New Zealand's top motorcycle racer goes into hell's cauldron this weekend. While some Kiwis have gone over the top in reaction to Simon Crafar's one-off win in grand prix racing, superbike ace Aaron Slight has quietly tucked his world championship...
New Zealand's top motorcycle racer goes into hell's cauldron this weekend. While some Kiwis have gone over the top in reaction to Simon Crafar's one-off win in grand prix racing, superbike ace Aaron Slight has quietly tucked his world championship lead under his arm and headed for America.
The Masterton-born Honda rider, never out of the top three in world supers in the past five seasons of the world's most competitive class, faces the devil's battle to retain his number one spot at Laguna Seca, California this weekend.
The track favours the Ducati V-twins of Slight's major rivals and has always been a bogey for his V4 Castrol Honda.
"It's just not a layout that suits the Honda, which comes into its own on the big fast circuits in Europe," said Slight from California.
"This place is tight and twisty and suits the low-down acceleration of the Ducati as it pulls out of the corners.
"Just the same I've been able to carry better corner speed on the Honda this year, thanks to some changes we've made. I'm hopeful of keeping in touch with the Ducati guys to defend this bit of a lead I've got."
Slight's "bit of a lead", a slender point over Australian Troy Corser, is the result of a remarkable comeback from some diabolical luck with mechanical trouble and other riders knocking him off the Honda this year.
Although he was quickest in qualifying at a number of circuits, it took seven of 13 rounds for the expat Kiwi professional racer to hit the lead in the title chase.
Two years ago Slight and Corser took the battle right to the wire, the Australian taking the 1996 crown by a narrow margin at the final round.
The previous two years Slight had again been bested by Ducati - with his old rival Carl Fogarty aboard. Again this year the brash Englishman is right there, just seven points adrift of Slight going to the USA.
And another red Ducati looms close with winner of both legs at last weekend's South African round, Italian Pier-Francesco Chili, 16 points adrift.
Each leg provides 25 points for the win - a maximum 50 at each round - so the world championship remains wide open.
The American races are held Monday morning NZ time.
Championship points after seven of 13 rounds: Slight 210, Corser 209, Fogarty 203, Chili 194, Edwards 187, Haga 168, Yanagawa 122, Whitham 86, Goddard 92, Russell 75.
Last weekend's dramatic seventh round may prove to be a pivotal point in the championship.
Fresh from a double victory at the previous round, Aaron Slight managed a pair of eighth placings - the first a scary ride with brake problems and the second after being crashed out by another rider - while Corser picked up just a seventh place in leg two.
"I had either no brakes or they would lock on as I tipped into the corner. At one point I hit one of the riders I was lapping," said 32-year-old Slight.
Corser meanwhile had trouble with his Ducati on the warmup lap and did not start the race, handing Slight a two-point lead overall ... which was halved in leg two when Slight was battling back from a poor start when he was involved in a lap eight crash and taken down.
"I thought my race was over when I crashed and I was so lucky the bike worked so I could finish the race," said Slight who has also crashed and remounted during races in Australia and Germany this year to take valuable championship points.
Carl Fogarty managed a pair of second placings behind Pier-francesco Chili.
Slight's Castrol Honda teammate Colin Edwards (USA), with a ninth and fourth, moved up to fifth overall ahead of the early season sensation, Japanese rider Noriyuki Haga who got his Yamaha to third in race two after seventh first out.
Count the rest out of title contention. But expect to see any of a gaggle of international riders on the podium between now and October, as world supers lives up to its name.
Unlike grand prix racing, superbikes offers all four Japanese makes on the grid and able to compete with probable favourite Ducati. And although Slight, Corser and Fogarty dominate the favourtism, their performance comes from consistent points-scoring rather than flash-in-the-pan wins in individual events.
Extra urgency has been added by the shortening of the championship season, with the proposed 14th and final round in Malaysia cancelled. It's also been announced the Indonesian round, number 11, has been dropped because of the political situation there. A replacement has yet to be decided - New Zealand's Manfeild circuit has been mooted as a possibility.
After Laguna Seca Slight flies to Japan where he will start as favourite in the world's biggest race, the Suzuka 8-Hour in a fortnight.
Not a round of the world champs, the endurance event is known as the toughest in the world to win.
Slight, the only rider ever to win it three times in succession (1993-95) is backed to deliver the prestigious platter to his employer Honda in its 50th celebration year.