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.