With changeable weather conditions, incredibly close racing and unpredictable results, two excellent races from Assen today proved beyond any doubt that this year’s Superbike World Championship is the most entertaining, adrenaline-fuelled motorcycle racing championship in existence.
Providing thrills and spills in equal measures, the only thing missing from the two action-packed WSBK races was a BMW S 1000 RR victory to add to Sylvain Barrier’s dominant win in the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup earlier that day. However, it was not to be, although the indications are that it is only a matter of time before that elusive first WSBK victory comes.
Race one was one of the best WSBK races in recent memory, with enough drama to last a whole season packed into a two-part Superbike thriller. Having qualified on the second and third rows of the grid respectively, Leon Haslam and Marco Melandri both had considerable battles on their journey through to the front. Melandri had a good start and burst through the pack into fourth, passing Assen specialist Jonathan Rea on the third lap and then closing down Tom Sykes out in front. Leon, meanwhile, had to overcome challenges from Jakub Smrz, Carlos Checa, Eugene Laverty and Jonathan Rea to move into the top three.
By half-race distance, a ‘freight-train’ of 9 riders were all challenging for race glory, with the two BMW Motorrad Motorsport riders up in the top three. The next couple of laps were incident packed, to say the least. When Tom Sykes’ Kawasaki appeared to be leaking fluid, both Haslam and Melandri were able to momentarily take the lead in the confusion, which was compounded even further as heavy rain began to fall, causing crashes and soon bringing out the red flag.
After some frenetic activity in the team garages, the race was re-started, with Melandri on pole and Haslam fourth on the grid. On full wets in heavy rain, the riders assembled for a 9-lap sprint in treacherous conditions. It was Haslam who made the early running on the RR, passing Jonathan Rea to take the lead in the early stages. Victory seemed probable for Haslam, who looked extremely comfortable on the RR and was lapping around three seconds faster than his rivals. However, the plucky Brit crashed out of contention on lap 3, leaving BMW Motorrad Italia’s Ayrton Badovini to chase down new leader Carlos Checa. As the race reached its latter stages, Checa ran wide and Badovini took the lead, but a big crash later that lap signalled the end of the challenge from the young Italian.
In the end, French rider Sylvain Guintoli was the rider who kept the coolest head and rode with the patience and control needed to win, with fellow Ducati riders David Giugliano and Carlos Checa rounding out the podium. BMW Motorrad Italia’s Michel Fabrizio was the first RR rider home, in sixth place, while Marco Melandri finished in ninth.
In race two, the sun made an appearance, with a dry line now visible on the damp track. Tyre choice was still a lottery though, with wets, intermediates and full slicks appearing on the grid. It was Jakub Smrz who got the holeshot and pulled out a commanding lead in seemingly no time at all. Leon made a good start into third and once he had dispensed with Tom Sykes, he set after Smrz, setting early fastest laps and eating into the leader’s advantage. However, with an intermediate front tyre, the plentiful grip Leon had enjoyed in the early stages became less predictable as the race progressed – and as the sun and wind continued to dry the track, those riders on full slicks began to capitalize.
Sylvain Guintoli caught and passed Leon on lap 10, with Jonathan Rea and Eugene Laverty catching and passing him two laps later. Leon dug deep, with his team-mate Marco Melandri getting ever closer on full slicks. On lap 17 of 22, Leon retook fourth place from Laverty and when Jakub Smrz crashed trying to pass a backmarker, the BMW Motorrad Motorsport rider suddenly found himself in a podium position. However, this battle for the final rostrum spot was anything but done, with Laverty fighting to retake third and then Melandri behind him finding extra grip on full slicks to snatch fourth place in the dying seconds of the race. After a heavy crash in race one, Ayrton Badovini recovered well to finish race two in seventh, while Michel Fabrizio rounded out the top ten on the BMW Motorrad Italia Goldbet RR.
Today’s results mean that Marco is currently fourth in the 2012 championship on 66 points together with Sylvain Guintoli, with Leon seventh, on 58 points. The WSBK championship moves on to Monza, Italy, in a fortnight’s time.
Marco Melandri: “It has been a very tough weekend. Today, the most important thing was to bring home points. Race one was pretty good for us when it was dry. I had a very good start and I was following Tom Sykes. I was waiting for the best moment to pass him, when he had a problem. After that, Leon was leading, but I passed him. Then I saw some drops of rain coming down and my hope was that they would stop the race, so I tried to stay at the front. But suddenly there was a turn where it was wet, I did not see the water and went down. Unfortunately our race was compromised by the wet conditions after the re-start. I did not have any grip, so it was difficult to be confident.
“For race two we had a good set-up and a good choice of tyres, but unfortunately we got some chatter again. From the first lap on it was very difficult to control the bike, so I could not push properly. The last lap was exciting. I tried to pass Eugene and suddenly both Eugene and Leon were in front of me, but I passed them back. It was big fun and Leon, Eugene and me showed respect for each other, which was very important. I am disappointed because I just missed the podium, but we are working hard and are in good shape.”
Leon Haslam: “Race one was dry at the start. I made a small mistake when I was battling with Carlos Checa mid-race and dropped back to sixth, but I came back in the lead. I had a bit of a tyre issue in that race but it was red-flagged anyway due to the rain. At the re-start it was raining. I passed Johnny Rea quite easily, felt pretty confident – and then had a big crash. I did not realize that I was pushing so much. In hindsight I could have backed off, but even so I did not feel that I was pushing too hard. After race one I was very disappointed because I could have lost a second a lap and still won the race, but the positive thing is that we feel pretty confident in the rain.
“In race two, we opted for an intermediate front and a slick rear tyre. Three minutes before the start I knew that we needed a slick front, but they would not let us change the tyre because we were running out of time. After two or three laps, the front tyre was just pushing and bouncing and I did not have any corner speed. I was surprised that the riders did not pass me sooner. But for whatever reason I managed to hold the pace of Eugene and Marco – even with the intermediate tyre. And I thought I got Marco over the line, as it was really, really close. In hindsight I am happy because we nearly got on the podium with an intermediate front tyre.”
Bernhard Gobmeier (BMW Motorrad Motorsport Director): “Looking back at the race day we can be happy. Of course we were disappointed about the result of the first race: the spectators saw three different BMW riders leading the race but none of them winning it. On the other hand both Leon and Marco today showed that we are in a position to win races on our own merit – no matter under what weather conditions. Lady Luck was not on our side today, but I am confident that we will get our desired result soon. In the second race we were a bit unlucky with the tyre choice on Leon’s side, but weather predictions were nearly impossible today. Both riders showed great racing all the way to the chequered flag. We will not stop working hard. A big thanks to everybody at the racetrack and in the workshop, the team does a great job.”
1. Guintoli (FRA) Ducati; 2. Giugliano (ITA) Ducati; 3. Checa (ESP) Ducati; 6. Fabrizio (ITA) BMW Motorrad Italia Goldbet; 9. Marco Melandri (ITA) BMW Motorrad Motorsport; DNF Haslam and Badovini
1. Rea (GBR) Honda; 2. Guintoli (FRA) Ducati; 3. Laverty (IRL) Aprilia; 4. Marco Melandri (ITA) BMW Motorrad Motorsport 5. Leon Haslam (GBR) BMW Motorrad Motorsport;; 7. Badovini (ITA) BMW Motorrad Italia Goldbet; 10. Fabrizio (ITA) BMW Motorrad Italia Goldbet.