Tuesday, April 28, 2009

WSBK Assen: Spies and Haga Again

Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga shared the victories at the Assen round of the World Superbike championship, with the first race being a real classic. Leon Haslam also impressed by taking two podiums on his privateer Honda.

Race One
Ben Spies made full use of his 4th pole position of the year to lead the field into the first corner on his factory Yamaha bike. Behind him were Max Neukirchner, Jakub Smrz, Noriyuki Haga and Leon Haslam. At the front, Spies and Neukirchner were starting to pull away as Smrz held up the rest of the field on his Guandalini Ducati.

Nori Haga quickly managed to squeeze his factory Xerox Ducati bike past the Czech privateer, but Leon Haslam would have to wait a little longer before he could overtake on his Stiggy Honda, by which time his rivals had pulled out a reasonable gap. Tom Sykes on the second factory Yamaha followed Haslam past Smrz when the Czech had a big slide.

Haslam had to work hard to catch up to Haga, who was in turn catching the leading pair. Setting fastest laps, the Englishman caught up to make it a group of four fighting for first place. Immediately he had a big scare when Max Neukirchner fell in the final chicane, the German's Suzuki righting itself and shooting back across the track, coming terrifyingly close to clouting Haslam.

Spies now had Haga to deal with. The Japanese rider's Ducati was blisteringly quick around the back of the track, and he constantly harried his American rival. Behind them, young Haslam had once again clawed his way back to the leading group. With Tom Sykes riding a lonely race in 4th position, the next battle was for 5th, with Michel Fabrizio's Xerox Ducati, Max Biaggi's Aprilia and Jonathan Rea's Hannspree Ten Kate Honda fighting it out.

With ten laps left, Spies made a small mistake, running just inches wide, but that was enough for Haga, riding crazily close behind as always. As the Japanese star snatched the lead, Haslam pulled alongside on the next straight and outbraked Spies to take 2nd place.

Haslam's rear tyre started to squirm around with around 4 laps to go, and Spies found his second wind. The three leaders were locked together with barely a bike length between each of them. On the next lap, Spies managed to pull alongside Haslam, but the Englishman refused to yield. The pair went around three corners side by side, almost leaning on each other, before Spies took the upper hand. It was a breathtaking display of control from both riders. The slightest mistake would have taken them both out in a shower of gravel and acrimony.

It looked like Haga must have the win sewn up, but Spies put in an incredible last lap. The Texan somehow shot past Haga to take the lead with a stunning pass in a fast right hander. With just one left hand corner before the final complex, Haga could do nothing to fight back. Ben Spies won the race to continue his astounding rookie season in WSBK, ahead of Haga and Haslam. It was a truly classic Assen battle.

Race Two
Ben Spies made another excellent start, but it was Noriyuki Haga who led the field around the first lap. Leon Haslam was first to the corner entry, but outbraked everybody including himself, dropping back to fourth. Spies only waited a few corners before passing Haga, and was pulling out a few bike lengths when he suddenly crashed on the second lap. He was unhurt, but his Yamaha tumbled right through a gravel trap and over the barrier.

Haga now had the lead back, with Max Neukirchner's Suzuki in second place and Leon Haslam in third. Michel Fabrizio was next up. The Italian took advantage of the fight between Haslam and Neukirchner to close up and pass Haslam for third. Shortly afterwards, Fabrizio rudely shoved Neukirchner wide, the hapless German running off the track, furious with the Ducati rider.

At the front, Nori Haga was now checking out, while Fabrizio, Haga and Smrz battled over the remaining podium spots. Fabrizio was having one of his randomly-selected good races, and was holding back the clearly faster bike of Haslam.

Nicking an idea from Ben Spies, Haslam shot past Fabrizio in the fast right hander towards the end of the lap. The first four positions then settled down, with the excitement coming from the battle for fifth, between Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes. The pair swapped positions back and forth, with Rea eventually coming out on top.

Haga led easily across the line to take the victory and keep up his impressive title challenge. Haslam finished an excellent second, by far the best Honda rider. Third place was decided on the last lap, with Fabrizio missing a gear to let Jakub Smrz steal third place. Fabrizio celebrated fourth with a hilarious display of melodramatics as he cursed his misfortune.

It was not a classic race, especially compared to the fantastic first race of the day, but Haga used his new-found consistency to make himself the clear favourite to win the championship.

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