The 2012 International road racing circus opened at Phillip Island in south eastern Australia last weekend, and veteran front runners controlled the action. Reigning champ Carlos Checa was leading race one on his 2011 title-winning Althea Ducati 1098R when he high sided exiting the second last turn. This violent moment handed the race lead to 2010 champ Max Biaggi on the works Aprilia RSV4, and “Mad Max” duly pulled clear to take the opening race win—his first at the famous venue since his 500cc Grand Prix days way back when.
Race two, run in even hotter conditions, offered the same dynamic duo in control of the show. Checa moved forward from a cautious start to take a solid win, but the man to watch was Biaggi. After almost running into the back of the pole sitting works Kawasaki ZX-10R of Tom Sykes in turn one off the start, Biaggi was lucky to survive a very high speed off-track trip.
From there, the Aprilia team leader charged back through the tightly knit pack, eventually making his way all the way to second, not far from Checa, by the chequered. Of particular interest is the fact that long time hero Biaggi is almost 41 years of age, while Checa will turn 40 this season.
Phillip Island is one of the few newish circuits with lots of high speed turns, and that layout, combined with high temps, means the track is a tough one for spec supplier Pirelli. While many of the top runners suffered a variety of traction issues, primarily with the rear Pirelli slick, Biaggi and Checa seemed able to run consistently good lap times without cooking their rubber.
As usual, Biaggi’s potent exits were a thing of beauty, the “Roman Emperor” seemingly able to play “point and shoot” when others were trying a different game, “aim and pray.”
Of course, electronics no doubt play a big part in this, and having the confidence to make the right set- up choices (traction control, etc.) and handle the bike accordingly is key. The Aprilia certainly seems to have a very stable platform, although traditionalists will point to the fundamental benefit of their vee-four engine configuration.
Not so long ago, Phillip Island races for big bikes features lots of sideways action, but TC has calmed that show. However the big high side performed by Checa looked like a throwback (throw up?) from a different era; in fact all the way back to the famous 500cc two-stroke vee-fours of the Grand Prix elite of twenty years ago.
Insiders couldn’t help but wonder if the Checa tumble was in fact caused by an electronic glitch, such was the unusual nature of the location and violence of the fall. Checa was certainly lucky not to get hurt, and his immediate response was to dominate the second race – this is definitely a champ who is not resting on his laurels, let alone crutches.
It was great to see Tom Sykes snatch a podium for team Ninja in race two, after showing so well in pre-race testing and starting the opening races from pole. Sykes’ battle with Biaggi, although unlikely to produce a success for Kawasaki, proved that the Brit is no quitter—it took Biaggi four attempts to actually make a pass stick. However Sykes made his eventual move onto the box at the expense of Ten Kate Honda’s Jonathan Rea.
Rea definitely gets that sideways award from race two, since it was clear that his CBR1000RR wasn’t putting much of the power down late in the race. Last year, Honda made electronics breakthroughs late in the season, but superior traction control wasn’t evident on the works Honda in Australia.
Another strong storyline at the SBK opener was the relative success of the BMW works squad. Entering their fourth season with the S100RR, Marco Melandri and Leon Haslam showed well. New recruit Melandri was a fighting second in the opener, while in race two Haslam was fifth just ahead of his team-mate. Given that Haslam had recently had surgery on his crushed ankle, BMW certainly appears on the upswing heading back to Europe and event two in Imola, Italy at the end of March.