The 2009 road racing season is off to a smashing start with a barn-burner display by the World Superbike folks at Philip Island in Australia this past weekend. Veteran Noriyuki Haga (first year on the factory Ducati, although he’s ridden a "customer" version in the past), and WSB so-called rookie Ben Spies (first year racing anything but Suzuki, on the new "cross-plane" Yamaha R-1), fought for top place in the limelight.
In his first WSB appearance, Spies took the pole position, which was fairly impressive. Then in the first race he got run off the track on the second corner by Aprilia’s Max Biaggi (who in fairness — and I hate being fair to Biaggi — looked like he might have been dodging somebody else), managed not to crash, rejoined dead last and fought back to finish 16th out of the 24 riders, just out of the points but running lap times as fast as the leaders.
Haga in the meantime had a horrible starting position, back on the fourth row. The new Superpole qualifying procedure smells like a long-dead halibut, and Haga’s team wasn’t the only one to get screwed up by the arcane three-level process. Still, having qualified 13th Nitro Nori got a remarkable start, had an astounding first lap, and was second the first time they crossed the finish line. Unbelievable.
Haga repeated his rocket-launch start in the second race, but Spies didn’t get nudged this time and won his first WSB race in his second try. Very impressive indeed.
The first race saw a number of leaders. Series newcomer Jonathon Rea of the U.K., on one of the HAANspree Ten Kate Honda CBR1000s, took the point first, with Italian Regis Laconi (DFX Ducati), German Max Neukirchner (Suzuki Alstare Brux GSX-R1000), and Haga trading places initially, until Neukirchner and Haga gradually pulled away, making it a two-bike race for the lead. Neukirchner’s Suzuki had unbelievable speed on Philip Island’s long front straight, Haga tried time and time again to get by in the draft but could never quite make it. Ultimately he did (perhaps Neukirchner didn’t get quite his usual drive as the Suzuki was clearly using up its tires faster than was the Ducati), although the German returned the favour a couple of laps later.
On the third-last corner of the last lap, Neukirchner had a big moment as the GSX-R tossed him into the air; Haga was past, Neukirchner somehow held the bike and got back on the gas, and Haga held on to win at the line by about a bike length as they approached 300 km/h — the Ducati techs at the line weren’t sure that their guy had won, it was that close. Superb race.
Third went to Neukirchner’s team-mate Yukio Kagayama.
Then in race two, Haga repeated his lightning start and tagged onto Spies, the two having a back and forth battle until Spies elected to settle in and follow Haga until a few laps from the end, when Spies finally pulled out a moderately comfortable lead to take the win: " I sat and watched Nori. We were strong in the first half but really slow in the back two corners and I couldn’t stay with him, then when the tires went off we just went to the front with four to go and I put my head down."
Haga said, "I did a nice start again and then during the race I really enjoyed fighting with Ben. It was hard to pull away from him but in the last five laps my tires were finished and I couldn’t push anymore and I just kept the second position. I think this weekend we did a good job except for qualifying and now I’m in the lead of the championship."
Third went to Leon Haslam, son of racing great Ron Haslam, riding a Honda CBR1000RR run by the Stiggy team out of Sweden.
Very impressive was the first-race ride of Troy Corser on the new BMW S1000RR, finishing a remarkable eighth in the bike’s first appearance while setting fastest lap in the first race. His team-mate Ruben Xaus carded an 11th in the second race, so the team has to be delighted.
That’s also true for the brand-new Aprilia outfit, as Max Biaggi was up front and tussling for the lead of the second race until running off toward the end.
This is going to be a good, good season.
Remember, it’s not just the tires themselves but the riders, their riding styles that can affect tire wear. Haga’s a famous late braker and hard cornerer. Time will tell. Larry’s right though, it looks to be a great season. I’m hoping that the new rules in MotoGP make it more interesting, too.
Indeed, great racing.
A short story could be – Ducati conserves tires better than Suzuki but worse than Yami. Maybe that cross plane crank is everything they hyped!