Friday, October 13, 2006

British Superbike Rewind

This was the first year I got to see the British Superbike Championship, and I found it utterly compelling. We had a championship fight that involved three riders that went down to the last race, and unlike the AMA and WSBK series, the lead changed hands multiple times. These kind of see-saw title fights are simply fantastic, and I was on the edge of my seat as I waited for the last round to show up.

Although the standard of teams is very high, only two were ever a factor in the championship, GSE Airwaves Ducati and the HM Plant Honda factory team. Both had top-shelf factory bikes and extremely talented riders.

On the Ducati side was Gregorio Lavilla, winner of the 2005 title, and Leon Haslam, son of former GP winner Ron Haslam. Honda had last year's runner-up Ryuichi Kiyonari and Karl Harris, who had moved into the factory team from the Red Bull satellite squad.

Shane "Shakey" Byrne returned to BSB after two miserable years in MotoGP, joining top Suzuki team, Rizla Suzuki. After a dominant BSB season in 2003, many expected him to be right at the front all season long.

Other top riders who had the potential to do well included Michael Rutter on the Stobart Honda, Scott Smart on the Vivaldi Suzuki and Red Bull Honda's youngster, Johnny Rea.

Lavilla set the pace early on, although Kiyonari notched up a terrific win in the wet at the first round at Brands Hatch, as did Scott Smart at round two. Still, Lavilla won 7 of the first 10 races. The tide started to turn at round 6, Mallory Park, where Kiyonari beat Lavilla fair and square. He repeated the feat in the first race of the next round, and Lavilla crashed out of the second race.

With all the drama surrounding the two front-runners, many people were forgetting about Leon Haslam, who was quietly picking up a raft of second-placed finishes. When Lavilla had engine trouble and a crash at Knockhill, and Kiyonari failed to finish in race 2, things suddenly started to go Leon's way.

Moving onto Oulton Park and Croft, Kiyonari was the man to beat. Only a torrential downpour in Croft's race two disrupted things, as Leon took his first win of the season with one of the most inspired rides I've ever seen, taking 10 seconds out of the leader, Karl Harris, in the last 3 laps.

Lavilla temporarily stopped the rot at Cadwell Park with a win, only to have Leon score his second win in race two after Kiyonari had a mechanical failure.

By now you can see how things ebbed and flowed all season. The penultimate round at Silverstone saw Leon finally get some bad luck as he crashed in race one. This put the top three within nine points of each other going into the final round, a double-points affair at the mighty Brands Hatch GP circuit. With changeable conditions all weekend, anything could happen. It was Lavilla who was removed from the chase first, after a silly lowside in race one. Haslam had been shadowing Kiyonari all race, but a red flag ruined things for him, and he admitted later that it had been bad strategy on his part to not push to stay in front given the likelihood of a red flag.

In race two, Haslam needed a win for himself and a third or worse for Kiyonari. He fulfilled part one, but a loyal Honda team-mate gifted second to Kiyonari and he took the crown. The young Japanese was clearly overwhelmed, but can be happy that he deserved it by winning more races than anyone else. Haslam's consistent approach paid dividends but was ultimately not enough.

The prize for "most up-and-down season" surely goes to Shakey Byrne, who managed to sneak a win at Knockhill, a podium at Oulton but had two ferocious accidents that crippled his quest for the title.

It was a great year of racing, and I can't wait for the next one, especially if Chris Walker returns to BSB. Anyone here in the US who hasn't checked it out should definitely pick up Duke Video's season review DVD when it comes out.

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