World Superbikes: On Donington, and American Success

Donington Park has become the personal playground of 2013 WorldSBK champion Tom Sykes. Sykes has now claimed an incredible eight wins in a row at his home circuit, and after Sunday's races he explained how much it meant and also what it means going forward. Marcel Duinker offers his insight into whether Sykes has an advantage at Donington Park due to his riding style.

For the majority of last year PJ Jacobsen was the sole American riding in the WorldSBK paddock but last weekend the numbers swelled to three with Cameron Beaubier joining series rookie Nicky Hayden on the Superbike starting grid. The MotoAmerica champion aquitted himself well and we will assess what it means for the domestic championship.

Superb Sykes continues home dominance

There was little doubt that God Save The Queen would be played on the podium at Donington Park and while Tom Sykes had to work hard for both wins on home ground he maintained his incredible record at his home round.

Over the last four years Sykes has been unbeatable at Donington and last weekend showed exactly why he is so strong. The 2013 champion came from behind to win on Saturday and withheld huge pressure from Jonathan Rea to claim the honours in Race 2. While Rea will take in solace in suffering a false neutral once he hit the front and opening the door for his Kawasaki teammate to sweep past, it was a weekend to remember for Sykes.

Claiming yet another Superpole, Sykes was able to convert it into a double victory and it was clear just how much these wins meant to him. While Sykes has rarely had reason to be flamboyant since Rea joined the team, he had plenty of reason to milk the reaction from the crowd last weekend. The relief at living up to expectations was clear for Sykes.

Winning is expected of Sykes at Donington and when asked if he felt the pressure of having so little to gain despite winning he admitted as much while also confirming the continuing animosity with Rea:

“I was coming here being set up for a big fall if I didn't win,” admitted Sykes. “There’s been some tactical comments obviously to make people’s egos feel better. But the long and short is I came through on Wednesday with high expectations. Everybody expects me to win so it sure is difficult, but I’m very, very proud now to have answered a lot of people and made it happen.”

Sykes alluded to the comments of other riders and after finishing a close second in Race 2 Rea laid on the line exactly what his rivals had expected from Sykes.

“I think if there’s a track that Tom’s going to win, it’s going to be Donington Park,” said the champion. “I think not just media, I think the general consensus among teams and riders was that Tom was going to be very hard to beat here. So to be very close and to push him hard, especially when this is a bike that he’s very happy with, as we can see, it really suits his riding style, to be so close is good. Okay, we didn’t win today, but we were close.”

Running Sykes close and beating him are two very different things and while Rea's Race 2 efforts were hugely impressive this weekend showed again how difficult it is to beat Sykes at Donington once he hits the front.

“People think it’s because it’s my home race, all because maybe I have a good feeling, but again, that’s just small talk,” said Sykes when asked if Donington offered a specific advantage to him. “We have to just focus on, it’s a racetrack. I give my full effort here, but it's the same in Sepang too. I give it everything I have everywhere we race. I can’t ask for anymore from myself, really. So on this I’m very pleased. It wasn't easy this weekend and we had some small issues ourselves in the races, which is very strange but we don’t need to milk the situation. I know some people might do but we reacted and responded in a good way. In race two the speed was there. Like I said, something was causing me a problem. We definitely had an issue, but we worked hard for it and we had pressure all the way through the race but in the end I think we did a good job and I’m happy with the results we’ve come away with.”

To say Sykes was happy after Race 2 was an understatement. He had a huge fight on his hands from Rea and ultimately prevailed, but it was far more of a struggle than he had expected. Instead, he can rightly look ahead to the coming races at Misano and Laguna Seca, two circuits he has won at, with renewed vigor.

“The tracks that are coming up we’ve been good at in the past and won races at. I’m very excited, and more importantly, I’m very relaxed. There’s always room to improve but we do have limitations and we have to deal with that. But the fact is that we have gotten slightly more from the bike again this weekend. The new ZX-10R is definitely a better motorcycle. It’s a small step and it’s given me that small step for me to improve.

“There’s areas on every circuit I’ve been to where I need to be able to give more, but I think that with the technical regulations we're doing a good job. It’s definitely holding me back as a rider, but all I can do is give my all on the package we have.”

With Kawasaki having already re-signed Jonathan Rea to a new two year contract the future of his teammate has come under scrutiny. Sykes has proven with his four race wins this season that he is still one of the most dominant riders in the world but finding the extra consistency needed will be the key going forward. Whether that future is with Kawasaki remains clouded but Sykes is keen to have that finalized in the near future.

“Myself and Kawasaki have spoken,” admitted Sykes. “There was a lot of hype and expectations and from my side I delayed these talks because I needed to focus on the job that we’ve got going on this year. Now we’ve got a couple of weeks off and we can open up the talks and have a serious sit-down, because for me this year, I don’t want to leave too much to chance on track. So I'll relax tonight, but tomorrow morning I’ll have a look at the business end of things.”

Expert View from Marcel Duinker

Tom Syke's crew chief Marcel Duinker knows the 2013 world champion better than anyone else in the WorldSBK paddock and after Sykes' double victory he sat down to talk about why the Englishman is so strong at Donington Park.

“Tom is so strong here at Donington and it looks like he knows the tricks and tweaks around here! From a riding style perspective and from track layout point of view there is nothing specifically that suits his style. Tom has, as everybody knows, an extreme stop and go riding style but that isn't the reason he is strong here.

“If you can win at Sepang you should be able to win here and that’s what he did. We struggled in Sepang before and this year Tom had his first win in Malaysia. He has a great record in Donington and the only thing I can say is he knows probably the best way to manage this track.

“There is a big contrast here from one half of the lap to the other but it's not difficult to find the compromise in setup. Many, many racetracks have the same kind of layout and Misano or Jerez are the same but here it is really separate with 50% high speed turning and the other 50% stop and go.

“There are sections that Tom is very good here and Turn 5 [the exit from Old Hairpin and through Starkey's] is one that he is very good at. Funnily enough he said that in race one he made a lot of time through here and said that 'You need to have big balls through there!' and we know because we keep an eye on the sector times that he was very good here!

“This is the fifth season we work together and we’ve never changed our strategy. We like to win races. We like to do as well as possible during a race weekend. We will find out where we end up at the end of the year and we are not focused much on the championship. Sure, we take a look at it, but we enjoy winning races and we try to do many more in the next couple of months and we’ll see where we end up. We don’t put any pressure on ourselves for the championship.”

False neutrals for Rea but no false dawns

Throughout this year Jonathan Rea has consistently said that he still feels ill at ease with the Kawasaki XZ10R. The reigning world champion has been searching for answers and searching for an improved feeling with the bike. Amazingly on a weekend littered with mistakes on track it was at Donington Park that Rea found himself and found his peace with the bike.

The mistakes this weekend were rooted in issues that Rea has suffered with his gearbox. Rea suffered from numerous false neutrals over the weekend, including “four or five during Race 1.” The cause of this is likely rooted in electronics. Having ran off track twice at the last corner on Friday Rea's crew chief confirmed that it was the gearbox gremlins that caused the mistake. When Race 1 was littered with similar mistakes it was clear that the cause of the problem was likely to be electronics.

“It’s something to do with the electronic strategy that caused the problem,” said Rea. “We’ve been developing something new to try and make my shifting easier, and we used some new strategy which was quite different. We had some problems. Today we went back to something more normal and changed some other things with the shifter position.

“We still need some time but it’s a combination of things. It’s my technique on back shifting, lever position and the strategy that I’m still not happy with. But it’s an area of my bike that I haven’t been happy with since day one, and we’ve constantly been trying to improve it. Hence the reason for trying to have new electronic strategies to cover that.”

Rea's podium finishes last weekend continued his 100% record of rostrum finishes, and with Chaz Davies having crashed out of Race 1, Rea also extended his championship lead. It was a hugely successful day for the Northern Irishman and when asked what separates him from his rivals he was keen to stress the importance of the complete package provided to him by Kawasaki and Pere Riba.

“I don’t want to discredit my competitors and I don’t want to say it’s me, because I have an incredible package around me. Even when I’m suffering as a rider I can still have a great package from the team that can counteract my bad day. I think how we approached this season, the pre-season and managing the races, I feel like we’ve been a little bit more clever than some others though.

“But that’s not going to say that I’m not going to get bit in the ass by a crash or a problem or whatever, because I’m only human and I’ll make mistakes, I’m sure. But having a championship lead and I have more than two race wins, certainly takes some pressure off my shoulders if I make some mistakes. Now I have a comfortable margin in the championship and I think we can take some heart that we came here and increased our championship lead by a further 14 points and we were on the podium in both races. I really enjoy here and how many consecutive podiums it is. It’s really good. I feel like days like today, when you’re not completely at ease and on your A game and you’re having some issues, especially like yesterday, and we can still make a 2nd and 3rd, it’s really good.”

Drama for Davies leads to disappointing weekend

While Donington offered Jonathan Rea plenty of hope that he is sailing towards another championship it was perhaps the pivotal round of the year for his title rival Chaz Davies. While Rea can now look to manage the points gap, Davies almost needs to reset himself ahead of Misano.

The Ducati rider had a miserable weekend in Britain and most of it can be attributed to a fuel line failure during FP2. With 40 mins remaining of the session Davies' bike become engulfed in flames and was burnt out. That lost track time came back to haunt the Welshman all weekend. With only 30 minutes running in final practice and Superpole, Davies was firmly on the back foot on Saturday and despite a sterling qualifying effort he overstepped the mark in Race 1 and crashed twice.

While leading the early stages of race Davies was still finding his feet with his Ducati and the track and lost the front end in Goddards.

The crash relegated him down the field and left him pressing hard to get back valuable points. Midway through the race Davies crashed a second time and this time the damage was terminal. A podium on Sunday gave him something positive for the weekend but this was ultimately a hugely disappointing weekend for the Welshman.

"That was about as good as we could have expected,” said Davies after finishing third in Race 2. “I hoped to get away out in front like yesterday and try to control the race from the front by myself but I just didn't have the pace. I knew that it would be the case if Tom led through the first corner that his pace on the second and third lap and Jonny's pace were just ridiculous. No way could I have hung with them.

“After the difficult times on Friday, missing all the track time, we have got to be reasonably happy to be on the podium at our home race. It was important to score a positive result after not being able to finish the race yesterday. I think it all began with our problems on Friday, and yesterday I probably pushed a bit too hard, but we're here to win races and you have to give it a try when you're in the lead. We know we can do better, there are certainly a few aspects under which we can improve, but it was difficult to beat the Kawasakis on this track.”

Davies will test at Misano this week for two days in a bid to improve his chances of a strong result on Italian soil.

America, the brave future?

Cameron Beaubier's WorldSBK debut saw the Californian claim a top ten finish in Race 2 and offer a firm validation of the MotoAmerica championship.

Beaubier won last year's title, and while it's been more of a challenge this year than many expected, his form in place of an injured Sylvain Guintoli showed that he was far from out of his depth on his WorldSBK debut.

“I had a lot of fun this weekend and I think that we worked well together,” said Beaubier. “It was really fun and I learned a ton this weekend. It was new tires, new electronics and a new track, so it was a lot to take in! Crashing out of Race 1 hurt me a lot because in Race 2 if I had that information I'd have been able to do a little bit better. But that's racing.”

The biggest question mark over the American heading into the weekend was whether or not MotoAmerica would offer a solid base for him to showcase his talents. As a former Red Bull Rookie and a former KTM Grand Prix rider his talent wasn't in doubt but had seven years in America dulled his competitiveness was the question on everyone's lips.

“I feel that MotoAmerica has prepared me really well for this. I think that racing against the strong guys at home has prepared me well. Having Toni Elias come in and Josh Hayes and Roger Hayden, it's strong and there's good guys over there, but the depth in WorldSBK is obviously very strong. You've got the best riders from all the Superbike championships racing against each other but I feel that while my position isn't very exciting, I could get closer to Van der Mark and Josh Brookes in the closing stages and that's something to build on.”

Having recently claimed his first WorldSBK victory Nicky Hayden knows the depth of quality in the series and the Kentucky Kid gave his assessment of Beaubier:

“Even though Cameron stood between my brother Roger and some wins in MotoAmerica I like him, he’s a nice kid. I talked to him on Thursday and I think he’s got good potential. PJ is here too in World Supersport and I think that he has a little got something extra. He really rides hard, there’s no doubt, and he really wants to win.

“For a young guy he’s very professional. Shows up ready to work, focused. Not a lot of up and down. He’s very battle-tested. He went to BSB, he went to World Supersport. He’s not just taken an easy road. I’ll be honest, I had an easier path with the Factory Honda ride at age 17. PJ’s really had to work for it. Let’s see. I don’t want to open my mouth, but I think he’s got a good chance.”

The rub against MotoAmerica is that Beaubier is 23 and racing against older riders. When Hayden won his AMA title in 2002 he was 21 and signed to race in MotoGP on a factory Honda. As impressive as Beaubier's performance was in Britain, the depth of the American grid is still something to be concerned about even if the front of the grid is competitive.

“If I’m very honest it’s not a great look to have so few riders at the front. It's good that a world champion like Toni Elias is racing in the championship and I love Tony like everybody else but I want to see the young American kids getting opportunities. But if these team managers just start going and getting Corti, getting Elias, and these guys from Europe, it’s not going to be what we want from MotoAmerica in terms of developing talent.

“But I think the championship is clearly coming back. I just watched Road America the other day, the Superbike race, and it was some good battling, some good guys on a little bit deeper field than in years past. I hope they can combine Superbike and Superstock and just make it one class because now that two races in one, I don’t like it. Also I don't think it’s good for guys like Cameron and say my brother because they need to be pushed by a fuller grid.

“I think that with combined grids we could see some really good racing and that’s what fans want to see. They want to see stars, people they can get behind, people they like or don’t like, and see good racing. Hopefully they can do that next year.”


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Comments

I am glad Nick expressed his thoughts about PJ. Of course he gets to see him come to work every weekend but its good he thinks PJ has something extra and a chance to make it. I'd like to see him win a few this season and move up to Superbike. He's fun to watch, sliding that Honda like a dirt tracker. Like Nick said, he tries as hard as he can. He works hard. 

I don't think they should be to concerned and should actualy embrace riders from abroad and older proven riders in the USA  championship, I think they have added a lot of glamour to the UK championship and show a lot of the different styles

I remeber when i use to watch Mat Mladin & Ben Spies racing it out for the title, that was good racing 

With the world supers I realy want good American talent, they have always added to the racing and the show 

i seem to remember josh hayes doing an admirable stand-in on a yamaha motogp machine some time back.