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Spies on pole, Haga on back foot

24 October 2009

Ben Spies has put himself in a perfect position to snatch the 2009 World Superbike title after securing pole position for the final two races of the season at Portimao, while Noriyuki Haga could only manage a tenth on the grid.

Another record-breaking eleventh pole position for the American, Spies shrugged off an indifferent start to the weekend to put in a superb lap of 1min 42.412secs when it mattered, almost half a second quicker than his closest rival.

By contrast, Haga endured a torrid session, the championship leader being eliminated from the second phase of Superpole when his desperate final effort was only good enough to get him up to ninth position. He would eventually be forced to settle for tenth with a lap almost a second slower than his key rival.

With neither rider enjoying a stint at the top of the timesheets so far this weekend, Superpole was expected to be close between the two protagonists, particularly if they could not display pole-winning pace.

However, Spies and Haga hinted at how the session would pan out during the first knockout session, the Yamaha rider emerging an easy third, while Haga was only 11th fastest by comparison.

As Q2 got underway, Spies immediately stamped his authority on proceedings, slashing the previous lap record with a time of 1min 42.568secs on his first attempt.

Haga, first two efforts, however, weren't even good enough to reach the top ten, the championship leader returning to the pit lane to complain of problems with set-up on the Ducati Xerox.

Given one final shot at getting into the top eight, Haga needed to go faster than Jakub Smrz on the Guandalini Ducati, the Czech having just lowered the benchmark moments before. However, despite his best efforts, Haga proved to be a tenth short of Smrz's time, placing him ninth, before then being bumped down to tenth when Troy Corser moved through into Q3.

With his key rival out of the picture for the time being, Spies set about keeping his record tally of pole positions going, the soon-to-be MotoGP rider recovering from an aborted first lap to pump in the fastest time ever achieved on two wheels around the Portuguese circuit.

With several of his shootout rivals having used up their qualifying rubber, Spies held a sizeable advantage over his closest competitor, that being Shane Byrne.

A nod to the dominance he exerted during pre-season testing at the same circuit, Byrne's love for Portimao was evident by an excellent last gasp lap on used tyres, a best result of the season for both himself and the Sterilgarda team, as well as one that makes him the best placed Ducati rider on the grid. It is a status that could prove crucial for the Italian manufacturer come race day…

With Haga down the order, Michel Fabrizio could also be forced to take on an even bigger role on Sunday in preventing Spies from taking victory, the Italian putting himself in a favourable position in third, albeit six tenths adrift of Spies and slower than Byrne.

A favourite for pole position heading into Superpole, Jonathan Rea's hopes of challenging Spies were scuppered when he was baulked by Fonsi Nieto on his quickest lap. Although the Northern Irishman was unlikely to beat Spies with his ultimate lap, it was still enough to drop him to fourth with a time that was several tenths slower than he managed in Q2.

The battle for positions on the second row was hard fought, with Leon Haslam, Max Biaggi – who was back on track looking rather battered and bruised following an accident in the preceding practice session - and Nieto ending up fifth, sixth and seventh, but separated by a mere three hundredths of a second. Corser, meanwhile, missed out on finishing any higher than eighth after dropping his BMW early on in Q3 and ending up more than a second adrift of Nieto.

Outside the top ten, there were several notable performance, not least from debutant Sylvain Guintoli, whose rapid ascension up the timesheets was capped off with a fine result of 11th on the grid. Out-qualifying Suzuki team-mate Yukio Kagayama on his first attempt, Guintoli was even fifth quickest after Q1, but while he couldn't quite replicate that pace in Q2, he will nonetheless be satisfied to have also beaten BSB rival Leon Camier, who starts 13th.

Camier was lucky not to be eliminated from Q1 when he was almost edged out by Matthieu Lagrive and then Luca Scassa. However, when Lagrive fell just short and Scassa crashed his Pedercini Kawasaki, the new BSB champion was free to improve to an eventual fourth row grid slot ahead of his second appearance with the Aprilia team.

Of those bidding farewell to their respective teams this weekend, Carlos Checa was 12th, Kagayama 14th, Makoto Tamada 15th and Broc Parkes 18th.

However, attention remains firmly fixed on Spies and Haga. Indeed, with Spies able to wrap up the title, regardless of Haga's results, should he win both races around Portimao, he is now in an ideal position to capitalise on his rival's woes.

Even so, Haga is a renowned competitor and can take heart from the fact he has won races from further back, most notably his victory at the Phillip Island season opener from 13th on the grid.

It means the stage is set for a thrilling finale…


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