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Gregorio Lavilla and Airwaves dominate at Thruxton

Raceline Photography

By Dan Moakes
April 18 2006

HM Plant Honda were looking to come back at Airwaves Ducati, and championship leader Gregorio Lavilla, after a fairly disappointing Donington weekend. The British Superbike contest reconvened at the fast Thruxton circuit over the Easter weekend, for round three of the series.

A week is a long time in sport, and after the washout at round two’s second race, the riders had the luxury of dry weather again at the uncompromising high speed Thruxton venue. One thing that hadn’t changed was the pace of the GSE Racing squad, and their Airwaves Ducatis. For the third time the 999 F06 TestaStretta twin took pole position, and two front row slots for the riding duo. This time 22-year-old Leon Haslam was quickest - with the fastest ever two-wheel lap at the track - with Lavilla third behind the first Honda.

Because once again Ducati’s nearest challenge came from the HRC-backed CBR FireBlade of Yorkshireman Karl Harris. Championship contending team-mate Ryuichi Kiyonari had qualified seventh, again off the front row, and either side were fellow Honda men Michael Rutter (Stobart, sixth) and Jonathan Rea (Red Bull, eighth). Also in the mix were Dean Thomas, fourth on the Hawk Kawasaki; and James Haydon, fifth on the Rizla Suzuki.

The team’s second GSX-R1000 should have led off row three, but rider Shane Byrne was dropped to 17th for a red flag infringement. This prevented an all-Suzuki line-up, with Jentin’s Jon Kirkham, privateer Quay Garage Racing’s James Buckingham, and Vivaldi’s Scott Smart now joined by Tommy Hill on the leading Virgin Mobile Yamaha R1.

Thruxton is all about fast curves, some tighter than others, with a couple of slower chicane complexes. The are no straights to speak of on this former airfield venue, so the riders are always going to be off the vertical, and there is plenty of drafting action to be had. Some bends see the riders approaching 150 mph through the speed traps.

Race one saw drama at the very start, with Harris clipped by Rutter and pitched off almost immediately. Haydon’s Suzuki was hit by the wayward HM Plant machine, and he was taken out in the same incident. Rutter was undeterred, and slotted in behind Haslam, Thomas and Kiyonari, but the safety car was deployed without delay. Lavilla ran fifth, followed by Rea, Michael Laverty, Hill, Byrne, Buckingham, Billy McConnell, Glen Richards, Ben Wilson, Peter Hickman, Kirkham, Smart, Howie Mainwaring and Marty Nutt.

The restart saw Lavilla moving up, after his disappointing getaway, passing Rutter at the right-handed Campbell turn - first of the three-corner ‘complex’. Haslam was already powering away from the pack, leaving a battle for second with his team-mate fully involved. As Kiyonari was attacking Thomas, so Gregorio was able to get the better of his Japanese rival. Then the Ducati man pulled ahead of his Kawasaki rival through the blast at Brooklands curve.

Haslam set the fastest lap as he led the field, and at the same time Lavilla was also pulling clear of Thomas and the rest. Now the Australian headed Kiyonari, Rutter, Rea, Laverty and Byrne, with Hill just back a touch from the group. The shuffle was on in the pack, while Lavilla was breaking the track record to chase his young team-mate. Kiyonari also pulled past Thomas at Brooklands, with Byrne moving up to seventh further back.

Before long the field had resolved into a pair of leading duos, with Lavilla homing in on Haslam, and Kiyonari plus Thomas getting clear as the next group shuffled around some more. This saw Rea and Byrne emerge in front of Rutter who, with following partner Laverty, would start to drop back. Behind Hill it was Richards, Smart, McConnell, Gary Mason, Kieran Clarke and Hickman. Of these, Richards was on the move with the Hydrex Honda, and would move up further as the race progressed.

In front, Lavilla used the classic Thruxton pass to take over Haslam’s lead, taking the inside on the fast run to the final right-left-right Club chicane, before heavy braking and turning in first. He waved back to his team-mate as they followed on to the start-finish line for that lap. The Spaniard established a small enough advantage without delay, but Leon would all but stick with him. However, with six laps remaining the margin had gone out to a second. Two laps later it had doubled. By the flag, Lavilla was clear winner by 4.5s.

The Ducatis’ form meant that Haslam felt no threat from third man Kiyonari, who had equally established a clear margin over the next runners. Thomas had dropped from fourth position as his tyres went off, and by the finish he was down to a disappointing ninth. Byrne had led the runners behind Thomas at half-distance, after passing Rea into the chicane. Indeed, these two had been in an ongoing tussle for honours thereafter, at the chicane - Rea passing Byrne on a tight line going in as the Suzuki ran wide at one point - and the complex. The final fourth place went to Jonathan, with another move at Campbell on the penultimate circuit.

Rutter had looked to be catching this pair at one stage, but ultimately settled for a lonely sixth. Richards led Hill home for seventh, a recent pass at the chicane having taken the Yamaha wide, to drop in behind again, with Thomas and Laverty now completing the top ten. Smart, McConnell, Steve Plater, Clarke and Buckingham completed the points scorers, ahead of Kirkham and Mason, with Sean Emmett among the non-finishers on the Ipone Kawasaki.

Harris made the start of race two with his spare Honda, and minor injuries to his right hand, but all the drama was reserved for Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne. Having already come through for fifth from his grid penalty, this time he had more to do. A late pit visit with technical problems meant he would start from the very back. But at least he avoided incident at the start, whereas Rizla team-mate Haydon made another first lap exit, taking a low side tumble after just a couple of corners.

Haslam had again converted pole into the lead, and again was able to open a useful margin in the course of the first circuit. Rutter, Harris, Lavilla and Thomas led the pursuit, with Rea, Hill, Laverty, Smart, Buckingham and Richards all ahead of Kiyonari. Early on it was a race for second, as Harris passed Rutter at the chicane, and nearly lost the place again when running wide at Campbell. Instead, Lavilla went into third inside Rutter at the right-hand looping Goodwood curve, and he also got by Harris at the chicane. Once again it seemed the Airwaves boys would be a force to reckon with.

Sure enough, Lavilla cleared off in his pursuit of Haslam, again improving the record lap as he caught up to his partner in crime on lap four. The next lap saw him repeat his race one pass at the Club chicane, and this time pull away with rather more ease, looking the more stable and controlled of the pair. Meanwhile, Harris regained third from Rutter, pushing his way through at the chicane, with Thomas and Rea still in touch. Karl was soon able to creep clear of the others, who could not match his pace, but Kiyonari was moving up to the fourth place battle.

With Hill running well up in eighth, Virgin Yamaha team-mate McConnell crashed out of the midfield at the chicane. This happened when he ran wide, and the rear came round on him as he tried to recover from his mistake. Fellow Australian Richards was already out at this stage. ‘Kiyo’ had got past Thomas, Rutter and Rea by now, and would pull away as he chased team-mate Harris. Meanwhile, Byrne was already up to P11, behind Hill, Laverty and Smart, and ahead of Wilson, Hickman, Mainwaring, Buckingham and Mason.

At half-distance, Kiyo and Rea were clear of Rutter and Thomas, and with the Japanese rider moving up to challenge Harris, as his Red Bull-mounted pursuer established a clear fifth. The Harris-Kiyonari race was one of the highlights in the latter stages, with 23-year-old Ryuichi maintaing a more compact riding position as he turned the Honda more crisply, but with the bike sliding more dramatically in the high speed stuff. Kiyo would go ahead on the inside at Woodham Hill, approaching Club, but it was a fascinating demonstration of opposing set-ups on the same machine.

Lavilla had a lead of three seconds and more as he ran out to the first double victory of the season, and Haslam was just as secure as the team made it a double one-two. Harris had stayed with Kiyonari, and on the last lap managed to get the better of the tussle, going through on the inside into Church corner. Rea duly finished fifth, whilst Thomas had earlier got back past Rutter into the chicane and held on to sixth.

Byrne had followed Smart past Laverty, then took ninth from his fellow Suzuki rider coming out of Church onto the fast back section at Brooklands. By the flag, Shane had also got by Hill, with Smart and Laverty followed home by Mason, Wilson, Plater - fresh from a seventh place finish for Yamaha in the Supersport race - and Buckingham. Kirkham again failed to score from his third row start, and Emmett again failed to go the distance. He was joined by Hickman, among others, with Hawk’s junior rider a big crasher.

It was truly Airwaves Ducati’s weekend, with Gregorio Lavilla certainly marking his supremacy over Leon Haslam in race conditions on this occasion. Leon’s pair of seconds, against a third and fourth for Ryuichi Kiyonari, put the Midlands rider up to second overall. The margin there was a modest nine points, whereas Lavilla now holds a commanding lead of 36. He is already the only rider to finish every time in the leading positions, and now has eleven race wins in the series. This puts him fifth on the list of current riders (behind Rutter, Byrne, Kiyonari and Emmett), and his 29 podiums take him to fourth (behind Rutter, Emmett and Haydon).

Karl Harris salvaged a good podium finish out of another mixed meeting, but team-mate Kiyonari perhaps paid for a poor start in race two, and is now looking at an uphill climb to overhaul the points leader. But of course there are a lot of races still to run, and there will be plenty more action to unfold. Outside the podium men, Jonathan Rea had a notable day with his fourth and fifth places, whilst Shane Byrne did well in adversity to secure a fifth and eighth, in contrast to the unlucky James Haydon. The next round takes place at Oulton Park, over the May Day Bank Holiday weekend.

Standings after six races: Lavilla 132; Haslam 96; Kiyonari 87; Harris 57; Rea 54; Byrne 45; Smart and Rutter 44; Laverty 42; Thomas 40; Hill 35; Richards and Mason 27.

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