WSBK » Noriyuki Haga


Noriyuki Haga

Career

You know you have been immortalised in motorcycle racing history when you are probably better known by your nicknames of ‘Nitro Nori’ or the ‘Samurai of Slide’, but then Noriyuki Haga would be a memorable rider under any name.

One of racing’s most enigmatic individuals, Haga may rather famously lack a World Superbike title, but with 41 wins under his belt over a 13-year career, he is still one of the most successful.

Often considered a life-long Yamaha rider, Haga first made his presence felt with the manufacturer in the All Japan Superbike Championship at the tender age of 18, a partnership that saw him race with the team for four seasons between 1993 and 1996.

Although success in the national series was initially relatively fleeting, Haga managing a best overall result of eighth in 1996, it was his performances in one-off races that really notified the sport of his forthcoming ability.

Making his Suzuka 8 Hours debut - a right of passage for any aspiring Japanese rider - in 1993, Haga went on to win the event alongside Colin Edwards in 1996, the same year he also grabbed a second place finish at his home Sugo round when World Superbikes came to town.

Suddenly, Haga was on a roll, winning the 1997 Japanese Championship with seven race wins and three second place finishes to be the dominant victor. His triumph meant he was the obvious candidate to replace the injured Coin Edwards at Yamaha in the final four races of the World Superbike Championship.

Seizing the opportunity with both hands, Haga was an immediate frontrunner, winning on only his second outing at Sugo and reinforcing it with three further top five finishes. Remarkably, in just four races, it meant Haga would be classified 13th overall at the end of the season, just seven points adrift of Yamaha’s full-time, albeit injury riddled, rider Edwards.

Unsurprisingly, Haga quickly assumed a full-time World Superbike ride in 1998 and his impression on the series was lasting as he swept to three wins in the first four races, including a double on his first visit to Donington Park. His lightning start to the year was supplemented by a shock third place finish on his 500cc Grand Prix debut, achieved on home ground at Suzuka, behind Max Biaggi and Tadayuki Okada.

While his early WSBK title offensive would run out of steam as the season progressed, a win at Laguna Seca, and again on home ground at Sugo, left Haga with a total of five wins in his full rookie season and sixth in the overall standings, while he was also comfortably the highest placed Yamaha rider. His performance was also noted for the fact he was running Dunlop tyres, instead of the more favoured Michelin rubber.

With the new Yamaha R7 at his disposal, Haga was touted amongst the title favourites in 1999, but the year proved to be fairly disappointing as he struggled to just a single win and a further podium. Although he was once again the quickest Yamaha by a fair margin (97 points up on team-mate Vittoriano Guareschi), he was classified one place lower than the previous year in seventh.

Instead, it was the 2000 season that proved to be Haga’s breakthrough year, although sadly for him it will probably be better remembered for the controversy surrounding him and his drugs suspension.

Embroiled in a season-long fight with Honda’s Edwards, Haga’s season was turned upside down after the first round when he was judged to have failed two drugs tests for the banned stimulant Ephedrine. Although it was later apparent that the drug was, unbeknown to him, included in a medicine Haga was using for weight loss over the off-season, the failure is widely credited to have lost him the title that season.

Up to that point, Haga was having a strong season in a year when the Yamaha was otherwise uncompetitive in other hands. Winning in Kyalami, before it was later taken away, Haga won on four more occasions to still be in with a shout of taking on Edwards for the title at the final round in Brands Hatch.

However, with the FIM’s hearing scheduled for just before that deciding round, the ruling that Haga was to serve a three-week suspension (it could have been three years under the rules), nonetheless forced him out and handed the title to Edwards. Even so, he was still classified as the runner-up, a performance he wouldn’t match for another seven years.

Despite the controversy surrounding his season, Haga’s efforts on the track had still done enough for him to be promoted to Yamaha’s Red Bull MotoGP team for 2001. In what was a good year for Yamaha, Haga nonetheless struggled to get acclimatised to more powerful machinery and found himself consistently in the mid-field.

A best result of fourth place at Donington Park proved the highlight for Haga, but 14th in the overall standings as the sixth best Yamaha rider signified that he was perhaps better suited to Superbikes.

And return he did, albeit only after making a break with tradition by leaving Yamaha in search of success with Aprilia. Riding a bike that had shown great promise in the hands of Troy Corser the previous year, Haga’s season was notable for the fact he didn’t win a race (the only occasion since he became a full-time rider that he hasn’t), although much of this was down to the sheer dominance of Troy Bayliss and Colin Edwards.

Nonetheless, seven podiums were indicative of his run to fourth position in the standings, a superb feat given he was the only rider on the grid riding the Aprilia. Despite lacking in numbers, he also helped the team to third in the manufacturer standings, ahead of Kawasaki and Suzuki.

Unsurprisingly, his newfound popularity with the team earned him a ticket straight back into MotoGP to ride the firm’s innovative ‘Cube’. Lining up alongside Superbike Champion Edwards, the bike was still proving as much of a handful as it had done in its maiden 2002 season.

The highlights came from wet races at Le Mans and Assen when Haga managed a seventh and eighth place finish, but in all Haga was only ever good enough for positions just outside the top ten. His saving grace was being more consistent than Edwards, although his American team-mate still finished one place above him in the overall standings in 13th, compared to Haga’s 14th.

With Aprilia abandoning MotoGP and World Superbikes, Haga was left without manufacturer support in 2004, a fact exacerbated by the withdrawal of most Japanese firms from the Superbike series too. Nonetheless, Haga would find a home, causing a stir by joining private Ducati outfit Renegade alongside Leon Haslam.

Although his cause was undoubtedly aided by the sheer dominance of the Ducati bike over the course of the season, Haga’s efforts were still praised for being the closest rival to the factory pairing of James Toseland and Regis Laconi. Winning six races over the course of the season, Haga still had an outside shot of the title heading into the final round, but would eventually settle for third in the overall standings.

The year revived Haga’s fortunes in the sport and he was doused with offers heading into the winter period. However, there was only one logical move for him as he accepted a contract to return to Yamaha’s factory team, which in turn was embarking on a WSBK comeback after a few seasons away.

The start of the season was fairly competitive, Haga proving a consistent points scorer, although he didn’t pose a race win challenge until he finished third in the tenth race of the season at Silverstone.

The race became a turning point for Haga and he would finish outside the top seven on one further occasion over the remainder of the season. This run included a victory at Brno and one more at Brands Hatch, while five more podiums lifted him up to third in the final standings behind Suzuki and Honda, but ahead of the best Ducati runner.

Now fully integrated back into the Italian-based team, Haga started 2006 as a favourite. However, while he failed to finish outside the top five just once over the season, Haga could only manage a single win at Brands Hatch. While eight podiums were an impressive tally too, it couldn’t match Bayliss’ run of wins and ultimately left Haga third for the second successive season.

The 2007 season proved to be a more promising prospect and would ultimately go down as Haga’s best chance to win the title. Embroiled in a year-long tussle with Honda’s James Toseland, Haga was already on the back foot when, by the time he has scored his first win of the season, Toseland already had three under his belt.

Gradually, though, Haga reeled Toseland in, winning at Donington Park, Monza (twice) and Lausitz to be within a decent shout of the title heading to the final round at Magny-Cours. Haga duly did all he could, winning both races in style, to put the pressure on Toseland. Although it wasn’t the Brit’s finest moment, sixth and seventh were all he needed to sneak the title by just two points from Haga.

Scorned to spend another season as one of the WSBK bridesmaids, Haga set his sights on making amends in 2008, once again with Yamaha, but his season was almost over before it started when he didn’t even manage a top five result until the sixth race. Enduring a bruising start to the year, Haga rallied hard mid-season, taking wins at Valencia and Monza, although it was his double win at the Nurburgring, despite being partially mummified when he broke his collarbone at the previous round that proved he isn’t shirked by a challenge.

Ultimately, Haga’s season was one of a rollercoaster, his total of seven wins (two at Vallelunga and one more at Magny-Cours) getting close to Troy Bayliss’ overall tally, but seven failures to score ultimately cost him any chance of ever getting close to the title fight. He didn’t help his cause at Donington Park by prompting several accidents when his Yamaha littered the circuit with oil, only to be disqualified in the second race due to confusion over a missed ride-thru penalty.

Despite this, Noriyuki Haga was still a wanted man come contract time and, despite Yamaha’s best efforts, it was with Ducati Xerox that he put pen to paper.

A bold move for a man whose career is better associated with the Japanese brand, Haga stepped into the shoes of departing champion Bayliss knowing he had to display a similar level of dominance to maintain Ducati’s high standards.

However, his plans didn’t include the remarkable performance of his replacement at Yamaha, Ben Spies. Indeed, while Haga certainly had the overall edge at the start of the season – pulling out an 88 point advantage at one stage - Spies was certainly just as quick, if plagued with misfortune (some innocent, some self-inflicted).

While it is hard to pin-point the exact turning point of the season, Haga’s accident at Donington Park was certainly a crucial moment. Nursing several painful injuries, although the lengthy summer break that ensued meant he didn’t miss any rounds, the points dropped until he was back to full strength certainly brought Spies back into play.

In the end, failures to finish at the Nurburgring and at the Portimao showdown would eventually conspire to leave Haga in the role of bridesmaid for the third time in his career, an unsatisfactory conclusion to what nonetheless remains his best-ever season at World Superbike level.

Despite the obvious disappointment, Haga returned to try, try again with a second year at Ducati, with many considering 2010 to finally become ‘his’ year, particularly in the absence of MotoGP-bound Ben Spies.

However, seeing the 2009 title slip from his grasp may have taken a greater toll than initially feared as Haga struggled to recreate the same form in 2010. While many pointed out the departure of long-time leader Davide Tardozzi as the determining factor, Haga’s performances fluctuated as he and Ducati were out-classed by the competition.

Save for two wins at Valencia and the Nurburgring – both of which came amidst rather more average mid-field results -, Haga looked a different rider in 2010, his eventual sixth in the standings proving a substantial ‘come-down’ from his regular race wins of the previous year.

Nonetheless, while many considered 2010 to sound the death knell for Haga’s career, he will attempt to revive himself with a turn to privateer machinery in 2011. Aiming to recreate his masterful efforts on the Renegade Ducati back in 2004, Haga will ride the 2010 title-winning Aprilia RSV-4 under the PATA Racing banner in the hope a change of lower-profile scenery will see him back to his best.

Career Highlights:

2011: Ducati's withdrawal sees Haga take on a privateer role in 2011 with the PATA Aprilia team

2010: World Superbike Championship, Ducati Xerox, 6th (2 wins)

2009: World Superbike Championship, Ducati Xerox, 2nd (8 wins)

2008: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha Italia, 3rd (7 wins)

2007: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha Italia, 2nd (6 wins)

2006: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha Italia, 3rd (1 win)

2005: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha Italia, 3rd (2 wins)

2004: World Superbike Championship, Renegade Ducati, 3rd, (6 wins)

2003: MotoGP World Championship, Alice Aprilia, 14th

2002: World Superbike Championship, Playstation2 Aprilia, 4th

2001: MotoGP World Championship, Red Bull Yamaha, 14th

2000: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha, 2nd (5 wins)

1999: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha, 7th, (1 win)

1998: 500cc World Championship (one race), Yamaha, 20th

World Superbike Championship, Yamaha, 6th (5 wins)

1997: World Superbike Championship, Yamaha, 13th (1 win)

All Japan Championship, Yamaha, Champion

1996: World Superbike Championship (two races), Yamaha, 22nd

All Japan Championship, Yamaha, 8th

1995: All Japan Championship, Yamaha, 10th

1994: All Japan Championship, Yamaha, 9th

1993: All Japan Championship

© 1999 - 2014 Crash Media Group

The total or partial reproduction of text, photographs or illustrations is not permitted in any form.