Noriyuki Haga has clawed back significant ground on Ben Spies in the World Superbike Championship standings after taking an impressive victory at Imola.

Haga put on a feisty performance to win his first race since Kyalami after snatching the lead on lap 18 before easing to a comfortable win over Max Biaggi. Spies, meanwhile, could only manage fourth.

Biaggi had led the majority of the way, the Aprilia rider taking the lead at the start from sixth on the grid, but while he was able to resist pressure from Haga for almost the race's entirety, he couldn't quite do it to the chequered flag.

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More significantly, however, Spies was a relatively quiet fourth after never quite getting on terms with the lead fight. Losing 12 points to Haga in the process, his championship advantage is down to six points.

Although fireworks had been expected off the line with the top four riders in the standings all starting on the front row, it was Biaggi that spoiled their intentions from sixth place, the scrap for the inside line into turn one allowing the RSV-4 to sweep around the inside and grab the advantage.

He headed up pole sitter Michel Fabrizio, Jonathan Rea and Haga, while Spies was getting baulked into the first corner after banging panels with Troy Corser's BMW before recovering for fifth.

With the jump on Spies, Haga wasted no time in moving towards the front, passing Nurburgring sparring partner Rea at the final corner chicane on lap one before putting a bold move on his team-mate at the Variante Alta, Fabrizio seemingly not expecting to see his fellow Ducati rider pass there as he sat up.

Rea's victory challenge, however, would end on lap three when he got out of shape over the crest leading down to the Rivazza complex and being force to straighten up on the tight inside line. With little chance to stop, he careened across the bow of Fabrizio and Haga, the Japanese rider paying enough attention to back off and allow the Ten Kate Honda rider to carry on off into the gravel trap. Forced to lay the bike down, Rea got going again, albeit in last place.

Reducing the group of five down to four initially, the lead pack became three when Spies began to lose ground on the front runners. Seemingly unable to maintain pace, the American was almost three seconds behind after just five laps.

Fortunately for him, there was already a big margin leading back to fifth, courtesy of Corser, whose strong start from ninth on the grid was flattering to his actual pace. With the Australian backing his rivals up, a large gap opened up between fourth and fifth before Leon Haslam was able to get through.

He was followed by Shane Byrne and Marco Simoncelli - up to seventh having fallen outside the top ten at the start -, as Corser trailed off.

Having already impressed with his pace over a single lap on the unknown RSV-4, Simoncelli was proving to be an adept racer too as he tackled Byrne and then Haslam, the Italian up to fifth and not lapping far off the leaders' lap times. However, it all came to a disappointing conclusion on lap ten when he low-sided out of the race at the Tosa left-hander. The corner had been problematic for a number of riders, with Carlos Checa and Byrne also falling at the same point shortly before.

Back at the front, Biaggi was continuing to hold firm in the lead, but was now under pressure from Fabrizio, who defied Ducati Xerox team orders assumptions by re-taking second from Haga with a similarly opportunistic pass at turn one.

Proceeding to offer some competition for Biaggi, Fabrizio - hampered by a shoulder injury - was very nearly able to capitalise on a mistake for his Roman counterpart out of Tosa, but could do nothing about the Aprilia's sheer speed.

Indeed, with the various undulations, not unlike Brno, apparently favouring the compact Aprilia's renowned top speed, no matter how many times Fabrizio or Haga got alongside Biaggi, they could not out-drag him, particularly up the hill.

Even so, it was Haga's turn again to try and out-fox Biaggi as he swept past Fabrizio on lap eight on the run down to Rivazza.

A very similar pass on lap ten would actually see Haga past Biaggi, only for the home favourite to get the crowd on its feet by fighting back straight away into turn one.

With the leading trio tripping over one another, Spies was beginning to haul himself back into the reckoning. Even so, he was starting to be backed up by Fabrizio, the Italian complaining of a clutch problem to go with his painful shoulder post-race.

Allowing Haga some margin of error as he attempted to find his way around Biaggi, the Japanese rider was staying cool as he sized up his opponent, attempting to unnerve him by getting as close to the rear of the Aprilia as possible.

As it happens, the actual defining pass on lap 18 was somewhat anti-climatic, Biaggi's bike getting skittish over the crest out of Aqua Minerale and allowing Haga a run at him into the Variante Alta. Despite Biaggi's speed, Haga was past before reaching the bend.

With clear air in front and only three laps remaining, Haga began to put the hammer down, quickly pulling a margin over Biaggi, who in turn was being pushed hard by Fabrizio again.

Overcoming his less than perfect bike and physical condition, Fabrizio was through with just over a lap to go when he got a better run out of the final chicane. Spies attempted to follow, but Biaggi had him covered.

Haga, however, was cruising to victory, easing across the line to give himself a significant psychological boost and Ducati a much needed victory on home soil.

Hopes of a 1-2 though were dashed at the final bend when Biaggi fought back and dived up the inside of Fabrizio to scrape through and then hold on to the spot by just a hundredth of a second. Spies, meanwhile, would back off to finish in fourth, five seconds behind Haga.

While the drama out front attracted much of the attention, there remained some very notable performances in the battle for best of the rest status. Fifth would eventually fall to Kiyonari, who battled his way up from 14th on the grid for his best result since Miller Motorsports Park.

He scored an important small win over Honda counterpart Haslam too after pulling off an identical move to Biaggi by grabbing the position at the very final corner.

Despite the less than favourable conclusion to the race, Haslam was a solid sixth having started in tenth on the sole Stiggy Honda, although he falls even further back from the fight for fourth overall.

Having been in the barriers on lap three, Rea put on an outstanding recovery ride to finish in seventh place and keep his points ticking over. Capitalising on a tight mid-pack, Rea overturned a sizeable deficit at the back of the field to lap on the lead pace and force his way forward and score a useful nine points.

Despite starting fifth, Jakub Smrz couldn't maintain his form through to the race, settling for eighth position at the finish ahead of Tom Sykes and Broc Parkes, the Australian reaching the top ten for the first time since Monza.

The trio did, however, benefit from a problem for Yukio Kagayama, the Japanese rider starting the final lap in eighth place, only to finish it in 15th. He would also lose positions to Corser - who faded as the race wore on -, Ruben Xaus, Karl Muggeridge and Matteo Baiocco.