Before the 20210 World Superbike season began, pundits (including yours truly) took great relish in playing the prognostication game. In this fantasy world, the Xerox Ducati teammates of Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio were the odds-on pre-season favorites. Some, however, conjectured that Haga was so psychologically devastated from flinging away the 2009 championship at the last round at Portimao that he wouldn't be able to go through the same excruciating process this year, but most thought that when push came to shove, Nitro Nori would summon his inner warrior and make yet another serious quest for his first World Superbike championship.
Other sure contenders were thought to be Max Biaggi, aboard an Aprilia RSV4 that would benefit from a year of development, Jonny Rea, also in his sophomore year on the Ten Kate Honda, James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen, who both had something to prove after their demotion from MotoGP. And, oh yeah, Leon Haslam was doing good things in testing on the Alstare Suzuki and was clearly a man to be watched.
The first two rounds showed why the pundits write about motorcycle racing instead of living off earnings gained by picking the ponies. Championship leader Haslam has indeed been a force to be reckoned with, with one race win and three second place finishes. Biaggi, with his recent double win at Portimao, has shown that he hasn't lost anything and is still the Roman Emperor of old. Vermeulen and Toseland have gotten hurt and haven't really made the impact that they were predicted.
Most disappointing, however have been the Dynamic Ducati duo at the factory Xerox team. Although they started out the season creditably well at Phillip Island with two podiums for Fabrizio and one for Haga, they fell off the the edge of the Earth at Portimao. If Haga was to regain the form necessary to fight for the title, he needed to make a statement of intent and he needed to make it soon. The Ricardo Tomo Circuit near Valencia, with it's tight, twisty layout that theoretically favored the torquey Ducati twins was thought to be a near-perfect spot for a season turn-around. Superpole wasn't that statement with both Haga and Fabrizio failing to make the cut for the final session.
Race 1 -- Neon Leon
Troy Corser, who claims that he has finally gotten "comfortable' on the BMW S1000RR after extensive electronics modifications to the German machine, got a rocket start from his fifth-place grid position ahead of the ageless duo of Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi. Polesitter Cal Crutchlow didn't fare nearly as well and was shuffled back to seventh position. Checa nosed ahead of Corser near the end of the first lap, and after a bit of scuffling between the pair, edged out to a short-lived lead.
On lap three, Checa turned a miracle save into a gravel nap a scant turn later, giving the lead back to Corser. Corser's lead lasted a brief two laps when series leader Haslam went by the Australian on the brakes going into turn one. From then on out, the Pocket Rocket maintained a comfortable lead en route to his second race win of the 2010 season.
Behind Haslam, Corser, Max Biaggi and James Toseland, who had made an admirable run to the front from his 9th place staring position, settled into a lead pack that included Biaggi's Alitalia Aprilia teammate Leon Camier as the tail gunner on a tight 4-rider formation. Camier crashed out on lap eight and Toseland got by Biaggi and Corser to slot into second. Corser slipped to fourth on lap ten and Toseland and Biaggi commenced a tussle for the second spot on the podium that saw Biaggi gain the upper hand with 4 laps to go.
Race 2 -- Return of the Samurai
Carlos Checa jumped out to an early lead from the start, then the race was red-flagged when a luckless Simon Andrews, who had replaced an injured Chris Vermeulen on the Paul Bird Kawasaki team, came together with Vittorio Iannuzzo on lap three. BSB stalwart Andrews, who claimed that the accident was the Italian's fault, suffered a broken foot in the scary-looking collision.
On the re-start, the pair of flourescent orange and green Alitalia Aprilias quickly went to the lead, with the other Leon, Camier, ahead of Max Biaggi. Camier was the leader on the track, but Carlos Checa was in front on aggregate time, having carved out a .6 second advantage before the stoppage of the race. Camier maintained his physical lead until about half-way through the race, when he suffered his second crash of the day in turn 12.
After Camier retired, Haga, who had made his way up from his starting position of 11th to join the lead pack, went into the lead, with Biaggi and Checa trailing behind, with neither having to actually pass the Xerox Ducati rider to win the race. The last few laps were a combination of tactics and mathematics (a combination that always makes this commentator's head hurt) that saw Haga nip Checa for his first win of the 2010 season by .025 seconds.
Leon Haslam continues to lead the series going into Assen, padding his lead over Max Biaggi to 18 points. Haslam, who podiumed twice at the Dutch track in 2009 on the privateer Stiggy Honda, will again be the rider to watch. All eyes will also be on Haga, who won one race and finished second in 2009. The question that begs answering is whether Haga can back up the statement he made on Sunday in Spain.