Following a pleasant jaunt to the ends of the earth over the past month, the World Superbike Championship returns to more familiar European ground as it ushers in the second half of what has been an enthralling season thus far.
Although the statistics of three winners from 14 races and a championship lead of 53 points would tend to suggest otherwise, the pendulum effect between Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies, and occasionally Michel Fabrizio, not to mention to intense tussles going on behind, has made the first half of the season enjoyably competitive nonetheless.
For the moment, that pendulum
has swung a bit closer to Spies, although Haga's advantage can still be described as substantial. Even if Spies wins both races at Misano and Haga fails to finish, the Japanese rider will continue to lead heading to Donington Park…
While Spies' dominant race victories at Miller Motorsports Park, which were preceded by a record seventh consecutive pole position, didn't come as a massive surprise to those around him, it was brought into sharper focus by Haga's tough weekend.
A spectacular accident prior to qualifying certainly didn't help matters, but while Haga soldiered on and gave glimpses of a challenge in the opening few laps, his pace on each occasion. Spies, on the other hand, was imperious throughout, winning each race by a substantial margin to make some serious in-roads at a particularly crucial moment.
Still, Spies had home advantage, which should make the return to Misano a more even affair. A new venue for Spies, it is however a local event for the Italian-based Yamaha team, while Haga doesn't have the finest record around the picturesque Adriatic circuit either.
Being dragged along by Spies, the in-form Fabrizio is on the cusp of making it a three-way fight for the title having stood on the podium in each of the last six races. While he remains just behind the two main protagonists, and his record at Misano is limited to a best of sixth position, Fabrizio has been the top scorer over the last three rounds and is now beginning to discover the strengths of consistency as he slowly forges his way into contention.
Almost as compelling as the fight at the front, Jonathan Rea has moved into fourth position in the standings, taking over as the top Honda rider in the process. Two podiums in the last four races has helped the Northern Irishman, and his Ten Kate team, mark themselves out as the 'best of the rest', not that it is a status either will necessarily appreciate given their lofty pre-season ambitions. Even so, it is certainly heading in the right direction, and Rea's strong performance in testing recently should provide an added confidence boost.
Max Biaggi and Leon Haslam are poised just behind in fifth and sixth, with both eager to string together a more consistent weekend than of late. Biaggi, competing on home ground again, could have been a bigger threat in the USA had he not been forced to start both races from 16th on the grid, while qualifying faux-pas – as well as that last lap fall in Miller – haven't helped Haslam's hopes either.