What a strange and interesting weekend the World Superbike round at Donington has given us. That Carlos Checa should win at least one race at Donington was to be expected, but the strong results from the Yamaha camp - in both Superbikes and Supersport - was a bit of a surprise, while the complete meltdown by Max Biaggi was shocking.
To Biaggi first. The Alitalia Aprilia rider started off well, sitting on provisional pole after the first qualifying session on Friday, and joking about how it was both unusual and nice to have people talking about him on a Friday. It all went downhill from there: an on-track run-in with Marco Melandri saw a furious Biaggi stalk into the Yamaha garage, issue a couple of comedy slaps on Melandri's cheek (both meant and received as an insult), getting himself hauled in front of Race Direction and issued a fine (for the slap) and a warning (for blocking Melandri on track, a punishment Melandri also received).
Race One saw the Italian get caught up at the start, then make a litany of mistakes, running wide at Redgate at least twice, and three or four times at other corners, trying passing maneuvers that were never going to work and finishing the race in 7th. Race Two was even more of a disaster: Biaggi jumped the lights at the start, catching himself before the lights dimmed completely, but still ending up a meter or so forward of his grid spot once the pack roared off the line. He then got caught up in another mid-pack scrap and failed to notice his pit board telling him to come in for a ride-through penalty, and ended the day being black-flagged, and disqualified from the race.
This looked very much like the old Biaggi, the Italian having a history of losing his nerve and making poor decisions. Biaggi has been here before, most notoriously ignoring a black flag at Catalunya in 1998, and going on to cross the line first ahead of Mick Doohan, who was awarded the victory. The Roman Emperor also has a history of crumbling under pressure, a reputation he gained mainly against a younger Valentino Rossi, who made an art form of sitting behind Biaggi during races until Biaggi crashed or made a mistake.
But after Biaggi's switch to World Superbikes - and especially during his World Championship season in 2010, his first in 13 years - Biaggi looked like a changed man, staying calm under pressure and stepping up when he had to, taking advantage of the Aprilia's horsepower when he could, making the best of the bike when he couldn't. The old Biaggi was gone, we thought, only to reemerge at Donington last weekend.
Yet there is reason to believe that Biaggi really has changed. On Sunday night, Biaggi shouldered the blame fairly and squarely, admitted his mistakes, and making it clear that he could not afford a repeat if he is to defend his title this season. The old Biaggi would have done no such thing; whereas the new Biaggi seems more capable of admitting his mistakes and moving forward. Anyone expecting the Italian to have crumbled already may end up sorely disappointed.
Biaggi does have his work cut out, though. Carlos Checa bagged his third win out of four races on Sunday, alongside his worst result of 2011, a 3rd place in race one. The Althea Ducati rider dominated most of the proceedings at Donington, so much so that his race one podium could almost be classified as a disappointment. But the Althea team - Ducati's factory WSBK effort in all but name, given the presence of at least half of Noriyuki Haga's former Xerox Ducati pit crew, plus various other former factory personnel - clearly has the situation under control, and Checa is still odds-on for the title this year.
The surprise of the weekend was Marco Melandri, the MotoGP refugee winning a World Superbike race at just the 3rd attempt, on a bike that was far from competitive last season, and still recovering from shoulder surgery over the winter. But perhaps it's not such a surprise after all: championship leader Carlos Checa and reigning champion Max Biaggi are both former MotoGP riders, and both have proven extremely competitive in World Superbikes. The level of competition in MotoGP is without question the highest in the world, with no question that the series contains the best riders.
But Melandri's - and, to a lesser extent, Biaggi's and Checa's - success in World Superbikes also points to another factor which is proving crucial to success in both series: the role that the tires play, and especially the curiously specific requirements of the spec MotoGP Bridgestones, in determining the success of riders in MotoGP. Hampered by satellite spec equipment, and with no great love for the spec Bridgestones, Melandri was mid-pack at best in MotoGP. James Toseland went from threatening the top 5 on the Michelins to barely making the top 10 on the Bridgestones, before being shunted off to World Superbikes. And now Toni Elias, once a MotoGP race winner on Michelins (though admittedly, the Saturday-night specials prepared for Dani Pedrosa), now three seconds off the pace on the spec Bridgestones.
Cut to World Superbikes, and Melandri has gone from mid-pack to title candidate, and though the factory Yamaha YZF-R1 must take some of the credit, much of the difference has to be down to the tires. Former World Supersport champion and WSBK race winner Cal Crutchlow remarked at Qatar how different the tires are: "They keep telling me I have to load the tires to get them working," Crutchlow told reporters at the Qatar test. "That's hard, I spent all my time on a Superbike trying my best NOT to load the tires." The lack of grip of the Pirellis is how a motorcycle racer expects a tire to behave, it would appear, rather than the extraordinary grip that the Bridgestones seem offer as long as they are up to temperatures. The lack of grip certainly makes for much better racing, for the World Superbike races are usually closer than MotoGP races, and offer opportunities to recover from mistakes, something the surgical precision of the Bridgestones punishes mercilessly.
BMW's Leon Haslam is clearly frustrated, but making progress. The Derbyshire native knows Donington like the back of his hand, his father having had a track riding school at the circuit for many years, and Haslam was using every ounce of that experience to battle his way around Donington. But he could still only manage two 4ths, falling short of the podium in both races. The problem, it appears from an interview which Haslam did with Visordown, is the complexity of the BMW, the German factory falling into the all-too-common trap of choosing engineering over simplicity. There are too many options, too much to change, and the team is losing too much time chasing their tails, instead of letting the riders get on and ride the bike. When they get it right, the BMW is fast, when they don't, Haslam and Corser end up well down the order. Until they arrive at a base setup and stick to making smaller adjustments to get the bike right, Haslam will be fighting for podiums, rather than fighting for the championship.
The news at Kawasaki is much better. In race one, Tom Sykes vied for the final spot on the podium before crashing out on lap 16, while in race two, WSBK rookie Joan Lascorz rode an outstanding race to finish 5th. In previous years, Kawasaki have been lucky to get top 10 finishes, but the new ZX-10R is behaving more like a race bike than any of its predecessors, and proving itself truly competitive. The first podium for the marque since 2007 cannot be so far away.
While both Sykes and Lascorz are proving their mettle, the outlook for former MotoGP race winner Chris Vermeulen is not great. Since having reconstructive surgery on his knee last July, his recovery has been painfully slow. Vermeulen rode during FP1 and QP1 on Friday, but was still over two-and-a-half seconds off the pace, and only capable of 16 laps in each session, or about two-thirds of what most other riders did. Vermeulen remains relentlessly optimistic, and hopes to return to racing at Assen, and even to be competitive. But with each difficult race weekend, his hopes of ever making a truly competitive return must surely be starting to fade.
In the World Supersport class, Yamaha dominated just as they did (though to a lesser extent) at Phillip Island. Luca Scassa's only challenge came from his ParkinGO teammate Chaz Davies, the two Yamahas finishing some twenty seconds ahead of the rest. The bikes - basically the YZF-R6s used by Cal Crutchlow to take the 2009 World Supersport title - are still supremely competitive, and Scassa has to be regarded as the favorite for the 2011 title.
But the dominance of the Yamahas was flattered by the failure of the PTR-prepared Hondas. Both Sam Lowes of the Parkalgar team and James Ellison of Bogdanka PTR suffered clutch problems forcing them to retire. Lowes looked to have the measure of the Yamahas in the early laps, rapidly closing the gap built up after he got caught in traffic, until a failed clutch caused him to pull out around the halfway mark. Similarly, Ellison appeared to have 3rd firmly in his grasp until he suffered a similar plight. No doubt both Lowes and Ellison will make the Yamahas work for victories this year, but with Lowes already 34 points behind Salom, they have left themselves with a big hill to climb.
World Superbikes now has a three-week break, returning at Assen on April 17th. Assen, with its flowing final section and a stop-and-go first part of the track, should be somewhat similar to Donington. We shall see whether former MotoGP riders will continue to dominate the series at the historic Dutch circuit in three weeks' time.