Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To The Wire. Ben Spies vs. Nitro Nori. Portimao. World Superbike Championship

It was a quick turnaround. Quickest I've ever done, and Emily was convinced that by Sunday I would be a total wreck.
Why? I left Melbourne on Monday, October 19 at 10.30am in the morning. After a quick change of plane in Sydney, it's off back to San Francisco. I arrive at 10.15am on the same day. In less than 48 hours, Emily and I would be going in the other direction (time wise) to Lisbon in Portugal. Just enough time to get home, change ones knickers and head off again (that's just a colloquial phrase...meaning just enough time to do the washing...)! Well. Everything went well. Our shuttle took us to SFO, we caught our flight to JFK, waited for a few hours, then caught our flight to Charles De Gaulle, waited a little whiles and then flew onto Lisbon!Thursday afternoon and all the luggage arrived (breathe a sigh of relief especially as we were travelling via CDG). We met John Hopkins and his crew at the Hertz Rent-a-Car and in fact, ended up with his rental car as it wasn't big enough for all their stuff, which worked well for us as the car I had been assigned wasn't big enough for all my stuff. Everyone happy, we head off to Portimao where we'd be staying. We'd rented a house in the town of Portimao which in turn wasn't that far from the track. The bed in the house, however, was torture, but the house was super comfortable and big. But all things aside, we had arrived. We took a quick trip to a supermarket nearby, but oddly many of the people working there spoke English to buy some provisions. GB arrived later that evening and after catching up we all settled down for the night. Friday morning we took the scenic route to the track. Last year was the first year for the race here at Portimao and this was the only route to the track. However, the motorway has been constructed and so there is a quicker route to the track but by no mean as interesting. The drivers in Portugal are rather, shall we say, excitable....! After the almost "Paris-Dakar" ride to the track (Emily's coined phrase for my exuberant driving) we arrive at this extremely modern, out in the middle of nowhere, facility. Emily and I pop into the administration offices to pick up her credential and we're in!A brief walk to the media centre, more money for (lousy) internet access and we're all set up. Time to go wander, arrange for scooter during the weekend and check things out.What a track! Huge sweeping downhills, uphills, crest's and such a beautiful surface.The areas around the track are a little "Miller-esque", meaning they're a little dust-bowl-ish and still needing some landscaping, but there's nary a bad view from anywhere on the outside. With Emily armed with my Canon G9 and all "media-accessed up" we go to get it sorted so she can visit and hang out in the Yamaha garage. Mary Spies, Ben's mum, greets Emily with a huge hug! Tom, Ben and Woody also are pleased to see her (me, I end up getting the now obligatory "salute" - all in jest mind).Tom (Houseworth) has brought his wife Suzie with him to the final round and for a brief moment it didn't dawn on either of us that it was Suzie, Tom's wife, when she introduces herself to us. DOH!Friday carries on as normal....with a little more tension in the air. This weekend would decide the winner of the World Superbike Championship, and it was going to be either Ben or Nori that would win it. The excitement in the air was palpable. Although for Tom and Woody, they had been here before (in the AMA) and even though they appeared to be calm, I did sense just a tinge of reservation that I hadn't seen or felt from my prioir visits to the Yamaha Italia camp...Evening trips back to the house were always fun. With the warm late autumn temperatures in the Algarve, it is a real treat driving with the windows down. Friday night I had decided to cook dinner. Saturday, following a tense day with practice and qualifying, Superpoles and wotnots, would be a trip into the town of Portimao and the "Restaurante O Alcaide". We found this local gem simply searching on Google Maps. We were not disappointed. We were joined at Kevin Allen from Pirelli later that evening and although he wasn't planning on eating the food was so tempting he caved and joined the rest of us. We had an assortment of dishes, one of which, the mixed seafood cataplana, was simply delicious. We left the restaurant around 11pm once it dawned on us that they don't stay open as late as Spanish restaurants, and the owner/chef, was getting a little bit irked that we were still there. Needless to say we'd go back to this place again.Sunday arrives. The BIG DAY! Although as far as Greg "Woody" Woods is concerned it is just "Sunday". Which is true, but there was a lot of nerves in the Ducati garage as well as the Yamaha garage next door. With all the finishing permutations Ben (Spies) had to achieve to win the Championship, and similar permutations applying to Nori (Haga) to allow him to win, the win itself was becoming a class in mathematics! As I wouldn't necessarily have access to Bens' scooter for both race one and two, I had decided I would go and photograph the grid and race on track for the first race, and then (nervously) cover the goings on in the garages for race two. Well, as we all know, Nori made a mistake in race one and crashed. Of course, the made race two even more tense and so I felt I made the right choice in being "in garage" during race two. Ben only had to finish something like 5th or higher to win the Championship.The atmosphere in the garage was incredible. I mean, people, glued, almost magnetically to the monitors and timing screens. With Ben (Spies) losing some ground, and Nori (Haga) gaining, you could visibly see sweat on people faces. Strained, anxious eyes watched the monitors and no one said a word.After numerous battles with misinformed security telling me I couldn't do this or that I simply went to the pit wall once it looked like Ben was going to snag the Championship. As Michael Fabrizio raced past the pit wall and mechanics in first, closely followed by his team mate and Championship runner up Noriyuki Haga, followed by Rea, Byrne it was Ben's turn. With Yamaha mechanics swarming all around me Ben road an arc towards the pit wall while his crew started to lose it!! Back to the Yamaha garage and people were jumping around, excited. Amazing stuff.Everybody runs down the pit lane to parc ferme to wait for Ben to arrive. It's a battle trying to get any burnout shots of Ben as he pulls up. With more fans than photographers I stand back and observe, as Massimo Meregalli arrives, arrives in tears, being hugged, and hugging well wishers, from fans to team mates to fellow competitors. It's an emotional moment for "Maio" and in a way one for me too. Both Emily and I have witnessed Ben's Championship wins through the AMA and now into World Superbike.With the podium ceremony completed, there is even more frolicking with team members being "dunked" into the pond that is next door to the media centre. The celebrations and buzz in the paddock are amazing.The last business of the day is the final Championship photos on the track and then that's pretty much it for the World Superbike Championship. With Ben heading off to MotoGP, the number 1 plate will only exists on the Yamaha Superbike for the purposes of this, the final photo shoot. In a way I felt sorry for Massimo and the team. One works so hard to get that number 1 on a machine, and sadly, with Ben moving onto face the top level of motorcycle racing in MotoGP, this number 1 plate will not be paraded on a bike during the 2010 World Superbike Season. But I guess that's racing!With a huge lump in my throat, and a feeling of sadness, like it's the last day of school before people leave to find jobs or go onto University, I bid my farewells to the team. It's a sad feeling for me. I have always been welcomed and looked after by everyone in the Yamaha Italia squad, from Maio, to Jure, to Giulio and of course Gavin the PR dude...the same sentiments and kindness were shown to Eily on her visit to the teams. So I have to say a huge THANK YOU to Yamaha Italia for making my work away from home and my wife a joy. I look forward to seeing them all again soon. Also a huge thank you to Graeme Brown, Matteo Cavadini, Marco Morittu, Gavin Mattheson and others who made 2009 so much of a pleasure. Also a big THANK YOU to Yamaha's advertising agency who have been very supportive and have used many of my images through 2009 in the advertising campaigns.Monday am arrives, and we're up early and off to begin our holiday. That post is coming up next...

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