South of Heaven

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Looks unremarkable, right? It should. Podium ceremonies are customary at the end of most motorsports events outside the US – check the Daytona 500 for Victory Lane-as-American exceptionalism – and this image from Sunday’s FIM Supersport World Championship race in Australia is no different. Three men mount the rostrum, three men receive modest trophies and a bouquet of flowers, three men pop expensive champagne bottles once the winner’s national anthem is played. A team owner laughs, soaking up the victory. A cameraman catches it for posterity. Across the road, someone takes a photo to summarize the weekend.

What’s so strange about this podium is who’s on it. To the right, Italian Raffaele de Rosa, wearing leathers for a team he no longer rides for; to the left, journeyman Scot Kev Coghlan, still winless; and in the center, the most remarkable story of the weekend. But this is World Supersport at the Australian Grand Prix in 2014. This is life at its most whimsical. This is life at the top of the bottom of the world.

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There are two different bike racing paddocks split by ideology: Space age technological advancements fuel the prototype-based MotoGP series, supported by the lesser feeder classes of Moto2 and Moto3; tricked-out versions of road bikes you can actually buy are the face of World Superbike and its respective feeders, World Supersport and World Superstock. The easiest visual difference is that the WSBK organizers mandated fake headlights last year. It’s about as stupid as it sounds, but the implicit pitch is that Superbikes are more relevant (and, thus, important) to you as a viewer because you actually own a Kawasaki ZX-10R or a Honda CBR1000RR. You can relate.

The Supersport series is an extension of that. You could say it’s fitting that the SSP race is always scheduled between the two SBK races: It occupies a precarious place in the world championship motorcycle road racing hierarchy because it’s a sort of oddball purgatory. Moto2 and Moto3 grids are full of future superstars and not-quite-theres; SSK is full of rich kids and no-hopers; but SSP is a mixed bag of exceptionally fast or lucky rich kids, future grand prix B-listers, and guys who’ve already flown too close to the sun.

Buried lede alert: This is where we finally talk about Jules Cluzel, the former Moto2 race winner and SBK hopeful now trying to work his way back to the top rung of production racing. The 25-year-old Frenchman was competitive in Moto2 but jumped paddocks in 2012 to pilot an SSP bike for Honda. It seemed like a step back; if you’re in the grand prix paddock, you want to stay there. To the riders, there’s no question that the ultimate challenge is a MotoGP machine. Moto2 and Superbikes are each one step away; Supersport feels more like three.

Still, he did well enough to finish second overall in 2012 behind arguably the greatest SSP rider ever, Kenan Sofuoglu (of which more about another time). It was enough to land him a decent ride with Fixi Crescent Suzuki for 2013, which he took advantage of by quietly yet regularly finishing in the top ten. He garnered a podium in a year spent adapting to the big bike. Things were looking up.

But that’s how it goes with bike racing. You think you’re building toward something and then the bottom drops out. Cluzel was left without a ride for 2014 as autumn set in when Suzuki announced on a whim that it had other plans. This, as you may have guessed, is where we talk about Yakhnich Motorsports and MV Agusta.

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Yakhnich is a Russian enterprise led by wheeler n’ dealer Alexander Yakhnich, CEO of YMS Promotion Ltd. and owner of the TV rights to WSBK in the motherland. Where his money comes from, Putin only knows; in any case, his rubles and influence (not to mention passion, as his laughably sincere president’s address reads) helped land top level road racing’s groundbreaking foray into Russia in 2012. Yakhnich originally backed an all-female team in the Russian and Italian domestic series. One of those two women went on to be Yakhnich’s team manager when the team made the jump to the world level. And that’s how the tall, blonde-haired Nataliya Lyubimova came to share Cluzel’s step of the podium.

Yakhnich is established and professional. More relevantly, it is successful: The team outright won last year’s SSP championship. But they did it using Yamaha machinery. Switching to the unproven Italian MV Agusta brand – a once-vaunted manufacturer that hadn’t won a race on a world championship level since Gerald Ford was president – was risky. It had the reasonably competitive (and marketable) Vladimir Leonov on one bike already, but scoring Cluzel last November was a tactical coup. A good team, good riders, a bike that was all theirs to develop. How long could it take to reach the top step?

Given preseason testing, practice sessions, qualifying and most of the race, you wouldn’t have been optimistic. Cluzel battled persistent technical issues in sorting out the F3 675 and crashed in qualifying to start 14th of 25 riders, his best lap nearly two seconds off pole. That’s deep in the pack and an eternity away from the pace set by Kawasaki’s mercurial Sofuoglu and Honda’s sophomore dark horse, Michael van der Mark.

For most of the 18-lap race, the smart money was on one of those two guys. While Cluzel was able to work his way up through the field, and Kev Coghlan would prove troublesome to the leaders, as the laps wound down, you got the feeling that either Sofuoglu or Van der Mark could pull the pin and take off. Then came Jack Kennedy’s blown engine spilling oil on the track and a red flag that halted the race. Or, if you prefer, the deus ex machina.

– – – – –

When a red flag comes out, a race is stopped. This is universal. If it’s a serious accident, or if there’s something adversely affecting track conditions (in this case, oil on the road), the trackside teams have time to go out and amend it. If there’s enough time from there, the grid is reformed, and whatever remaining laps are run off in short order. It amounts to a reset button by bunching the field back up.

If you’re Kenan Sofuoglu or Michael van der Mark, you hate this. If you’re Jules Cluzel, you’re galvanized – the gap to the leaders is gone and it’s all to play for again. So, lining up fifth this time instead of 14th, Cluzel’s made enough progress to be in the hunt for the finish. The lights go out and the race is on.

Here are the last five laps in all the glorious, supersaturated quality a Hungarian(?) feed on a laptop ripped to YouTube can muster:

It’s an entertaining nine minutes, but, if you’re short on time, here’s the anatomy of a win: At 1:51, Van der Mark wobbles mightily on the Honda. This sets his bike off line, and he takes forever to finally low-side off and into the grass. The camera whimsically follows him the whole way through it, which is too bad, because while he’s doing that, off-camera barely 200 meters up the road, Sofuoglu is doing the exact same thing less than six seconds later. The feed picks it up too late; Sofuoglu has already slid off and out of the lead.

There’s little time for the viewer to process that both of the favorites are now out, but, for the riders, the implications are obvious: The dynamic of the lead group suddenly hinges on Florian Marino, a man who hasn’t led a lap yet but who now commands the pace ahead of Raffaele de Rosa and… Jules Cluzel.

Now fast-forward to 6:51. This is entering a tight hairpin, and three guys (Cluzel and Coghlan have passed De Rosa) are bunched up behind Marino as they enter Honda Corner. Coghlan has already set Cluzel up for a pass, but Marino bobs just wide enough on entry to have to pick the bike up unexpectedly as Cluzel and Coghlan come past. It’s tight, and there’s no quarter asked or given as Marino is helplessly mugged by De Rosa on the exit in a final insult.

This isn’t the race-winning pass – Cluzel finds his way past Coghlan at a hairpin two corners from the finish seconds later – but it’s a great example of what World Supersport racing is about and how fortune can change. Cluzel comes from 14th to take the win; Yakhnich doesn’t miss a beat in returning to its winning ways; and MV Agusta can celebrate success right from the start of the year.

The element of surprise is gone now, of course. Sofuoglu will inevitably be back. Van der Mark promises to cause trouble for anyone at the front this year. Coghlan won’t get caught-out miscounting laps like that anymore. Then again, it’s easy to theorize here – this is World Supersport, and the realm of the unreal is typical. This is where motorsport gives you a chance, as Alexander Yakhnich says, “to become somebody else: a winner, a superman, a reliable friend. It helps you to become yourself.”

Which one is Jules Cluzel? In Australia, at least, he was not just somebody else, he was something else. He was the embodiment of Supersport’s eternal limbo. Sounds unremarkable, right? It should. That’s what it’s like mending melted wings somewhere south of heaven.

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