Assen - Preview
23 April 2009
As one of the World Superbike Championship's most revered and respected riders, Noriyuki Haga comes tagged with a number of adjectives to describe him; spectacular, committed, controversial… consistency, however, hasn't been one of them.
Indeed, the only consistency enjoyed by Haga in recent years has been an almost unfailing ability to be quick one weekend and nowhere the next.
However, the switch to Ducati Xerox over the winter seems to have prompted a new approach from Haga, who is seemingly happy to play a waiting game behind Ben Spies and capitalise on any inevitable rookie errors.
It was a story that played out in Valencia, with Haga allowing Spies to gain a false sense of security during practice and qualifying, only to reveal his true pace in the races and prompt that mistake from his rival.
It means Haga heads to the latest round of the championship at Assen clutching a 1-2-2-2-1-1 score sheet, one that has allowed him to pull out a suddenly mammoth 40 point lead over Spies. It is also worth pointing out that Haga arrives in the Netherlands with a higher points tally than his Xerox predecessor Troy Bayliss did at the same time last year…
Assen, however, provides an entirely different challenge for the riders. With its slender layout and challenging bends, Assen is one of the few circuits on the calendar to have been built with bikes – not cars – in mind.
Of course, you cannot read a single press release without a rider mourning the loss of the longer, grippier and generally more spectacular 'old' circuit, but the new layout is still generally accepted as one of the highlights on the calendar.
Another new circuit for Spies to learn, the American has already shown it doesn't take him long to go quickly in unknown territory and Assen should be no different.
Races are proving to be a different matter, however. Spies is certainly quick over a long distance, as shown by Qatar, but there was the first hint of pressure in Valencia as he attempted to chase down Haga. Two non-scores in six races are a big dent to his early title offensive, but Haga - who crashed in race one last season - is fallible too. It may come down to who can apply the most pressure this weekend.
So far, both Haga and Spies have had it largely their own way, locking out the top two positions for the most part and steadily pulling away from the chasing pack.
Leading that charge is still Max Neukirchner, who put in another couple of good performance in Spain, including a podium, to consolidate third in the standings. Even so, it is telling of how far Neukirchner has come in just a year that he isn't satisfied with his current results and wants to be a challenger to Haga and Spies.
The same could be said for Michel Fabrizio, who put his Qatar non-score behind him by rocketing up the leaderboard with a pair of podiums in Spain. Although still unable to match the pace of Haga over a race distance, Fabrizio repaired some of the damage of his difficult weekend at Losail in Spain, although he will have another point to prove in Assen having failed to finish either of those races last year either.
Of the factory teams, Assen is the most important for Ten Kate Honda, but not just because this is their home race. Having expected to mount a title challenge in 2009, Ten Kate's season hasn't quite got going yet and a Ten Kate rider is yet to mount the podium. New parts are scheduled to arrive for the CBR1000RR and Assen has been a favourable Honda circuit, but this has to be where the fight back happens for Jonathan Rea, Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari.
Their first target is likely to be Leon Haslam on the Stiggy Honda, who pulled out an even greater advantage over the Ten Kate trio with a pair of top five finishes in Spain. Ominously for Ten Kate, the Stiggy bike is likely to have more to come having shown strong race pace, but questionable reliability. Together with the likelihood that John Hopkins will get quicker on the second bike, Stiggy can feel confident of maintaining their giant-killing form through the year.
Other giant-killers should include Aprilia, whose momentum was somewhat scuppered in Spain by Max Biaggi's qualification problem and Shinya Nakano's race withdrawing injury. Nonetheless, riding through the field proved fairly useful for Biaggi to gauge the RSV-4's strengths, something he will be keen to put to good measure around a circuit that may well suit the compact machine.
Another new circuit awaits BMW too and the buzzword for the weekend is likely to be 'qualifying'. Troy Corser, in particular, has shown the S1000RR has impressive race pace – especially in the opening corners – leaving many to ponder what they could do if they could get their heads around the new Superpole format. Assen is a good venue for Ruben Xaus too, the Spaniard finishing fourth there last season.
Kawasaki, meanwhile, arrive in the Netherlands with a slightly revised line-up after British Superbike rider Stuart Easton was called upon the replace Broc Parkes. The Aussie rider misses Assen after suffering a fall during testing and being forced to fly home for surgery. A big break for Easton, who showed his Superbike ability as recently as two weeks ago with a maiden podium in the British Championship for Honda, his first target will be to build on the promise shown by Parkes' top ten finish for Kawasaki in Spain.
Those without manufacturer backing are also looking to get into the mix, not least Regis Laconi, who continued both his and DFX Corse's revival in Spain with an outstanding ride to second on the grid and a pair of fourth place finishes, while Ducati counterpart Shane Byrne is determined to discover some form having struggled with a leg injury in Valencia.
Meanwhile, having risen to a season-high of 30 riders in Valencia, the grid will drop to 29 in Assen after PSG-1 Corse announced it would only enter a bike for Matteo Baiocco.