First, what a contrast to MotoGP! In Grand Prix, a rider with an advantage eases away to win by several seconds and his pursuers, defeated, file after him. But in today’s World Superbike qualifying at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, one second covered 13 riders, and in Race 1, rider-to-rider separations were fractions of seconds. Qualifying was not a 100 percent accurate forecast of the race finish, as it so often in MotoGP. The order at the red flag ending the first seven laps was shortly to be completely upset, and another upset came at the second restart. In general, people love their sports because of their surprises and not for their predictability.
And what about those red flags? Turns out, they come from Laguna Seca’s real-estate constraints. Newer racetracks have substantial run-off areas and perimeter-access roads for emergency vehicles. Laguna, surrounded by housing for the wealthy on one side and by the unexploded munitions of a former military base on another, cannot grow. To achieve safety, AirFence must back narrower run-offs. When a bike hits AirFence, patching and re-inflating takes time, leading to delays.
After the start, pole-winner Sylvain Guintoli took the lead, and the waterfall of nose-to-tail bikes pouring down the sinuous Corkscrew mesmerized me. Beauty is where you find it.
Again and again, I scribbled down the rider-to-rider time gaps. On Lap 9, Guintoli, on one of the very compact Aprilia V-Fours, led Tom Sykes’ Kawasaki by .2 seconds, with Marco Melandri’s BMW .3 seconds behind him and Eugene Laverty’s Aprilia .2 seconds later. At that point, the top six riders in the race were covered by 1.56 seconds.
Big deal? Yes, big deal, because in such a tight ball of racing, there will be surprises. Because it’s not easy to pass at Laguna, there isn’t constant pass/repass, but just as in qualifying, everyone is plotting the moves they will make at the very end, when it will be too late for the victim to reply. Planned surprise.
Sykes’s devil-may-care manner and obvious lust for life made me think of him as Robin Hood. Yet for a long time in this twice-red-flagged event, victory appeared to ease away from him in the form of Guintoli. In recent times, Sykes came from the status of one-lap wonder, winning countless Superpoles (not today; he was second) to coming within half a point of winning the SBK title last year to being the series leader today. His crew chief, Marcel Duinker, told me, “First, you must have speed. Then, you can add consistency.” In a studious way, Duinker found and solved the problem that had made the Kawasaki a tire-eater. Without a top crew chief, the most brilliant rider is helpless. Partnerships.
After one restart, the day was looking to be a BMW benefit, with gangling Chaz Davies and Melandri first and second. Then, the weather intervened. The tire and setup choices that had put BMW one/two now dealt them loss of front grip. “I did whatever I could,” said Davies after the race. “I was pushing the front everywhere. It was very slippery.”
With two laps to go, Sykes pushed under Davies in Turn 10 and then pulled away. With one lap left, riders sprang their traps and took the consequences. Laverty dove past Melandri down the Corkscrew (“I closed my eyes a little bit,” Laverty said later), and Melandri passed Davies only to be instantly repassed. Sykes, filling his lungs with fresh air in front, took the win by 1.2 seconds over Davies and Laverty, making the top three a U.K. sweep. Championship points are now Sykes 348, Guintoli 326, Laverty 313, Melandri 303 and Davies 259.
Why so many close competitors in SBK? I counted four each of Aprilias, BMWs, Kawasakis and Suzukis, with two Hondas and two Ducatis. World Superbike intentionally works to make its teams competitive, while MotoGP is somehow content to have only Yamaha and Honda in contention, with “the sick man of Europe,” Ducati, unable to make its bike work on the mandated spec Bridgestone tires.
Sykes’s Kawasaki is clearly getting the factory support it needs, while the Hondas, newly equipped this year with fresh factory software strategies and a promising new swingarm/suspension/fuel-tank package, have yet to make it all sing in harmony. The Aprilia is described as “a streetbike that was originally designed as a racebike.” It is a lovely, tight package that makes the raspy V-Four sound and seems to do everything well. BMW endured years of one-lap-wonder status before finding its way to a 25-lap chassis and engine setup for its S1000RR. Daring to break with its sedate, flat-Twin/touring heritage to build a super sportbike took corporate courage. And Suzuki? For the moment, economics have that company marching in place, but the GSX-R’s inline-Four exhaust shriek is as distinctive as ever.
And Ducati’s new and very powerful Panigale 1200 Twin? Something’s not right yet. Niccolo Canepa (subbing for the injured Carlos Checa) qualified fourth, showing good one-lap speed, but he didn’t finish the race.
There were two Americans—Roger Hayden and Danny Eslick—in the top 10 in first practice, showing that Laguna experience counts (Sykes had never been here before). But as SBK regulars came up to speed, AMA riders Hayden, Eslick and Blake Young settled lower. Only Young would finish—in 12th.
MotoGP post-race briefings are press-only, but in SBK—“the peoples’ series”—they are open to all, and fans clap, shout and hoot. Sykes hooted back, saying of the crowd, “It’s noisy, and that’s how I like it!” Despite this abundant enthusiasm, attendance on Saturday was sparse.
BMW allegedly protested Laverty’s across-the-dirt Corkscrew pass on Melandri, citing “a clear ruling” from the Istanbul round, stating that excursions from the track are not to be tolerated. But with Valentino Rossi having set the precedent with his 2008 pass on Casey Stoner there, and Marc Marquez returning the favor on Rossi this year, it will be hard to make legalistic headway against such crowd-pleasing maneuvers.