From the Cathedral of Racing to the Temple of Speed; the World Superbike circus has left Assen behind and rolled up at Monza, the high-speed track in the middle of a former royal park. While horsepower is a factor everywhere, at the scorching pace that Monza generates, it moves from being important to fairly decisive at the legendary Italian track.
So no surprise that the four cylinders are dominating at Monza, nor that the horsepower kings have come out on top. The BMW of Leon Haslam posted the fastest time of the day on Friday, with Max Biaggi's Aprilia a blink of an eye slower round the circuit. If anyone were foolish enough to doubt the top speed of the Aprilias, then Biaggi's new top speed record of 332.5 km/h - that's 206.6 miles per hour - should dispel them. So fast is the Aprilia that Ducati test rider Franco Battaini told GPOne.com recently that while he was testing the Ducati Desmosedici GP11 MotoGP machine at Mugello, Biaggi - also on track testing the Aprilia RSV4 - was staying with him effortlessly down Mugello's front straight.
It is therefore a safe bet that Biaggi can claw back some of his 43 point deficit to Carlos Checa this weekend, the Althea Ducati rider clearly suffering at the blistering Monza circuit. Though the Ducati is not that far down on top speed on paper, in reality, squeezing those last few KMs out of the 1200cc twin take a little too long for the 1190R to be competitive at Monza. Not all of Checa's 1.137 second deficit to Haslam (and 1.118 to Biaggi) is down to horsepower, however: Checa himself is struggling around some parts of the track. The Spaniard should be able to find another half a second before the start of the race, but even then, Checa will have to hope to hang in the slipstream of the chasing group, and collect as many points as possible to defend his lead. For Checa, Monza is a rearguard action, but fortunately one of the very few that will be required this season.
The most serious challenge to Biaggi and Haslam at Monza will come from the Northern Irish duo of Eugene Laverty and Johnny Rea. Rea got some of his mojo back with a win and a podium at Assen, and the Castrol Honda CBR1000RR is no slouch around the Monza circuit. Laverty keeps threatening to get his first World Superbike win, following in the footsteps of his Yamaha teammate Marco Melandri - a rider who also should not be counted out. Perhaps the most surprising threat, though, could come from the reigning Superstock 1000 champion Ayrton Badovini. The Italian has been slowly improving since entering the World Superbike class, and at his home track (Badovini lives just a couple of hours west of Monza) and in front of his sponsors (BMW Italia), Badovini has found half a second to get onto the provisional front row. The test of Badovini will come tomorrow and Sunday, when his nerves will be pitted against the pressure of Superpole, and then in the race on Sunday. He is undoubtedly a talented rider, and a strong result in Monza could cement his reputation.
Further down the grid, the racing gods are not looking kindly on Chris Vermeulen's return to racing, the Australian's knee now recovering well, and Monza lacking the hard changes of direction that would trouble his knee. But a crash in morning free practice session saw the Kawasaki rider badly bang up his elbow, a three-centimeter gash in his arm requiring 5 stitches from the clinica mobile. 2011 has been a real test of Vermeulen's character, and he has come through that with flying colors. If only the same could be said of his physical condition. After all that effort, and all that physical suffering, you really start to feel Vermeulen deserves a break.
In the World Supersport class, the Yamahas continue to dominate, Chaz Davies leading local boy Luca Scassa (well, relatively local, Scassa lives much closer to Mugello than to Monza). The Yamahas have the speed, and though the Hondas are no slouches, they are as yet no match for the R6s. The race looks like being the fourth in a row to go to the ParkinGO Yamaha squad.
The injury bay is still full at Monza, though the walking wounded are still riding. Just three weeks after the horrific crash at Assen in which he broke his collarbone and suffered a concussion, Sam Lowes is back riding again, and though the British BSB Supersport champion is fast, he is still a little way off the pace. Fellow Englishman Gino Rea is the fastest of the Hondas, though even Rea is three quarters of a second behind the Yamaha of Davies. The Yamahas are going to be tough to catch.
The news off the track - ignoring the controversy surrounding the Paul Bird Motorsports trucks being found at UK customs carrying large amounts of illegal drugs, though the team claims that the drugs had been stowed on board the trucks without their knowledge - is that Infront, the WSBK series' commercial rights holders, are expected to make a statement on the situation surrounding the Claiming Rule Teams in MotoGP. Infront have long felt that the CRT rules - which allow teams to use engines derived from production bikes if they wish - are an encroachment on their monopoly of production racing, and have in the past threatened the FIM with legal action to try to get the rules changed. With the financial might of the organization holding the rights to the soccer World Cup behind them, there is no doubt that they can afford the fight. But as discussed here before, there is every reason to believe that this is a battle that Infront would lose. We shall wait to see what tomorrow brings, but a legal battle between the two series would only serve to weaken both. Perhaps the Flammini brothers will make do with a little sabre-rattling to underline their position. That would be the best outcome in the current situation.