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Donington: a sad and crash-filled weekend for WSBK

Posted By Wes Fleming, Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Everybody had to know that the death of veteran American racer Nicky Hayden would cast a long pall over this weekend's World Superbike round at Donington Park in the UK. On 17 May, just a few days after a disappointing performance in Imola, Italy, Hayden embarked on what would end up being his last bicycle training ride.

Details of the collision haven't been released by Italian authorities yet, but what is known is that Hayden - known as the Kentucky Kid - was struck by a car. After five days in critical condition, he died at just 35 years old.

His 2006 MotoGP championship was the crowning achievement of Hayden's racing career, but American fans remember him from his teenage racing days with the Central Motorcycle Roadracing Association (CMRA). Hayden won the AMA Supersport championship as a privateer in 1999 and became the youngest ever AMA Superbike champion in 2002. He made the jump to MotoGP for the 2003 season and remained in the international motorcycle racing spotlight for the remainder of his career.

This year's World SBK season was largely plagued by technical and handling issues with his Red Bull Honda CBR1000RR, resulting in a string of low-point finishes. His most successful race was in the opening round at Thailand, when he finished 7th in the field in Race 2.

About 2,000 motorcycles showed up to lead Hayden's funeral procession in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, on 29 May 2017.

Coverage of Race 1 at Donington opened with video of Hayden; he said, "Racing motorcycles is a way of life for me. It’s what I know, it’s what I’ve always done." Fans have been sharing their stories of their encounters with Hayden and condolences for his family using #RideOnKentuckyKid on social media.

Race 1

Donington Park in the UK sports a 2.5-mile track with seven right and five left turns, including the Turn 11-12 "Melbourne Loop" that trips up a lot of riders. Weather conditions were cool overall, but heavy winds threatened to upset riders who failed to manage their exits from Turn 8 and the Melbourne Loop. Analysts expected the winds to be more of a factor in the race than the recently resurfaced track, which was still a little bumpy.

Jonathan Rea came into Donington weekend with a solid lead and 235 points in the overall championship standings. Thomas Sykes earned pole position for the race on what is essentially his home track; before Race 1, Sykes held the record for the most WSBK wins (8) at the track that saw the inaugural WSBK race 30 years ago. Racing legend Carl Fogerty only won six times at Donington.

Stefan Bradl - Nicky Hayden's Red Bull teammate - seemed to be holding up well all things considered, but he faced a tough weekend of racing, as did Marco Melandri, who hit the MotoGP track as a rookie in 2003, the same year as Hayden. Many of the racers shared memories and milestones with Hayden, making this weekend's races bittersweet.

The grid featured Sykes, Rea and Chaz Davies in the front row, backed up by Alex Lowes, Melandri and Eugene Laverty. Xavi Forés, Leon Haslam (in his first race back this season) and Leandro Mercado made up the third row. Althea BMW racers Jordi Torres (#81) and Raffaele de Rosa (#35) gridded 13th and 18th, respectively.

It was Davies, Sykes and Rea at the front of the pack through the first turn, with Torres jumping up to 12th and de Rosa to 15th. Big mistakes from Lowes and Melandri in Lap 1 drove them well back in the pack.

Davies rode strong until Lap 7, when he apparently failed to compensate after running onto the overlap and crashed. He recovered and got back onto the track in 15th position, but Rea - who watched his chief rival slide off the track - took full advantage and surged into the lead.

Rea easily held onto his lead into Lap 18, when he began to slow down, running a lap time in the 1.30 range when everybody else was running 1.28 or even 1.27. Next came a wild crash featuring a big slide and his motorcycle destroying itself in a series of spectacular end-over-end flips. Before walking away uninjured, Rea checked the rear tire of his bike, leading to speculation that he may have had some kind of catastrophic tire failure.

With Rea on the sideline, Sykes had no trouble closing the race, winning his unprecedented ninth race at Donington Park by a full 11 seconds. A second place finish for Haslam marked his triumphant return to WSBK, and Lowes rounded out the podium finishers. Melandri and Michael van der Mark came in fourth and fifth; Davies finished eighth with Torres right behind him. De Rosa finished 15th, the highest position that receives points.

Torres summed up this race by saying, "In race one, I had a quite consistent pace, which allowed me to pass a couple of riders. Considering the vibration issues we suffered it was not bad to finish the race in ninth."

As Sykes celebrated his win with a smoky burnout, the championship standings looked to see an upheaval if Race 2 didn't go well for Rea and Davies. Rea received no points for Race 1 due to his crash, which essentially gave Sykes a 50-point jump (Rea not getting 25 for winning, Sykes getting those points instead).

Adding insult to the injury of losing Hayden, Red Bull Honda's Bradl retired from the race with technical problems, ending Honda's 52-race streak of finishing in the points.

Race 2

Thanks to Race 1's results vis-a-vis Rea, Davies and Haslam, Race 2 saw heightened expectations from just about everybody. Rea needed to finish Race 2 in the points, as Sykes only being 50 points back after Race 1 constituted a direct threat to Rea winning the season outright. The uncatchable Rea suddenly seemed catchable, after all.

Torres' top-10 finish highlighted that he is poised for a top-5 finish at any time, especially if he can grid well and continue gaining seven or more positions in each race.

Race 2's grid featured Melandri, van der Mark and Leon Camier on Row 1, followed by Mercado, Davies and Torres in Row 2. Lowes, Haslam and Sykes made up the next row, with Rea, Laverty and Forés behind them. De Rosa again gridded in 18th position.

Where Race 1 was a technical masterpiece from the majority of racers, Race 2 came across more like a track day filled with overcompensating street riders struggling vainly to control motorcycles that were clearly beyond their skill sets.

Randy Krummenacher crashed out in Turn 1 of Lap 1. In the ensuing confusion on the track, Rea zipped through to lead, gaining nine positions in a matter of seconds. Haslam crashed out in Lap 2, followed by Alex de Angelis less than a minute later. Laverty crashed out in Lap 9, followed by Torres, who crashed out in Turn 10.

As if those four racers crashing out in the first half of the race wasn't enough, they were followed in the last quarter of the race by Melandri, Mercado and Lorenzo Savadori. While the SEVEN crashed out riders didn't affect the podium much - though certainly Haslam's crash disappointed fans of his second-place finish in Race 1 - the middle of the pack was greatly affected.

Rea rode to an easy win, earning Kawasaki's 100th WSBK victory. Sykes took second, Davies third and van der Mark fourth. Lowes and Camier followed him, and de Rosa finished 10th, his best finish since taking over for Markus Reiterberger. He said, "Race one was not easy, particularly with the strong wind. I managed to finish the race but the tyre was pretty much destroyed. On Sunday, conditions were different; it was hotter. I tried to improve my pace and while there was a certain degree of improvement I had hoped to do more to be honest. I hope we can make another step forward at Misano."

Championship standings have Rea in the lead with 260 points, followed by Sykes (205), Davies (185), Melandri (137) and Lowes (121). Torres is in ninth with 72 points. The team championship standings have Kawasaki Racing Team in a comfortable lead with 465 points, followed by Aruba.it Racing (Ducati) with 322, Pata Yamaha (223) and Althea BMW (103). The manufacturer's standings are similarly dominated by Kawasaki (285), Ducati (232), Yamaha (135) and BMW (86).

The next World SBK round is at Misano, again in Italy, from 16-18 June.

Photos courtesy of BMW Motorrad, Althea BMW Racing and Red Bull Honda.

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