There's just something about Italy and motorcycles. The culture and economy are suffused with the love of all things two-wheel. Chances are, if you are a motorcylist at least a bit of your kit is produced in Italy or maybe your garage is populated by machines that were designed and built by people who have a preternatural passion for motorcycles. Italians love racing, too, and when you combine the two on Italian soil you always have the opportunity for something special. Italian riders feed on this passion and the energy and intensity they absorb makes them try just a bit harder than they might at, say, Sepang or Motegi. Of course, that energy and intensity can have a flip side as well, just ask Colin Edwards, he'll give you a profane mouthful about Italian riders in Italy.
Coming into Imola, 2 riders not from Italy but who have been virtually adopted by the paisanos as their own and whose teams are from the country, came into ths round in a dogfight for the world title. Amercan Ben Spies had clawed back from an 88 point deficit to lead the series by 18 points on the back of 2nd place man Noriyuki Haga's crash in race two at the Nurburgring. This capped a misbegotten string of mostly mediocre races that saw Haga slipping in the points spread, partly due to injuries to his shoulder and arm.
Race One: Old Age and Treachery
The first race saw Max Biaggi get out to an early lead with Haga stalking him closely until, with three laps to go, the man formerly known as Nitro went by and didn't look back, taking his first win since he doubled at Kyalami in May. Haga's teammate, Michele Fabrizio, had also caught Biaggi and it took last gasp pass by the Roman Emperor in the final chicane to secure his second step on the box. Fabrizio, who claimed that arm-pump type symptoms had rendered his clutch hand so numb that he could barely feel the bars, took the final podium spot in front of a rapidly fading Ben Spies. Spies, who hung around in the place he would eventually finish, fourth, for most of the race, claimed that electronic settings rendered his R1 so powerless that it seemed like he was "riding a 600" for 21 laps. Final score: Three Italian bikes and two Italian riders on the box.
Race 2: Youth and Enthusiasm
At the light, the Dynamic Ducati Duo of Haga and Fabrizio took off with Aprilia-mounted Max Biaggi trailing in their wake. Fabrizio dispatched Haga about halfway through the race and ran off for his second career win, arm pump apparently vanquished by a liberal jolt of winner's adrenaline. Current 250cc Word Champion Marco Simoncelli, in a one-off appearance for Aprilia, after finally dispatching a pesky Shakey Byrne with Ben Spies in tow, caught a fading Biaggi with 9 laps to go and in a move that redefines the term "hairball pass" forced the Emperor off track, nearly collecting the hapless Spies, who took an unwanted trip through the kitty litter, killing his momentum. Final Score: 4 Italian bikes and 3 Italian riders in the top 4.
Back to Square One
With 4 races to go in the season, we're nearly back where we started, lo those many weeks ago. Haga leads Spies by 3 points and he looks like the Nitro of old, minus the proclivity to toss the machinery into the scenery at the most inopportune times. Although the majority of the paddock would kill for a 4th and 5th place weekend, it ain't what we expect from Ben Spies. Whether it was a rustiness developed in the three week hiatus (Ducati and Aprilia had tested for two days at Mugello during the break) or an unfortunate recurrence of the rotten Spies luck, the Texan looked, well, flat. Hopefully he'll be back at the front at Magny Cours next weekend so that this shining season can end with the lustre it deserves.