It has been some time since Ten Kate as a company were given the bad news, and unexpected news for them, that Honda would not need their services from 2019 onward in WorldSBK.
After ten world titles, it was all over, the most recent WorldSBK podium coming at Magny-Cours at the end of 2016, via Michael van der Mark.
Back in 2018 it looked bleak for them to even try and make a standing start again, in a post financial crash world, seeking to find another manufacturer who would have competitive bikes and a race support set-up they could utilise and yet still be themselves in. They are, primarily, a race tuning and services company, always racing some of their own or their partners’ kit.
Enter Yamaha… and so re-enter Ten Kate halfway through 2019, with another talented but displaced person, Loris Baz. He knows how to win and podium at WorldSBK level too.
Last Sunday morning at Portimao, the team that has won a WorldSBK championship and nine display cases full of WorldSSP trophies took their first podium in ages, and their first Yamaha podium of all. Baz and the Dutch back room staff - including British Crew Chief Mick Shanley - had delivered.
It has been all down to hard work, a proven top rider and then more hard work with newer and gradually more potent materials.
“We just were missing, every time, one or two tenths and today again we made a small step and hopefully now we are finally able to pick up the pace,” said Team Manager Kervin Bos, proud but restrained after the Superpole race podium in third place.
Baz’n’Dutch have been knocking on the podium door for a while now, and took just eight races of the bizarre new season to get right up there in among the socially distanced Prosecco sprays.
What must it all mean for a team who were looking their collective racing mortality in the face so recently? It must feel like the racing world is hugging them again.
“Yes, this is amazing especially for Ronald and Gerrit (who are literally Ten Kate) and some investors around them. They have taken a lot of risks to set up this project. And for the boys – we are running a full WorldSBK team with just eight people. We all do six jobs here but we do it as a team, and that is also the difference at the moment.
The podium already was for us the dream. Two years ago we had not even a manufacturer, so we built up everything from scratch. The key that we are so fast on speed is that the team has never changed. These are still the same people that won ten World titles with Ten Kate. More than 90% of the crew is still the same. I am the newest!”
Some people, when Ten Kate made the enforced jump over to the ‘R’ world from the ‘CBR’ world said that ten Kate had known Honda for so long that it would not be the same.
“It is still a bike, it still has suspension, an engine,” said Bos, himself no mean former racer and the Dutch SSP champion in 2013. “Of course we had a learning process last year, and we are still learning every moment, but it looks like we are getting faster, and also a bit smarter about the R1.”
Part of the podium package is a 2020 engine spec, first used in anger at Jerez.
“Our weak point, especially last year, was the start and in this case the speed on the straight. That is what we have mainly fixed, and we have not lost our endurance speed in races. We are still able to use a tyre over long distance. I think, yes, we are finally getting there. We improved the start especially by working a lot on the electronics. We talked a lot with Loris and we did a lot, a lot, a lot of practice starts.”
Ten Kate always goes a different way, in some regards, even if they are now a semi-supported Yamaha independent team. Not the GRT Yamaha direct Junior WorldSBK team, but still very much inside the tent, in reality.
“We make our own tuning on the engine, and Yamaha is fully aware of it. So we get the freedom from Yamaha to work in our own competence but we also went to Yamaha to do the engine mapping process, and also to show to Yamaha what we are doing. That is why we learn from each other. On this stage we use the valve-train kit that is homologated but you can build up an engine completely different – everybody on their own way. We do not go to make a competition on that part because Yamaha is doing also a good job, with all the factory effort, but we just want to try something else and find something we can take our benefit from.”
The next level to work on for improvements? Electronics maybe? More sheer engine performance? Nope.
“If we look here at Portimao we see that top speed is not an issue, mainly because you have a big corner coming onto the straight and also it is not flat, it is downhill,” said Bos. The Yamaha is, in fairness, neither quite the fastest or absolute slowest bike, consistently. “The biggest point we can improve is aerodynamics, so that will be high on our priority list for next year.”
Ten Kate Racing, Yamaha and their loyal band of technical and local sponsors are proudly emblazoned on the side of the team’s lone R1, but not the long-awaited title sponsor many have expected – most of all the independent and independently minded Ten Kate team, who could do with some extra dosh more than most.
Covid-19, as in so many other areas, has put a halt on that process for now. “Yes, at the moment - it is not finished yet – but it stopped the process for sure. We were close and we hoped that it was already fixed but Covid destroyed quite some things about that.”