A relieved James Toseland won his second World Superbike Championship by just two points at Magny-Cours in France yesterday after seeing a 66-point advantage crumble away in the final three rounds of the season.
In a saga that could inspire Britain's beleaguered Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, the 27-year-old Yorkshireman kept fighting as crashes and mechanical problems eroded the lead he had established after his double victory in blazing sunshine at Brands Hatch in August.
Toseland's troubles continued in the first of the two races yesterday, when the Ducati rider Lorenzo Lanzi crashed and forced him into the gravel. But Toseland kept his Hannspree Ten Kate Honda upright, and fought back from almost last to seventh place.
The Japanese rider Noriyuki Haga, 32, won that encounter on his Yamaha Italia, from Troy Bayliss (Xerox Ducati) and Troy Corser (Yamaha Italia), and closed the points gap to just 17 points. It meant that the Briton had to finish only in the top eight in the last of the season's 26 races to take the title, but at times even that looked problematical.
While Haga streaked to a double victory and his sixth win of the season, Toseland had to fight off a midfield train of rivals to finish in sixth place, and end his seven-year career in Superbikes with a repeat of the title he first won in 2004. Next year he will join the Yamaha Tech 3 team to race alongside Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner in MotoGP.
"This is what I live for. This is the only thing that matters," Toseland said. "To take pole position and win the title in the last race before I go to MotoGP is wonderful."
Toseland's domination of Saturday's Superpole contest suggested that he would break into an immediate lead and crack the opposition early on this 2.64-mile track. But racing is rarely that simple, and Sunday morning warm-up time was halved to just 10 minutes after morning mist.
Toseland had to test his two 1,000cc Fireblades in that time, and missed the opportunity to bed in a new clutch with a practice start – an omission that cost him dearly, as he was slow away from the grid in race one and was caught up in Lanzi's fall.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, this is it – the title's slipping away," he said. "Somehow I kept the bike upright and ran through the gravel. I had to clean the tyres and that meant a couple of slow laps. But then I put in lap times as good as the guys running up front."
Haga's win in race two means that he has now finished second twice and third three times in the Superbike series. But Toseland's early-season work in building a safety cushion paid off when his modest sixth place brought him the glory.