Monday, September 24, 2007

BSB: Haslam Double at Donny

It was an outstanding day for us armchair bike racing viewers, as ITV4 broadcast a whole afternoon of live British championship racing, from the big boys on the Superbikes to the teenaged nutcases on the 125GP machines. We were treated to the comedy stylings of TV's top commentary duo, James "I call it a bloody spade" Whitham and his sidekick Jack "Stop me if I'm waffling again" Burnicle, with the lovely Janie Omorogbe reporting from the pits. Double WSBK champ Troy Corser, who clearly keeps an eye on BSB, was also on board, chatting to presenter Jim Nice-But-Dim. Young BSB star Leon Camier, well on the road to recovery, also talked to the Posh Presenter before retreating to the commentary box as a protest against being called Leon Haslam. Most importantly, the setting was the magnificent Donington Park track and the racing was well up to scratch.

Tom Sykes continued his incredible rookie season by snatching his first pole position in BSB on his Stobart Vent-Axia Honda, while fans' favourite Chris Walker qualified second in front of usual suspects Haslam and Kiyonari.

In Race One, Walker made his trademark Stalker Start to lead the race. Johnny Rea made a brilliant start from 6th on the grid to tuck in behind Stalker, while Sykes, Haslam and Crutchlow tagged along. With the BSB title in his grasp, Kiyonari took it easy and tried to stay out of trouble behind the nutters at the front.

Johnny Rea was the man on the pace as he took the lead and started to stretch away in front. It was interesting to see him race closely with Chris Walker, as Rea's riding style is looking more and more like the young Stalker in his 750 Suzuki days. The Ulsterman had the HM Plant Honda sideways at every possible opportunity, brilliant to watch but also a tad worrying. Haslam and Walker beat each other up for 2nd, with Haslam coming out on top after a couple of great racing laps. Walker then started to struggle for pace and slipped back down the order.

With a bit of heat in the tyres, it was Sykes who turned up the wick, using lap record pace to reel in the guys in front of him. Haslam wasn't hanging around to be caught, and passed Rea for the lead into the Foggy Esses with a bit of demon late braking. Rea, as always, immediately fought back into the Melbourne loop. He was sideways, then very sideways, then Oh My God sideways. The Honda snapped heart-stoppingly left and right, with only Johnny Rea's motocross experience keeping it upright, but he flew off the track, giving Haslam's Airwaves Ducati a good clout on the nose while he was at it. Haslam was lifted up, but stayed calm and didn't lose too much time. Tom Sykes was straight through into the lead, with Kiyonari close behind.

Haslam got his head down to close the gap, passing Kiyonari then Sykes to regain the lead. Cal Crutchlow was putting in impressive laps on his Rizla Suzuki to close in on Kiyonari, but the youngster made a hugely optimistic lunge into the last corner, swiping the Japanese rider off the HM Plant Honda. Crutchlow put this down to hitting a false neutral. Of course it's well known that the Suzuki fails to positively engage gear when the rider is in a blind panic because he's braked 10 yards too late and is about to T-bone the guy in front... Kiyonari's bike was broken, ruining his plan of nursing his championship lead by staying out of trouble.

Haslam kept the lead, while Sykes held off his team-mate Shakey Byrne to take an excellent 2nd place. Johnny Rea was in tyre trouble, and lost 4th place to Greg Lavilla, who calmly went down the inside of Rea's Honda and held the apex to stay in front.

Race Two was another great race, if not quite so dramatic. Stalker made another lightning start into the lead, with Sykes close behind. The pair put on a good show, passing and re-passing before Sykes took the lead and tried to build a gap. Kiyonari had abandoned his "piano, piano" (that softly, softly to the rest of us) strategy and decided to go out and win the race. He was on brilliant form, managing to pass Walker and Sykes, while Leon Haslam hung onto his coat tails.

However, the Japanese Honda rider's hard charging strategy backfired when the bike nearly fired him off the track at Redgate. Haslam, Sykes and Walker sneaked past while Kiyo took a few deep breaths. Having calmed down a bit, Kiyonari re-passed Chris Walker for 3rd, but couldn't catch the youngsters in front. (There was a good commentary moment when Jack Burnicle said that Haslam is still just 23 years old, and Leon Camier laconically replied, "Yeah, and I'm eleven!")

Haslam had the lead, but Sykes was all over him. The battle continued right to the line, with Sykes trying to sneak through at the last corner but Haslam tightening his line and winning by just 5 hundredths of a second. Kiyonari finished 3rd, extending a 37 point lead over his team-mate Rea, who finished 6th and had presumably changed tyre or set-up after his tyre went off in race one.

Surprisingly, it was Haslam's first double victory in BSB, and it brings him to just 4 points behind Johnny Rea and 41 behind Kiyonari with 50 points to play for. Could Haslam win the title? The young Englishman needs at least a first and second in the final meeting at Brands, and needs Kiyo to have a nightmare there. Stranger things have happened, but 2nd place in the championship is a more realistic goal.

Tom Sykes was brilliant again, out-classing the factory HM Plant Hondas with their trick electronics and snooty Michelin tyres. This kid is a real find, and if he isn't battling for World Superbike victories in 4 or 5 years it won't be down to a lack of talent. Troy Corser said he was very impressed by the young Yorkshireman, which is high praise indeed. It has been said that Sykes hasn't yet proved himself as an overtaker. Well, Corser isn't exactly renowned for his overtaking, and he's a double world champion!

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