Sometimes the pundits are right: the race weekend at Miller Motorsports Park turned out exactly as predicted, with a convincing double victory for Carlos Checa. The Spaniard put in a repeat performance of last year, with the crucial difference that on Monday, he avoided the technical problems that left him stranded by the wayside in both races. Checa was a little slow off the mark in race 1, taking all of 6 laps to take over the lead and run away with the race, the Althea Ducati rider treading carefully in the still chilly and uncertain conditions. Race 2 was a different matter altogether, Checa taking the lead into the first corner and out of sight by the end of the first lap. The Spaniard barely put a foot wrong all weekend, his only mistake being to slip over in the mud while trying to pick up a Ducati flag from a fan to celebrate victory in race 1.
But while Checa's record is impressive - six wins out of ten starts, with two more podiums thrown in for good measure - his 61-point championship lead is down to more than just his own dominance. Number 2 in the championship is Marco Melandri, who had a very mediocre weekend at Miller after a strong outing at Monza. In 3rd place is Max Biaggi, who seems determined to do everything in his power to lose his #1 plate in the most heartbreaking way possible this year.
Miller was no exception: the reigning World Champion crashed out in race 1, coming together with Castrol Honda's Jonathan Rea in an incident which each man blamed on the other. Biaggi accused Rea of crashing into him after he'd passed the Ulsterman, while Rea claimed that Biaggi had chopped across his nose and left him nowhere to go once he had got past on the inside. The phrase Rea chose to describe what happened with the words "I got Simoncelli'd," referring to the crash between Marco Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa at the Le Mans MotoGP round two weeks' ago. But without footage to confirm what happened, it is hard to apportion blame.
Biaggi redeemed himself in race two, going on to take the podium behind his teammate Leon Camier, but the Italian is now 62 points behind Carlos Checa. Biaggi has had a questionable crash and DNF, a black flag and a ride-through penalty while leading the race so far this season, and we're not even half way through. He is also without a win in 2011, a fact that casts a shadow over every #1 plate, especially when the bike is clearly still competitive. With the World Superbike circus heading to Misano next, a track at which Checa utterly dominated the recent test, Biaggi will need to make haste if he is to find his missing mojo.
With the spotlight on Max Biaggi - for both the right and the wrong reasons - Leon Camier has been able to operate in his teammate's shadow, and it has done the young Briton a world of good. Camier put in a strong performance in race 1 to finish 4th, then followed it up with a stunning race in the second out of the day to end up in 2nd. There was nothing he could do about Checa, he said afterwards, but then again, there was nothing anyone else could do about Camier. Still suffering from glandular fever, Camier is having trouble training and still tires easily. To score a podium under such conditions is impressive, all the more so given the style with which he took it.
Checa's other main rival so far, Marco Melandri, has been far less erratic than Biaggi. Yet the Italian described the Miller event as his "worst weekend in Superbike so far." Given that he still managed to score a 10th and a 6th, things could have been an awful lot worse. Miller was a new track to learn for Melandri, and he was forced to do so under difficult conditions, after the downpour on Sunday, so to come away still head of Biaggi is a bonus.
Melandri's teammate Eugene Laverty is sneaking up behind him, and is just 24 points behind Biaggi, and 25 behind Melandri. A 5th and a 4th might be deemed disappointing after his maiden double last time out at Monza, but it is yet more solid points in the bag for the Irishman.
On the other side of the coin, there are BMW and Castrol Honda. BMW continues to struggle with tire wear, so perfectly illustrated by Troy Corser in race 1 at Miller. Starting strong, the Australian veteran led the race for the first 5 laps, before starting a headlong slide down the ranks to finish in 13th. His teammate Leon Haslam fared much better - though in this case, much better is highly relative - ending the weekend with an 8th and a 13th place finish. But most disappointing of all for the factory BMW Motorrad team was the fact that satellite rider Ayrton Badovini (riding for the BMW Italia team) finished ahead of both factory bikes in both of Monday's race at Miller. This is not why BMW pours the many millions of euros it does into the project, to get beaten by a rider on nominally inferior equipment.
BMW's plight gives the lie to tales of electronics not playing much of a role in World Superbikes. The S1000RR has come to be the machine of choice in many Superstock or Superstock-spec racing series around the world, the bike's power and handling make it a highly competitive package. But in World Superbikes, where controlling traction and engine braking is such a key part of being competitive, BMW's in-house developed electronics package is simply not managing tire wear as well as its competitors, nearly all of whom use the industry-standard Magneti Marelli systems. Until BMW solve this problem, they will fail to make the crucial breakthrough to being title contenders.
Rumors of behind-the-scenes discontent are seeping out of the BMW garage, though given the location they are seeping out to - the Italian press - a pinch or two of salt may be needed. The rumors are hinting that BMW may be getting ready to ditch both Haslam and Corser, in favor of some new blood. The names being dropped as their replacements? Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa. The fact that one of these riders is the reigning champion and the current the champion-in-waiting suggests that somebody - and not necessarily someone from inside the BMW team - has been pulling names out of hats.
If BMW had a bad weekend, for Castrol Honda it was positively disastrous. Ruben Xaus continues to be utterly woeful on the CBR1000RR, managing to crash in both races, though he rejoined to finish in 18th in race 2. Johnny Rea's weekend was little better, crashing out in the incident with Biaggi in race 1, while finishing just 11th in race 2. The Castrol Honda team gambled on choosing Miller as their test circuit, after poor results here last year. They would have got better odds at Vegas, you can't help but feel.
Not much respite for the teams, though, as they now pack up and head to Misano. With Checa on the Ducati, Biaggi on the Aprilia and Melandri on the Yamaha - and both the Althea Ducati and factory Yamaha teams being based in Italy - there should be plenty for the Italians to cheer for.