Mat Oxley

A world champion of character

Britain’s miserable lack of success in MotoGP has been well documented in these pages, our success in the second-division World Superbike series less so. We seem to be just as incapable of losing in World Superbike as we are of winning in MotoGP.

Over the past 26 years 13 Britons have won 138 World Superbike races – more than any other nation – and four of them have gone on to claim eight WSB titles. Perhaps we should be more geographically precise, because all eight of those championships were won by riders born within a 30-mile radius of each other in the counties of York and Lancaster.

The latest Plantagenet to wear the crown is Tom Sykes, who took the 2013 title on his Team Green Kawasaki ZX-10R (above), a heavily modified road bike, like all WSB machines. The Huddersfield rider follows in the wheel tracks of Carl Fogarty (Blackburn), Neil Hodgson (Burnley) and James Toseland (Doncaster).

Sykes is only joking (I think) when he attributes the success of gritty northerners to the water – apparently, northern riders are harder than southerners because the water is softer up north.

Chisel-faced Sykes is a great character: tough, funny and no airs or graces, unlike many top racers. “A lot of riders have split personalities,” he says. “They’re your best mate when you’re having a coffee, then you get to the paddock and they don’t know you. That’s not my style, that’s not who I am. The main thing for me is what you see is what you get and that I’m very grateful for what I do.”

Sykes got his first WSB ride in 2009 and was hired by Kawasaki the following year.

In 2012 he came within half a point of winning the WSB title, beaten by former MotoGP star Max Biaggi (many MotoGP riders pass through WSB en route to retirement).

Sykes would like a MotoGP ride, not only because he would get paid a lot more, but also because he would like to measure himself against the best. In fact he’s already done that. During testing at Jerez last year he came within three tenths of Jorge Lorenzo’s MotoGP lap record. That’s quite something on a bike with less horsepower, fewer electronics and steel rather than carbon brakes.

Sadly, a MotoGP ride is little more than a dream for Sykes, because he is 28 years old and would have to join a long queue of thrusting youngsters from MotoGP’s heartlands: Spain and Italy.

“I feel the door is closed for me,” he says.

“I think the top riders in WSB are better than a lot of riders in MotoGP, but we don’t get the chances.”

Sykes believes it will become even harder for WSB riders to break into MotoGP, because their bikes are to be detuned to prevent them from matching MotoGP lap times. Both series are now owned by the same private equity company, so there’s an obvious corporate interest in keeping them apart, which means slowing down the cheaper, less lucrative of the two championships.

“It’s a shame what they’re doing, but we’re run by the same organisation so it was always going to happen,” he says.

Perhaps if Kawasaki were to return to MotoGP (the factory withdrew in 2009, beset by the economic crisis and a lack of results), Sykes might find himself on the grid. But the manufacturer’s success with its ZX-10R has won it valuable publicity in the motorcycling world for a fraction of the cost of competing in MotoGP.

“What Kawasaki spent in MotoGP was massive,” says Sykes. “I’d say we’re spending 20 per cent of their MotoGP budget, if that.”

A marketing type might explain the difference between the two championships thus: you race in World Superbikes to sell motorcycles to motorcyclists; you race in MotoGP to sell bikes, but also energy drinks and mobile phones.

Although Kawasaki is part of the vast Kawasaki Heavy Industries empire (planes, ships, helicopters, trains, industrial plants etc), its motorcycle wing is small and its race department tiny.

“After I won the title I went for a celebratory presentation in Japan. I had a photo taken with the whole racing department: there were six people from the chassis side, six from engines and electronics and five from management.”

Sykes is proud of his championship success, especially since he achieved it against Aprilia’s RSV4, more like a MotoGP bike built for the road than a road bike tuned for the track.

“I never really shout about it, but my natural feel for a motorcycle is good and my feedback is normally very detailed. What I appreciate is that Kawasaki is willing to listen and understands how to react to issues.”

The most important partner in Sykes’s success is Kawasaki engineer Ichiro Yoda, who made the unusual move – for a high-grade Japanese employee – of switching companies. He defected to Team Green after designing Yamaha’s YZR-M1 MotoGP bike. Inevitably, he has to put up with a lot of Star Wars ‘jokes’.

“People are always coming up to him in airports, asking if he’s the real Yoda, and for all I know he might be,” Sykes says, with a laugh. “He’s been involved in racing longer than I’ve been alive and he’s quite European, so he helps transfer my feedback to Japan.”

Although WSB riders live in MotoGP’s shadow, they do occasionally get recognised for their efforts. Sykes was recently awarded the Torrens Trophy at the Royal Automobile Club. True to himself, he sat down at the awards lunch in a grand RAC dining room, next to wife Amie and baby daughter Millie in a pram. He was overwhelmed by the glittering trophy – many times more magnificent than the gongs he receives at WSB races.

“It’s a beautiful piece of silverware,” he says. “It’s a bit embarrassing in Superbikes now – you win a race and get a piece of plastic. Even with my World Championship trophy, the name plate is on the piss and it’s already falling off. That’s what things have come to!”