Motorcycling: Sykes trains sights on champion Checa
Unsung Briton sets pace at Phillip Island ahead of tomorrow's curtain-raiser to the Superbike season
The 26-year-old Yorkshireman Tom Sykes has so far won only one of his 80 outings in World Superbike competition, but this weekend in Australia, when this year's series kicks off, he has an opportunity to prove that he has the talent to match the reigning title-holder, Spain's Carlos Checa.
Sykes surprised everyone by recording the quickest time in pre-season on his Kawasaki ZX-10R, a 1000cc, four-cylinder package that will punch out 220 horsepower on the straights of the Phillip Island circuit near Melbourne. He bested Checa, who rides a Ducati 1198R for Italy's Althea Racing team, by just four thousandths of a second on the 2.76-mile track that stages the opening two races of the championship tomorrow.
But Sykes, who is used to struggling for the modest success he has so far enjoyed, is keeping a cool head. "I don't want to get too carried away because I like to keep my feet on the ground, so we'll keep working and see what happens on race weekend," he said.
"At the end of the testing sessions we did 14 laps on race tyres and it was very consistent, with the times coming easier than they were doing with previous settings. This is one of my least favourite tracks, so I'm happy that we are towards the front because I know that the performance should increase at the other circuits."
Maybe Sykes just has not been in the right team at the right moment beforehand, but he's now getting the support of a full factory effort, and it seems to be showing in the quality of his bike set-up and in his self-belief.
That confidence will have to last over 14 rounds and 28 races, as the World Superbike calendar grows to take in Russia at the new Moscow Raceway. There will be two opportunities for British fans to back Sykes, at Donington Park on 13 May and at Silverstone on 5 August.
Checa, a 39-year-old grandee of superbike and MotoGP racing, was showing no sign of being rattled when Sykes toppled him from the head of the speed charts at the final day of testing, for he knows that the loping power of his V-twin Ducati is probably more suited to Phillip Island's high-speed curves than the four-cylinder bikes that most of his rivals are riding.
"I'm feeling happy with the bike and the setting that we have, but now we must wait to see how the track conditions, temperature and tyres will be this weekend," he said. "We know that this is one of the best circuits for the Ducati, and so we want to make the most of this opportunity."
Britain fields six challengers on the superbike grid, and three of them had a strong chance of bringing home the world title that James Toseland last captured for the UK in 2007. But already BMW's Leon Haslam and Aprilia's new signing Eugene Laverty are battling injury to try and get on the grid tomorrow. Haslam has a fracture and two cracks in his tibia, a crack in his left heel and a small crack in his right little toe. But with the bike racer's typical disdain for pain and danger, he's hoping to have two screws inserted to fix the tibia fragment in its original place.
Laverty, meanwhile, will be hampered by a fractured hand in his dream of humbling team-mate Max Biaggi, a former grand prix and Superbike world champion. "Brake pads got knocked back after a wobble entering turn one at 315kph. No brakes so I had to put the bike down. Big ole crash," Laverty tweeted laconically. That speed of 315kph, incidentally, is 196mph – just the time to find yourself without front stoppers.
Checa starts the season as favourite to retain his title, but there should be plenty of Brit podiums – and maybe even a new champion – in a series for tuned showroom bikes that could prove to be more exciting than MotoGP's offering of exotic grand prix machines.
The Brit Pack: Six riders flying the flag
Jonathan Rea, 25, Honda CBR1000RR
Thinks like a champion, and could surpass his previous best finish of fourth in points
Tom Sykes, 26, Kawasaki ZX-10R
His challenge now is to maintain sparkling testing form over the 28 races
Leon Haslam, 28, BMW S1000RR
The senior Briton was second in points in 2010, but is hampered by testing injuries
Leon Camier, 25, Suzuki GSX-R1000
Still seeking his first win in what will be his third season of world Superbikes
Eugene Laverty, 25, Aprilia RSV4
Cool head, vast speed, but testing injury may delay his arrival on the podium
Chaz Davies, 25, Parkingo Aprilia RSV4
Reigning World Supersport champion makes the big jump from 600cc to 1000cc
Rea makes flying start for Honda
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