Monday, March 02, 2009

WSBK: Haga and Spies Ease to Victories at PI

It was all change at Phillip Island, as old boy Noriyuki Haga won the first race of the season, while new boy Ben Spies took pole position and a victory.

There has been incessant chatter about Ben Spies. He won the AMA Superbike championship at a canter, but that was just a two horse race anyway. Our ex-colonial cousins insisted the quiet young Texan was the real deal, but the only way to settle the argument was to let him loose in a proper championship like World Superbike. Riding the new "big bang" Yamaha, Spies took pole position with a blistering lap. The doubters now knew that Spies was seriously speedy, but would he be a great racer, or just a much taller version of Dani Pedrosa, quick only on an empty track?

In Race One, we only got to see Spies race for two corners before he was punted off. Haslam and Biaggi sat up, and Spies on the outside ran out of road in the exact place where Pedrosa hopped off at the last MotoGP round on the Island. Spies, however, stayed on the bike. Keeping an eye on his gap from the leader showed that he remained 23 seconds back from first place right to the chequered flag. In other words, he was lapping at race leading pace. So he was quick, and didn't throw in the towel despite being way out of the points.

Up at the front, it was the kind of classic World Superbike race that Phillip Island always seems to produce. There was a small amount of carnage, with BMW rider Ruben Xaus punting Ten Kate Honda's Ryuichi Kiyonari out of the race, and Shakey Byrne falling off his Sterilgarda Ducati all on his own. The race for the lead was frantic, with a big freight train of bikes led by Haga (who had started 13th) on the Xerox Ducati  and Max Neukirchner (who started 14th!) on the Alstare Suzuki. Punching above their weight, the likes of Leon Haslam (Honda) and Regis Laconi (Ducati) were mixing it with Michel Fabrizio's factory Ducati and Johnny Rea's Ten Kate Honda.

It all came down to a last lap thriller between Haga and Neukirchner, the Ducati being faster on the twisty bits and the Suzuki being a missile down the straight. The German looked like he might have the race won, but he lost time saving a big highside on Lukey Heights, letting Haga sneak past into MG. The Japanese star won the race by 3 hundredths of a second from the German, with Suzuki hero Yukio Kagayama taking the final podium spot.

Race Two started better for Spies, as he outrageously went round the outside of Max Biaggi's Aprilia to snatch the lead after a couple of corners. Right, so that's the questions about his racecraft answered then. It was interesting to watch Spies race at the front. Despite being a gangly guy with knees and elbows sticking out all over the place, he hangs all the way off the bike like tiny Toni Elias.

The battle for the lead involved Spies and Haga, who quickly sliced through the field from his lowly grid spot. The pair swapped the lead a couple of times, rarely separated by more than a couple of bike lengths, until finally the American put the hammer down and pulled out a bit of a gap in the last 2 or 3 laps. Haga couldn't respond, and despite the Ducati's red glare, Spies crossed the line to win his 2nd ever World Superbike race, in his first ever race meeting at Phillip Island, on the radical new Yamaha.

Biaggi, who seemed to be heading for a podium spot, slowed a bit towards the end, and nearly tangled with Haslam and Laconi on the last lap. The Roman Emperor got a taste of his own medicine as he had to run off the track to avoid his rivals. Laconi was deeply impressive on his privateer Ducati, but he lost out on 3rd place to Leon Haslam. It was an incredible result for the Pocket Rocket, giving the Stiggy team a podium in only its second race in the Superbike class and destroying their fellow Honda runners, the all-conquering Ten Kate team.

Overall, what did we learn? Haga has taken to the Xerox Ducati team like a frog to red wine, Aprilia are quick, BMW still have work to do, Regis Laconi is back, and the Haslam-Stiggy combination works a treat. But the big news is this:

There's a new Texan winning in WSBK. And this one's quiet.

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