Leon Haslam travels to Brands Hatch this weekend, looking to secure his first British superbike championship title in what he describes as a roller coaster season.
Last year’s runner-up was forced to switch teams over the winter after his GBmoto team called time on its operations but the former Grand Prix and world superbike rider and his new Bournemouth Kawasaki run squad hit the ground running with a double win at the opening round at Donington Park.
After a remarkable second place as a wild-card in the world championship round at the same venue, Leon’s season came crashing down at Knockhill, where he suffered a massive highside in practice and missed the race due to concussion and a broken vertebrae.
That marked the start of a mid-season plagued by bad luck but with most of the big players also having off days and missing rounds through injury, Haslam was still comfortably able to make it through to the title-deciding top six showdown. With two wins, a second and a third in the showdown races so far, Leon holds a 32 point advantage over second placed Josh Brookes with three races to go at Brands this weekend.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” Haslam told Insidebikes. “We had to make a last minute change to the Bournemouth set up so we had to form and structure a team, which wasn’t ideal, but we learned a lot last year and had a good winter test. We won both races at Donington and won again at Oulton. Then the bad luck and issues happened. I hit the back of James Ellison’s bike (when the Yamaha rider’s bike slowed with a problem in the second race at Oulton Park) and broke my neck and my skull up in Scotland. I come back straight away but, to be honest, I was in quite a bad way with my neck in that middle part of the season. I was also back and forward to Japan, testing for the Suzuka Eight Hours, and there were a good bunch of races where I was struggling not only physically, but lacking time to develop and test the bike as we wanted.”
In many ways British superbike’s unique showdown format has worked a treat for Haslam and his JG Speedfit Kawasaki squad this year. The system sees the early part of the season used to qualify for the end of year title shootout and, while it leads to an exciting climax to the season, it can also mean that there’s less need to go out and win every single race, especially in the mid season.
“We did use a lot of those races for testing,” admits the 31-year-old. “We did ok. We got a few podiums and were back to winning ways at Cadwell Park. We had a disaster at Silverstone, where we didn’t finish any of the three races. We’ve had seven DNFs coming into the showdown which is quite surprising but with all that we have used the races wisely and figured that we had a good set up for the showdown races.”
Haslam admits that the showdown format has changed his approach to the season in many ways, with the object being to be in the top six at the end of the first nine rounds.
“Mid-season, when I was a bit injured and not doing any testing (between races) I was using some of the races for testing and although that doesn’t always get you the best result on Sunday, it was all information that we needed to try. We sacrificed some of the results at some of the circuits which I think is paying dividends now,” says Leon.
Leon’s close relationship with Kawasaki also contributed to a hectic mid season that saw him race beyond the national championship, leading Team Green’s charge at the prestigious Suzuka Eight Hour endurance race and taking in a one-off ride for the manufacturer’s second tier Puccetti team in the world superbike round at Donington Park. Both those races saw the Carole Nash ambassador adding more silverware to his collection, with second place finishes at both events further raising his stock with the Japanese top brass.
“Finishing second on the world superbike was the first time that someone got on the podium on anything other than a factory Kawasaki or Ducati (up to that point in the season). Riding five and a half hours of the eight hour race and getting second against HRC probably exceeded expectations and that means that I’m in a good position in the UK. I am contracted directly by Kawasaki and that helps me get what I need from the team and the structure, and that’s down to my relationship with the factory in Japan and the results we’ve achieved (on the world stage).”
Those results gave Leon an opportunity to make a full-time return to the world series in 2018, but with three-time champ Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes already secure as Kawasaki’s top team, Haslam decided to once again lead the Kawasaki charge in the British championships.
“I did nine seasons in world superbikes and know that I can win there and beat the guys that are there and winning, but not if you don’t have at least the same package as them,” he explains. “Even if you get the same material as them, you’re still working against teams with bigger budgets and more staff. It was really hard for me to turn down because I would love to be back in world superbikes but I am quite realistic about what I could achieve on each package that was on the table. I’m not that interested in going to a privateer team and trying to beat the factory bikes, which we can maybe do in a race but is, in my opinion, impossible over a year.
“It’s more level in Britain. We’re all on the same electronics, which are quite basic, and means that it comes down to the rider and the characteristics of the bike, rather than who’s got two or three electronics guys staring down at the computer. The other thing is that the amount of money being spent by each team is much more equal. You’re all working to a similar budget here, whereas in the world championship you might find that the factory teams are working to a £4-5 million budget and some private teams might be working to £500,000. That all adds up with the amount of testing you can do and even things like how often you change the brake pads. It’s a much more level playing field in British superbikes. Kawasaki want me to win here and that’s what I am going to try and do again next year.”
Before then, Leon has work to do to secure the 2017 title. After the mid season dips his rollercoaster year has been building momentum right when it matters the most.
“Oulton Park went really well and we won the first race, but the second race I felt that I was being a bit cautious as I was around riders who weren’t fighting for the championship. I went from being behind by six points to having a 22 point lead after the first showdown race and then Assen went really well in both the wet and dry. I won the first race and had a small technical problem on the last two laps of race two, which resulted in a third and helped us extend that lead again.
“All of the showdown contenders are riding quite cautious, because we can’t afford to DNF. Where guys who are not in the showdown, like Dan Linfoot and James Ellison don’t have anything to lose – they are riding for their jobs. They’re riding better than they’ve ridden all year, because they have to prove themselves.
“I always knew that Brands was going to be a tough race because of Shakey (Shane Byrne)’s record around there and also Josh’s pace in the last Brands Hatch race. That means that I’m going to have to bring my A game, but with a 32 point lead it does take a little bit of pressure off, I still have to go about things as usual and get the best results we can.”
Whatever the results, Haslam says that the methodical manner in which he approaches his racing won’t change. He adds: “A lot people are saying ‘oh yeah, it’s about time he won a championship, he’s finished second no end of times’ but I don’t really see it like that. Every year I always give my best and there have been a few occasions where I’ve finished second and I believe that’s the best position we could possibly have got. There’s been other times I’ve finished second and I’ve thought ‘if I hadn’t crashed there or hadn’t had problems with the bike there then we could have won’ but that’s all ifs and buts. Every year I’ve given my best I could and sometimes I’ve been overtrying and that’s cost me, but you live and you learn from your mistakes. If we can get this championship it’ll be fantastic and will mean everything to me but it won’t change my mentality. I just do the best I can and that’s all I can do.”