Carlos Checa picked up on the first day at Miller where he left off after last year's race: running at the front but plagued by technical problems. The Spaniard dominated here last year, but was forced to pull out of both races when his Althea Ducati packed up. So it was a little bit worrying for Checa when, after blitzing straight to the top of the timesheets in FP1, Checa's 1198R packed up on him, with what was apparently diagnosed as an electrical problem. Going out on the second bike, Checa continued to dominate, until his bike packed up a second time in the same session, this time reportedly with gearbox problems.
Despite the painful echoes of 2010, Checa was back out in the afternoon, this time ending the first session of qualifying without any technical dramas, but with an advantage of nearly eight-tenths of a second over the nearest competition. The Spaniard was merciless from the start: his first flying lap during qualifying was faster than any other rider had managed during FP2, and he got quicker from there, eventually getting to within a couple of tenths of the race lap record. If the bike stays in one piece, it's going to be hard to beat Checa at Miller - if the weather stays dry, of course.
The Aprilias ended the day in 2nd and 3rd, Leon Camier a quarter of a second ahead of Max Biaggi. Most worrying for Biaggi is that the reigning World Champion is over a second behind Checa, with very few clues as to where to make up the different. Checa's advantage over 2nd place Camier is 0.795, but it's pretty tight from there on back, with 2nd to 11th place covered by a second. A couple of tenths here and there could easily gain you three or four places, but the gap to the front is just huge.
Though the top three are much as you might have expected - Checa has been outstanding all season, Biaggi has been either brilliant or his own worst enemy, and the Aprilia is clearly the fastest bike on the grid, and at the very least the second-best machine in the class - behind Biaggi, things get interesting. Tom Sykes continues his rollercoaster ride on the Kawasaki, outside the top 10 one weekend, within a hair of the top three the next. The 4th fastest time is promising for the Yorkshireman, but what the Kawasaki team really needs is some consistency.
The fortunes of the BMW riders were vastly different, Troy Corser ending up in 5th while Leon Haslam struggled to 16th. That could be a crucial result for Haslam, as if it rains today for the second session of qualifying - and it is likely to - then he will have just scraped through to Superpole, and a chance to improve his grid position. To do that, though, the BMW engineers need to sort out the engine braking, the bike still pushing too much into the corners, making it hard to carry corner speed and get drive out of corners.
A double winner last time out, Eugene Laverty almost suffered a worse fate than Haslam, spending much of QP1 down in 18th place. The problem - what Laverty described as a "special" rear tire, and I don't think he meant that as a compliment - meant that the Irishman didn't get his session going until the very end. Those final laps saw him leap up into 8th, though, promising more improvement on Sunday.
Laverty's Yamaha teammate Marco Melandri spent the first day learning the track, and struggling to find a setup. The 12th fastest time leaves his team with a lot of work still to do, and with rain likely, not much opportunity to do it.
A special mention should also be made of Josh Waters, riding the Yoshimura Suzuki - that's the Japanese Yoshimura Suzuki, not the American Yoshimura Suzuki - as a wildcard at Miller. The 15th fastest time in just his second World Superbike appearance is impressive, especially as the Australian is just two tenths off Michel Fabrizio on the Alstare bike.
One of the most interesting aspects of the weekend is that for the first time, the AMA classes are riding the same track configuration as the World Superbike riders. For the first three visits to the track, the AMA series ran a different configuration to WSBK, to avoid direct comparison between the two series, at the specific request of the DMG, who took over the series in 2008, and introduced a drastically restricted set of engine tuning rules, putting the AMA Superbikes much closer to Superstock spec rather than the full-blown Superbike machines raced in WSBK.
Now, the DMG has relented, and the comparison between the series is interesting, though hard to quantify, given that WSBK is running on spec Pirellis while AMA uses a spec Dunlop tire, and the AMA machines are in a much lower state of tune than the WSBK bikes. On the basis of QP1, though, AMA provisional pole sitter Josh Hayes is over two seconds off the pace of Carlos Checa, though a more realistic comparison would be with Leon Camier (1.3 seconds faster) or Eugene Laverty (0.7 quicker on the WSBK version of the same Yamaha R1 machine). You can find a full ranking and discussion of the AMA and WSBK times over at Asphalt & Rubber.
How much of that difference is down to the difference in tires and engine tuning, and how much down to talent is hard to say: Hayes' best result in World Supersport was a 4th place finish at Portimao in 2008, after the American took the place of Craig Jones, who died earlier that year in a crash at Brands Hatch. In that Portimao race, Hayes finished just behind current Kawasaki World Superbike rider Joan Lascorz, and 7 seconds behind race winner Kenan Sofuoglu.
This is the problem with comparisons between the two series: the last American in the series - after Ben Spies, that is, widely agreed to be a genuine phenomenon, and arguably one of the top five or six riders in the world - was Roger Lee Hayden, who qualified fourth in AMA Superbike, behind Hayes, Blake Young and his older brother Tommy Hayden. But Rog was signed with the Pedercini Kawasaki squad, World Superbike's perennial backmarkers, and a team which has over the years tended to be a dead-end street in terms of riders' careers. Pedercini's enthusiasm and commitment are beyond question, but their budget and abilities come up woefully short in WSBK.
Using Hayden's results from last year as a measure is unfair on Hayden and, by inference, any other American riders. But until an American can get into a well-funded World Superbike team - preferably with a two-year contract, so they can spend the first year learning the bikes, the tracks and the tires - and have a chance to score some results, then American riders with international ambitions find themselves the victim of a typical chicken-and-egg situation. To have a chance at scoring results, American riders need to get a decent ride. To get a decent ride, American riders need to score results. For an insight into the dilemma, see Chris Martin's interesting piece over on Speed TV.
The weather, however, remains oblivious to all questions of nationality, and will most likely rain on all on Sunday, without fear or favor of race, creed, nationality or color. WSBK Superpole could be a very interesting affair indeed.