The return of the World Superbike series to Kyalami was eagerly awaited by racing fans all around the world, but most especially the fans in South Africa. The track, which had been scheduled to be demolished and have housing built in its place, features vast elevation changes and sweeping bends, and has been much improved since the removal of the chicane at Turn 12. So interest was high in how the racing would turn out on this tight and in places twisty circuit. Would the tightness of the track make passing difficult, or would the bikes all get bunched up, and a close and typically tight Superbike race ensue?
Noriyuki Haga was fastest away from the line in race 1, Max Biaggi following, before getting duffed up by Ben Spies at Turn to take 2nd. Haga's Xerox Ducati team mate soon joined the fun, wresting 2nd from Spies before the lap was over. The three men who dominated last week's race at Monza soon had a gap back to Johnny Rea, Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi, and set about doing at Kyalami what they had done at Monza.
Haga's lead was not long-lived, Michel Fabrizio taking over first place on the second lap, while Ben Spies hung behind the Xerox Ducatis, assessing his options. Fabrizio tried to forge off on his own, but the Italian could not shake off his team mate, while the blue Yamaha of Spies tailed the pair, the gap slowly starting to grow between Haga and Spies. Haga patiently awaited his chance for the next 10 laps, seizing the opportunity when it presented itself on lap 12, taking back the lead.
Once past, Haga then set about trying to break the tow to Fabrizio, with some success. The Italian started falling back into the clutches of Spies, who had picked up the pace enough to start catching the leading Ducatis. By lap 17, Spies was close enough to attempt a pass, taking 2nd place from Fabrizio as the pair entered the final corner. This was not to Fabrizio's liking, the Italian fighting back, passing Spies only to be passed straight back, but as Spies and Fabrizio squabbled over 2nd spot, Noriyuki Haga took advantage to build enough of a lead that he could defend comfortably.
Spies' defense of 2nd was to cost him eventually, as a big moment going through Turn 5 saw the Texan cede the spot to Fabrizio once and for all. Fabrizio then set about chasing Noriyuki Haga, but he had started the hunt too late. Haga took a convincing victory in race 1, ahead of team mate Fabrizio, with Spies forced to settle for 3rd. Ten Kate Honda's Johnny Rea came home in 4th, just holding off Max Biaggi at the line. The Aprilia rider had chased Rea down in the second half of the race, but could not get past the Ulsterman.
In the second Superbike race of the day, Noriyuki Haga once again got the drop on the field, leading Max Biaggi into the first corner, only for Ben Spies to take 2nd from Biaggi into Turn 2 for the second time that day. There was more to come for Biaggi, however: more specifically, Johnny Rea was to come, the Ten Kate Honda rider also sneaking past before the lap was over. A lap later, and Michel Fabrizio was also past, the Xerox Ducati man having gotten swamped off the line, and fighting his way forward over the first couple of laps.
Ben Spies was determined not to get stuck chasing Haga like he did in race 1, and so passed Haga as quickly as possible, then set about trying to build a lead. His attempt would not last long though, as a broken gear shift saw the American suddenly run wide, then pull up and into the pits on lap 3. Spies had remained calm when he had run out of fuel in the final corner at Monza, but this time he was furious, thumping the tank of his Yamaha R1, and heading straight out the back of the garage after he entered the pits.
Spies' early exit left Noriyuki Haga ideally placed. A clear track ahead of him, and enough of a gap back to Johnny Rea not to have to fear any immediate consequences, he could concentrate on running fast laps round the track. His gap would not last, though, as a lap later, Fabrizio was past Rea and heading for the twin tailpipes of Haga's Ducati. They were to prove an elusive target, as it took Fabrizio the best part of 10 laps before he got close enough to Haga to think about mounting an assault.
The pair had built up an impressive lead over the chasing pack. Rea and Biaggi had been joined by Leon Haslam, who was running a lot faster on his second bike than he had done on his number one bike in the first race. Haslam muscled his way past Biaggi on lap 13, but he could not find his way past his compatriot and fellow Honda rider Rea. He pushed the Ten Kate man hard, even getting past at Westbank, only to give the position straight back again. But try as he might, there was no way through.
At the front, Fabrizio was following Haga, but not close enough to attack. Haga managed the gap masterfully for over ten laps, but on the final couple of laps, Fabrizio abandoned all caution and pushed to catch his Japanese team mate. Arriving on his tail just in time for the final couple of laps, Fabrizio put in a couple of do-or-die moves to try to pass Haga. He tried at Westbank just as the pair were coming up on a backmarker, but ran wide on the exit allowing Haga back past. Then Fabrizio tried once more into the final corner, a truly last gasp effort, but once again, ran wide allowing Haga back into the lead. Noriyuki Haga crossed the line to take the double ahead of his team mate, and crowning the day with their second one-two for Xerox Ducati.
Behind Haga and Fabrizio, Johnny Rea had held up Leon Haslam and Max Biaggi, then put on a burst of speed to secure the final spot on the podium by a comfortable margin. Haslam held off Biaggi to take 4th, while further back, Carlos Checa had held off Shinya Nakano to secure 6th spot. Honorable mention must go to local Superbike champion Sheridan Morais, who on his first time out with the factory Kawasaki picked up a 13th and an 11th spot, a remarkable achievement given the lack of competitiveness of the Kawasaki. Morais was unlucky not to have done better in race 1, but a loss of grip saw him drop from 8th place halfway through the race. What impressed his team more, though, was the fact that he helped the team find a solution for race 2, maintaining consistent speed and position and scoring valuable points.
Noriyuki Haga's double in South Africa combined with Ben Spies mechanical woes means Haga now has the championship very firmly by the throat. There's still a long way to go - we're not quite halfway through the series yet - but Haga's 85 point lead over second place man Michel Fabrizio and the 88 point lead over Ben Spies presents a huge hurdle to overcome. What makes Haga's position even more unassailable is his absolute consistency: 6 wins out of 12 races, 5 second places and just a solitary DNF. Previously, Haga could be relied upon to regularly toss the bike into the air fence, wrecking any title challenge with a few choice DNFs. The more paranoid race fans are starting to suggest that there is something deeply suspicious about the whole affair, and that the next time we see the real Noriyuki Haga will be as he steps off of an alien spaceship on top of Devil's Mount, allowing his all-too-perfect replica to go back to his makers. Whatever it is that Haga has found to make him so consistent, it's working.
The World Supersport series has seen some of the best racing on the planet so far this year, and fans were hoping for more of the same at Kyalami, but they were to be disappointed. Kenan Sofuoglu got off the line first, but Eugene Laverty went with him, and by lap 2, the Irishman was past. At that point, the race was basically over, the Parkalgar Honda man getting a couple of seconds lead within three laps and maintaining his pace as either the fastest or very close to the fastest man on track all race long. Laverty's position never came under any serious threat, and the Irishman reestablished his reputation as Mr 50%, winning half the races run so far.
Laverty's mission was probably helped by the poor start that Cal Crutchlow got off to. The Yamaha rider had been the only other man capable of matching Laverty's pace during practice, and so it was to prove in the race. But by getting swamped off the line, Crutchlow spent the first 5 laps fighting his way forward before he had clear track ahead of him to go and chase Laverty. By this time, Laverty had a comfortable lead, and with both men running the same pace and capable of responding to attacks by the other, Crutchlow's pursuit would eventually be in vain, forced to settle for second, allowing Laverty the victory.
The action was back behind the front two. Kenan Sofuoglu's early lead soon melted away, and once passed, the Turk dropped back through the field, struggling with grip. Team mate Andrew Pitt suffered the same fate, running near the front at first, but soon dropping back after he was passed by Crutchlow. The battle for 3rd place would be between Fabien Foret, Joan Lascorz, Kenan Sofuoglu, and Mark Aitchison.
Foret barged his way to the front of the pack early on, and for much of the race looked capable of hanging on, but on lap 18, the excitable Frenchman crashed out of 3rd, throwing away valuable points. This left Sofuoglu and Lascorz scrapping over 3rd spot, but they spent so much of their time getting in each other's way that they allowed Mark Aitchison to catch then pass them on the last lap. The podium has been a long time coming for the Australian, and is a well-deserved reward for his persistence.
The battle for the World Supersport championship may be a lot closer than the fight for the World Superbike title, yet two clear favorites have already emerged. Two rookies, Cal Crutchlow and Eugene Laverty, have gained a clear advantage and are the two names penciled in for victory, or at worst a podium, at every meeting. The 2009 World Supersport title could be the first since 2001 not to be won by the Ten Kate team. The times, they really are a-changing.