After 13 events and 26 races, Yamaha’s Ben Spies and Ducati’s Noriyuki Haga came into the last WSB race at the wonderful new Portimao track in Portugal’s Algarve virtually tied. With only 10 points between them, both riders had little choice but to go for the double win. Haga’s been racing in WSB since 1996 (regularly since 1998 with two years off in Moto GP) while 2009 is Spies’s first season, so there was a bit of a veteran/rookie thing happening (not that Spies, who’s beaten Mat Mladin to three AMA titles, is exactly a "rookie").
This year looked to be Haga’s before the season started, with his move to the dominant factory Xerox Ducati team, but Spies and the Italian-based Yamaha team were a shock to everyone, scoring half the season’s victories and 11 of 14 pole positions. Only Haga’s early-season perseverance in collecting points behind Spies’s victories kept them close, as Spies tended to either win or suffer a DNF via mechanical issues or a crash.
Haga had the bad luck to come down with ‘flu before the race weekend; whether that caused his poor qualifying result or not he only managed to get onto the third row of the grid, while Spies was on pole. In race one, Spies did his patented flag-to-flag act; while he never disappeared, he collected and kept a solid lead once he put Max Biaggi and his Aprilia in their place. Biaggi was on a winning pace in both races, but kept having apparent front-end issues and running wide when he got close to the front.
Meanwhile, Haga started a charge from his 10th-place grid spot, but crashed at about 1/3 distance, losing the front in the slowest corner on the track. He said later that he’d chosen a hard front, which didn’t come in as he’d hoped.
The second race was a serious dog-fight, one of the best races of the year. Sterilgarda Ducati’s Shane Byrne (who’s still looking for a ride for 2010) got a superb start and led much of the race, encountering a serious battle with HannSpree Ten Kate Honda rider Jonathan Rea, Biaggi, and later the two Xerox Ducatis of Haga and Michel Fabrizio. Meanwhile, Spies drifted back; while never that far out of touch he never looked like a threat for the lead and hovered in fifth, occasionally sixth. He said later he was deliberately taking it easy, knowing that would be enough for the title.
The last lap was pretty spectacular, with Fabrizio on Rea’s tail and Haga suddenly coming out of nowhere; Rea ran wide, and both Ducatis got through two corners before the flag. Fabrizio might have been expected to let Haga through, but there’s no way he could have known he was there, things happened so quickly between the pass and the flag. Even if he had, Spies would still have taken the title by one point, instead of the six point lead he finished with.
The series will look quite different next year. Spies will be gone to Moto GP, trading places on the Monster Tech 3 squad with James Toseland, Aprilia will likely be canning Shinya Nakano for 2009 British superbike champ Leon Camier (who rode extremely well to two top 10 places this weekend), Tom Sykes will be leaving the Yamaha team to be replaced by Cal Crutchlow (the new world 600 champion), Chris Vermeulen will be back in WSB with the Paul Bird Kawasaki team, Leon Haslam will be with the Alstare Suzuki team with Sylvain Guintoli, Carlos Checa is being dumped from the Ten Kate team … more as we hear it.
Final WSB Standings:
1. Ben Spies, USA, Sterilgarda Yamaha, 462 points; 2. Noriyuki Haga, Japan, Xerox Ducati, 456; 3. Michel Fabrizio, Italy, Xerox Ducati, 382; 4. Max Biaggi, Aprilia, 319; 5. Jonathon Rea, Ireland, HannSpree Ten Kate Honda, 315; 6. Leon Haslam, U.K., Stiggy Honda, 241; 7. Carlos Checa, Spain, HannSpree Ten Kate Honda, 209; 8. Shane Byrne, U.K. Sterilgarda Ducati, 192; 9. Tom Sykes, Sterilgarda Yamaha, 176; 10. Jakub Smrz, Czech Republic, Guandalini Ducati, 169.