Category Archives: Superbikes

Tommy Hill’s lap of his life

Tommy Hill wins BSB Showdown for Swan Yamaha

Ups and downs - BSB champ Tommy Hill has seen it all. (Motorsport Vision)

Epic is an over-used word these days, for Tommy Hill it is nowhere near enough to describe the day that will come to define his life. While F1 crowned its champion with four races to spare the British Superbike title was settled in somewhat more dramatic fashion. After 26 races the championship came down to a frantic last gasp duel at Brands Hatch between local hero Tommy Hill and American superstar John Hopkins. The points were so tight that whomever reached the flag ahead of the other would take the season. Appropriately they found themselves together on track battling for second place, the stopwatch telling us they were a scant six thousandths of a second apart with Hill being the man in front. Watch that magical lap here.

Many fans have a soft-spot for the mercurial John Hopkins, but even his staunchest supporter can’t help but applaud and savour Tommy Hill’s title. With little money behind him Tommy took the Virgin Mobile Cup in 2003 to propel himself into the British Superbike series until 2007. It was a time when he showed flashes of extreme speed over a single lap but he never had the machinery or the maturity to keep the fast laps coming over a race distance.

During 2006 Hill made appearances in World Superbike which included a shock pole position as a wildcard at Silverstone. He also made a few starts in World Supersport in 2007 and signed for Hannspree Altea Honda in what should have been the deal that propelled him onto the world stage. Instead he endured two bone-shattering accidents that meant his big chance passed Tommy by as he spent more time in hospitals than on the track. During his early off-road career he also suffered life-threatening injuries for which he is still treated to this day; all motorcycle racers have painful stories to tell but few are as wince-inducing as Tommy Hill’s.

It was during this appalling year that Tommy lost one of his friends, the World Supersport young-gun Craig Jones. Tommy was by his bedside as his pal lost the battle against injuries sustained in a crash while battling for the lead at Brands Hatch in almost the exact same spot where Hill was to seal the title last Sunday. While stood on this stretch of tarmac he tearfully dedicated his success to his late friend.

Lap 20 of the 26th race of a thrilling British Superbike season will go down as one of the single greatest laps of any race anywhere. Tommy found himself ahead of Hopkins by less than a bike-length as they started it, they came round to complete the lap and the season even closer. They passed each other six times on that epic tour, the destiny of the title swinging with each move. Sporting drama gets no higher. The ensuing photo-finish had the crowd on its feet, the commentators screaming and the Swan Yamaha team crying.

Despite the stakes being sky-high this was a battle for second with the race win going to Shaky Byrne on his HM Plant Honda. It was bittersweet for Byrne, the British Superbike’s play-off style Showdown denied him the crown – under a more conventional points system he would have taken the title by a handful of points from Hill and Hopkins. This is the second year of the Showdown in BSB and so far it has been a success. 2010 was the first year it was used and it helped Byrne’s teammate Ryuichi Kiyonari to his third title to become the most successful BSB rider of all time. This year was a totally different story for Kiyo who was a distant and inconsistent sixth in the points and was sacked as soon as the team returned to base this week.

Until Sunday I wasn’t a big fan of the play-off system used in BSB or Nascar. With Jimmie Johnson mastering the last few races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup he has made Nascar title-deciders somewhat predictable by winning the previous five titles. Shortly after the BSB Showdown thrilled us Jimmie Johnson took the win on the Kansas oval to temper my new-found enthusiasm for the practice of leveling the top contenders points tallies late in the season to ensure a tight finish. But if Nascar comes down to a last-lap shoot-out of the kind we saw at Brands then maybe I’ll be a convert to this contrived method of spicing up the show.

For now let us enjoy the thrill the Showdown has brought us in 2011. British Superbikes are astonishingly competitive, the envy of the world. With the spiraling budgets of the World Superbike teams it is Britain that strikes the best balance between high-level racing and something that young talent can realistically aspire to. Tommy Hill is a shining example of what kind of racer can be nurtured in such a demanding but accessible arena, a place that allows a kid from Kent to take on a Moto GP superstar in a formula that tests even the best. Expect Tommy to finally get the full-time ride he deserves on the world scene, although it will be hard to top last Sunday no matter what successes lay ahead in his life.

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Desert, island, reading

Nascar rides into the sunset

Nascar in the desert, Superbikes beside the seaside (pic stevelyon)

The World Superbike season got underway in underwhelming style and Nascar got back to a short-ish track after the drama of Daytona, but it was the boys of World Supersport who put on the best show and claimed my race of the week. Watch them put the ‘super’ in Supersport here.

Carlos Checa made World Superbikes look easy with two wins at Phillip Island, while Max Biaggi had a solid start to his title defence and Marco Melandri made his mark with a podium on his debut. The Superbikes were unusually mute as Ducati’s works absence barely registered, a red bike controlled nearly the whole weekend regardless, so it was left to Supersport to provide the entertainment. After a thrilling contest they nearly had to split the winner’s trophy in three as Scassa, Lowes and home-hero Brock Parkes crossed the line as one, Luca Scassa emerging the winner by a nose. Classic Phillip Island and the best action of the weekend even before the photo-finish.

Meanwhile in the desert Kyle Busch wanted to take home three trophies from Phoenix after a win in Trucks and a rare lights-to-flag victory in Nationwide before saddling up for the Sprint Cup encounter. He nearly scored his hat-trick, as he did at Bristol last year, but then Jeff Gordon popped up to spoil the party to take his first win since 2009. Meanwhile last week’s Daytona fairytale turned into a nightmare for Trevor Bayne as he kept bouncing off the wall all weekend.

Jeff Gordon may have stole the headlines but Kyle Busch rode out of town with the title of twoworlds’ racer of the week by leading hundreds of laps at PIR and coming within nine miles of completing another three-from-three until the number 24 gently shuffled him aside.

We’ve now got nearly a month to wait for the Grand Prix circus to start doing anything of interest. There was no gossip from the F1 world this week as the paddock has read Bernie’s and Briatore’s biographies rendering them speechless…

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Filed under F1, Nascar, Superbikes, Supersport

What’s the point?

 

BSB riders give chase - new points systems are all the rage (pic MSV)

In the past you needed to be Watson the supercomputer to work out who scored what in a Nascar race, now the Sprint Cup has adopted a new points formula that should be easier to comprehend for those like myself whose brains freeze when faced with any more than a couple of digits. So it’s 43 points for the win, a solitary point for last and you can guess the rest. Throw in a point for leading a lap (always a great incentive for action) and another point for leading the most laps (always a well earned point) and there you have the new system. Simples.

So things are easier to follow, but the Sprint Cup is only claimed after the season’s ending series of 10 races known as The Chase. Played out on dull ‘cookie cutter’ tracks, the top 12 drivers have their points almost equalised and only these chosen few can race for the title. Not so simples.

Jimmie Johnson has claimed the last five straight Sprint Cups, timing his push to the top 12 perfectly every time while other stock car superstars are left fighting over the scraps. So can Jimmie still win under this new system? Of course he can, he’s the complete driver with a shrewd crew chief and the best team in the business, but at least we may see some more representative results for strong drivers who have missed the Chase in the past such as win-a-holic Kyle Busch or King of Concrete Carl Edwards.

Last year British Superbikes adopted their own Chase-style system, branded as The Showdown, that saw Riuchi Kionari taking the crown at a thrilling final round at Oulton Park. Nobody doubts the quality of the Japanese rider, so it’s certainly worked for the BSB and looks set to stay. It’s also a hell of a lot better than Bernie’s silly medals idea he keeps going on about ever since he took his little trip to Beijing with the Blairs back in 2008.

For what it’s worth I’m not a fan of a Chase format that freezes out riders and drivers. It’s nice to see a championship develop over the course of a season. But what do I know, I’m still stuck with the opinion that the only proper points in F1 are the top six.

The Chase seems fairly popular on the Nascar scene, so the current talking point is the weird scenario that the top three series are all being led by drivers who didn’t win during Speedweeks as it was part-time interlopers Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne who struck gold. Only giving points to regulars was a response to Sprint Cup drivers scooping the honours in feeder series, such as Brad Keselowski’s title success in Nationwide last year.

I think it’s a truly wonderful thing that Nascar has drivers guesting across its various formulas – it gave us a truly feel-good story with Trevor Bayne’s big win last Sunday. It provides feats to marvel at such as Kyle Busch winning more races in one year than you could count on your fingers and toes. Some of the greatest races on two wheels have been ridden by wildcards, I only wish that F1 would lighten up and allow a Rossi or a Loeb to join the grid once in a while.

Today Indycar announced a massive prize-fund for their Las Vegas season finale to encourage some series-swapping, a move in the right direction for the new management of the series. A cheque for $5 million will be given to any guest driver who claims the win; what price Mario dusting off his overalls? “Oh boy,” tweeted Marco Andretti, “if my grandfather finds this out we will be a 5 car team!”

The Nascar debate about guys who finished second and third leading the way is a moot point – it’s great that they have guest drivers competing in the first place. And the fact we can even have this discussion without picking up a calculator is a success for the simplified points system.

After Nascar hits the desert in Phoenix and Vegas over the next couple of weeks the charts will doubtless look a little cleaner and those sensitive souls who are troubled by the scoring anomalies thrown up by the thrilling events of Speedweeks will have forgotten the current odd look of the tables. However the memorable feats of Waltrip, Stewart and Bayne will be imprinted on the minds of the fans forever.

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Haga and Biaggi’s Magny Cours encore

Haga's lucky magic bike

Haga's lucky magic bike - WSBK, Magny Cours 2004

Racing runs on many things, not all of them positive: money, oil, egos, scandals and scoundrels all play their part in sullying the sport we love. Fortunately it is also driven by passion, determination and a healthy dose of adrenaline, all of which were at work in the second race of the World Superbikes at Magny Cours last weekend where we were treated to the bizarre sight of the two leaders continuing to race after the chequered flag. We’ve seen racers pull up before they should, but this was a little more unusual.

Our heroes are ‘Nitro’ Nori Haga, the ever-exuberant Ducati rider who is well overdue a title, and his opponent is one Max Biaggi, he of sharp beard and short stature. After the 23rd of 23 laps the dueling duo appeared to carry on racing hard while their rivals cruised back shaking hands and taking the applause. Haga did appear to slow down and begin his celebrations before picking up the pace and riding the last lap at full tilt with Biaggi only a few bike lengths adrift. The experienced pair eventually called it a day after taking the flag for a second time.

So what happened? It looked as though Max may have missed the flag, while Nori probably saw this and thought “sod it, let’s have another lap then” in Japanese. I wishfully think that the riders were having such a good time they fancied racing until they ran out of fuel. Like a video game you can’t put down, I like to believe they simply had that ‘just one more go’ feeling. In reality it was probably just a daft error on their part, but who could argue with their little encore?

The World Superbike Championship has been a real humdinger with Ducati’s ‘Nitro’ Nori Haga and new Yamaha Moto GP hotshot Ben Spies tussling for the 2009 honours. With each rider taking a win out in the French countryside it was a fascinating encounter. Magny Cours is no Le Mans, but  the action into the Adelaide Hairpin is always a blast and this meeting is the track’s biggest event now that F1 has eschewed its gallic roots.

Seeing Nori leading the way here sent me back to 2004 when some talented friends of mine were enlisted to paint graffiti onto the Renegade Ducatis of Haga and Leon Haslam at Magny Cours. Haga took his one-off colours to victory that day, prompting an excited Japanese fellow in the pitlane to exclaim to my painter pals, “Thank you for lucky-magic-bike!”

Spies, who is destined to become the next Texan Tornado to strike Moto GP after snatching Toseland’s ride at Tech 3 Yamaha, is only ten points adrift of Haga on the works Ducati. Amazingly Haga has never held the World Superbike title before, so at the finale on the fantastic Portimao track Nori will be needing another lucky magic bike.

If you want to check the Magny Cours race for yourself, click right here.

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