WSBK: Portimao Race Notes -- Last Man Standing


The 2009 World Superbike season has been one for the ages. Close racing, victories snatched from the jaws of defeat (and vice-versa), heartbreak, triumph and an against-all-odds comeback from near-Palookaville. The ultimate protagonists were the stuff of central race-film casting: The lovable but aging hard-luck veteran who has been oh-so-close to the brass ring nearly too many times to count pitted against the hot young kid, a tall, cool Texan with a thousand mile stare.
As if according to a Hollywood script, our heroes came to the last round of the year in a virtual dead heat for the championship. All the ingredients for an epic confrontation were in place. Winning was essential, failure not an option. At the end of the day, one would saunter off into the sunset wreathed in victory and one would have the bitter ashes of defeat lingering on his palate, but they both would have fought the good fight and have acquitted themselves with honor.  Unfortunately, real life has a way of being a bit more prosaic than what we would crave. Today's races, while hardly unexciting, were just that sort of reality check.

Race 1 -- All Fall Down

An executive summary would show that Ben Spies jumped out to an early lead and stayed there the whole race and took his fourteenth win of the season. It wasn't nearly that easy. Max Biaggi, hurting from his Saturday crash and 250 foot slide on his back, harried Spies until just after halfway when Ten Kate Honda's Jonny Rea Joined the party and kept Biaggi occupied with Shakey Byrne hooking up with the pair with about 7 laps to go.

Noriyuki  Haga got a good start and had advanced from tenth place to sixth by the first split and moved into fifth when Leon Haslam ran wide. Haga's race and year unraveled five laps into the race on a tricky downhill left where he simultaneously lost the front of his Ducati 1098 and the World Championship that he has sought for the last 13 years. Haga was having trouble getting the bike turned during qualifying and reportedly had the choice between a front tire that stuck well but was resistant to turn-in and a nimbler harder compound that had a reputation for letting go with little warning. Haga made his choice the one from column "B" and that tire lived up to it's advance billing, tucking in on hard braking and depositing the Xerox Ducati rider into the kitty litter, never to return.

Spies' strategy then changed from win at all costs to being consistent and "not doing anything stupid" in an effort to keep the Roman Emperor behind him, because he knew that the extra five points for the win would be crucial.  Spies task eased when Jonny Rea caught Biaggi and the pair battled for the second step on the podium, a conflict the young Ulsterman won midway through the penultimate lap. Haga's disastrous bin reversed the two top men's fortunes and left Spies with a fifteen point cushion.

Race 2 -- A Little Too Little, A Little Too Late

The start of race two saw Shane "Shakey" Byrne jump out to an early lead followed by Spies. Biaggi, Rea and Fabrizio subsequently got through on Spies, who looked a bit tentative. According to Spies, he dropped back because he wanted no part of a fight for the lead when all he needed was to finish in 6th. What was left unsaid was that the lead pack consisted of a group of bona-fide nutters whose antics had led them and other unwilling victims (including Spies) to grief at various junctures in the past season.

Haga, who had elected to ride his "B" Ducati shod with the softer rubber compound, started his move through the pack halfway through the race and settled into third, behind Fabrizio and Rea. Meanwhile, Spies and Biaggi had become locked into a duel for 5th. Spies would have happily puttered around on his lonesome just quickly enough to maintain sixth place but Biaggi's hairball passing manuevers and subsequent run-offs "really freaked me out".

Rea's tires started to give out toward the end, allowing Fabrizio and Haga through. Fabrizio took the win ahead of his Japanese teammate who also finished in the bridesmaid position in the championship for the third time in his career. Rea managed to trundle home in third, followed by Byrne and Spies, whose fifth-place finish left him with a six point cushion that earned him the 2009 World Superbike championship in his Rookie year.


It's a shame that either Haga or Spies had to lose the championship. Both earned our respect and admiration for their talent, bravery and conduct both on and off the track this season. We fans have the memory of some great racing to carry us into the winter months and the inevitable bench racing to inflame our passions and keep us warm. However, there's always next year to look forward too. I, for one, can hardly wait -- it oughta be good.


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in a way not the ending i had wanted to see

in a way, exactly the way it should have ended

the bummer about this championship is that we only had a handful of races where the two championship leaders were actually head to head in a race. it was very much a season made close and eventually decided by mistakes.

however, one thing is clear - haga and spies were incredible.

No disagreements there.

Still, I've noticed that Spies is best when he's under pressure. I was somewhat concerned going into race 2 with a 15 point lead. He pulled it off, but dang, he's just not that great puttering around--but on the limit... he's phenomenal.

In my humblest opinion, BOTH Spies and Haga are champions. With all the of the bad luck both of these men endured, they're light years ahead of their peers.

A fitting finish to a great season. I'm no fan of team orders, but Haga (and the rest of his side of the garage) has to be wondering what if... What if Fabrizio and Haga had finished 2-1 instead of 1-2 at Imola-R2 and Portimao-R2?

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Invariably, the "what ifs" start flowing in the minutes after a champion is crowned. And we can engage in just sort of an exercise ad nauseum.

But lets assume the "team orders" were in place as you suggest and you swap those Fab/Haga one-twos, and engage in some "what ifs". After watching Spies's utter dominance in Superpole and then in Race 1 at Portimao, do you honestly think he would have not ridden Race 2 in his calculating manner if he was ahead by only 10 points rather than 15 going into Race 2 (i.e. by giving Haga 5 more points from Imola as your hypothetical suggests)? Answer, of course he would have. But rather than maintain a 6th place or higher to secure the title (and ultimately grabbing 5th in the end), Spies would have simply adjusted his style and grabbed 3rd to ensure victory by 1 point. Reducing such hypothetical "what if team orders" were in place to what they are; meaningless musings.

In the end, all that really matters is what happened, not what could have happened. And what happened was Ben Spies was crowned 2009 WSBK Champion.

what if haga hadn't crashed out of portimao race 1?
what if haga hadn't crashed out of donington race 2?

Ducati could've won the riders championship as well, but they're tactical blunders are nothing new.

That being said, Ben showed himself to be far and away the class of the field. Congrats Ben! Great job...

And if Spies had LOST, we'd have been saying "What if Biaggi hadn't punted him off the track, race 1 at Phillips Island?"

All meaningless.

Now, I want to see how Spies looks two weeks from yesterday.

I'm also not a big fan of "what if" situations, but since they all seem to be going towards Haga's side (and I am a fan of both Haga and Spies); what if Ben hadn't run out of gas? What if he hadn't had an electrical problem here or there? Then the final round wouldn't have meant anything, because he would have had a much bigger lead going into it.

Overall, it was a great season. The action in WSB highlighted (for me anyway) the lack in MotoGP. Except for a few races, MotoGP was a snooze-fest. I actually fast-forwarded through most of these last two races. By contrast, WSB has so much action going on, by so many different riders, it's impossible to even see it all happen. Just look at the lap-time differences. In WSB it is not uncommon to see the top-15 covered by a second or so. In MotoGP, it more like the top 3 covered by a second, and the rest of the riders spread a half second apart, all the way down the line. At full race distance, those differences make for a boring spectacle . One where you can see (at most) two or three bikes on-screen at any given time, versus as many as ten in WSB.

I am sad to see Ben go to MotoGP, though maybe he can liven it up a bit.

Next season should be another great one for WSB - though there won't be any Americans to root for - but I have no qualms about cheering on a Brit or two, even (dare I say it) a certain Frenchman.

It would be nice to say that Haga has an excellent chance to win it with Spies gone next year. However, this season has seen the Aprilia evolve into a very capable machine, and it will be ridden by two great riders (assuming Camier's excellent performances are rewarded with a factory ride). 2009 also saw an nice Irish lad develop into a real title contender, provided he learns when to push, and when to conserve his position. Also, Haslam will be on a factory Suzuki next year, and considering his performance on the financially-strapped Stiggy Honda team, he can't be taken out of the equation. Oh yeah, and Fabio, too (though I prefer not to think about him).

So, a great year gives way to a difficult off-season. Thank goodness for winter testing, or I might lose my mind.

David (and now Mike), thanks for all your excellent coverage and commentary, I really appreciate original content and informed opinions in a world of regurgitated press releases.

1) Tardozzi should be fired for not signaling Fabrizio to pull over at Imola.

2) It is time for Biaggi to retire, he is a menace on the race track.

What if "D-O-G" really spelled "cat"?

What if nuclear bombs were actually filled with marshmallow creme instead of radioactive material?

What if Ethel the Aardvark really DID go quantity surveying?

What if down was really up?

What if up was really down?

What if a woman weighed the same as a duck, thereby proving that she was made of wood? What if that really DID mean that she was a witch?

What if they really DID "go to 11"?

What if it really WAS "only a flesh wound"?

What if there was a world without hypothetical situations?

By the way, Mike, that was an absolutely SCINTILLATING article. You and David are in a class of exactly TWO. I never tire of the fact that I have the privilege of daily visiting motomatters to partake in news, analysis, and discussion of my beloved motorsport...and it all comes packaged not in press releases, but in beautifully-written, grammatically-correct, TYPO-FREE(!) essays that always delight, often wax lyrical, and occasionally border on the sublime. Race results can be obtained from any news source, but there is NO other place where we can read about the rather "prosaic" nature of this thrilling season's "denouement". I am thankful to have access to this amazing news source, and as far as the community is concerned, I am blessed to be a member of this merry band of miscreants. Together, we'll all somehow make it to next season with our collective sanity intact. (HA!)