Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Japanese motorcycle racer

News broke today that the current champion of the All-Japan Superbike Championship, Atsushi Watanabe, is headed to England to join the Rizla Suzuki British Superbike team. This follows in what is turning out to be a grand tradition of top Japanese riders being placed in BSB, both to bag titles for their manufacturer bosses, as well as prime them for greater future success.

The first guy to do this was Suzuki's Yukio Kagayama. After success in Japan, Suzuki placed him with Rizla Suzuki in BSB in 2003, where his wild style and fun-loving, no-nonsense personality endeared him to fans, much like his good friend Noriyuki Haga in World Superbike. Kagayama had a great first half of the season before having a monstrous accident at Cadwell Park. A badly-broken pelvis and other assorted injuries kept him off the bike until 2004, where he took up where he left off. He finished third in BSB that year, and suitably primed for the world stage, Suzuki packed him off to WSBK's Alstare Suzuki team. His time there has proved to be up and down, but there's no doubting his raw speed, and the contribution BSB made to his development.

Following Kagayama from Japan to the UK was Ryuichi Kiyonari, who arrived in the UK in 2004, placed with the HM Plant factory Honda team by the Honda bosses in Japan. His first season was steady, paving the way for a serious title challenge in 2005. A broken ankle put him out for a few races in mid-'05, handing the title to Greg Lavilla. Kiyonari made up for it in both 2006 and 2007 by winning the BSB championship for Honda. Along the way he struggled to overcome the language barrier and was thus never able to capture the imagination of the fans like Kagayama or Haga have. With his work in Britain done, Honda have followed Suzuki's example and sent the fellow off to World Superbike, this time with the top-shelf Ten Kate Honda outfit.

Now Watanabe must follow in the footsteps of his countrymen Kagayama and Kiyonari. Apparently he is already hard at work on his English language skills, Suzuki learning from their experience with Kagayama how important it is that their riders can work with the media and fans. What we don't yet know is how fast he'll be. In the final round of the Japanese series, Honda brought Kiyonari in to ruin the party, and he took both wins. Watanabe could only manage 6th and 9th on his Yoshimura Suzuki, but to be fair was riding for finishes to get points, since he had a healthy lead in the championship and didn't need to battle for wins.

BSB has had a quick Japanese factory rider in its ranks for five years now, so it's nice to see that continue into 2008.


Rob said...

To extend your premise a little, Paul Denning has also followed this path.

He is not, of course, Japanese but he did prove himself first to his Suzuki bosses in BSB. Once successful he was promoted to MotoGP bringing Rizla with him to the world stage, and breathing new like into the efforts of the team.

Whatever the success of Watanabe next year, it'll be great racing in BSB as always.

Nicebloke said...

If only we had that closeness of racing in the AMA championship... sigh