After months of speculation, British superbike championship leader Leon Haslam has been confirmed as Jonathan Rea’s team-mate at the factory Kawasaki Racing Team in the 2019 Superbike World Championship.
The 35-year-old Brit will replace fellow Brit Tom Sykes on the official ZX-10RR, returning to the championship in which he raced full-time from 2009 to 2015 with a seat at the top team in the championship.
“I’m over the moon to have this opportunity with the factory Kawasaki team,” Leon told Insidebikes. “They’ve won three world championships on the bounce, and looking like they’re going to do a fourth with Jonathan this year, so to get that opportunity is unbelievable. It’s nice to have a go at the world championship again. I know that I can win at that level, but it is about the team and the overall package, so to have the opportunity to join that team, with that package, is a dream come true.”
Haslam has plenty of pedigree in world superbikes. As a 20-year-old he made his debut on a Ducati at the end of the 2003 season and had an excellent first full year in 2004, finishing eighth overall on a private Ducati, with a best result of third in Germany.
After four years in British superbikes, Leon returned to the world championship in 2009, finishing sixth as Rea’s team-mate at Honda, before enjoying his best ever campaign and coming second on an unfancied Suzuki in 2010, winning three races. His last full season in the series was in 2015, when he won two races and finished fourth overall on an Aprilia, and he is looking to continue where he left off.
“I won my last world superbike race for Aprilia,” Leon continued. “When I moved back to the UK with Kawasaki in 2015 I made the decision that I return to the world championship unless it was on something that I at least thought that challenge for wins. Since then I have made my home in the British championships, which has had its ups and downs. I’ve led the championship every year until the final round and I’ve done a lot of work for Kawasaki in Japan, testing for the Suzuka Eight-hour, and to have this opportunity to go back on the world scene is a dream come true.”
Not that Haslam has ever truly left the world superbike paddock. As part of his contract with Kawasaki, he’s had opportunities to race for the company’s second-tier Puccetti Racing team in each of the last three seasons, with a second place at last year’s British round being a particular highlight.
“I’ve been happy in the British championship,” he added. “I’ve not only been doing the British championship but also doing the wildcards. We got a second place on a private bike at Donington Park last year. We also got second at the Suzuka eight hour race, so it’s been a good few years.”
Leon knows Rea well. The pair are both Carole Nash ambassadors and have been team-mates at Honda, as well as at this year’s prestigious Suzuka eight hour endurance event.
“I know that it’s not going to be easy,” he adds. “Going into that team, as Johnny’s team-mate, will be tough. He is on top of his game right now and I’ve got a lot to get my head around after three seasons in British superbikes. I’ve got to get back to riding with the electronics and back to racing at the world championship tracks again. It’s a challenge that I am excited about taking on because we know what the potential is with that team and that bike.
“I’ve been closely involved in projects with BMW, Honda and others but right now the Kawasaki is the bike to be on. The results speak for themselves and a lot of that is because superbike is their only focus. You can’t beat being part of that. Often as a rider you like to take your own mechanics or get a structure to maximise what you can do on that bike, but for the first time in my career I am going in and asking ‘give me what you’ve got’ because it’s a well proven structure in every area.”
For now Leon’s focus is on the British championship. Two more podium finishes at Brands Hatch last weekend saw him extend his lead over Jake Dixon to 80 points, with a 22 point advantage in the podium credits that will come into play during the title deciding three round ‘showdown’ stage of the season.
“I feel that we should have won it the last two seasons and we’ve lost it in the dying moments through things that were out of my hands. This year the priority is to win the British title and it would nice to go back to the world championship as British champion”