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Honda break Ducati’s dominance in World Superbikes

Raceline Photography

By Dan Moakes
February 15 2005

Ducati riders held down the first five positions in the World Superbike points table following the Oschersleben weekend. But at Silverstone the 1000cc Honda FireBlade reached its full potential as a challenger to the dominant Italian V-twin machines, in a pair of entertaining races.

Noriyuki Haga had been the man to beat in Germany, but the title race was still being controlled by the works Ducati Fila riders, with James Toseland now just marginally ahead of team-mate Régis Laconi. In qualifying at Silverstone, Laconi kept up his impressive record for a fourth pole position from six events, and Toseland improved on recent form to slot in at the other end of row one. Haga’s Renegade Ducati was in between, third, but behind the leading four-cylinder bike. As usual, this was the Ten Kate Honda CBR FireBlade of Chris Vermeulen, for the third time in P2.

The Ducatis of Leon Haslam (fifth), Steve Martin (eighth), Marco Borciani (ninth), Lucio Pedercini (tenth) and Garry McCoy (eleventh) were all prominent, with the sixth-placed Foggy Petronas machine of Troy Corser in amongst them, and Chris Walker thirteenth on the other FP1 - having broken three ribs in the process. The Bertocchi Kawasakis of Mauro Sanchini and Ivan Clementi were either side of ‘the Stalker’, heading Gianluca Nannelli and Frankie Chili, but the surprise performance came from wildcard rider James Ellison. A former European Superstock Champion, he races the Yamaha R1 for the Jentin team in the British championship privateers cup. As one of the few Pirelli riders in the UK, he was entered for Silverstone, qualifying a highly creditable seventh. This was easily the best Yamaha performance of the season to date.

Unlike the domestic series, the World Superbikes take in the very rapid full Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone, apart from using the tight bikes-only chicance before the finish line. This often leads to a significant degree of overtaking at the end of the Hangar straight, and it was certainly the case in race one, but it quickly evolved into a two-man contest. Haga led away from the line, but with Vermeulen and Toseland quickly on the attack. The Australian emerged as the leader, but Haga regained the initiative at Stowe corner, going inside for the right-hander at the end of the straight.

Laconi recovered fourth from Haslam, with Corser next, from Martin, Walker, Borciani and Chili. The last of these made quick progress from his lowly grid spot, shortly emerging eighth, now with Walker ahead and Martin behind. Ellison had not capitalised on his starting position, and was outside the points positions. Meanwhile, both Alessio Velini (UnionBike Yamaha) and Pedercini (Ducati privateer team owner) were early retirements.

Before long, Haga and Vermeulen were clear of Toseland and the rest. The Honda took back the lead on the inside through the fast downhill right of Bridge, which leads onto the ‘infield’ section. Noriyuki made several attempts to pass again at Stowe, twice putting pressure on as he tried at the outside of the corner. By this time, the two leaders had pulled out more than seven seconds over their pursuers. Further opportunities for ‘Nitro Nori’ came when Chris started sliding the Honda, firstly at the Vale chicane, and then coming onto Hangar straight, with the 21-year-old holding on both times.

Battle hotted up as Haga made it past at Bridge, only for Vermeulen to squeak back in front at the following left-hander of Priory. Noriyuki kept up his attempts to overtake, including another bid at Priory. But it all came down to the final lap. As ever, Haga tried to get ahead from Hangar into Stowe, but with Vermeulen defending successfully. Then he had another go at Vale, only to end up a little too far from the Honda through Bridge. However, there was still the final left-right chicane. Chris took a slightly wide line, and it was enough for Noriyuki to get on the inside going in and just steal victory at the last.

The race for third had soon turned into a three-way Ducati affair, with the rapid Chili moving through onto the tail of Toseland and Laconi’s works machines. Frankie was in determined mood, following Régis past James, then taking over P3 at the end of Hangar straight. Before long, the former GP riders had cleared Toseland, and they even got the leaders’ margin down to 2.4s, before it crept back up again. With softer tyres, Laconi improved on Chili’s earlier fastest lap, and overtook the Italian at Bridge.

A twitch from the Frenchman allowed Frankie back into third but, with two laps remaining, Régis let himself down even more when he fell at the chicane. He tried to remount but was unable to continue, and it meant at least thirteen points down the drain. What’s more, title challenger Toseland had already gone out. The English rider had slipped back into the clutches of the next group, where he’d battled to stay ahead of Haslam, but had ultimately lost out to both Leon and Steve Martin. Toseland crashed out of seventh place.

So Chili finished an uncontested third, whilst the next man home had also had a serious race on his hands. Martin held fifth for a while, then Haslam, as this pair engaged in a heated battle. But before the finish they had both lost out to the Xerox Ducati of McCoy, which had been piloted up from thirteenth in the early stages. With Laconi’s demise, Garry finished an impressive fourth, whilst Haslam got the better of Martin at the final chicane for fifth.

Corser had led all three men to begin with, just ahead of team-mate Walker, but the three-cylinder machines had ended up giving best to the Ducati hordes. The battered Walker had dropped to ninth when he crashed out, but Troy kept going for seventh, ahead of Borciani, Piergiorgio Bontempi, Clementi, Warwick Nowland, Jiri Mrkyvka, Sergio Fuertes and Miguel Praia. Other non-finishers had been Ellison, David García, Nannelli and Sanchini - the last of whom might otherwise have finished eighth.

Race two was the 400th for World Superbikes, with 228 already having been won by various models of Ducati. Troy Corser had less to celebrate, as a problem with his bike meant he had to start from the pits. Again it was Haga and Vermeulen at the front, with the rapidly moving Australian taking first at the end of the Hangar straight. He went on to set quickest lap in the early running. Behind came the Ducatis of Laconi, Toseland and Haslam, with Ellison a creditable sixth, from McCoy. Chili was quick once again, soon moving past Martin and Walker for eighth. Italians Borciani, Sanchini, Clementi, Bontempi and Nannelli followed on.

Chili overtook first McCoy and then Ellison, so that the seven-strong lead group comprised Vermeulen, Haga, Laconi, Toseland, Haslam, Chili and Ellison. The pace of the regulars soon took them clear of the Jentin Yamaha rider, although he in turn was pulling a comfortable margin over the next group. The first three, with Haga on the attack and riding less than smoothly, had a little in hand over the next three. Fourth place was hotly disputed, and Chili got by Haslam to challenge Toseland. This contest ended in misfortune, as Chili went over a kerb, came back onto the track and hit Toseland, sending the youngster onto the grass. Frankie went down in the incident.

This was enough for the leading trio to break clear of any pursuers, but there was still their own race to worry about. Laconi took second from Haga by going round the outside at Bridge, an almost unprecedented move, but the Japanese rider kept up the attack to try and return the favour. He was threatening at Priory, and also Stowe, and it was into the latter that he made it work, following a slipstream on the straight. Noriyuki then got into a close tussle with Vermeulen for the lead, seemingly ahead on the outside at Stowe, only for the Honda man to reclaim it on the exit.

Haga tried the same thing once more, and was able to look again at both Vale and Bridge. A move up the inside at Stowe seemed to work, but this time Vermeulen cut in to the apex at the last moment, again coming through in front. With three laps left, Laconi was dropping off to the tune of 2.0s and more. This left the same two men to fight for victory, and on the penultimate lap Haga got in front on the inside at Vale. But Vermeulen had enough in hand to overtake again on the straight, and also defend at Priory. Noriyuki didn’t give up on the final lap, trying in three corners, but Vermeulen and Honda took it this time.

Laconi salvaged third, and two more Ducatis were next home. Toseland’s incident had left Haslam out of touch in a solitary fourth place, which he held onto, with James rejoining behind fifth man Ellison. He moved ahead of the wildcard for an eventual eleven points, but the other James lost sixth to Martin. Walker’s early eighth, in front of his home supporters, was not to last. He was passed by Martin, Sanchini, McCoy, Clementi and Borciani, ending the day twelfth (and ahead of Sanchini again).

McCoy took P8 from Sanchini, as the Kawasaki rider began to fade, with Corser coming through to ninth, from Clementi and Borciani. Behind Walker and Sanchini, Bontempi, Pedercini and Mrkyvka took the final placings. Velini, García, Nannelli, Praia, Fuertes and Nowland joined Chili in retirement.

It had been all about Noriyuki Haga and Chris Vermeulen, but the big story was about Honda’s first win since Colin Edwards’ last with the SP-2 V-twin. But this result had been achieved with a non-works machine, converted from showroom specification. Although the Suzuki had been close in 2003, this was the first four-cylinder victor since the rule change up to 1000cc. Indeed, only once had a twin machine not been top in four seasons. The other story was about how Régis Laconi had let team-mate James Toseland off the hook, when he might have brought it home twice for a sixteen point advantage. Instead, it remains very tight.

Standings after twelve races: Laconi 171; Toseland 168; Haga 139; Vermeulen 137; Chili 129; McCoy 128; Haslam 113; Corser 95; Martin 93; Walker 82; Borciani 81; Sanchini 58.

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