Young gun Laverty the leading British contender at Silverstone
Friday 29 July 2011
Factory Yamaha rider Eugene Laverty will attempt to add to Northern Ireland's blossoming year of sporting successes at the British round of the World Superbike Championship at Silverstone this weekend.
Like Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, 25-year-old Laverty enjoys a good 18-hole morning. But it's his skill with the throttle of his 210mph motorcycle, rather than his golf swing, that could get him to the podium in the two 18-lap championship races on Sunday.
Today he starts the work of setting up his 1000cc, four-cylinder YZF-R1 on the 3.66-mile Northamptonshire circuit, encouraged by his double win at Monza earlier this year over the reigning superbike champion, the Italian Max Biaggi, and the current points leader Carlos Checa of Spain.
"Monza is a fast and flowing circuit, and we were hitting 205 or 210mph there," Laverty said yesterday. "Silverstone is similar, and I think it will suit us very well. Even though there are some slower corners, they're chicanes, and not hairpins where my bike wheelies on the way out."
Laverty has been one of the surprises of the season, and is the best performer of six regular Britons on the World Superbike grid. After eight rounds and 16 races he holds fourth place in the championship table with 168 points. Leader Checa, on a twin-cylinder Ducati 1098R, has piled up 293 points, and Biaggi 263. But the Italian Marco Melandri – Laverty's Yamaha team-mate – is only 72 points away in third place, and there are five rounds still to come, with a potential 250 points available.
"If I can hang on to fourth place, that would be good. The first two places in the championship are now out of reach, but third place is not out of the question," Laverty said. "Now I need more race wins."
You have to assess the three riders ahead of Laverty to appreciate his achievement. Between them, 38-year-old Checa, Biaggi, 40, and Melandri, 28, competed in 643 races in grand prix racing before they switched to superbikes, and Biaggi and Melandri are former grand prix world champions.
Against that, Laverty can proffer a history of a mere 25 grand prix races, and this year's 16 outings on the superbikes, which are highly tuned versions of showroom models. So the Rory McIlroy comparisons are not far-fetched.
Laverty wasn't overawed when he thrashed the three Latin gurus of track-craft at Monza. "Nerves didn't come into it," he said. "I just study their weaknesses and their strengths, and try to work out how to beat them."
His two years in the 250cc grand prix feeder class in 2007 and 2008 almost destroyed his career. He rode old, uncompetitive bikes in underfinanced teams, and finished 25th and 20th in the points table – toxic statistics on a racing journeyman's CV. He had to push too hard to compensate for failings in the motorcycles, and crashed too often, breaking both his feet in the USA in 2008.
Then Yamaha offered him a one-off outing in a World Supersport race for 600cc machines seven days later, and Laverty accepted the ride on the 170mph bike – against his doctor's advice. "I knew that that race could be the turning point, and I knew I could put the Yamaha on the podium," he said.
"My left foot was the worst one – in practice I could only last two laps before I couldn't change gear. I was still on crutches right up to the race, but they gave me some painkillers and I got on the podium. The organisers wouldn't let me use my crutches on the podium ceremony because they said it would look bad, so when I went up there it was the first time since the accident that I'd walked without crutches."
Yamaha noted the mettle in their new hired gun, and Laverty rewarded the Japanese company with second place in the 2009 and 2010 Supersport series. His biggest problem in switching to the superbike is that it wheelies on the exit from slow corners.
"With the smaller bikes you give it 100 per cent throttle between corners, but the superbike has so much power that it creates a hinge in the middle, and it wants to wheelie in second gear at up to 60mph," he said.
Imagine your small family car rearing up on its back wheels every time you leave a roundabout on the drive to work: that's the kind of behaviour that Laverty will have to tame at Silverstone this weekend.
Silverstone's British challenge
Leon Camier 24, Aprilia
Sixth in points despite illness and crashes, but can make the podium on his V4 Aprilia.
Leon Haslam 28, BMW
BMW electronics are proving difficult this year leaving him at fifth in the points table.
Eugene Laverty 25, Yamaha
Only two wins so far, but the home crowd could just inspire victory performances.
Tom Sykes 25, Kawasaki
Only 14th in points, but must still be considered a top-six contender at Silverstone.
James Toseland 30, BMW
Rock-hard warrior makes a comeback with four pins in wrist: top-10 finish would be fine.
...and don't forget
Alex Lowes 20, Honda
In for the injured Jonathan Rea.
Jon Kirkham 26, Suzuki
Wild card from British Superbikes
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