Monday, October 01, 2007

WSBK Vallelunga: Max and Troy B. Masterclass

The World Superbike Championship's first visit to Vallelunga produced some of the best racing of the year, thanks to the track layout. With Valellunga being just north of Rome, the place was bedecked with Biaggi banners and stuffed with the Roman Emperor's fans.

In Superpole, championship leader James Toseland was half way round a blisteringly quick lap when he hit a bump, his Ten Kate Honda started chattering and spat him off before swerving head first into a wall and trashing itself. Toseland would start 8th, while Troy Bayliss took pole on his Xerox Ducati ahead of Corser's Santander Yamaha, Xaus on his Sterilgada Ducati and Biaggi on the Corona Suzuki.

Race One would see one of the most incredible, and hair-raising, first laps that WSBK has ever produced. Turn one is a terrifyingly fast sweeping right-hander, and several riders touched at high speed. With the bikes geared for 100mph in 1st gear, starting would be tricky, but Toseland flew off the line and rose to 2nd place, nearly high-siding in turn 2. The twisting, physical Vallelunga track gives plenty of opportunity for overtaking, and the riders weren't about to turn down a half-chance.

Half way round the first lap there was a jaw-dropping moment when the riders chasing the leader Troy Bayliss went 4 abreast into a corner. Incredibly, they all made it round in one piece, with Troy Corser leading the group. However, Corser had turned off his traction control to make a good start and in all the excitement he forgot to turn it back on. Grabbing plenty of throttle in a left-hand corner he highsided right in front of the following pack. Toseland swerved one way, Haga the other. With Corser lying on the track in front of him, Roby Rolfo grabbed the brakes, surprising Max Neukirchner, who clipped him and tumbled into a gravel trap.

In the final corner of the first lap, there was even more action as James Toseland brutally slammed into the side of Nori Haga, the Japanese rider running well wide but staying on the bike. The mayhem continued into lap 2 has Ruben Xaus lost the front in a quick right-hander and slid into a gravel trap (and not for the first time this year!)

Bayliss had been very fast in the early laps, but by lap 3 he was holding up the charging Max Biaggi. The pair passed and re-passed each other before Biaggi finally took the lead with a clean move. The Roman was on lightning form as he got his head down and started lapping several tenths faster than anyone else. From then on it would be a lonely race for Max, who extended his lead nearly every time around.

Bayliss and Haga were battling for 2nd and 3rd places. Both were performing to their usual standards as they beat each other up in entertaining style. Behind them, James Toseland had dropped back, his traction control not performing as it should (his own fault for chucking the bike at a tyre wall in Superpole, really). However, Bayliss and Haga were holding each other up and Toseland caught them. A near-highside by Haga let Bayliss escape while Toseland and Haga renewed their lap one rivalry with even more close racing. Toseland came out on top after another forceful move that ended up with him almost leaning on the Yamaha's screen with his elbow.

Biaggi pulled out a lead of over 7 seconds, which dropped to 5 as he wheelied out of the last few corners and wheelied over the finish line, ecstatic at winning his home race. Bayliss took 2nd, while Toseland finished a hard-fought 3rd.

Race Two started with more breathtaking moments in the hell for leather dash to turn one. Ruben Xaus and Troy Corser were side by side and came together twice, the flailing knees and elbows of the lanky Catalan keeping them upright. This dropped them into the pack, where most people had made a decent start.

Again, Troy Bayliss was in the lead as the field reached turns two and three, where they disappeared into clouds of cement dust that were soaking up oil laid down in the World Supersports race. (The WSS race had been red-flagged after several riders fell on the slippery line.) Haga, Toseland and Corser were following, with Biaggi reaching fifth after being shuffled down the pack in the cement dust cloud.

Bayliss and Haga fought over the lead, while behind them the fast-charging Biaggi picked off Corser and Toseland then set off in pursuit of the leaders. Corser was pushing Toseland hard, and the Englishman was struggling to hold off the Aussie as his traction control was misbehaving again. Finally, the pressure was too much for the championship leader. He was even slower than usual in the tight left-hand hairpin, and seemed to lean the bike over too far. He lowsided in a shower of sparks, and Corser took 4th. Toseland picked up the bike, yanking on the damaged left handlebar then climbing back on and setting off. He was forced to stand up on the footpegs and pull up on the left bar with all his might to get it back into shape.

Biaggi closed up on the leading pair, and managed to dispatch Haga. He was close behind Bayliss when he ran a little too hot into a corner and had to pick the bike up to avoid hitting the Aussie's Ducati. This lost him well over a second. With Bayliss and Biaggi lapping at similar times, the Roman Emperor couldn't close the gap and had to settle for 2nd place behind Bayliss, with Haga finishing 3rd and Corser 4th. Toseland somehow managed to lap as fast as the leaders as he hauled himself up to 11th.

Toseland now leads the championship by 29 points from Max Biaggi and and 33 points from Haga as they head to the last round in France. The Ten Kate rider absolutely must stay on the bike in the two final races, because a pair of DNF's for Toseland would mean Biaggi or Haga could take the title with a pair of podiums.

It was a fantastic day of racing at Vallelunga, with Toseland starting to show a few cracks and Max Biaggi going from strength to strength in his first year of Superbike racing. Magny Cours should be fascinating next time out.

No comments: