Monza Backstory

World Superbike celebrates 25 years of racing in washout conditions at the Temple of Speed.

Monza Backstory

Monza Backstory

Here are the results from Monza: Kawasaki’s Tom Sykes missed out on a fourth-consecutive Superpole but got his first World Superbike victory of the year. As for the title chase, Max Biaggi left Italy with a two-point lead over current champion Carlos Checa.

Now, for the stuff you didn’t see weeks ago on TV...

Rain was forecast for the weekend, but when Nic Sims from Alpinestars and I walked out of the Malpensa Airport on Thursday morning, we were met by bright, blue skies. That afternoon, we had lunch with Cycle World's European Editor, Bruno dePrato. After a delicious meal prepared by Bruno's lovely wife, Mary, we went outside for coffee and to enjoy the sunshine.

“This wind is not a promise of good weather,” said dePrato. “The wind never dies thirsty.”

Sims and I stayed in Milan that night to attend World Superbike’s 25th-anniversary dinner. The gala event was held at the Palazzo Del Ghiaccio, once Europe’s largest covered ice rink and now a museum. Music boomed. Champagne flowed. Leggy models directed us to our table. Video of racing Fours and Twins and the occasional Triple played on massive screens suspended from the ceiling. Champions with names like Merkel, Polen, Fogarty, Bayliss and Corser were paraded on stage. Infront Motor Sports’ Maurizio and Paolo Flammini, SBK’s gatekeepers, said a few words. It was a proper party but a late night.

Next morning, we drove to Monza. The map I picked up at our hotel painted an impossibly idyllic picture of Autodromo Nazionale Monza, its 3.6-mile Grand Prix track located inside Royal Villa of Monza park. But sure enough, the trees forming a canopy over the narrow dirt path that led to the famous old banking were just as the artist depicted them: green and leafy, with just enough space between the branches to let sunlight filter through.

After scaling a fence and dropping onto the old concrete, I did what all Monza first-timers surely do: climbed to the top of the steepest portion of the track—in this case, Soproelevata Nord—gingerly wrapped my fingers around the rotting guardrail and peered over the edge. Unfortunately, there wasn't much to see; no wrinkled old Ferraris or Maseratis, just rocks and weeds and a bit of trash.

A hundred yards away, at Prima Variante, fans were perched atop the guardrail, sunning themselves and watching Friday practice. Sims and I found a couple open spots and watched as Leon Haslam, Michel Fabrizio, Marco Melandri, Sykes, Biaggi and other Superbike heavies whistled toward us at 200-plus mph (Castrol Honda's Jonathan Rea topped the speed charts at 207.299).

Those who got the chicane right—nail the brakes, backshift to first gear, flick right, then left and accelerate, engine popping, slick rear tire skipping over the tricolore curbing—were gone in a flash. Others, like class-newcomer Chaz Davies, riding a ParkinGO MTC Racing Aprilia RSV4, were still finding their brake markers and sometimes ran straight. Castrol Honda's Hiroshi Aoyama, bounced out of MotoGP last year, caught neutral and highsided, apparently unhurt.

Maybe I'm just used to MotoGP bikes with their 135-decibel-maximum noise "limit," but the 107-dB-ceiling Superbikes seemed…quiet.

Back in the paddock, I asked Davies, who won the Supersport race at Monza last year and, eventually, the title, if the chicane is crucial to a quick lap. "You can make up a lot of time," he said. "I made my whole lap there last year—four-tenths of a second."

In afternoon qualifying, four screaming BMWs—Fabrizio, Melandri, Haslam and Ayrton Badovini—filled four of the top five spots, with former Ducati factory rider Fabrizio pegging 208 mph. Temple of Speed, indeed.

Next to ParkinGo was the big tent of Crescent FIXI Suzuki. The ex-British Superbike squad is headed by former Suzuki MotoGP front man Paul Denning and managed by Jack Valentine. Riders are Leon Camier and John Hopkins, the American back on track after losing most of his right ring finger earlier this year.

Monza was a new experience for Hopkins. “It’s fast,” he said. “Not a lot to it—straightaways and a couple chicanes—so learning it is not too difficult. It’s not the safest place in the world. MotoGP wouldn’t come here. Those bikes would be getting over 230 mph down the front straightaway.”

I asked Hopkins about the GSX-Rs that he and Camier are riding. “Our bike is a little underpowered this year,” he admitted, “and we’re struggling for some acceleration and top speed. There’s massive time to be made here on the brakes; I’ve always been really good on the brakes.”

What does it cost to run a two-rider team in this series? "Minimum, minimum, is two million pounds," said Valentine. "And that's if you have the infrastructure. Three million is more like it." At current exchange rates, the larger of those two numbers equates to $4.8 million. MotoGP costs two to three times as much.

I could hear the factory Aprilias warming up from 75 yards away—huff, huff, huff. Spare engines wrapped in black plastic were sitting on wooden pallets in the back of the garage. Biaggi would need one of them on Sunday.

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Just as dePrato had forecast, the weather shifted on Saturday. “I’m not too excited about riding this place in the rain,” Davies told me. Second qualifying, at 9:45 a.m., was officially wet, though the quickest lap, set by Eugene Laverty on an Aprilia, was just 1.2 seconds slower than Fabrizio’s time on Friday in perfect conditions. Three hours later, in the dry second free practice, Sykes hit 210.965 mph, the fastest speed ever recorded in SBK history.

Melandri brushed off talk of high speeds. “This is the only track we need that kind of power,” he said.

Superpole began at 3 p.m. and was also officially wet, meaning there were two rather than the usual three 20-minute sessions. But the track was drying, and the Pirelli rain tires overheated and came apart. Spectacular footage of Sykes’ Kawasaki throwing off rubber raised more than eyebrows.

Hopkins was ninth-quickest, missing Superpole 2 by one spot. “In the first one,” he said, “there was no question: We had to go with wets. Even toward the end of the session, there were parts of the track that were far too wet to lean over on an intermediate or a slick. In the second, I would have gone with intermediates, for sure. Even in full wet conditions, I just don’t see the rain tire lasting 18 laps. There might have to be a pit stop if they don’t shorten the races.”

Assen Race 1-winner Sylvain Guintoli rolled the dice, mounting a slick rear tire and “taking a lot of risks” to score his first Superpole. Lap times between the final eight riders varied by more than six seconds.

Prior to Superpole, I got a first-hand look at the circuit from the passenger seat of an Alfa Romeo safety car driven by former Formula 3 test driver Max Visini. Belted in place, with the windshield wipers beating away a steady downpour, I could have done a hundred laps. Racing a motorcycle in those extreme conditions would have been very difficult, indeed.

After my lap, Tissot’s Matt George took me upstairs to timing and scoring, where I met Giorgio Giordani of Perugia Timing. Giordani showed me the process by which the data is collected and combined with the graphics that fans see on television. The camera aimed at start/finish shoots 10,000 frames per second, providing complete images of the passing motorcycles, even at 200 mph. Seconds after Superpole ended, I had a stack of hot printouts in my hand with every imaginable piece of information. Impressive.

Next door at race control, the intensity was a notch or two higher yet. Giordani put a finger to his lips as we entered the room. All eyes were focused on the many screens on desks and at the front of the room. Aircraft controllers are also known for their orderly efficiency and situational awareness.

I spoke with former AMA and SBK champs Fred Merkel and Doug Polen, who, like Fogarty, Corser, Bayliss and others, were at the track for the anniversary celebration. The years appear to have been kind to “Flyin’ Fred,” somewhat less so to Polen. Merkel’s 20-year-old son, Travis, won the New Zealand supersport title last year and is competing this year in the Italian 600 championship; Polen’s teenage boy plays basketball. How does Merkel feel about his son racing? “It scares the hell out of me!” he said. Would Polen change anything about his racing career? “I would have stayed with Ducati,” he admitted.

Merkel (1988, '89), Polen ('91, '92) and Scott Russell ('93) won five of the first six SBK titles; John Kocinski ('97), Colin Edwards (2000, '02) and Ben Spies ('09) have since brought the current American championship tally to nine. On Sunday, Polen, Merkel, Bayliss, Fogarty and legendary tuner Eraldo Ferracci were inducted into the SBK hall of fame.

Sunday brought more rain and drama. Overnight, Pirelli had grooved a batch of Superbike slicks, one for each rider. "Yesterday, everyone was surprised by this problem of the center part of the tire blistering," said Giorgio Barbier, director of motorcycle racing for Pirelli. "A rain compound has to work from 20 degrees Celsius to 80—maximum," said Barbier. "At the end of the straight, in damp conditions, you've got more than 150 degrees.

“Some riders used the wet tire even if the track was 60 percent dry. They did two laps and destroyed the center of the tire. Guintoli used the A slick, probably because of his experience in BSB; he knows when to use a slick. So, I decided to keep the tire that works in this strange condition and make cuts on it, like an intermediate, more or less.”

What makes Monza unique, I asked Barbier? The two long straights come one after the other, he replied, and they dry quickly because they are clear from trees and exposed to wind. Plus, drainage is good. So, there’s no time for the tire to cool.

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“If you consider Miller Motorsports Park last year,” said Barbier, “we got quite a dry condition at the end, but the wet tires lasted; the straight at Miller is longer than Monza, but then you go into a mixed area and the tire breathes. Here, in the second straight, the tire reaches too high a temperature for it to work.”

Official crowd count for the weekend was 85,000, and I swear every last one of them came out for the pre-race pit walk, surely spurred on by a sudden burst of sunshine. Like Noah after 40 days of rain.

I saw FIM Technical Director Steve Whitelock. "If it were up to me," he said, "I'd start the right now. It's a dry race. Race 1 is slicks. Race 2 is the problem."

Turns out, Race 1, started right on schedule at noon, was a problem, too. Mark Aitchison crashed on the warm-up lap, Melandri highsided from third in the Parabolica on Lap 1, and Guintoli knifed spectacularly under Sykes on the brakes at the end of the front straight to take the lead. Sykes immediately recaptured the top spot with a brave inside pass, and the pair opened a gap on the Aprilias of Laverty and Biaggi.

Hopkins got a terrific start, blasting from ninth on the grid to fourth, but was clearly missing the acceleration of the leading trio.

Then, more rain. Riders’ hands went up at the beginning of Lap 4, and race control immediately threw the red flag. Halfway around the track, Biaggi’s engine let go, and, in a great show of sportsmanship, Checa pushed the Italian back to the pits. Hopkins, meanwhile, highsided in fourth gear, breaking a bone in his foot and injuring his hip. He managed to limp back to the garage. David Salom and Sergio Gadea also fell.

SBK has adapted a “single-bike” rule for 2012. One motorcycle is allowed in the pit box; a pre-assembled rolling chassis, minus engine, gas tank, fuel system, airbox, ECU and exhaust, stands ready in a semi-truck behind the garage. Figure two hours for a complete build. Next year, 17-inch wheels will replace current 16.5s.

Davies said most teams don’t like the single-bike rule, that it’s “just a big headache.” Whitelock had a different view. With half as many bikes to maintain, he explained, staff could also be reduced, saving tens of thousands of dollars in travel costs. “People are the most expensive part of racing,” he said.

Some teams see the new rule as a marketing opportunity. Castrol Honda uses the extra garage space to host local dealers and their customers.

Biaggi’s mechanics worked with practiced speed to pull the broken engine from the RSV4 and replace it with a fresh one. Had Race 1 been restarted (“Really risky conditions,” said Checa. “We cannot ride.”), Melandri would have been ready. Maybe Biaggi, too. Professionals!

Other things have changed this season. Sykes has run up front all year. Melandri and Haslam are in the hunt. Rea won Race 2 at Assen. I asked Whitelock how this came to be. “We gave everybody what they needed,” he replied. Teams that didn’t have ride-by-wire now do. Crankshafts can be 15-percent lighter or heavier than their original homologated weight, improving handling. “The championship needs to be a fight to the end,” said Whitelock, “not a runaway.”

Rain or no rain, SBK wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Workers appeared with brooms to sweep the corners. Supersport ran to completion, but not without several crashers, including early leader Broc Parkes. Jules Cluzel, Sam Lowes and Kenan Sofuoglu stayed upright and finished one, two and three.

Heavy clouds moved in again. Superbikes were given two warm-up laps. More delays. Guintoli’s Ducati stalled. Fabrizio slowed, as well. Finally, the bikes were flagged off, all on slicks, and Sykes disappeared. After four laps, the Brit had a 6-plus-second lead. When the race was called four laps later, margin of victory was nearly 10 seconds. Haslam and Laverty completed the podium, with Melandri, Biaggi and Rea just a few tenths behind them. Half points were awarded.

SBK’s mistake, Barbier said later, was waiting too long to start the second race. “What were they waiting for?” he asked. “The rain? Maybe dry up one more corner? C’mon. In the end, the race was very good!”

Before leaving the circuit, I went to see SBK press officer Julian Thomas, who was almost apologetic. “We always race in the rain,” he said.

Not this year.

Aussie grit: Troy Bayliss poses with one of his title-winning Ducatis

Aussie grit: Troy Bayliss poses with one of his title-winning Ducatis

Californian Fred Merkel won two SBK titles on Rumi Hondas

Californian Fred Merkel won two SBK titles on Rumi Hondas

Many SBK-winning Superbikes were on display at Monza

Many SBK-winning Superbikes were on display at Monza

Carl and Michaela Fogarty dressed for the occasion

Carl and Michaela Fogarty dressed for the occasion

More than 600 guests attended SBK?s gala dinner in Milan

More than 600 guests attended SBK?s gala dinner in Milan

Infront?s Maurizio and Paolo Flammini on stage at the Palazzo Del Ghiaccio

Infront?s Maurizio and Paolo Flammini on stage at the Palazzo Del Ghiaccio

No fisticuffs, please: Pier-Francesco Chili is interviewed while longtime rival Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser listen

No fisticuffs, please: Pier-Francesco Chili is interviewed while longtime rival Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser listen

All fall down: Sergio Gadea (67) replaced the injured Joan Lascorz at Monza

All fall down: Sergio Gadea (67) replaced the injured Joan Lascorz at Monza

Reigning World Supersport Champion Chaz Davies at speed on the ParkinGO MTC Racing Aprilia RSV4

Reigning World Supersport Champion Chaz Davies at speed on the ParkinGO MTC Racing Aprilia RSV4

Maxime Berger tests the grip on a drying racetrack

Maxime Berger tests the grip on a drying racetrack

Spray kicked up by the Pirellis on the wet track made vision difficult for the riders

Spray kicked up by the Pirellis on the wet track made vision difficult for the riders

Kawasaki?s Tom Sykes has run at the front all season

Kawasaki?s Tom Sykes has run at the front all season

Carlos Checa gave title-rival Max Biaggi a push back to the paddock

Carlos Checa gave title-rival Max Biaggi a push back to the paddock

Some riders brake with four fingers, others with two

Some riders brake with four fingers, others with two

A view of Monza?s front straight from the media center

A view of Monza?s front straight from the media center

The SBK paddock is a colorful place

The SBK paddock is a colorful place

Ready to race? Alfa Romeo safety cars circulated the track in the pouring rain

Ready to race? Alfa Romeo safety cars circulated the track in the pouring rain

Autodromo Nazionale Monza is a beautiful racetrack, steeped in history, not all favorable

Autodromo Nazionale Monza is a beautiful racetrack, steeped in history, not all favorable

Colin Edwards won two SBK titles, both on Hondas

Colin Edwards won two SBK titles, both on Hondas

Which way to Ascari?

Which way to Ascari?

Monza?s historic banking hasn?t been used since 1969

Monza?s historic banking hasn?t been used since 1969

SBK?s new single-bike rule permits a pre-assembled rolling chassis, such as this Crescent FIXI Suzuki GSX-R

SBK?s new single-bike rule permits a pre-assembled rolling chassis, such as this Crescent FIXI Suzuki GSX-R

What a novel concept, a racetrack within a park!

What a novel concept, a racetrack within a park!

Pirellis had three service tents and half a dozen semis at Monza, the latter wrapped in faux carbon-fiber

Pirellis had three service tents and half a dozen semis at Monza, the latter wrapped in faux carbon-fiber

You can?t step on the bodywork if it?s not sitting on the floor of the garage!

You can?t step on the bodywork if it?s not sitting on the floor of the garage!

Tissot Superpole honors went to Sylvain Guintoli, with Tom Sykes and Marco Melandri second and third

Tissot Superpole honors went to Sylvain Guintoli, with Tom Sykes and Marco Melandri second and third