Who is Paul Bird’s third man? Is Tarran Mackenzie really going to World Superbikes? Who will be coming from World SBK to BSB? Who are James Whitham’s top five Superbike riders this year and how do this year’s Superbike series compare with the great years of old?
Taking into account that WorldSBK has one more round to go, respected rider, commentator and analyst Whitham began by answering this question: “Has this year been the best ever?”
“It is certainly are among the best ever. We’ve had some classic years in both championships and BSB has seen some great finishes including one’s involving
Niall Mackenzie, Neil Hodgson and probably the most exciting finish was 2011 between Hopper (John Hopkins) and Tommy Hill.
“But there has been some exceptional racing in both championships this season. The Showdown has definitely helped in BSB and without it,. Jason O’Halloran would have walked away with it this year. The Showdown might seem a bit unfair to him and maybe quite a lot of others. However, they know that when they start, they buy into it and the result was a sensational final round.
“In World SBK, which we have been moaning about for a little bit saying it isn’t exciting enough and Jonathan’s too dominant and all that, has seen an exceptional championship and we’ve seen an exceptional man from Turkey.
“We were expecting him to win races a couple of years back but this year Toprak is number one for me, quick everywhere this year and almost certainly the new World Superbike champion. But the second thing is how Jonathan Rea has been prepared to fight when he has already won six championships. He still wants it, the man’s not rolling over and you’ve got to respect that. Look at that second race in Argentina.
“And it was a good circuit for exposing the lack of top-end speed which the Kawasaki has. Why was that? Well, they wanted an extra 500rpm which they didn’t get. So, in the second half of a long straight it became obvious that the Kawasaki did not have the top end speed.
“And it was enough to allow Toprak to get past cleanly and, of course, the Ducati was easily quicker than both. But, for whatever reason, Jonathan finished ahead of Toprak. He was not giving up.”
BSN: “So, who are your top riders in both series this year. Just five.”
Whitham: “Across both? Well, you can’t go beyond Toprak but you must also include Taz because he has been unbelievably bloody minded in the last three or four races. He just would not be beaten and even when he had won the Championship with one more race to go, he was determined to win that last race. But what has also impressed me is a that while he had the speed, he was also prepared to stick his neck on the block and it has paid off. And I love that about a rider. Who wants to see a rider following somebody round just to be safe.
“My second two would certainly include Jonathan because he will just not let the championship go having already won six. I love that. Out of BSB it would have to be Jason O’Halloran. Because in any other year or any other formulation of a championship series he would have won. For the first eight rounds he was absolutely fantastic, by far the quickest and most consistent rider.
“Finally, and looking for a younger one, I am going to say Locatelli. But it is hard to pick between him and Bassani in a WSBK so I would like to say both. But over the season I have to say Locatelli because he has had good pace everywhere and I think he’ll be the man to watch next year.”
BSN: ”So in the rider merry go round which goes on every year at this time, fired up by lots of rumours, who is going to be where next year?”
Whitham: ”Well, not so many moves but more announcements from team bosses. Tommy Bridewell is going to stay where he is after getting a great championship second place for his small Ducati team. And the FS3 Kawasaki team have kept hold of both their riders, Skinner and Jackson.
“I think it is going to be a very good team next year. Jackson has been below the radar a little bit, but he has been very consistent and was unlucky not to get in the Showdown. He is a very good rider. And Skinner has had a cracking season learning his job on the Superbike and he will be having a go at some rostrums on a regular basis.
“Honda seems to be all up in the air at the moment. If I were them I would be hanging on to Glenn Irwin. I think he is quick enough and he has been injured for the last half season but if he gets himself fit he’ll be good enough. Who they’ll put with him I don’t know but there are rumours that Leon Haslam is on his way back to BSB but could stay with Honda.
“It looks like Yamaha are going to need A N Other. They will almost certainly keep Jason O’Halloran - why wouldn’t they - but at the same time it seems likely they will lose Tarran Mackenzie who, according to a strong rumour, is World Superbike bound.
BSN “On a works-backed Yamaha?”
“Yes, he has also been linked with GoEleven who were supposed to be going with Yamaha but we hear they’re staying with Ducati now. Who knows! Everybody seems to have been linked with Paul Bird’s PBM team but it looks like he will be keeping Josh Brookes and Christian Iddon while, at the same time, talks have been going on with Tom Sykes.”
BSN: ”Yes, he has told us negotiations are going on with his two current riders but not wishing for a repeat of 2021 he is seriously thinking of running a third Ducati with Sykes to be the jockey. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, because although the ex-World SBK champion would like to stay in that series finding a competitive team is not easy. And he has ridden for Bird before.”
Whitham: “Yes and there are others. It looks like Leon Haslam is leaving WorldSBK and Eugene Laverty is struggling to find a decent ride. I hate to say this but I think Eugene’s days in world championship racing are numbered and unlike his brothers he has done little racing in the UK as he went straight into World Supersport.”
BSN: “We have heard from one or two racing commentators that British racing is a great breeding ground for contenders for world titles but while that might have been the case, ie Rea, Crutchlow or Sykes, not much has happened since then and Redding did his apprenticeship in Spain. One of our great prospects, Rory Skinner, is staying where he is partly, at least, because he can’t get a ride on the Continent. Is that right?”
Whitham: “There have been problems and it’s not my belief that BSB is a massive breeding ground for world championship racing. But there are a lot of other reasons and one of them is that even good riders at national level and even those who have raced at world championship level are expected to bring a lot of money to go into a team in World Superbike or World Supersport. And as they’re asking 250 or 300k Euros for a Supersport ride that’s financially prohibitive for most this side of the channel.
“Skinner is a prime example of somebody who would want to be at world championship level, ideally Moto2 but second to that World Supersport neither of which he can afford or raise the money to do”.
BSN: “We do however get some imports which MSV bring in from world championship racing but they do seem to find it very difficult, with the exception of Scott Redding of course, and mostly seem to be out of their depth?”
Whitham: “Of course, you should never underestimate the standard, the depth of the field or the pace at BSB if you’re coming in from abroad whether it’s from Australia, America, Europe or wherever. However, there have been some notable successes, one being Gregorio Lavilla, another Troy Bayliss and not forgetting Ryuichi Kyonari - all title winners. Or Jason O’Halloran who could have won it this year had he been riding under their rules or multi champion Josh Brookes. So there have been some good lads. But it’s difficult for some who have done mostly World Superbike or international racing and then turn up at Cadwell Park, Oulton or Knockhill and are expected to race at the front first time out. That’s a big ask.”
BSN: “Finally, we’ve got to ask you how it is that Yamaha seem to be cleaning up in every series. Have they just got better bikes this year in every one or have they just got better riders? Why are they suddenly dominating all three major series?”
Whitham:”I don’t think it’s suddenly. They’ve had a good bike in most championships for a while with a good team behind them and good riders. It’s more than a coincidence but its fortunate to have happened this year in virtually every class.
“But they’ve always said that racing is in their DNA and Yamaha don’t dip in and out, they get involved and stay involved. Racing is very important to them and they’ve put more effort in Superbikes than people realise. The new R1 this year is the proper thing and while it looks exactly the same it isn’t.
“There are far more differences to last year, not one big change but lots of little tweaks have made it the best bike on the grid. It was always a rider friendly bike but it lacked a bit of top end and other slight flaws which they seem to have addressed. Yes, they have an exceptional rider in Toprak and he’s not finished yet. Two of three years ago we said he looked like the real deal and he is.”
BSN: ””Equally, our BSB champion Tarran Mackenzie, although only 25, has also been round for a while but we were all kind of surprised that he has become so good this year. Suddenly he’s a real performer.”
Whitham: “Well, we were all touting him as a threat if not championship favourite for the last three years but he’s always had accidents and has blown a bit hot and cold.
He’s always been fast at certain times and certain circuits but never been able to maintain it for a full season. This year he started off reasonably and got stronger and
more reliable as the season went on. And what else he’s got in his favour is that he’s the one in the top five or six in BSB who is quite prepared to stick his neck out and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This year it has worked.”
BSN: “On the assumption that Taz will be leaving BSB who is the most likely winner next year?”
Whitham: “The good thing about BSB is that you can’t really call it. There are that many, if things go really well for them, capable of winning it especially with the Showdown system. Danny Buchan or Christian Iddon, if they get out of the blocks, can do it. I am sure Josh Brookes, if he recaptures a bit of form, thinks he can do it and is capable of it. Jason O’Halloran could have done it this year and Glenn Irwin looks like he has the pace if he keeps injury free.”
BSN: “But are there any riders under the age of 25 or 26 who could do it?”
Whitham: “Probably none of the younger ones I must admit. Yes, it is a pity and one of the reasons is they get these younger riders moving up but too often not being given long enough on the bike. And when they compete against seasoned professionals like Hickman, Iddon or O’Halloran and try to beat them week in and week out it is almost impossible.
‘If a young rider has only one year in which to prove himself they tend to try too hard and crash which costs the team owner a fortune at this level. If they got a couple of seasons they might have a chance. But I do think change is acoming, there are a lot of good young riders. It may not be in the next couple of years but definitely in the next four or five.”