Lots of surprises at the first World Superbike race of the season, even though the two main protagonists – 2010 champ Max Biaggi and 2011 champ Carlos Checa – topped the podiums as expected.
The first surprise was the incredible turn of speed of Tom Sykes’ Kawasaki. Mid-packers last season, the Big Green Team has stepped up its game dramatically. Sykes was awarded pole position without going through the Superpole process, which was cancelled after 17-year-old Oscar McIntyre was killed in a multi-bike accident in a 600cc support race held just prior to the scheduled session.
In both races Sykes looked like he belonged, leading from the lights and fighting for position the whole way, eventually being rewarded with a fourth and a third-place podium, saying, “… to come away with pole position, third and fourth in the races? I am over the moon, because this circuit has never been a strong one for us in the past. I’m keen to get back to Europe!”
Carlos Checa, on the Althea/Unibat Ducati, took over the lead from Sykes in the first race closely pursued by Biaggi’s Aprilia. A rare mistake gave him a huge high-side crash, from which he was very fortunate to emerge unhurt. He said, “I had the worst crash that I’ve ever had with the Ducati. I was under pressure and pushed a little too hard.”
His team did a fantastic rebuild (riders are allowed only one bike instead of two this season) and in the second race he was unchallenged after again passing Sykes and motoring off into the distance.
Biaggi, who’d been pressuring Checa, simply left the rest of the field for dead after Checa’s crash, cruising to a comfortable 7+ second win and looking relaxed doing it.
The podium was filled by fellow Italian Marco Melandri on one of the factory BMWs, an impressive ride after a bad practice and qualifying that left him 13th on the grid. He was followed into third by French rider Sylvain Guintoli on one of the Effenbert-Liberty Ducatis. Best result and perhaps the most impressive ride of the day came from Biaggi in the second race. The Aprilia ace got away almost with Sykes from the line, and the bikes touched as they started to enter the first corner. There was contact and Biaggi went straight off as his brake lever was knocked out of alignment. Amazingly, he managed to stay up (even from the start the corner is probably flat-out in fourth gear) and rejoined dead last.
Then he put on a charge, slicing and dicing through the field like an expert in an amateur race, eventually taking second – it was a remarkable performance. Sykes finished third with a last-corner, last-lap pass of Jonathon Rea’s Honda, which had completely fried its rear tire by that point.
Certainly the grittiest performance of the day came from Leon Haslam, Melandri’s partner on the BMW team. After a crash five days ago (the same place Checa crashed in Race 1) Haslam had a broken right tibia and heel, plus a broken toe on his other (shifter) foot. With his tibia screwed back together and just dealing with the rest of it, he finished 12th in the first race with a mechanical problem, and fifth in the second. Tough? I’d say so.
Standings after one of 14 events (28 races)
1. Max Biaggi, Italy, Aprilia Racing Team, 45 points
2. Marco Melandri, Italy, BMW Motorrad Motorsport, 30
3. Tom Sykes, U.K., Kawasaki Racing Team, 29
4. Carlos Checa, Spain, Althea/Unibat Ducati, 25
5. Jonathon Rea, U.K., Castrol Honda Superbike Team, 22
6. TIE, Sylvain Guintoli, France, Effenbert-Liberty Ducati and Jakob Smrz, Effenbert-Liberty Ducati, 16
8. TIE, Leon Haslam, U.K., BMW Motorrad Motorsport, and Hiroshi Aoyama, Japan, Castrol Honda Superbike Team, 15
10. Maxime Berger, Italy, Effenbert-Liberty Ducati, 12. Next event April 1, at Imola in Italy.