Monday, September 27

BIAGGI IS SUPERBIKE CHAMP!

By MICHAEL ESDAILE

MASSIMILIANO Biaggi became the first Italian in the 22 year history of the Superbike World Championship to be crowned champion – fittingly at the Imola circuit in Italy on September 26.

In taking the Superbike crown with a round to go, Biaggi added to his four World 250 Championships won in successive years from 1994 to 1997. Fittingly, he won the Superbike Championship on an Aprilia – the brand that took him to his first three 250cc titles.

However, the Manufacturer’s Championship is still to be decided. After the Imola round, Aprilia’s lead in that particular title chase was narrowed by eight points after Ducatis dominated the Imola podium.

Although he came into the twelfth round of the SWC title at Imola leading the rider’s championship with a 58 point buffer over Englishman Leon Haslam (Alstare Suzuki), Biaggi had a nerve-wracking time before he secured the title with a round to go in what turned out to be a topsy-turvy weekend that saw a Kawasaki on pole and a Suzuki blow-up!

It started with Spaniard Carlos Checa fastest in the first practice session ahead of Althea Ducati team-mate Shane Byrne and Xerox Ducati’s up-and-down Michel Fabrizio keeping the Ducati flag flying high at a circuit that has traditionally favoured twins over fours - going right back to the historic 1972 Imola 200 when Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari took a Ducati 1-2 on works prepared 750cc V-twins.

In the first qualifying session Checa was again fastest, but this time Brits Jonathan Rea and title contender Leon Haslam were second and third fastest, followed by the Ducatis of Noriyuki Haga, Fabrizio and Byrne.

HASLAM STRAPPED
“In the morning seson my knee felt really bad and the whole session was a bit of a struggle, even though I had some strapping on it,” Haslam reported. “For the afternoon qualifying, we made the strapping much stronger and I had some pain-killing injections before I went out. I definitely felt a bit more comfortable and was able to put in some decent laps. My thumb is a bit irritable, but I forget about when I am on the bike and it’s OK as long as it doesn’t move in a certain direction!” he added.

“Today the track didn’t feel as good or as quick as the tests and it is a bit more slippery. Hopefully, as more rubber goes down, it will improve. This afternoon, my lap times were quite comfortable and I really didn’t have any big problems. Obviously my main competition is Max and I have to beat him in both races if I want to keep my title dream alive. I’ve heard that he’s not so good in the wet, so maybe it would be better for me if it did rain on Sunday. But, the weather is something I cannot do anything about so I will be doing my best, whatever the conditions.”

“Today was a more difficult Friday than usual,” Biaggi said. “In spite of the good results from last year, we have always had to work hard to find the right solution at this track. Even after having done some tests here a few months ago, I'm still not completely comfortable and I'm not able to ride smoothly. If you add to that the progress that our adversaries have made, today's times are easily explained. There's nothing to be alarmed about – we simply need to work well as we always do and give our best. Unfortunately the weather doesn't seem to be helping either as we would have needed to do a lot of testing in stable conditions. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed."

Saturday’s morning qualifying session was run on a wet track and no one got close to the lap times recorded the previous afternoon, meaning the times that would determine who made it to Superpole were those from Friday’s dry session.

Biaggi, 14th fastest on Friday afternoon, did some early laps on the wet track but pulled in, while most other riders waited until the track had dried a little more before venturing out. Even then the best were still seven seconds from their Friday times, with Cal Crutchlow fastest at a 1m 54.094s, compared with Checa’s 1:48.178 from the previous day.

The track had dried for the practice session prior to Superpole and despite a mechanical problem and a crash, Rea on the HANNspree Ten Kate Honda topped the times with a 1:48.859, just edging out Checa and Fabrizio’s Ducatis, with Haslam, Lorenzo Lanzi (DFX Corse Ducati 1098R) and Biaggi next in line, and Jakub Smrz seventh fastest on the Team Pata B & G Racing Aprilia RSV4.

The first Superpole session saw Rea crash the Ten Kate Honda again, but not before setting a fastest enough time to make it to Superpole two. The first Superpole session was topped by Crutchlow on the Sterligarda Yamaha with Byrne, Haslam and Smrz next, then the BMWs of Troy Corser and Rueben Xaus.

Biaggi was 11th fastest in this outing.

Biaggi clips the chicane in practice.

Superpole two saw privateer Ducati man Lorenzo Lanzi top the table ahead of Corser, Tom Sykes (Paul Bird Motorsport Kawasaki), Luca Scassa (Ducati 1098R) and Smrz, with Haslam and Biaggi just making it to Superpole three but Checa missing out.

There were numerous crashes in the second Superpole session, including Scassa, Crutchlow, Byrne, Xaus, Smrz and Checa.

KAWASAKI POLE!
Tom Sykes (centre) took Kawasaki's first Superbike pole since 2007. Here is flanked by Jakub Smrz (left) and Leon Haslam (right).

In Superpole three, Tom Sykes turned in a stunning performance to snatch pole for Kawasaki, the green team’s first in Superbike since the Lausitzring in Germany in October 2007. The rest of the front row comprised Smrz, Haslam and Scassa while row two was headed by Lanzi, from Corser, Biaggi and Xaus.

“I’m obviously really happy to have achieved my first ever pole position in World Superbikes,” said Sykes. “We’ve been making gradual improvements over the past few races and it is full credit to my team for giving me a package which I had all confidence in, to ride in the tricky conditions. We have been pretty consistent since Friday, no matter what the weather, and have managed to find the balance between our set-up from Nurburgring and the successful test we had here a few months back. I have only had to make a few changes here and there but this allows me to put my head down and get stuck in. To start tomorrow’s races in P1 is fantastic and I aim to better the results I had in the Nurburgring and continue our good fortunes.”

“A complicated day,” commented Biaggi, “but in the end I found that I was quick enough to earn the second row, and probably risking a bit more I could have done even better. These were undoubtedly the wildest test sessions of the season due to the varying weather conditions, so I'd say that we did the right thing today.

“I was sure that I could do much better than yesterday even if, and we have always known this, on this track we have more than our share of difficulties. We still have a lot of work to do and not much time, so we need to try and put together the best possible package we have, although for dry conditions I already have a few things in mind. The wet asphalt is always an unknown factor, but especially here it is absolute torture. The two races tomorrow won't be easy for us. In the first laps everybody ahead of us will be very quick and the weather conditions will play an important role, but we're ready to grit our teeth and give 110% to obtain the most. We'll draw up the sums at the end of the two races."

Sunday morning dawned clear and on a dry but cool track Checa once again topped the time sheets in the morning warm-up, ahead of Lanzi, Haslam and Sykes while Biaggi was eighth fastest and Rea crashed the Ten Kate Honda for the third time in the weekend. Crutchlow and Xaus also binned it.

However, Rea was injured and was unable to make the grid for the afternoon’s races.

GREEN MACHINE

At the start of the first race Sykes made good use of his pole position, blazing out into a good lead on the first lap with Haslam second from a jostling pack led by Corser, Smrz and Lanzi, with Scassa next ahead of Biaggi, Checa, Haga and Toseland.

Before the lap was over, Smrz used the nimbleness of the Aprilia to nip past Corser and next time around the narrow, undulating Imola course, Lanzi pushed Corser back to fifth and Checa, making his way forward from a poor start, had jumped Biaggi.

Next lap around, Biaggi made an error, ran off onto the gravel and while he wrestled the Aprilia, Toseland, Haga, Fabrizio and Crutchlow all blasted past.

On the fourth lap Corser was off the pavement, ploughing through the deep gravel on the works four cylinder BMW and eventually rejoining way down in 19th.

Meantime, the Roman Emperor was now looking far from imperial, battling down in 13th place while Haslam was out front chasing down Sykes. The championship chase was very much alive and Haslam was giving it everything, despite the knee and hand injuries sustained at the Nurburgring.

To his great credit, Sykes kept the Kawasaki out in front until lap nine when he could do no more. The Kawasaki ZX-10R was sliding dramatically as it overheated its rear Pirelli and lost momentum. When it was hooked up, it was very fast.

HERE COME THE DUKES…
However, it wasn’t Haslam who took over the lead when the Sykes could do no more on the ZX-10R, it was Lanzi on the lowest specced Ducati in the field – once again underlining the Pirelli adage: “Power is nothing without control.”

Haslam had made a lunge for the lead but had got in too hot, ran off and dropped to fourth place. In front of him was the charging Spaniard Carlos Checa, steadily moving forward on the Althea Ducati while piano-man James Toseland retired his Sterilgarda Yamaha while running sixth.

With Checa working his way forward, Haslam latched onto him, the two of them quickly pulling in Sykes who was by now very sideways on the Kawasaki. Lanzi was looking good out in front but Checa’s Ducati was faster and Haslam did not seem to mind the sideways behaviour of the Alstare Suzuki.

Checa and Haslam got past Sykes on successive laps, and from there the Kawasaki drifted back into the clutches of Crutchlow, who was heading the second bunch comprised of Haga, Smrz, Fabrizio and Sylvain Guintoli (Alstare Suzuki).

For seven laps Lanzi kept the DFX Corse Ducati out in front but once Checa was on his tail, there was no stopping the Spaniard, who took over with six laps to run. Digging deep, Haslam too got past Lanzi and threw everything he knew at Checa. However the Althea Ducati was stronger than Lanzi’s mount and there were very few obvious openings, Checa definitely faster out of the slow corners and looking tidier over the crests where Haslam’s Suzuki was wheelspinning sideways.

BRAKE LATE…
It was clear: if Haslam wanted the 25 points for the win, he would have to outbrake Checa and try to hold him off to the chequered flag. So that’s what he attempted, except it didn’t go according to plan. Yes, he outbraked Checa, but then he was in the left-hander too hot, stood it up and ran off into the gravel.

Lanzi flashed past, then – surprise, surprise, Noriyuki Haga on the Xerox Ducati, followed by Smrz, was also through before Haslam got going again.

Checa was comfortable in the lead and took the chequered flag almost two seconds ahead of Lanzi, and set a race time of 38m 27.631s – four and a half seconds quicker over the 21 laps than Haga’s race one winning effort from 2009.

So it was an all-Ducati podium, with Haga’s factory bike beaten by two privateer machines. Haga’s race time was also faster than he recorded in 2009, when he won!

Haslam took fifth and the 11 points that went with it, while Biaggi eventually made it home eleventh, picking up just five points for his trouble. His 58 point buffer had been reduced to 52 points – but it could have been worse. If Haslam had settled for second and the 20 points that went with it, he would have cut Biaggi’s lead to 43 points with three races remaining, and, importantly, kept the pressure on the Italian.

Setting fastest lap, 1m 48.966s gave Haslam the lap record for Imola but that was small compensation for his efforts.

With the gap at 52 points, Biaggi knew that it he had more than 50 points on Haslam after the second race, he would be world champ.

RACE TWO.
Sykes (66) has the Kawasaki ahead of Biaggi's Aprilia with the Xerox Ducatis of Fabrizio (84) and Haga (41) right behind. He did a good job on the oldest machine in the field

Race two started the same as the first with the green streak of Sykes on the Kawasaki leading the way for the first four laps, and once again Haslam was glued to his tail section.

Lorenzo Lanzi provided the excitement on the first lap, passing third placed Biaggi and then Haslam for second, before challenging race leader Sykes at the final chicane. But Lanzi was a bit too keen, almost took out Sykes and dropped back into the pack.

The order then was Sykes from Haslam, Biaggi, Corser then Checa, who was on the move. Within the space of two laps he had passed Corser and Biaggi to chase second placed Haslam, passing the Suzuki man early on lap five, then outbraking Sykes for the lead in the final chicane.

From there Checa took off, leaving Sykes to hold up Haslam, Biaggi, Fabrizio and Lanzi as Corser dropped back to a distant seventh, then got bumped to eighth as Haga once again made his run toward the front, with Crutchlow also on the move further back.

FAST KAWASAKI
Clearly the Kawasaki had top speed on everyone and Sykes was also able to get it off the slower corners quite well. It wasn’t so good in the fast corners, but it was fast enough everywhere else, and Sykes proved pretty good on the brakes, to keep the ZX-10R in second for a very long time – seven laps in fact.

After Checa got into the lead, Haslam was anxious to follow, but the GSX-R1000 had no answer for the Kawasaki’s straight line speed, so Haslam went for a late braking move, got in to the final chicane too deep, ran across the gravel then waited to let Sykes back ahead. Trouble was, he waited a little too long, and in a flash Biaggi, Fabrizio and Haga shot past!

A lap later, Biaggi made exactly the same mistake, but he only let Sykes back in front before he got his head down once more.

UP IN SMOKE
The jousting behind Sykes was impressive, but Biaggi kept the Aprilia in third as Haga and Haslam closed in. Haga got past Biaggi, Max hit back and it was all on. Just as things were getting really exciting, with a bunch of five bikes queued up behind Sykes, the motor in Haslam’s Suzuki let go and his championship aspirations literally went up in smoke. Indeed, so thick was the smoke that Fabrizio ran off the track worrying about the oil that the Suzuki may have been laying down (it wasn’t) and so the pack was split up.

Checa by then was steadily pulling away and had the lead out to 4.8 seconds before Haga finally found a way around Sykes and gave chase with nine laps to go. Biaggi was running fourth, and for a while had no one close behind so was content to run behind the Kawasaki in the knowledge that with Haslam sidelined, he was now World Champion.

Eventually though, Crutchlow caught the Aprilia man, outbraked him and set about working out a way past Sykes, finding it with a strong outbraking move into the final chicane.

Checa was still well clear and even though Haga closed the gap down to a little over two seconds at the finish, Checa had things well in hand.

So the final order was Checa, Haga, Crutchlow then Sykes. It was a shame the Kawasaki man could not have held out Crutchlow for a podium but despite the big step forward the team has so most obviously made, the ZX-10R still has its deficiencies in this league.

Biaggi contented himself with fifth and pulled up by a group of fans who had a pirate ship at the track side for him to climb aboard for the cameras. They even had a pirate suit for him to wear.

CHECA’S DOUBLE

Checa had lowered Haslam’s first race record lap to 1m 48.877s and was very happy with his first double win of the season. He had been on track for that at Miller mid-season but for machine troubles.

“It's a fantastic weekend, I can't remember one like it,” Chcea beamed. “It was a very good job by the team. Yesterday I was struggling in the wet, but today they were two exciting races, more the first than the second. But the second I could see that I could win, I just had to keep my concentration. Anyway it was fantastic, for all my team, for Ducati, for everyone here. Congratulations to Max for the title and a shame for Leon Haslam."

Haga too was very happy.

“The bike was much better than in the first race. I was approaching Carlos in the last laps but couldn't catch him. Now I try my best at Magny-Cours to improve my position (in the championship)."

The Japanese is currently sixth on the table, one point behind MotoGP-bound Crutchlow.

For his part, Crutchlow said: "After a tough race one for me, to come from 12th on the grid with such close racing this weekend and such a depth of field was a very good result. I really had to work for it so all credit to Yamaha Sterilgarda, they did a good job for me, especially in the second race. We made a few changes in the meantime, it was a bit of a gamble but a good job all round."

MAX THE CHAMP
“This is a grand day,” commented an exhausted but happy Biaggi in the end, “a day which I have greatly desired. I've often felt in past years like I hadn't been placed in the proper conditions to be able to express my worth and to achieve the results that I know I deserve. This is one of the reasons that, at a certain point in my career, I chose this world, the SBK Championship, and this is why I wanted to surround myself with the right people for this adventure – because racing isn't just about speed, tyres and an engine. It is also about joy and having fun and with these guys, with this team, I feel at home. I want to thank everyone: my team, Aprilia, Piaggio Group, the chairman.

“It has not been an easy season. Many riders have won races and if they had been just a bit more consistent, they would have been able to be more troublesome for us. The greatest moments were the double victories at Monza and Misano. It is something very special to win in front of my fans. But it isn't over yet – there is still one goal left – to ride my RSV4 to the manufacturer’s title. We'll talk again in a week and it would be truly fantastic to close out this wonderful season with another championship".

Roberto Colaninno, chairman and CEO of the Piaggio Group (which Aprilia is part of) was in the pit to experience the triumph of his team and rider.

“Today we achieved an extraordinary result which takes place in the second year of Aprilia’s participation in World Superbike,” Colaninno said, “and, once again, confirms the technical excellence of the Noale Racing Division as well as the Piaggio Group in the two-wheel worldwide scene. It would be impossible to imagine anything better on a day like today. We won the World Superbike Championship on an Italian track, with an Italian bike, an Italian rider and a sponsor – Alitalia – which takes Italy all over the world. This has never before happened in Superbike history and this makes all of us that much more proud”.

For full results, click on:
http://sbk.perugiatiming.com/pdf_frame.asp?p_S_Campionato=SBK&p_Anno=2010&p_Round=ITA2