Monday, July 02, 2007

BSB Knockhill: Johnny Rea Reigns In Rain

It took a while for Johnny Rea to take his first race win, but now the floodgates have opened, which is a pretty good description of the track conditions at Knockhill. With the weather unable to decide what it was doing from minute to minute, the 20 year old Ulsterman took a double victory at the Scottish circuit. If we include the Suzuka 300km endurance race where he shared the honours with his HM Plant Honda team-mate Ryuichi Kiyonari, Rea has won 4 of his last 5 races. In BSB, he has taken 95 points from a possible 100 in the last fortnight and launched himself to just 11 points off the championship lead. Honda's decision to withdraw him from the Team KR MotoGP ride at Donington now looks sensible, as he is on a roll.
Race 1 started off wet, then dried up, and finally ended up wet again. Johnny Rea got a great start from pole position, followed by his team-mate and reigning BSB champion Kiyonari. Leon Camier's Bike Animal Honda and Leon Haslam's Airwaves Ducati were fighting it out for 3rd place when Camier slid off the bike at low speed and was unable to continue.
Veterans Chris "Stalker" Walker (Rizla Suzuki) and Shane "Shakey" Byrne (Stobart Honda) were now battling for 4th. Stalker's early pace was fading as the rain returned heavier than ever, and Shakey managed to nip past and grab 4th place. Behind them, rookie Tom Sykes took 6th place on his Stobart Honda, in front of Airwaves Ducati's Spanish star, Greg Lavilla, who had struggled through the pack after being caught out by a downpour in qualifying.
Rea eventually took the win by almost 7 seconds, and was joined on the podium by Kiyonari and Haslam, both relative codgers at 24 years old.
Race 2 saw a repeat of Johnny Rea's first race performance, more impressive if anything. He has turned from the stereotypical rookie who is wickedly fast but crashes constantly into a calm and calculating racewinner. The transformation of the last few weeks has been incredible. As with so many young superstar sportsmen, he has visibly crossed the line from thinking he can win, to knowing he can win. These sportsmen would claim they knew they were winners all along, but with that weight off their shoulders they suddenly have an almost serene air of confidence. This victory looked simply effortless, leading by almost 10 seconds at one point.
The faces on the podium were the same, but the order was different, as Leon Haslam overtook Kiyonari for an excellent 2nd place. Knockhill is a real bogey track for Haslam's team-mate Lavilla, and this time was no different. Struggling with visibility, the Spaniard touched a white line and was thrown into a gravel trap at the chicane. Admittedly, it isn't the easiest of chicanes, in fact I can't think of another chicane situated on the blind crest of a hill. Speaking of hills, Virgin Media Yamaha rider Tommy Hill also hit the eject button at the exact same place. Rizla Suzuki's youngster Cal Crutchlow had a scary crash on the exit of Clark's, sailing across the track and hitting the tyre wall hard, but was luckily unhurt.
Stobart Honda rookie Tom Sykes had an excellent race, scything through backmarkers and finishing in 4th place, less than a tenth behind Kiyonari after taking around half a second per lap off the Japanese in the closing stages. Sykes was visibly annoyed, as he would probably have been on the podium if the race had been a lap longer (ironically, the races were shortened due to the weather.) It has been an extremely impressive debut year for Sykes, as he is quick but very, very rarely makes a mistake. He has banked a lot of top 6 finishes, while most rookies spend their early Superbike races exploring gravel traps and straw bales. He is certainly one to watch.
Shakey Byrne came in 5th behind his young team-mate, again beating Chris Walker. Leon Camier, who is around 6 feet 4 inches tall, or 7 feet if you count his hair, finished 7th.
Overall, it was a great day for the youngsters. Johnny Rea was an outside bet for the title at the start of the year, but now it looks to be a fight between him, Kiyo and Greg Lavilla, with Haslam in with a shout. Rea looks like he has been winning road races all his life, though he hadn't won one before last month. Kiyonari kept up his usual visits to the podium to stay in the championship lead. Haslam has been having a much better time than he was at the start of the year. The big loser has been Lavilla, but he never scores many points at Knockhill anyway. Can Johnny Rea build on this dominant double victory and snatch the BSB title? Time will tell.

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