Monday, September 22, 2008

WSBK Vallelunga: Nitro Nori Nicks Double

Noriyuki Haga took a stunning double victory as the World Superbike championship visited Vallelunga, Italy. A late crash in the second race for pole position holder Troy Bayliss means that he has not secured the title just yet, while two riders escaped unhurt from a horrific crash at the start of race two.

Race 1
The Xerox Ducati of Troy Bayliss leapt off the pole position slot like a scalded cat, swerving in front of the chasing pack as he headed for the first corner. Max Biaggi made his usual great start to slot his Sterilgarda Ducati into second place. With Rome just 30km away, the little Roman Emperor was fired up by an extremely partisan crowd of Biaggi fans. Next in line were the two Santander Yamaha Italia bikes of Noriyuki Haga and Troy Corser. Haga quickly sneaked past Biaggi when the Roman entered the slow hairpin on a wide line, then kept up the momentum as he used the superior speed of the Yamaha to pass Bayliss for the lead.

It would prove to be a difficult race for Bayliss, as he could not keep up the same pace as the leader Haga. He lost out to Biaggi, Corser and Kiyonari in fairly quick succession, dropping to 5th place. However, he regained a spot when Ryuichi Kiyonari incredibly dropped the Hannspree Ten Kate Honda at the hairpin in a carbon copy of James Toseland's crash when he raced for that team last year. The bike skittered across the tarmac at no more than 30mph, but something was broken and Kiyo trundled back to the pits to retire. Bayliss, however soon lost the place to Kiyonari's team-mate Carlos Checa, who was having an excellent race from the third row.

At the front, Haga was still flawless, but Biaggi and Corser beat each other up for 2nd position. Biaggi managed to latch onto Haga's rear tyre, while Corser dropped back and started fighting with Checa for the final podium spot. However, the pace of the two leaders faded, and with a couple of fast laps, Corser was back in the mix. Despite some big slides, Haga was untouchable, and stretched away on the last lap to take the victory. Biaggi finished second and Corser third. Max Neukirchner brazenly shot past both Bayliss and Checa in one fell swoop to grab 4th, while Checa held off the Aussie for 5th.

Race 2
The second race started with one of the most terrifying crashes that World Superbike has seen in years. Seconds after launching from the start line, Max Biaggi and Troy Corser touched in the left-hand kink in the straight, setting the Italian's Ducati lurching from side to side as other riders streamed past at around 130mph. Finally, Max was thrown from the bike, which was immediately hit by the hapless Kenan Sofuoglu on his Ten Kate Honda. Biaggi was spun round like a top before tumbling through the gravel at high speed, his Ducati being totally destroyed as it cartwheeled end over end. When Sofuoglu's machine hit Biaggi's bike, it disappeared from underneath him. The Turkish star flew through the air, gracefully flipping over and landing on his back before tumbling through the gravel like a rag doll. His Honda was reduced to an expensive ball of smoking wreckage. Amazingly, both riders escaped with just bruising from this monstrous crash.

Because Sofuoglu and Biaggi had travelled straight on while the track kinked left, they were clear of the tarmac and the race carried on. Troy Bayliss had taken the lead again, while this time he was followed by Haga and Corser. It would be Bayliss and Haga who battled for the lead, while Corser kept a close watch from 3rd place, trying to sneak alongside the others from time to time. The fight for the lead was thrilling, with the Yamaha fastest in a straight line but the Ducati breathtakingly quick in the fast corners. At one point, Haga and Bayliss were physically touching in the same fast left-hand kink that had claimed Biaggi, but travelling much faster than Max had been as they had accelerated all the way from the last corner.

Bayliss used his speed in the fast corners to pass Haga, but the Yamaha could swoop past on the straights and stay in front into slow corners thanks to Haga's insanely late braking. Haga ran wide into the last corner, letting Bayliss drag alongside him over the start line, and again the pair touched in the left-hand kink at the end of the straight. It was an awe-inspiring demonstration of World Superbike racing at its very best, with two legends shoulder to shoulder at high speed, having total confidence in each other.

Bayliss knew that he could only seal the world title if he extended his championship lead to at least 100 points by the end of the day. With Corser in 3rd place, 2nd would not be enough for Bayliss and he decided to go all out for the victory. However, on the last lap, his young team-mate Michel Fabrizio, also a local boy, had done Bayliss a favour by pushing Corser back to 4th. Unfortunately, Bayliss had no way of knowing that 2nd place would now be enough to win the championship. Like a few people over the weekend, Bayliss "did a Toseland" at the hairpin, sliding along the tarmac in a shower of sparks at embarrassingly low speed. He kept the throttle pinned to stop the big 1200cc V-twin engine from stalling, but by the time he had picked the bike up, found a gear and restarted, he was in 16th place.

Haga was now clear in the lead as he crossed the line for his second victory of the day, celebrating a brilliant double by taking his pair of young sons onto the podium. The little Japanese hooligans had the sense to run off when the champagne was sprayed, but return in time to be in the podium photographs. Fabrizio kept up his yo-yoing form to take 2nd place, while Troy Corser took another podium. Neukirchner and Checa came home 4th and 5th again, with the Spaniard having lost precious seconds at the race start as he backed off, having been convinced that the huge crash in front of him would result in a red flag.

Troy Bayliss could have won the title at Vallelunga, but unfortunately the rostrum or straw bales tactic failed him on this occasion. He still has a huge lead in the championship race, and should sew up the title next time out.

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