Leon Haslam is a British Superbike champion, a two time Suzuka 8 Hours winner and a WorldSBK race winner. He's 35 years old but he's still learning lessons all the time
Returning to the WorldSBK championship isn't easy. The riders, the bikes and the tracks might stay the same, more or less, but the requirements change with every year. More is expected. If you stay the same you move backwards.
After three years racing, and winning, in the British Superbike championship Haslam returned to the world stage for 2019. There was expectation on his shoulders but from the outset he was realistic; with Jonathan Rea as his teammate it would be a huge challenge. Rea has dominated the series over the last four years and Haslam spoke throughout the winter of challenging Rea rather than beating him from the outset.
Injuries haven't helped his cause - a pinched nerve in his back and old ankle worries have troubled him - but there have been signs that when the bike is working well for him, Haslam can be a podium contender.
"I'm not where I wanted to be but at the same time my initial aim was to be in the top five and challenge for podiums," said Haslam. "We didn't expect the dominance of the Ducati, so in my mind we're in that fight with the Yamahas for that third place right now. We achieved that in Australia. We battled for it in Aragon. I felt we should have been there in Assen but we had a little issue with the tyre. So we're close.
"Compared to Jonathan, in this first year, we've been a lot closer than I thought at some races. At other times we've been a little bit on the back foot. I've had a few injuries but we're not a million miles away. When we get it right we're battling with the current four times world champion until the last lap. I'm a little disappointed with our positions in a few races but in other races I've been surprised how close we have been."
Progress never stops
A crash in Australia was a blot on the copybook but he made up for it with podiums in the other two season opening races. In Thailand his back injury held him back and he was only able to fight for fifth place finishes. A return to Europe saw him have a strong final race in Aragon. The cold temperatures of Assen and rain at Imola have left Haslam with good but not great results, however. It's been a solid start to the season but the championship standings don't lie. Haslam sits fifth and that's about where he should be on the balance of the opening five rounds.
"Every year everyone make steps," reflected Haslam on his return to WorldSBK. "The people are the same. The level of riding is the same. Everyone just maximizes their package and makes a step. Right now Ducati has made a big step with their package. That is the new benchmark. The last four years it's been Jonathan with the Kawasaki. Now it's all about responding. It's all about keeping up with those steps. It's always been the same. I can remember when I was in GPs and I'd match the lap times from the year before but I'd be fifteenth. Everything moves on year by year - tires, bikes and riders - and even if you've not had any improvements with the bike you'll get more out of it in the second year.
"The Ducati has about 2000 RPM on everybody else. They've probably got 20 or 30 horsepower on us and Alvaro is riding very well. You can't take anything away from how he's riding. He's come here with no knowledge of how the Pirellis had to be ridden in the past or how bikes needed to be setup. So he's got a fresh mindset with a new concept of bike and Pirelli has brought out some new tires. Those tyres are much closer to the Michelin and Bridgestone tyres. So, I believe, everybody else is adapting their bikes and understanding where the new limit is. Ducati is the benchmark right now."
Getting the best out of the bike
"Alvaro is riding the maximum out of Ducati. He's riding at the maximum because it's so fast in a straight line that he doesn't have to worry too much about the entry to the corner. He doesn't have to worry too much about getting massive corner speed and rolling speed through the corner. He can literally get it onto the fat part of the tire earlier and use the speed of the bike. I believe that's what he's doing very, very well. That's why he's probably looking like a different riding style to what others.
"If we try to do that with less top speed we don't gain that advantage because we'll only accelerate at the rate that it accelerates at. Australia was interesting. It's a track that Alvaro is renowned to be really good at, but the lines he was running were a big eye-opener. He was getting it off the edge of the tire, not going into the corner quite as fast and using the exit. You can see with the Italian Championship, British Championship and world championship that Ducati are pretty much dominating right now. It's exciting for me though because I'm a part of a company that will react and will try to bridge that gap, sort of thing."
Learning how to bridge that gap is key for Haslam and Kawasaki. The bike needs to improve and the rider needs to improve. The potential is there for more but Haslam also has to be realistic. At the moment the Ducati V4R is clearly the best Superbike in the world. The form it has shown domestically and internationally is very strong. That package is a very well rounded package and for Haslam he knows that the goal is to try to maximize what he can do on the Kawasaki.
"I have some areas that are strengths for me on this bike. I also have some areas where I need to make a step. Some of my strengths kind of make me a little bit inconsistent, though. So it's been a big learning curve for me. I need to learn how to use my natural style and also how to use Johnny's style. Certain corners work well for me and certain corners don't. When we do get it right we're close. I can't wait for these next few races.
"It's been a big change coming to this bike after being in BSB. It's easier going to a bike with no electronics because, as long as you've got a connected throttle, it does everything that you ask it do. With electronics they can mask problems. When I look at the data, I can go in faster, run through the corner faster, and get on the throttle earlier, but I'm slower. That's because of where you're accelerating. It's about the angle you're accelerating at and different things.
"You find more lap time analysing data. The electronics do their job so well that the bike doesn't spin. It doesn't let go. It doesn't accelerate as well. It's about analysing the key areas. This bike doesn't give me the feedback I need right now, so I need to understand why that happens and I need to understand how I need to ride it to get that feel to know where I can improve and where I can't."
Learning. Improving. Maximizing.
Racing is about getting the most from the bike and yourself but the only problem is that the goalposts keep moving.
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