All things being equal, at around 4:30pm this Sunday, the 15th October, we will crown once again the British Superbike champion at the fantastic Brands Hatch circuit in Kent.
Ever since ‘The Showdown’ was introduced at the beginning of the 2010 season, every championship has come down to the final race at this iconic venue, thus prolonging our agony and ecstasy that little bit more.
Never before have we had a finale like we have facing us this weekend. Five riders have the potential of becoming the 2017 MCE British Superbike Champion, two of which have fond memories of clinching the title at the last race of the season – Shane Byrne (5 times) and Josh Brookes (once).
Three of the ‘Fast5’ have never tasted championship glory in their respective careers. Sixty-three points separate Leon Haslam, currently leading the series, from Peter Hickman in fifth place, and with seventy-five points remaining going into this weekend’s Triple-header, are we about to see the dawning of a new era with a new name on the list of champions? Or will one of our previous winners add to their tally of BSB crowns…gentlemen, start your engines!
It seems a long time since we rolled up at Donington Park at the end of March for the first round of the 2017 MCE British Superbike Championship.
A cloudy but sunny day greeted new and returning riders, teams and fans alike, which was a vast improvement on the previous week’s test day which brought freezing and wet conditions to the Midlands circuit.
First blood was drawn by JG Speedfit Kawasaki rider Leon Haslam, who shot out of the blocks in typical fashion with a double race win on his local circuit, taking full advantage of the absent 2016 champion Shane Byrne, who was ruled unfit to race due to concussion after a practice crash the day before. Haslam’s team mate Luke Mossey joined him on the podium in second place, while Tyco BMW’s Christian Iddon took the final podium place in the first race. Ex-champ Josh Brookes aboard his Avil Hire TAG Racing Yamaha, and Be Wiser Ducati’s Glenn Irwin joined Haslam on the podium in the second race.
Haslam followed that up with a second and a third at Brands Hatch a fortnight later, while his team mate Luke Mossey took another double win for the JG Speedfit Kawasaki team. Christian Iddon continued his good form by earning himself a double podium finish with a third and second place respectively.
Oulton Park followed and Shane Byrne was already playing catchup, having only 13 points to show from the first two meetings. He put that right with an impressive haul of forty-five points, taking a second in the first race behind winner Haslam, and then taking his first victory of the season in the second race. Mossey again put himself on the podium in the first race, and Honda’s Jason O’Halloran earned his first podium of the campaign in the second race.
The annual trip North of the border and into the Kingdom of Fife came up next, and the Knockhill circuit in Scotland rarely disappoints with its short, fast undulating layout. When just under 1.6 seconds covered every rider on the grid in qualifying, that gives you an idea of how fast and close the racing is at Knockhill.
Round four will be remembered as the weekend Jake Dixon gate-crashed the party and introduced himself as yet another rider capable of winning in the Superbike class. Showing consistent pace all weekend, Dixon delivered two brilliant rides to take maximum points with his first victories in the class. This was also the weekend that saw Haslam not only relinquish his championship lead to teammate Mossey, but he was forced to sit out the meeting after a massive highside on Saturday afternoon as he exited Scotsmans.
So, a third of the way into the season and already the championship table was beginning to take shape. Mossey held a thirty point lead from teammate Haslam, who in turn had a twenty-one point advantage over third placed Byrne. Fourth placed Iddon, down to James Ellison in tenth were covered by just thirty-nine points. Steady progress was also being made by Josh Brookes who was back on a Yamaha for the first time since his 2015 championship win, Peter Hickman on the privately run Smiths BMW and Jason O’Halloran on the all-new Honda Fireblade.
Next up was Snetterton, and Shane Byrne set to work right from Friday morning’s free practice, consistently topping the time sheets in each session, culminating in pole position and two commanding victories. Brookes and O’Halloran continued their good showing with a pair of seconds and thirds respectively. Ever the opportunist, Byrne struck while his title rivals suffered, as Haslam was still recovering from his off at Knockhill, while championship leader Mossey had a big crash in Sunday morning’s warm up resulting in a no-score in the first race.
At the halfway point of the season, Byrne was on a roll as the championship moved on to Brands Hatch toward the back end of July, this time it was the full GP circuit and coincidentally, Byrne’s favourite. As is usually the way, Byrne piled on the coals while his championship challengers faltered around him, taking another double victory and maximum points. Haslam could only manage a third and a fifth this weekend and Mossey languished in twelfth in the first race and sixth in the second. All this played into the current champion’s hands as he came into this round seven points behind Mossey, and left a massive twenty-nine points in the lead – that’s an amazing thirty-six point turnaround.
Next up was the fastest track on the calendar, Hampshire’s old airfield circuit Thruxton. A mixed bag of fortunes greeted the title protagonists as Byrne could only manage a haul of thirteen points for his efforts, Mossey failed to score any points through injury and Haslam clawed what points he could back on championship leader Byrne with a seventh and a third in the races. Josh Brookes managed to take his first win of the season and his team’s first ever win in the first race, but then failed to finish the second race. The big winners this weekend were the ever improving Peter Hickman and RAF Regular and Reserves Team rider Jake Dixon, who between them amassed eighty-one points with Hickman taking a second and a first, while Dixon took a third and a second in the races.
‘The Party in the Park’ at Lincolnshire’s Cadwell Park was the next stop for Round 8 of the MCE British Superbike Championship. Again it seemed like nobody wanted to take charge of the championship as the leading riders all encountered differing issues. Haslam, Dixon and Byrne all failed to score in the second race after finishing the first race in first, second and third respectively. The second race was won by James Ellison, taking his and the team’s first victory of the season, closely followed by Smiths BMW pair of Lee Jackson and Peter Hickman. Two-thirds of the championship was now complete, and the once commanding lead held by current champ Shane Byrne had been whittled down to just ten points, with Leon Haslam in second place and Hickman in third twenty-six points behind the leader.
The Triple-Header at Silverstone was next, and it was the last chance for riders to cement their place in ‘The Showdown’. The fast, wide open technical Grand Prix circuit on the border of Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire never fails to deliver a bad race. Then ‘Mother Nature’ decided to play her hand. Practice was interrupted with thunder and lightning followed by monsoon-like rain, and qualifying was in damp but drying conditions. Byrne and Haslam both crashed out in the first of the three Superbike races held on Saturday afternoon, which gave Glenn Irwin his maiden victory with Brookes coming home in second in front of a jubilant John Hopkins aboard his Moto-Rapido Ducati.
The Sunday races were both held in wet conditions, the first of which was slightly dryer as Brookes took the victory from Ellison and Byrne. Poor old Leon Haslam’s fortune let him down again as he failed to score any points in the second race. The third race got under way in the rain, which only got worse as the laps went by and the riders tumbled…literally. Of the twenty-four riders that started the race, only seven finished at the point the race reached two-thirds distance and race direction called for the red flags to deem it a result. Some riders were not happy the red flag wasn’t shown earlier in the race, some even thought the race shouldn’t have gone ahead due to the severity of the weather.
But at the end of the race, the final line-up for ‘The Showdown’ was complete, with Jake Dixon holding his nerve to take the remaining place to join Byrne, Brookes, Haslam, Hickman and O’Halloran to fight for the 2017 MCE British Superbike Championship over the final three rounds.
A second trip to the Oulton Park circuit in Cheshire saw the first round of ‘The Showdown’ take place. The stakes were high as even the slightest of mistakes could end the chance of championship glory for the riders. Of the showdown contenders, the big losers of the weekend were Shane Byrne and Jason O’Halloran. Both suffered poor results on the back of their Silverstone disasters, with Byrne managing to amass just sixteen points for the second successive meeting, while O’Halloran netted a measly fourteen points.
Haslam meanwhile was full of concentration and stormed to victory in the first race, and followed it up with a second place in the second race. Josh Brookes took third in the first race behind Haslam and Hopkins. Honda’s Dan Linfoot followed up his maiden victory at Silverstone with his second race win in as many meetings in the second race, with Buildbase Suzuki rider Bradley Ray finishing third to earn himself a debut podium. Both Dixon and Hickman kept themselves in the hunt for the title with steady rides in difficult conditions, both accumulating a similar amount of points with twenty-three and twenty-one respectively.
The second round of ‘The Showdown’ took the championship to the Cathederal of Speed and the annual trip to Assen in Holland. This fast flowing ribbon of tarmac is a racers favourite just as much as it is a fans favourite, with thousands of spectators making their way across the Channel and The North Sea.
Ellison lined up on pole for the first race, alongside him on the front row saw Haslam, who out-qualified all of the showdown contenders by some margin, and Iddon. Brookes and Dixon could only manage to put themselves onto row four, O’Halloran was at the back of row five, Shane Byrne headed up row six, and Peter Hickman way back on the seventh row of the grid. A fantastic battle ensued which saw former World Superbike champion Sylvain Guintoli join the leading group, before dropping back to finish a season highest fourth place. But the ride of the race belonged to Shane Byrne, who scythed his way through the field from sixteenth on the grid to finish second behind the in-form Haslam, while Ellison rounded out the podium with a credible third position.
The second race saw Guintoli really stamp his return to form by constantly mixing it with the title contenders, and eventually taking a well earned, and overdue victory. Brookes kept up the pressure by finishing second with Haslam taking the last of the podium spots. Hickman and Dixon were not on the same sort of pace as the more experienced Haslam, Byrne and Brookes were this weekend, but there is still a chance either of them could become champion this weekend, but they are going to have to rely a lot on ‘Lady-Luck’. The same cannot be said for Honda’s Jason O’Halloran, who unfortunately is now mathematically out of contention after a poor run of results in this showdown section of the championship.
So far this season we have had, ten different winners in the Superbike class, more than any other season before it. Byrne and Haslam have each had seven non-scoring rounds, Haslam has six wins to his credit, Byrne has five (his last wins were a double at Brands). Brookes’ consistency throughout the season is reminiscent of his 2015 championship winning year, and he won two of the three races at the final Brands meeting aboard his Yamaha that year.
Dixon and Hickman have both had tremendous seasons, both taking victories and becoming more consistent podium finishers which will serve them well in the future, but their form in the showdown has unfortunately let them down at the most critical point of the season. For me, I can’t see any of them standing alone, holding aloft the 2017 MCE British Superbike Championship trophy on Sunday afternoon.
The scene is set for a fantastic finale and it’s amazing to think that Shane Byrne, the most successful BSB rider in history with five titles to his name, has never managed back-to-back titles, can he finally end that run?
Can Leon Haslam finally land a championship after finishing runner up on three separate occasions in BSB and once in World Superbikes?
Can Josh Brookes add to his solitary championship and upset the apple-cart by spoiling the day for Haslam and Byrne and take the title back to Oz once again?
Gentlemen, start your engines.