Haslam ready to challenge title leaders

If you want to risk a few quid at the bookies this weekend, your money might be safer riding with Leon Haslam at 180mph rather than on the backs of England's footballers.

If you want to risk a few quid at the bookies this weekend, your money might be safer riding with Leon Haslam at 180mph rather than on the backs of England's footballers.

Bet that the 21-year-old from Derbyshire will take podium positions in each of the two World Superbike races here tomorrow. Or if you are looking for really tempting odds, gamble that Haslam will win the second race - the 400th event in the history of world superbike competition - on the Northamptonshire circuit.

"Anything is possible in racing," Haslam said. "There are probably eight riders who could win a superbike race. I've led four races this year and I've got my first podium. Now I'd like to win - especially in front of the British fans."

Haslam's debut podium - a third place - came in the previous round of the superbike circus in Germany. Now he is mentally ready to challenge the championship leaders, the factory Ducati Fila riders, James Toseland and Regis Laconi.

"I'd never ridden on the long circuit at Silverstone before," Haslam said. "But it's fast and flowing, and I prefer that to tight and twisty tracks."

The British impulse to back underdogs should produce massive support for Haslam and his Renegade Ducati team among the 60,000 crowd expected at the circuit. Renegade's owner, Mark Griffiths, a 40-year-old music industry tycoon, jumped from the British superbike championship last year to the world stage this season, and has already tasted victory.

He signed the former world No 2 Noriyuki Haga to partner Haslam on a fleet of Ducatis: the 29-year-old Japanese rider has won two races, and holds fifth place in the championship table.

"Some people told me that this was not going to work," Griffiths said. "But that didn't stop me. I have confidence in my own ability." He invested £600,000 in setting up Haslam with a pair of Ducati RS04 motorcycles. The 190-horsepower V-twins are fast but exacting, and minor breakdowns have cost his rider championship points.

Haslam's response - attention Formula One drivers - is to blame no one. "It's not Ducati's fault or the team's fault," he says. "It's mainly electrical problems, engine pieces and a few oil leaks.

"We're a new team, and we've got new bikes, and we're on the new Pirelli control tyres. We're learning all the time. I've only ridden on five of the 11 circuits this year. In 2005 we will have eliminated most of the problems. I'll be able to concentrate on my riding, and winning the championship."

Haslam has the ultimate career advisor in his father "Rocket" Ron, the former TT winner and grand prix rider. Ron helped his son to compete in grand prix racing from 2000-2002, when Leon never finished higher than 18th in the points table. But he competed against the world's best riders, including the reigning world champion, Valentino Rossi.

"I could have stayed in England and done well," Haslam said. "But I learnt more running about in 20th place in the grands prix, and it made me a better person, than winning a British championship."

Haslam and Toseland, 23, are Britain's new young lions, eager to emulate the achievements of the World Superbike champion, Neil Hodgson, now riding in MotoGP, and the former greats Carl Fogarty and Barry Sheene.

Toseland is determined to improve on the run of second places he has achieved in the last four races. He leads the championship by only two points from the Frenchman Laconi, who has scored five wins this year to Toseland's one.

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