Britain's Alex Lowes, on his Honda, carries a three-point lead into today's British Superbike Championship finale at Brands Hatch after engaging in a 165mph game of find-the-grip with his title rival Shane Byrne at the Kent circuit yesterday.
The Australian rider Josh Brookes won the 18-lap battle on his Tyco Suzuki, but Lowes swept his Samsung Honda into second place after overwhelming Byrne, the 36-year-old reigning champion.
Rain had left the 2.4-mile track in a treacherous state before yesterday's race, the first of three title-deciding contests over the weekend. Autumn sunshine blazed on to the main straight, but the wooded sections at the back of the circuit remained damp throughout the 30-minute battle.
The spoils would go to the rider who could sense where the grip lay, and who could preserve his Pirelli tyres for a major effort on the final laps.
"I still had quite a lot of tyre left, so I went past Shane with five laps left," said the 23-year-old Lowes. "But it was hard to enjoy it. I thought, 'If I crash and give the championship to Shane I'll be really upset'. Now it's basically level-pegging going into the final races."
Brookes adapted best to the slippery conditions in qualifying and gained his first pole position of the year. Byrne was second fastest, but Lowes was unhappy with his Honda. "We are going to make some big changes to the bike, so that I feel better for the race," he promised.
Brookes started the race knowing that he had nothing to lose, as he could have won the title only in the unlikely event that his two experienced rivals self-destructed. The 30-year-old Aussie dominated the race throughout, but allowed a four-second lead to shrink to less than one second by the finish.
"I didn't know whether to stick to the dry parts on the track and risk wearing out the tyre, or save it by using the wet parts," he said. "I felt confident whatever I was doing, but on the last lap my board said I was only one second ahead. I had to figure out how quickly I could go."
The struggle for this year's Superbike crown has evolved into a classic contest between youth and experience, with Lowes seeking the first major championship of his career, and Byrne chasing his fourth British title. At this same meeting last year Lowes threatened to take the title, but his effort expired in two crashes fired by an over-zealous passion to win.
In yesterday's race he demonstrated how much he has developed under the direction of the Honda team manager, Havier Beltran. "Alex has lifted his game this year," Beltran said.
"Earlier in the year he was disappointed that he was not winning races week in, week out. But he had to understand that we were not going to get that if he was parking the bike in the gravel every week. His ability to learn and to interpret what he feels on the bike is getting stronger and stronger."
Lowes was content to sit behind Byrne in third place for fourteen laps. Then he slid his front wheel under the champion in a graceful swoop into Surtees bend, and then pulled out a gap of 4.7 seconds in just four laps.
"I tried to stay with Alex, but I the end I gave up," Byrne said. "Sixteen points for third place is better than none. We'll just work harder and try again tomorrow."
Lowes holds the psychological advantage coming into today's two 20-lap races. But Byrne is race-hardened enough to know that a three-point lead is a wafer-thin advantage when there are 50 points at stake – 25 for the winner of each race – and the weather could be highly unpredictable.
The popular Cumbrian rider James Ellison had an outside chance of winning the title coming into the Brands Hatch final round, but had a disastrous qualifying session and had to start from the sixth row. He powered from 14th to eighth place on the first lap of the race but then retired after his visor steamed up in the damp conditions.