Monday, May 12, 2008

WSBK Monza: Axis of Excellence

When the Germans and Japanese get together with the Italians, things tend to get exciting. The World Superbike Championship's visit to Monza gave us some outstanding entertainment, as the spoils were shared between a German and a Japanese on the historic Italian track.

The indomitable Troy Bayliss had taken pole position on his Xerox Ducati, but the Aussie was always going to struggle in the race, as the booming Ducati was inevitably going to run out of puff before the screaming Japanese 4-cylinder bikes on Monza's long straights.

Race 1 quickly developed into a battle between the two Alstare Suzukis of Max Neukirchner and Yukio Kagayama, the Santander Yamaha of Noriyuki Haga, and the Ducati of Bayliss. The top end speed of the Suzukis was stunning. The other bikes could barely hang onto their slipstream, and when a Suzuki rider found himself behind a rival on the entrance to a straight, he was easily able to ride past with plenty of tarmac to spare.

Neukirchner was touching 320km/h or 200mph when he caught a tow past somebody, and it was the German who looked the likeliest winner. Kagayama was quick, and took the lead several times, but kept flying off the track as he is so prone to doing. Bayliss was always there or thereabouts, but just didn't have the top speed he needed. Haga was outstanding on the brakes, which counterbalanced his slight deficit in top speed.

In the end, Max Neukirchner became the first German ever to win a World Superbike race, finally having the good luck not to be rammed by a deranged Spaniard when leading. He powered across the line, finishing 0.058 seconds ahead of Haga. Bayliss came along half a second later, with Kagayama behind him after managing to regain the track every time he had left it.

Max Biaggi finished a decent 5th. I hope he's enjoying the money he gets for riding the Sterilgarda Ducati, because switching from Suzuki was a truly braindead decision.

Race 2 saw another battle between the same characters in the early laps, but things started to change when Bayliss, who had been looking faster than he had in the first race, was sidelined with a mechanical failure. Nori Haga had been riding millimetres off Bayliss's back tyre as usual, and he overtook the Ducati, waving his hand frantically. It looked like Haga had spotted a problem with the Xerox machine and was trying to warn Bayliss, and sure enough, the Aussie slowed with a mechanical problem within seconds.

Kagayama was also out of the running. He ran off the track, rejoined, and shortly afterwards managed to fling himself off the Suzuki in his usual style. At least Yukio seems to have lost the habit of breaking something every time he crashes.

Max Biaggi was struggling to try and hold the pace of the leading group again, but his race was wrecked by a lunatic move from Jakub Smrz. The Czech rider braked a couple of miles too late and slammed into Biaggi's still-injured left hand, knocking him off the Ducati and chucking him down the road. Max walked away clutching his wrist, his season going from bad to worse.

British Superbike champion Ryuichi Kiyonari finally found some form after a slow start to the year, getting faster and faster as he came through the pack and ended up fighting with Neukirchner and Haga. On the last lap, Kiyo managed to lead into the final Parabolica curve, but the wily Haga held a tight line and elbowed his way past, into the lead. Neukirchner managed to open up the Suzuki and get a fantastic drive onto the start-finish straight.

Haga crossed the line first, with Neukirchner arriving just 9 thousandths of a second later. The hapless Kiyonari eventually trundled across the line, fully 42 thousandths of a second behind the German.

Overall, it was a great race for Suzuki and Neukirchner, with the German finally taking his first victory and looking like he'll be one of the stars of WSBK in the next few years. Haga was as quick as ever, and managed not to fall off. Bayliss had terrible luck but is still on course to win the title, while Kiyonari is now gaining confidence on the Pirelli tyres and starting to show the kind of speed that won him two BSB titles on Michelins. This year looks like being another classic.

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