Niall Mackenzie Column - Jun 2009

Niall salutes the hard-charging Noriyuki Haga, the perennial World Superbike bridesmaid who surely deserves to win the title in 2009. Ironically, a Yamaha may stand in his way

Posted: 1 June 2009
by Niall Mackenzie

Time may be running out but there’s no doubt Noriyuki Haga deserves to win a World Superbike championship.

The 1997 Japanese Superbike champion burst onto the world scene in 1998, winning three of the first four races. But ten years on a championship win still eludes him. Some who have worked with him say he’s miserable and arrogant, and they’d probably suggest his lack of championships could well be down to bad karma. This may be true, but he should be forgiven when you count up the hours of fantastic TV he has given us over the past decade. I’ve always appreciated his dedication on track, but I also find some of his post-race quotes equally entertaining. My favourite was when he made a one-off British Superbike appearance at Oulton Park with the Renegade Ducati team.

After an eventful race one – he rode through a fireball on the warm-up lap – he didn’t appear for race two. When the TV crew finally tracked him down and asked why he wasn’t out there, he replied: “Sorry but my bike is sleeping.”

Personally, I’ve always found Haga pretty friendly, so I put his two championship near-misses down to bad luck. In 2000, the FIM made him sit out the final round at Brands Hatch after testing positive for ephedrine. This might have been a banned substance, but it was later proved Nori had consumed it as part of a herbal weight-loss treatment he’d used in the off-season. The ban cost him and the Yamaha R7 a World Championship, but at the time I wondered why the FIM should also punish the Brands Hatch spectators by not letting him ride? Races without Nori were poorer for it.

His other bridesmaid spot was more recently, when he lost the 2007 title by just a few points. The felon this time was Max Biaggi. I’ve never been a big fan of the wee Roman – he once declared he wouldn’t attend an AGV conference unless they produced peach water for him – but my respect for him hit rock bottom when he attempted a stupid lunge and took out Nori in Misano. Of course, the up-side was that the bungle made things easier for our own James Toseland to clinch the championship so, given the choice, I wouldn’t change the end result.

Nitro Nori may not be perfect – his 2008 Donington Park tantrum wasn’t pretty – but I do believe he always gives 100 percent and there could still be a championship in him.

I suspect the main reason for Haga’s surprise move to Ducati for 2009 wasn’t for more cash or a better team but because, after watching Bayliss dominate, the 1198R would give him the best chance of finally landing a world title.

In my opinion his logic was spot on. The only problem is that back in September there was no Ben Spies factor in the World Superbike equation.

For three years Kevin Schwantz has been telling me that when Ben Spies arrives on the world stage we will witness something a bit special. Over the same period Neil Hodgson has backed that up saying Spies is one of the most talented riders he has ever raced against, which is praise indeed.

I had no reason to doubt their opinions but it looked like we might have to wait another year to see this man. The three times AMA Superbike champion may have impressed the world with his three MotoGP performances but there appeared to be no opportunities with competitive teams for 2009.

Then it all suddenly fell into place. Nori decided to jump ship and opened all the doors for Spies. I only hope Haga’s move hasn’t cost him another world championship. Regardless of who ends up on top, we’re still on for a cracking season.

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