Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A tale of four champions

I do my best here to pay equal attention to cars and motorcycles, so I'll admit it's unusual for me to post about bikes twice in one day.

However, after watching coverage of this weekend's British Superbike races from Oulton Park it got me thinking about how the champions of the top four motorcycle road-racing series in 2005 are having a rough time of it in 2006.

Arguably the guy who's had it worst is Valentino Rossi in the MotoGP championship. He fell off at the very first corner of the very first race, as a result of a poor qualifying effot. When you're that far back on the grid you're always more likely to be involved in a first corner melee. Things didn't get much better after that. A series of poor results were variously attributed to the new frame on his Yamaha M1 and the new wider-profile Michelin tyres. Worst was yet to come as Vale crashed in France and broke his wrist, which had still not fully healed by Assen. Most recently, the hot weather at the US Grand Prix destroyed his tyre, causing him to slow enough to cook his engine. He now finds himself 51 points behind series leader Nicky Hayden, and (by his own admission) no chance of catching him.

Also in difficulties from the get-go was World Superbike champ Troy Corser. His main problem? Plainly put, it's his countryman Troy Bayliss, who returned to the series after three average years in MotoGP. Bayliss was immediately on the pace, and it didn't help that other contenders such as Nori Haga, James Toseland and team-mate Yukio Kagayama were all on-form. A bad race for Bayliss in Australia seemed to redress the balance a bit, but in race two Corser high-sided and was run over by Alex Barros. Corser continued on the defensive, and ended up crashing at Silverstone and Mugello. Even when Bayliss had another bad weekend, just a few days ago in Brno, Corser was unable to capitalize. In a perfect display of "kicking a man when he's down" Italian newcomer Michel Fabrizio stole a certain podium spot in race two with a very stout barging move at the last corner.

Mat Mladin knew that 2006 would see team-mate Ben Spies much stronger in the AMA US Superbike championship, but a sneaky win at the first race somehow tricked everyone into thinking Mladin still had the measure of the lanky young Texan. Alas, the tables turned, and turned fast, when Spies took both wins at the next round in Fontana on the way to a 6-race win streak. Mladin managed to pull things back a bit in Road America, but was helped by a red flag situation that erased a 6-second lead built up by Spies. Even when Spies failed to win at Miller, it wasn't because Mladin won it - Honda rider Jake Zemke was the interloper. At last weekend's one-race event at real-world furnace of Hades, Laguna Seca, Mladin couldn't even stay with the previously struggling Ducatis, Kawasakis and Hondas.

About the only guy who's had anything to cheer about has been Gregorio Lavilla in the afore-mentioned British Superbike series. Despite allowing Honda's Ryuichi Kiyonari, 2005 runner-up, the first win at a soaking Brands Hatch, Lavilla went on to dominate the first half of the season. Kiyo and Lavilla's Ducati team-mate Leon "Pocket Rocket" Haslam (son of "Rocket" Ron Haslam) both hung tough, racking up points with some solid podiums. This put them in a good place for when Lavilla's season went down the toilet. Lavilla crashed at Snetterton and Knockhill, and had a clutch failure last weekend at Oulton Park: three zero points finishes whilst Haslam and Kiyo grabbed a bagful of points.

The good news in all of this is that we have some close championships and possible new championship winners in all four series. That's good for racing, after a somewhat dull 2005 in which Rossi, Corser and Mladin ran away with it and Lavilla turned things around mid-season and then took off into the sunset.

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