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Snakes & Ladders

With just two races to go, you would think the World Superbike Championship was in the bag. Say again? You wish! If anything, the Championship had a massive toss-up at Portimao. It does look like the motor sports world has, this season, decided to be wishy-washy. Good for us, I say. There has been much excitement, but a lot of hard work and heartbreak as well.

The latest battleground was the rain-washed, coastal circuit at Portimao. It’s a 4.592km rollercoaster ride of ups and downs and nerve-wracking, sweeping turns. It is, essentially, enough to give any hard-core fan, the thrill of his lifetime. So, it was with much trepidation that I sat down to watch the wet race. Tom Sykes’ green hornet, the gleaming Kawasaki lined up on the front row. It was his 10th career pole, the same as the legend Pierfrancesco Chili. The determined Max Biaggi was right there too, at 5th, a roaring lion ready to protect his territory. He was fighting for points, looking to extend his lead and stake his claim on the championship. Right next to him at 4th was contender Marco Melandri, seeking to undo the troubles of the past few races, to rise up and score that elusive win.

The fight is on. Tom Sykes pushes his way to the top in Race 1. Image courtesy WorldSBK.com

The race began on a wet track. The first crash was horrific. Melandri tried to pass Biaggi, touched, and fell sliding on the track, right in the middle of the pack. Melandri has suffered no internal injuries, but has painful contusions on his back. He also cracked his 10th and 12th ribs on the right side, after being hit by another bike.

Meanwhile, the first race came to a standstill after the red flag came out, thanks to an oil spill on the track. The riders lined up once again. The red lights went off and they took off, speeding down and taking the turns with almost an abandon. They pushed their bikes, all of them. You could see it, every muscle straining. And then it happened. Sykes charged through, bullish, grabbing Biaggi’s prized first spot. Biaggi slipped to 4th as Carlos Checa grabbed the 2nd spot, and Sylvain Guintoli of PATA Racing Ducati took the 3rd. The race continued. Checa tried to snatch Sykes’ spot, chasing him right till the last two laps. But the Kawasaki was just a blur of green, sweeping through the circuit, and past the finish line. Sykes later said in a press release, “…the boys made a big change in between the two parts and it was a different bike in the second rerun. I was so comfortable and much happier and was able to predict what the bike was doing. We got to the front and managed the tyres very well; racing with these guys was fantastic. It’s good for the championship, but we’ll take it race by race.”

Green all the way. It was a dream win for Tom Sykes. Image courtesy WorldSBK.com

The win suddenly pushed Sykes into Championship points and I settled down to watch the second race, hopeful and fingers crossed. But it just wasn’t meant to be. The 2nd race began and the riders surged forward, their motorcycles growling and impatient. Eugene Laverty jumped ahead, leading the way, as did Sykes. It almost seemed like Kawasaki would get its double-win dream. But smoke from the Kawasaki told a different story. Sykes slowed down and finally came to a stop, retiring soon after. It was a blow to the team.

Tom Sykes rolled to a stop in Race 2 after problems with his bike. Image courtesy WorldSBK.com

The battle however did not stop. Laverty was still in the lead, but Jonathan Rea soon started pushing, threatening Laverty’s podium hopes. Behind them, Biaggi helped off a determined and ruthless Leon Camier, looking for a Suzuki on the podium. The battle between the two began, with Camier looking for an opening at every turn. But, Biaggi’s prowess over his machine came into play. The Italian held his ground and did not give way. It was masterful racing done with panache. Biaggi crossed the finish line to take 3rd. Ahead of him though, the fight for 1st continued. It was the final laps and Laverty pushed his Aprilia, riding like a man possessed to take 1st by 0.162 seconds. The Irish took his first win of the season, and his first on the Aprilia. He said in a press release, “I rode hard at the beginning to get a gap, but Jonathan pushed me hard towards the end. The grip wasn’t there, which was evident in the lap time, but I just kept going towards the end. I managed to hang on. The win has been so long coming, the last time was Monza and of course, this is the first time for Aprilia, I’m ecstatic about it!” This is Laverty’s third career win.

A well-deserved, long-in-coming win for Eugene Laverty. Image courtesy WorldSBK.com

The season is rolling to a close. There is but two more races to go. The French circuit at Magny-Cours is next, the final round to what has been a phenomenal season. It is befitting of WSBK’s 25th anniversary celebrations, especially given that there have been 9 different winners this season. The record is 10 scored in 1989, at a time when WSBK was still a young championship. Will this record break? It’s quite likely! The championship too is up for grabs. Biaggi may have extended his points lead, but he isn’t in the clear – mathematically that is. He has now got himself 347 points. But he also faces a new contender for the title. Tom Sykes has grabbed the 2nd slot with 316.5 points, while Melandri is at 308.5. Don’t hasten to crown king yet. Unpredictability is definitely the name of the game.

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