Friday, March 4

CARLOS CHECKS OUT!

By MICHAEL ESDAILE
Checa ready to go!

SPANISH veteran Carlos Checa translated his strong form in testing, practice and qualifying at Phillip Island into two comfortable wins in the opening round of the 2011 Superbike World Championship at Phillip Island on February 27.

Checa had been the fastest man around the track all week – in the pre-season tests on Monday and Tuesday, then in Practice and Qualifying on Friday and Saturday, ending up on pole position after snatching that from Alitalia Aprilia’s Max Biaggi in his final two laps of the third Superpole session.

In taking pole, Checa set the fastest official Superbike lap of the Phillip Island circuit, 1m 30.882s, – eclipsing both the old pole record of 1m 31.069s set by Yamaha’s Ben Spies in 2009 and the 1m 31.050s lap recorded by Regis Laconi in Superpole 2 in 2009.

For Biaggi, a pair of second places – the second after a torrid encounter with Superbike ‘rookie’ Marco Melandri on the Yamaha World Superbike Team YZF-R1 – was a very strong result. The Aprilia team has never taken a lot of points from the opening round at Phillip Island so 40 points towards his championship defence was a clear sign that the Roman Emperor is intent on retaining his crown.

Max and Marco
While the two Italian manufacturers took top honours at Phillip Island, the other European manufacturer in the series had mixed results. In the first, Leon Haslam rode a terrific race to bag the third rostrom spot for BMW but in the second, he was a distant fifth. Team-mate Troy Corser had a weekend he’d probably rather forget, with tenth in the first race and 19th and last in the second after he ran off the track mid-way through the race.

As a result, Yamaha emerged from the weekend with third place in the manufacturer’s championship, just ahead of BMW, while Suzuki was a distant third, ahead of Honda.

Surprisingly, for a team that had looked strong in testing, Kawasaki emerged from the weekend last on the manufacturer’s points table, not what the green team was looking for.

The first race saw Biaggi grab the holeshot and this time – unlike his poor start in the first race last year – Checa went with him before young Irish tyro Eugene Laverty snatched the lead off both veterans at the top of the Southern Loop and led the first two laps.

Behind him Checa and Biaggi were running nose-to-tail with Leon Haslam pushing hard in fourth on the first of the factory BMW S1000RRs. After a troubled practice and qualifying, Troy Corser showed plenty of grit with a daring move inside the second Yamaha ridden by Marco Melandri at the entry to Lukey Heights.

That made it: Yamaha-Ducati-Aprilia-BMW-BMW-Yamaha.

But Checa wasn’t about to let the young Irishman get away and it was not long before he was ranging up on the back of the Yamaha and before the third lap was over he had got in front. From therer he proceeded to steadily pull away, leaving Biaggi to deal with the young Yamaha man.

Biaggi was playing a waiting game. He knew his Aprilia had the speed advantage on everyone down Gardner Straight but he wanted to preserve his Pirellis for a late charge. Behind him lurked an impatient Haslam, with Corser fifth before Melandri got some pay-back, pushing the Aussie wide with a scything inside pass at Honda Corner.

Fujio & REVSdaile share a joke
By the time Max motored past Laverty to start the sixth lap, Checa had checked out. Biaggi pushed hard but was unable to make any impression so he worked at getting away from the pursuing pack, led by Haslam, with the Yamahas of Laverty and Melandri just behind, then a gap back to Castrol Honda’s Johnny Rea, Noriyuki Haga on the PATA Racing Aprilia and the fading Corser, who now had Alstare Suzuki’s Michel Fabrizio on his tail.

At that point, a third of the way through the 22 laps, Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli crashed the Team Effenbert-Liberty Racing Ducati out of tenth place. His team-mate, Jakub Smrz, was running in 13th spot but a steady push saw him move steadily forward, ultimately seeing him home in seventh place.

With Checa extending his lead, Biaggi too had a little breathing room, having built a two second buffer over the untidy BMW of Haslam, who in turn had a gap on the battling Yamahas of Laverty and Melandri. Then, when they got the message that Rea was zeroing in on them, Melandri stuck it up the inside of his team-mate to leave the Irishmen – Laverty and Rea – to squabble over fifth, while a little further back, Fabrizio displaced Haga from seventh.

After giving Laverty the slip, Melandri set about working on Haslam for the final rostrum position and just past the half way point, Rea sliced in fifth spot while Melandri passed Haslam for third and set about trying to build a buffer over the BMW man who now had Rea glued to his rear Pirelli with Laverty and Fabrizio close behind.

The heat came off Haslam a little when Rea ran down the slip road at Honda Corner leaving the young English rider, runner-up in the 2010 World Championship, to set his sights on Melandri and slowly close in.

Out front, Checa had a very handy five second lead over Biaggi and unless something drastic happened, the top two places looked set in stone so all interest was in the four-way battle for third. Melandri lead a nose-to-tail team of Haslam, Laverty and Fabrizio with a big gap back to Haga and Corser who had Tom Sykes on the new Kawasaki and Smrz hot on their heels.

Adding further spice to the absorbing battle for third, Fabrizio passed Laverty for fifth while Haslam mounted a determined attack on Melandri, passing the former MotoGP man at Doohan Corner with four laps to go.

Haslam held onto third place from there to the flag, giving BMW a podium in his first race with the team. His best lap, 1m 32.266s, was just 73 thousandths of a second slower than his best lap last year, set on his way to winning the first race of that season on the Alstare Suzuki. The difference was that wheras last year he looked as if he was on rails on the GSX-R1000, this year he was trying to beat the BMW into submission. The S1000 RR was untidy under brakes and rather ‘loose’ in the rear around many of Phillip Island’s fast turns and that podium place says more about Haslam than it does about the factory BMW.

Just when it seemed the top six places were set, with a lap and a half to go, Laverty re-ignited things with a slick pass on Fabrizio at Honda Corner, then pipped team-mate Melandri for fourth on the final lap with Fabrizio sixth on the Suzuki GSX-R1000 that last year won the race.

Smrz came through the field to grab seventh, eight seconds back from Fabrizio, while Sykes took a disappointing eighth in the debut of the new ZX-10R Kawasaki, having got by Corser, then Haga in the final few laps. His best lap, 1m 33.501s, was well off the 1m 31.813s effort he had managed in the second qualifying session and was not even as good as his best lap from the very first free practice session on Friday.

Adding to Kawasaki’s woes was young Spaniard Joan Lascorz. The former 600 Supersport pilot had managed third fastest time in the first free practice session, inproved his time in the first qualifying session but dropped five places in the process, then had a big go in the second qualifying session, only to run off at high speed. He kept the Kawasaki upright but was clearly chastened by the experience, which showed him just how fast things can go wrong on a 1000cc Superbike.

In the race, he crashed out of tenth place just past mid-way.

Race two was no better for the Spaniard. From sixth at the end of the first lap he dropped to tenth in the space of three laps, had a brief interchange with Rueben Xaus (Castrol Honda) then faded to 16th before pitting to retire the ZX-10R with eight laps to go.

Sykes’ performance was almost the opposite in race two. He started from 13th on the first lap then moved forward before getting involved in a battle with Xaus and Smrz around mid-race, then, after escaping that moved up to eighth before once again tangling with Xaus and a strong finishing Leon Camier (Alitalia Aprilia) and ending up ninth.

However, from the lap times achieved in practice and qualifying, the Kawasaki has a lot more in it than these results suggest.

On the other hand, while Ducati is no longer involved as a factory entrant in Superbike, it would have been delighted with the Althea team’s efforts. In the second race, Checa carried on where he left off in the first, taking an early lead, and after a bit of sport with the holeshotting Haslam, settled into the lead role effortlessly and pulled away to another untroubled win.

That Checa was barely raising a sweat could be seen by his race two lap times – he ran 1:32s for the first half dozen laps before easing back to 1:33s from there, and ran two 1m 34s on his last two circuits when it was clear he had the race well and truly in the bag.

The reason for this? Max Biaggi. The Italian made a mess of the start of the second race and was buried in the ruck, finishing the first lap in eighth place before mounting a very forceful charge that proved the burning desire to win still burns in the Roman Emperor. By the tenth lap he was in second place, having dealt with Melandri and Haslam in a cat-and-mouse game over three laps.

However, with Checa comfortable in the lead, any aspirations Biaggi had for a win were brought undone by Melandri. The younger Italian harried Biaggi all the way to the chequered flag, the pair of them jousting all around the track to give the crowd its money’s worth. In the end, Biaggi’s ruthless efficiency was too much for Melandri, who conceded due to still recovering from shoulder surgery.

Johnny Rea gave the Ten Kate team reason to smile again by bringing the Castrol Honda home intact, in fourth place, wrestling that off Haslam with a lap to go after running 11th at the end of the first lap. It was a troubled weekend for the Irishman who had a heavy tumble in testing on the Tuesday and was airlifted to Mebourne where a blood test indicated enzymes in his blood that should not have been there. He returned to the track, was second fastest to Checa in the first practice session, qualified fifth fastest for Superpole then crashed in Superpole 2, dislocating a finger. But Rea is a serious little racer. While he was ferried back to the paddock on the back of a scooter, he popped the finger back into joint, jumped on his spare CBR1000 and posted a faster time. Gutsy.

Haslam had ridden above the BMW’s real capabilities in the first race and was fifth at the end of the second race, six seconds ahead of a strong finishing Leon Camier on the second Alitalia Aprilia. The former British Superbike Champion had been crook all weekend, suffering from a very bad does of the ‘flu, so his fighting effort in race two was noteworthy, especially with the second round of the championship at Donington Park.

Haga made it three Aprilias in the top ten with a seventh place finish, just ahead of Fabrizio and Sykes, with Rueben Xaus rounding out the top ten.

Troy and Max
And what of lap record holder Troy Corser? Well, after running as high as third in the early laps after a great start, he was bumped back to fifth by Melandri and Biaggi on lap five, but was giving a good account of himself when he ran on at Honda Corner, rejoined in 11th place and worked his way up to eighth before fading in the second half and eventually finished 20th, the last man home.

This was not the way the Aussie two times Superbike World Champion wanted to start his third season in the BMW team, so expect some big changes before the Donington round.

However, none of this can take anything away from Checa, who quite simply was in a class of his own all weekend.

And the record shows the Ducatis don’t do too badly at Donington either…