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.