WSBK Mid-term report - Ducati
9 June 2009
Ducati rider standings after 7 rounds, 14 races
Noriyuki Haga, Ducati Xerox – 1st
Michel Fabrizio, Ducati Xerox – 3rd
Jakub Smrz, Guandalin Ducati - 10th
Regis Laconi, DFX Ducati - 11th
Shane Byrne, Sterilgarda Ducati - 15th
Gregorio Lavilla, Guandalini Ducati - 19th
Brendan Roberts, Guandalini Ducati - 26th
Lorenzo Lanzi, DFX Ducati - 30th
Different rider, same scenario, Noriyuki Haga has picked up rather nicely from where Troy Bayliss left off at the end of the 2008 season as he heads into the second half of 2009 clutching a commanding lead and the odds stacked firmly in his favour.
On paper, Haga's 53 point lead at the end of 14 races shouldn't have come as such a massive surprise. While he may not have a title to his name, Haga remains one of the most successful riders in WSBK history, while the reputation of the Ducati Xerox team needs no introduction. A marriage made in heaven? It is certainly looking that way…
It is interesting then to note that many are still waiting for Haga to 'inevitably' slip up, the flip side to his devastating speed being his occasional erratic nature. Still, while he gave a glimpse of that last time out in the USA, Haga has otherwise been a master of consistency, his doubles at Valencia and Kyalami being case points of how the Xerox team seems to have brought about a soberer side to him. Not that he doesn't remain spectacular – this is Nitro Nori after all - but this time it's tinged with a bit of 'head over heart' because that is the stuff that makes titles…
After a somewhat stuttered start to the season, Michel Fabrizio has begun to penetrate the 'Spaga' lockout at the front of the field in recent races, the Italian's six consecutive podiums – including that maiden win at Monza – making him comfortably the highest scorer over the previous three rounds (121 points to Spies' 92 and Haga's 85).
In fact, for those of you who like their incidental statistics, had Fabrizio finished around third – his average finishing position for the year so far – at Qatar where he otherwise failed to finish either race, he'd be hot on the heels of team-mate Haga in the race for the title.
Indeed, Spies cannot be considered a threat for the title without Fabrizio being mentioned in the same breath, particularly as they travelled to the previous round in the USA with the Italian marginally ahead of the Yamaha rider. It remains to be seen whether this new found consistency can continue for the remainder of the season, but Fabrizio has already gone a long way to proving his doubters – and there were many – wrong.
Given he has started inside the top six on all but two occasions so far this season, Jakub Smrz should probably have something better than tenth in the overall standings to show for after seven rounds, but while he may be a one-lap specialist, there are signs that the Czech is evolving into an equally adept racer.
The reason behind Smrz's somewhat patchy score sheet is more to do with some rotten luck than anything else, such as his accident and mechanical problems in Qatar when he qualified second and his contact with rivals in South Africa. Nonetheless, his efforts on the Guandalini machine shouldn't be taken for granted, Smrz taking on and beating a series of rivals with more illustrious backgrounds than his anonymous tenure in grand prix racing, his excellent run to third at Assen being a case point. Given the strength in depth of this year's competition, being just outside the overall top ten at the half-way point is a noteworthy achievement.
The same would have been said for Regis Laconi had he not suffered his horrific accident at Kyalami. Up to that point the Frenchman was on the way to completing the revival of a career that was beyond flagging towards the end of his time at Kawasaki, his immediate pace on the DFX Ducati reminding us exactly why Laconi is an 11-time winner at this level. Going a long way to reviving the fortunes of DFX too after a disappointing time persevering with Honda machinery, it is a massive shame Laconi won't be seen on a bike again until probably next season. In the meantime, Lorenzo Lanzi has a similar chance to join Laconi in giving his career a significant boost by taking on his mount for what is likely to be the rest of the season.
Rewind back a few months to before the start of the season and Shane Byrne was a name being mentioned in the same breath as 'title contender'. Four months later and things couldn't be more different for the Briton and his Sterilgarda team.
Byrne was the dominant force during the crucial pre-season test at Portimao, but he hasn't got close to matching that pace ever since. Things have almost worked in opposite directions for Byrne this year in that he has performed best at circuits he doesn't know – Qatar and Miller Motorsports Park -, yet struggled at more familiar venues, such as Monza and Valencia.
It doesn't help that he is flying solo following the pre-season decision by the team to drop Alex Polita in a bid to reserve some funds, but given Sterilgarda are a winning force at WSBK level and Byrne has impressive Superbike pedigree himself as the runaway BSB title winner, it is curious to see the pair down in 15th at the mid-way point. The upcoming Donington Park round promises to be a pivotal moment…
Elsewhere, Guandalini Ducati have joined DFX in having to revise their rider line-up by the mid-way point in the year, with Gregorio Lavilla replacing Brendan Roberts. As reigning Superstock 1000 champion, Roberts was certainly held in high regard prior to the season, being linked with berths in both WSBK and BSB. Eventually, the Australian joined Guandalini, but success has been few and far between.
Although there were signs of improvement prior to his accident at Monza, given the gulf in form between himself and Smrz – particularly in qualifying – it wasn't surprising to learn that his 'temporary' replacement Lavilla was being lined up for a more permanent position. It didn't help that the experienced Spaniard scored more points on his debut for the team at Kyalami than Roberts did in the first five events…
Still, Lavilla is a welcome returnee to the paddock having been rather unfortunately left on the sidelines following the breakdown of a deal between himself and the stillborn Pro Ride Honda project. He has good form on a Ducati too, having won the BSB title with them, so expect an increasingly competitive showing as the season wears on.