The first enthralling round of the 2019 Australian Superbike Championship is but a memory – a vivid one at that – and now the second round at Wakefield Park is nigh. Bracksy looks back and peers into the future of what is shaping up as a momentous weekend at the Wakefield Park circuit near Goulburn in NSW, March 22-24.
If Alvaro Bautista was akin to a cyclone engulfing the WSBK paddock at the opening round of that Championship, in the ASBK class, Aiden Wagner was an air-to-ground, below radar low level attack dropping a couple of 500lb HE incendiaries on the ASBK field at Phillip Island.
A few weeks previously, the 25-year-old Queenslander, on his privateer Landsbridge Transport Yamaha R1 used the official ASBK test to strafe the field with armour piercing shells to let everyone know, he is back, fully fit, ravenous for success, and he doesn’t give a rat’s arse about reputations.
He certainly ruffled a few feathers at the test. By the end of race two of the ASBK Superbike season on Saturday Feb 23 they were singed beyond recognition with his scorched earth, take no prisoners policy.
With his round one victory with Pole, two wins and a second, the snatching strap of tension has been ratcheted up a notch. Or, five.
The quality and intensity of the on-track competition easily eclipsed the demonstration put on by the lads of the World Superbike field and showed the parity between the different motorcycles in our domestic championship is very even.
The ASBK season was shaping up as a landmark year, even before Wagner bounced back in the paddock. Now he is here, look out. The anticipation going into round two is even more palpable than the season opener.
2019 is shaping up as the most competitive in many a year, as each season seems to increase in intensity and level of competition.
Round 1 Recap
So let’s have a recap of the opening round then a peer into the looking glass to see what this weekend has in store.
There was plenty of anticipation as the meeting got under way and Bayliss led the first session to continue his testing form, but his weekend was to soon unravel. In the afternoon qualifying session he had a monumental get off heading into turn four when he was distracted by a rider stricken on the edge of the track. The bike was basically obliterated in the cartwheeling that was reminiscent of his crash on a Ducati during the Australian Grand Prix of 2003.
Thankfully, this time he walked away to be able to relate soon after that he had cracked a finger on his left hand and the bike “was sent to heaven”.
In qualifying the prodigal son, Wagner grabbed the number one slot, one-thousandth of a second under Bayliss’s lap record, set at the final round last year. More importantly, he scored an extra championship point that goes with it to lead a Yamaha block out of the front row.
This year the extra championship point for Pole Position at each round could be more critical than ever in deciding the champion. Remember when since Shawn Giles was pipped in a countback with Josh Brookes in 2005…
The privateer gave a bloody nose to the Yamaha Racing Team duo of Superbike returnee, Cru Halliday, and his team mate in the official Yamaha team Daniel Falzon who made up the front row.
Wagner has some very astute people in his corner with Sam Costanzo, the principal of Landbrige Transport and Landbridge Racing. Sam has a fine reputation for preparing race machines while Adrian Monti is a very astute and analytical operator who knows how to set up a race bike, and probably more importantly, the understanding to translate what a rider is talking about to bike set-up.
Before the opening race of the year, many people were asking the annual question of how far into the opening race we’d get before some carnage would erupt. In the past couple of years the season has only reached Turn Four on the opening lap before the cauldron has boiled over. Last year it was Glenn Allerton who hightailed it out of the race as he launched himself high over the bars, nearly bringing rain and almost dragging Wayne Maxwell off his bike as he flew past him.
It is understandable as it’s over four months since the last race of 2018 and we all know the eagerness riders display and the red mist visor is also a deeper tinge than normal for the opening laps of the year. In recent years there has been a bit of drama at Turn Four.
Race 1 – Phillip Island
This year we had to wait a few laps for the first real jaw dropping moment but the opening laps of race one were absolutely manic. What we had been anticipating had been confirmed. This year will be a seven-round, street brawl.
Falzon jumped to the front off the line to lead for the opening corners but Bayliss took over heading into turn 10 and led the frantic first lap across the line from Maxwell and Falzon. After a very mediocre start, Wagner was back in seventh, just shading Waters, the octuplet separated by less than a second. It was on as they all spread across the track careering to the apex on their 200+hp machines like the charge of the Light Horse, fighting for track position.
Wagner was excellent in testing. Now we were witnessing what he could do in a race mixed up with the pack of gangsters in front of him as Wagner commenced his carving exhibition. He showed from the outset that he is not here for a free lunch and it wasn’t even lunchtime Sunday!
He was up to second by the end of the third lap managing to pop out in front while everyone else was having a dip at the passing game, particularly Bryan Staring on the Kawasaki BC Performance ZX-10RR as he scythed his way through on the Dunlop shod machine to be among the leading pack climbing from 10th on the grid.
Wagner took the lead on the fourth lap and held it until the final few corners as he and Bayliss, Maxwell, Halliday, Waters, and Staring keeping well in touch
The first jaw dropping moment of the year came at the start of the sixth lap. Wagner led the charge from Maxwell and Bayliss, the others not far adrift as they tipped into Doohan Corner at a head shaking, meteoric rate. Wagner had a couple of bike lengths over Maxwell with Bayliss taking a deeper, more outer line into turn one but his entry speed was a little quicker, or maybe Maxwell slowed a tad but it was j-u-s-t enough for the brake lever of TB#32 machine to touch the rear of Maxwell’s machine.
The front wheel locked, a puff of blue smoke and in a nano second, Bayliss was sliding on his arse at over 200 kays and another steed of the Desmo Sport Ducati stable went looking for directions to the Pearly Gates to join its sibling.
The crash looked innocuous enough considering the speed of his trajectory into the kitty litter. Coming to a tumbling halt after a less than elegant face plant, he sat there, legs spread and punched the ground in exasperation, jumped to his feet and wandered back to the pits.
Bayliss may have exited stage left but that didn’t halt the swashbuckling as Staring joined the fray in fifth behind Wagner, Maxwell, Halliday and Waters. Half race distance and it was on.
The sword clashing continued at every corner and while Wagner led across the line there was plenty of pushing and shoving scything, slicing and magnificent dicing many times a lap.
Less than a second separated the quintet as they commenced the final lap but back markers were looming. The snarling pack negotiated the first couple ok but Wagner was baulked by one over Lukey Heights into T10. Maxwell was his typical blue heeler self as he nipped the heels of the Queenslander.
Out of T11 Wagner jumped on the gas, the pack broke away slightly losing drive which allowed Maxwell the opportunity to storm past into the lead and take the win from Wagner, with Staring filling the last step on the podium after another determined ride from the 2010 ASBK champion to prove that he will be in the mix all year.
Wagner demonstrated in the opening stanza he has the goods to push for not only the privateer championship but the outright. He also has his own definitive style in riding a 1000cc machine at Phillip Island, riding more Supersport lines to carry corner speed. This was most evident at Turn 4 as he hung out very wide and swept across the track for a very late apex.
High corner approach had the others seemingly second guessing as if they tried to take an inside line there was a good chance that a collision may occur. In fact, it did happen with Halliday and Wagner touching with feet off the pegs, both lucky to stay aboard such was the hit.
His antics reminded us in the commentary booth of a philosophy of racing that 2002 Australian Supersport Champion, Shannon Johnson, uttered to explain some of his determined moves, “A front wheel has a three-and-a-half inch rim. If there is three and a half inches of track then there is enough room for me.”
What a scene setter for the year. The first World Superbike race soon after the opening leg was somewhat of an anti-climax compared to the cut and thrust of ASBK.
Maxwell had taken first blood, and was somewhat emotional in parc ferme as the 36-year-old had not expected to take the win. After recent years on Yamaha machinery, he was still not feeling fully comfortable on the GSX-R, saying the bike did not yet feel like his. Be interesting to see just how fast he goes when he does get back to that stage with familiarity on the Suzuki!
Bayliss injuries surface
We didn’t have to wait long for part two later the same afternoon. If the opening race was a scene setter, race two will be in the background for the rest of the season as well. The action was a carbon copy of the opening leg with a few more exclamation marks for good measure – albeit with one disappointing turn of events.
After his whoopsie of the first race Bayliss seemed fine and in his usual laconic way was circumspect with the turn of events of his two massive crashes in less than 24 hours, but ready to come out swinging.
Bayliss headed out on a hastily prepared machine, but on the sighting lap as he applied the front brake for the first time he realised that he could close the ring finger of his right hand, but couldn’t extend it. A torn tendon forced his exit from the rest of proceedings and the loss of plenty of potential points.
Race 2 – Phillip Island
Race two soon turned into a Maxwell vs Wagner vs Waters vs Halliday vs Falzon affair, with the others not far off. Falzon crashed at turn 10 losing the front which baulked those following, allowing the top four a gap over the likes of Staring, Mike Jones (K&R Hydraulics ZX-10R) and Troy Herfoss on the Penrite Honda who was struggling to stay in touch.
Wagner had complete faith in his front end in his desire to poke a wheel up the inside of the opposition and managed to hold his line. After a few laps the rear was starting to walk on him but he didn’t give a toss about what the rear was doing. He was right in the mix.
It all came down to the final lap dogfight. Again.
Hundredths of a second covered the top four and so typical of Phillip Island it all came down to the final four corners: setting up over Lukey Heights, a possible dive up the inside into MG Corner, then the drag through 11 and 12 to the line.
The last five hundred metres of the second Superbike race is now etched in history, but its repercussions may reverberate throughout the year. Maxwell had managed to get in front in the final set of corners and led Wagner, Waters and Halliday as they tipped into Turn 12.
Maxwell hung it up a little higher than usual leaving a bit of vacant bitumen. Wagner saw that lonely bit of bitumen as an invitation and reacted accordingly driving through – hugging the ripple strip, with Halliday and Waters line astern.
Kaa-boom! A clash as Wagner and Maxwell collided in the rush with Maxwell falling off the inside of the bike, cartwheeling into the track-side beach, spraying the gravel high.
Wagner kept it pinned as the carnage unfolded to take the flag from Halliday second and Waters third and a crater of destruction and controversy hot on their heels. Thankfully, Maxwell was soon on his feet and taking the long walk back to the pits from the outside of the track. Fuming.
At race’s end, I descended down the stairs from the three-storey eyrie that is the commentary box in the control tower to head to park ferme to conduct the usual post race interviews. I had just emerged from the tower to pass a rapidly advancing and extremely arced-up, Phil Tainton from Team Ecstar Suzuki, who was charging up to race control to explain his point of view.
I hadn’t seen Phil like that in a long time. Hoo-ee, this has just taken the championship to another level.
There were plenty of words said from both sides and also the view of onlookers. Wagner claimed there was a gap. Maxwell claimed there wasn’t any room. Wagner was contrite and apologised to Maxwell for the incident but at the time it fell on deaf ears. Everyone else had their own opinion. Was there a gap or not?
Officials deemed it as a racing incident and no action was taken, much to the chagrin of some. Riders had different opinions with one telling me, “Tell them to stop sooking. It’s a racing incident. I’d rather be fighting for the lead and crashing than being back here where we are.” Touche!
Personally, I think it is fantastic for the intrigue and interest. It brought more international attention to the ASBK and many in the WSBK paddock were talking about it, including Jamie Whitham who thought it was fantastic. It made the opening WSBK race seem like a procession!
Whoever was right, or wrong, it brought back a statement that the great Ayton Senna said at the 1990 Australian F1 Grand Prix, “By being a racing driver you are under risk all the time. By being a racing driver means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver because we are competing, we are competing to win. And the main motivation to all of us is to compete for victory, it’s not to come 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th. I race to win as long as I feel it’s possible. Sometimes you get it wrong. Sure, it’s impossible to get it right all the time. But I race designed to win, as long as I feel I’m doing it right.”
But that philosophy didn’t work out all that well for the Brazilian legend in the end did it…
Race 3 – Phillip Island
With the third and final race of the opening round held on Sunday morning, at least we could get our collective breath back over night. Lucky because race three left us all breathless. It was the race of the weekend.
Maxwell was battered and bruised after his 200 km/h+ get off the day before but his determination wasn’t lessened by any stretch. The anticipation was palpable.
Arthur Sissis stormed from 15th on the grid to grab the holeshot but was soon swamped as Waters led the first lap from Wagner and Falzon – the trio covered by 0.624 sec. Jones joined the fray on the next lap and created history by not only breaking the lap record but being the first rider to dip into a sub 1:32 with a corker of a lap to record 1:31.881!
The leading freight train was adding extra carriages as the laps went by. It became a quintet the next lap when Haliday chimed in, 0.753 sec adrift.
The passing moves had been stepped up especially at the frighteningly fast Hayshed where Jones was making it his corner, just like Jamie Stauffer did in the past, to dive up the inside accelerating through the apex.
Another couple of laps and there were seven carriages but none of them remained in the same place. It was mental the amount of positional changes and at two thirds race distance, seven bikes were covered by less than a second with Wagner and Jones taking turns to lead the end of consecutive laps.
Wagner made it two victories after getting the best of Jones by 0.317 sec (the largest gap over the three races), with Halliday in third, the trio separated by just 0.394 sec. A blink of the eye behind was Falzon, Waters and a very gallant Maxwell 0.933 away in sixth.
Over the three races you wouldn’t see as much carving in a dozen pubs for a Sunday roast! Enthralling. The total winning margin for the three races was an astronomical: 0.765!
Round 2 – Wakefield Park
What lies ahead this weekend? There are no similarities between Phillip Island and this weekend’s round at the tight twisty bumpy and extremely demanding Wakefield Park, except they are racetracks.
This weekend extreme tension is a given. How far before the tension is too much and something snaps is anyone’s guess but I reckon something will happen in qualifying in the fist fight for the extra championship point.
Herfoss will no doubt start as a favourite such is his affinity with the track and he will have an added incentive of making up for what was, in his and the team’s eyes, an extremely disappointing weekend at Phillip Island – a place that has never been too kind to him.
Maxwell has done well at the the track in recent years and the pair have split wins pretty evenly. Then there is Cru Halliday. He has had some memorable moments at the track and now he is back on a Superbike after his domination of last year’s Supersport title.
Don’t be surprised if he takes a victory as he is a true dark horse for this year’s title, as is his team mate, Falzon. The South Australian, who now works as a fully qualified paramedic, has a hunger for race wins and he may well bring a take-no-prisoners approach into the meeting as well
Unfortunately, Bayliss will be a non starter but that allows Mike Jones to be reunited with the Desmo Sport Ducati team as he has been drafted in to fly the flag in the absence of Troy.
Staring showed that he and the Kawasaki BC Perfomance ZX10 is not too far off the pace. The big question mark for him is whether the Dunlop tyres are up to the rigours of the 2.2km track? Could they even have a weather dependent advantage this weekend..? Saturday and Sunday are looking warm.
Then there are the riders with three Australian Superbike Championships in Glenn Allerton and Josh Waters. Allerton and the Next Gen Motosrports BMW team have had a challenging start to the year. Still awaiting delivery of the new HP4, they had a setback with going to Dunlops then returning to Pirelli. At the Island they were well off the mark but anyone who discounts Allerton does so at their peril.
The same must be said for Waters. After the disappointment of last year, the Gixxer and Waters look to be back to their rampaging best. Plus he now has a team mate that is out to claim another title, and we all know what they say about team mates.
Then there is Wagner. What he brings to the table has given the championship that bit of extra mongrel and disregard for reputations that the series has been aching for.
After his first round blitzkrieg the opposition will be more prepared to deal with what ever firepower Wagner throws their way. The arsenal of the opposition will be well stocked to defend the attacks.
An interesting bit of trivia. In the past three years good mates, Maxwell and Herfoss have been the best performers at Wakefield, sharing the wins at three apiece. Herfoss has two second places to Maxwell’s one, with Herfoss’ worst result a fourth, while Maxwell has not fared quite as well overall, with an eighth and a DNF. Herfoss has also taken the last three pole positions. Herfoss’ points haul is 135 points compared to Maxwell on 108.
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