THE PREMIER DOMESTIC MOTORCYCLE RACING CHAMPIONSHIP GETS UNDERWAY THIS WEEKEND AND ITS RETURN HERALDS THE START OF WHAT COULD POTENTIALLY BE THE MOST COMPETITIVE SEASON YET.
As you'll no doubt see on Social Media, and in true Noddy Holder style (ask your parents, they'll get it), "it's raaaaace weeeeeeeeeeeeek!"
Testing is over and it's time for the proper action to start as this weekend sees the 25th Anniversary Bennetts British Superbike Championship finally get underway at Oulton Park. The undulating, rollercoaster nestled in the heart of leafy Cheshire is the perfect place to kick off proceedings in front of a 4000-strong crowd. It's been a trying pre-season for the organisers with changes to the start of the season and changes in Government regulations to keep up with, but finally Round 1 is upon us.
Testing was a time for teams to get the rider and machine into peak form before the season opener. How often have we seen that the fastest man in testing doesn't always equate to a championship challenge? There are fast lap heroes and sandbaggers across the board; some want to keep their powder dry and concentrate on the bike set-up while others love the glory and ego boost of topping the time sheets, as that creates headlines and some much-needed early season coverage.
As has been the form in the last couple of seasons, MCAMS Yamaha's Jason O'Halloran was quick when it mattered, as was Tommy Bridewell, before a frustrating Donington Park test left him languishing down the time sheets. RICH Energy OMG Racing's Kyle Ryde was the model of consistency across the test program for his new team, barely out of the top 6 placings on his BMW M1000RR. Other notables were Glenn Irwin, who broke the lap record at Silverstone on a cold, blustery day in Northants and Buildbase Suzuki's Danny Kent topping session times at Silverstone and Donington Park.
For the first time since 2012, the number 1 plate will be run in BSB as reigning champion Josh Brookes returns to defend the crown for VisionTrack PBM Ducati as the Cumbrian team retain the services of the Aussie and Christian Iddon for 2021. Brookes' pre-season testing has been hampered by a finger injury sustained at Silverstone during the first test causing the reigning champ to miss the subsequent Snetterton test but was back on the pace in the sunshine at Oulton Park. Iddon was the model of consistency last season, finishing every race in the points and the perfect foil to the championship run of Brookes. This season, however, Iddon will have both eyes on the big prize and after securing his first championship win last year, the gloves will be off from round one.
Like Iddon, championship runner-up Jason O'Halloran and his MCAMS Yamaha were another perfect match as they too finished every race in the points and an impressive eleven podiums to return a best-ever campaign for the man from Wollongong in New South Wales and undoubtedly there'll be more of the same for 2021. O'Halloran's teammate aboard the sister Yamaha R1, Tarran Mackenzie will be looking to make amends for a difficult season that showed glimpses of what the young Scot is capable of, including his second victory on the big bike amongst a handful of podiums visits but ultimately didn't return the championship challenge he and the team were hoping for. Expect that to change for this season.
Honda Racing has a changed line-up for 2021 as young Japanese rider Ryo Mizuno joins Glenn Irwin in Louth as part of the Honda Superbike Challenge along with Takumi Takahashi, who most recently raced for HRC in the World Superbike Championship and is a triple Suzuka 8hr winner. Irwin had his strongest start to a championship season across the opening three rounds in 2020 but two DNFs and a tough final round meant his championship charge fell away despite a return of seven podiums and one visit to the top step. The Carrickfergus man will be looking for a consistent championship charge this season while his teammates get to grips with the unique British circuits, which as Takahashi found to his cost at Oulton Park, aren't easy.
A win at the opening round at Donington Park last season thrust Oxford Products Racing Ducati man Tommy Bridewell into the championship battle for a second successive season; a triple podium visit at Snetterton did nothing to end that charge however the Devizes man couldn't sustain the run and fell away as the season unfolded, never quite regaining the form of the opening rounds. For 2021 it's as you were once again for Moto Rapido Racing and Bridewell as they embark on their third full season together.
The Kawasaki torch was carried by FS-3 Racing in the shape of Danny Buchan and Lee Jackson last season and it's the Lincolnshire man that returns for '21 alongside reigning British Supersport Champion Rory Skinner who embarks on his rookie season in the domestic blue ribbon class. Just one DNF last season and a deserved podium at Oulton Park saw Jackson end the season as leading Kawasaki and returning his best-ever finish of eighth in Bennetts British Superbike Championship.
Suzuki's hopes of success are once again firmly in the hands of Hawk Racing as Gino Rea leads the charge for the Mallory Park squad who this season is backed up by former Moto3 Grand Prix World Champion, Danny Kent. After a successful season battling with the experienced campaigners in STK1000, Kent makes the switch to a superbike and will be keen to make his mark as soon as possible. It's Kent's second BSB debut after a one-off ride with Martin Halsall's Movuno Suzuki squad at Brands Hatch at the end of 2018.
What of our own Rich Energy OMG Racing squad? A double rider change for 2021 sees two of the hottest young prospects don the black and gold as BSB race winners Brad Ray and Kyle Ryde join the team aboard the new BMW M1000RR. It was a difficult season for Ray who struggled to find form and consistency across the year, two fifth places the highlights of a season to forget for the Kent man. In contrast to Ray, Kyle Ryde seized his opportunities when they came his way culminating in a stunning double race win and the 'gentleman's set' of pole position and fastest lap for the second win at Silverstone.
Across the Irish Sea, Synetiq BMW also have a brand new rider line-up for this season as Ulsterman, Andy Irwin and Essex man, Danny Buchan join from Honda Racing and FS-3 respectively. Irwin joins after a troubled season at Honda where a championship challenge was restricted by penalties and a struggle to return to the form of the opening round where two wins signalled his early intent for the year. One more win on the return to Donington in October was the highlight for Irwin who will be looking for a consistent season to showcase his talent. Buchan will be another rider feeling he has something to prove this season after lacklustre 2020; there's no question the former STK1000 champion has the pace, he just needs the consistency to back that up.
The third BMW team is the newly-formed FHO Racing BMW who has the experienced duo of Peter Hickman and Xavi Fores completing their superbike line-up for their maiden campaign. Hickman will be keen to improve on '20 whereas Fores will be looking at unfinished business after his '19 season with Honda in BSB. An addition to the FHO squad is Brian McCormack, the Irish roads specialist who will campaign a sister BMW to the superbike pair for the 2020 season.
Former British Supersport contender Brad Jones joins Joe Francis at PR Racing BMW and Ryan Vickers continues with Lee Hardy's RAF Regular and Reserves Kawasaki. Josh Owens continues his learning curve with Rapid CDH Racing and new kids on the block, Powerslide/Catfoss Racing will field the effervescent South African Bjorn Estment for their debut season after a successful trial run at Brands Hatch at the end of last season.
Storm Stacey will continue his superbike schooling with Brent Gladwin's Team LKQ Euro Car Parts Kawasaki as the youngster builds on his experiences from last season. Silicone Racing return with Dean Harrison after not contesting last season's shortened Championship with Harrison choosing to run his own machine in the STK1000 Championship instead. NP Motorcycles will run series rookie Joey Thompson and after spending the majority of the season on the sidelines, it's a change of manufacturer to Honda and a welcome return for TAG Racing and Dan Linfoot. The Yorkshireman will be keen to get back to action and put the difficulties of the past season behind him.
So, who's going to win the title is anyone's guess. Barring injury or illness, the 2020 championship top three of Brookes, O'Halloran and Iddon will be contenders from the opening race, as will Glenn Irwin and Taz Mackenzie, although having the opening three races at his least effective circuit will be a tough opener for the Scot, so that's five of the six showdown slots based on last season's form. The battle for the final slot is one from at least nine riders, all very capable of a podium on their day and building a consistent season. All of the BMWs will be in with a shout of a Showdown placing, as will Tommy Bridewell, Lee Jackson and Ryan Vickers. It's going to be an absolutely fascinating season.
Let battle commence!