken for the first time at Monza.
Monza's notorious first chicane wreaked havoc at the start of the first Superbike race. Someone, most probably Makoto Tamada, clipped the back of Brendan Roberts' Guandalini Ducati as the bikes braked for the chicane, pushing the Australian off track and onto the grass, which flung him off the bike. His bike then slid onto the track and into the Suzuki of Max Neukirchner, breaking the German's femur and dislocating his foot, and putting the likable Neukirchner out of action for at least four weeks. Elsewhere in the mayhem, Troy Corser and Tommy Hill came together, flipping both Hill's Honda and Corser's BMW up in the air, causing Hill's CBR1000RR to catch fire.
With burning fuel and broken bikes all over the track, the race stewards were left with no option but to red flag the race. Back in the pits, Stiggy Racing's Leon Haslam summed what had happened up in a single word: "Carnage." The carnage caused the race to be delayed for nearly an hour, as repairs were made to the track and the astroturf on the outside of the chicane. With Neukirchner out injured, Haga moved up onto the front row of the grid, putting Nitro Nori in a much better starting position to enter that first and demonstrably perilous corner.
Haga immediately took advantage of his improved grid position to snatch the lead away from the line, with Ben Spies and Michel Fabrizio following close behind. Neukirchner's team mate Yukio Kagayama could only follow the leading trio for the first couple of laps before being dropped, then getting caught up in a battle with Max Biaggi which would last almost the entire race.
Fabrizio took over the lead on the way into the Ascari chicane, and spent the first four laps swapping paint with his Japanese team mate, while Spies bided his time behind them. Then a mistake by the Italian saw Haga and Spies pass, the Texan taking over the lead as the pair crossed the line. Spies put his head down and charged, but a lead over just over a second was as much as the Yamaha rider would ever get.
Behind Spies, Fabrizio closed on his team mate Haga, then after briefly disputing who got to chase the Texan, the pair of them closed the gap to the Yamaha, Fabrizio leading the way. The Italian was putting in one of his best races ever, almost impossible to pass on the brakes and very fast out of Ascari and down the back straight towards the Parabolica and the line. Fabrizio passed Spies as they crossed the line to start lap 16 and held on for a lap, before a brutal pass by Spies into the Roggia chicane forced Fabrizio wide and let both Spies and Haga past. Not to be denied a shot at his first ever victory, the Italian closed first on Haga, passing the Japanese rider into Ascari, the set about chasing Spies.
But Haga was not of a mind to just lie down and let Fabrizio past, and the two Xerox Ducati's spent so much of their energy battling each other that Spies could easily slip away at the front. The Texan looked to be safely on his way to yet another World Superbike victory and a chance to close the points gap to Haga. Spies led into the Parabolica, the fast final corner, but he would not exit the corner ahead. In a bizarre twist of fate, the American's Yamaha died on him from a lack of fuel in mid -corner, and the Texan was forced to coast all the way to the line, giving up his hard-fought lead.
Spies misfortune handed Michel Fabrizio the win on a silver platter, the Italian holding off his team mate to take his maiden victory. It had been a long time coming, and he celebrated it accordingly. Max Biaggi crossed the line in 3rd, but was later penalized 20 seconds for cutting across the first chicane, dropping the Italian to 11th and handing 3rd place to Ryuichi Kiyonari, who had spent the race battling with Yukio Kagayama. Disconsolate, Spies crossed the line in 15th, salvaging a solitary championship point.
The American couldn't afford to repeat that mistake in race two. Spies was lucky that Fabrizio had got ahead of Haga, the Japanese rider now 79 points ahead in the title race. But at the start of race two, it was Nori Haga who got away from the line fastest, leading into the first chicane. Leading has its disadvantages however, as Haga found out to his discomfort. As the bikes howled round the tree-lined Curva Grande bend, the racket disturbed a flock of pigeons and Haga was the first to hit them. A bird strike at over 160mph is excruciatingly painful, and Haga lost all feeling in his arm, forcing the Ducati man to pull up, Haga dropping through the field like a stone. Even worse was to follow for Haga, as the loss of feeling meant that he made a mistake going into Parabolica, crashing spectacularly out of the race, his first DNF of an otherwise clockwork season.
Ben Spies, who had been following Haga, also hit the birds, but with Haga running interference for him, the Texan missed the worst of the flock and got away with a few glancing shots. Seeing Haga drop out of the lead, Spies immediately seized his chance. The American put the hammer down, pulling away by over half a second a lap for the first half of the race. By lap 10, Spies had a lead of over 5 seconds, and settled down to manage the race. The Texan slowed up a little in the final third of the race as his engine temperature began to rise in the heat, but he still came home to keep his 50% victory record intact, winning by over 2.6 seconds and pulling back 25 valuable points. The win cut his deficit to Haga to 54, 6 fewer than at the start of the weekend. After the disastrous finish to race one, that is something Spies surely couldn't have bargained on.
Behind Spies, Michel Fabrizio was quickly run down by Ten Kate Honda's Ryuichi Kiyonari. Kiyo and Fabrizio scrapped it out for the first two thirds of the race, Fabrizio leading at first, then Kiyonari getting past on lap 7, passing Fabrizio on the brakes into the chicane in a do-or-die pass. After dropping back a little, Fabrizio regrouped, then picked up his pace to first catch and then repass the Ten Kate Honda, brutally elbowing Kiyonari aside on his way into the chicane. Once past, Fabrizio just had the edge on the Japanese rider, and Kiyonari had to settle for 3rd. Fabrizio topped off a remarkable weekend with a 2nd place to add to his win in race one.
Johnny Rea came home in 4th place, after running with Kiyonari and Fabrizio in the early laps, but once Kiyo got past, he could never get close enough to attempt a pass. Max Biaggi crossed the line just yards behind Rea in 5th, coming up just short at a shot of taking 4th from the Ulsterman. Spies' team mate Tom Sykes ended up in 6th, ahead of Leon Haslam, while a race-long battle for 8th was finally decided in Jakub Smrz' favor, small consolation for a difficult weekend after his podium at Assen. Smrz finished ahead of Ruben Xaus, Carlos Checa and Regis Laconi. The result gave Ruben Xaus his best weekend of the season aboard the BMW, and consolation for the team after Troy Corser had to withdraw from race two with injuries suffered in two crashes during the two attempts at running race one.
Like Spies, Eugene Laverty was keen to improve on his 50% victory record in the World Supersport series, and the Irishman got a rocket start into the first chicane, leading Kenan Sofuoglu on the first lap. The Ten Kate man passed Laverty going into Ascari, but by the time they braked at the end of the back straight, Laverty had retaken the lead, and Sofuoglu was dropping back and would struggle for the rest of the race to finish 9th.
A group of six quickly formed at the front, with Cal Crutchlow on the Yamaha leading the Hondas of Eugene Laverty, Andrew Pitt and Mark Aitchison, and the Kawasakis of Joan Lascorz and Katsuake Fujiwara. Fujiwara was the first to be dropped, his place taken by the storming Fabien Foret. Crutchlow's Yamaha team mate had smashed the lap record on his way forward, and was riding on and sometimes just beyond the limit to get past, enough to raise complaints from the managers of competing teams after the race.
By lap 11, the six had become four, Pitt losing touch and Aitchison crashing out, and it looked like being a repeat of Assen, with the race decided in the very last corner. But Laverty and Foret slugging it out over first allowed Crutchlow past, and then the Yamaha man used the superior top speed of his YZF-R6 to slip away while Foret and Laverty tripped each other up. Crutchlow focused on being fast and smooth, cruising home to his second victory in the class, and a comfortable 18 point lead in the championship.
Laverty's squabble with Foret had also allowed Joan Lascorz to catch the Parkalgar Honda and the Yamaha, and after nearly pushing each other into the dirt at the chicane, Joan Lascorz came home in 2nd, ahead of Fabien Foret, with Eugene Laverty losing out in the mayhem. Pitt was first of the Ten Kate riders home in 5th, just ahead of Katsuake Fujiwara. Pitt's 5th place finish put him ahead of Ant West, who crashed out on lap 3, a dismal ending to a miserable weekend.
The teams all fly out to South Africa now, heading south to Kyalami. The grid will be a little thinner at the South African track, however, as a number of teams have decided to forgo the flyaway rounds at Kyalami and Miller Motorsports Park in Utah to save money. The financial crisis is still having an effect on the World Superbike and World Supersport paddock, but luckily for the fans, the racing is as good as ever.