Big Series from a Small Island

Big Series from a Small Island
Öhlins and BSB, image: Impact Images

When it comes to National level motorcycle sport, the most popular series in the world in terms of most spectators (and highest competitor participation) maybe something of a surprise. You may wonder if it’s the US ‘MotoAmerica’ series that has been the breeding ground for the likes of Roberts, Lawson, Spencer, Rainey and Schwantz. Or maybe the Japanese JSB class where most of the world’s sports bikes come from? Or perhaps Germany, given the power of BMW and the national interest in Motorsport? However, the Bennetts British Superbike Championship (BSB) claims top step of the podium due to the numbers it attracts each year.

The series regularly draws in crowds of over 30,000 race fans at each of its diverse 12 rounds, which ironically is more than comes through the gate for the Donington Park WSB round; despite British riders dominating the International series.

The heritage of the series is clear to see and Öhlins has been an integral part of the paddock since its inception, taking an incredible 19th series title in just 22 years, this time at the hands of Leon Haslam.

Britain has a long history of motorcycle sport, a multitude of excellent venues (including the world-renowned Silverstone, Donington Park and Brands Hatch circuits) and crucially an organising body that continually changes the rules to keep grids full and the racing close. The series travels to the Cathedral of Speed – the mighty sweeping circuit of Assen, and some have wondered if the series could go still further into mainland Europe.

Despite a single spec engine control unit (ECU) effectively curbing electronic aids, the level of support and competiveness of the competing six manufacturers is unprecedented.

Niall Mackenzie was British Superbike Champion from 1996-1998 for Cadbury Boost Yamaha and the triple BSB champion continues to live in the BSB paddock, helping his two fast Superbike sons in their racing careers; “I remember in 1996 when the BBC started broadcasting BSB, it was a massive help in getting sponsors and increasing the level of competition within the series. That ethos continues to this day, it’s so professional with big crowds and a vast depth of talent.

Our Yamaha YZF750s were ex-factory World Superbike machines and we had a great link with the Öhlins technicians. We rode the two WSB events each year at Donington Park and Brands Hatch, both of which provided a great opportunity to catch up with the Öhlins guys.

“I have to say I’ve spent most of my career on Öhlins, including when I was riding 500GPs with Yamaha from ’89 onwards. I’ve always been a big fan and was a lot happier signing for a team if I knew they were using it.”

Some of the riders who have passed through the series reads like a who’s-who of British talent including Niall, Neil Hodgson, John Reynolds, Cal Crutchlow, Jonathan Rea and Shane Byrne whilst some notable foreign stars have included 1999 BSB Champion, Troy Bayliss as well as series runner up, GP hero John ‘Hopper’ Hopkins.

Given this background, machines with gold forks have taken the series crown an incredible 18 out of 21 times in this red-hot cauldron of competition.

And it’s not just the blue riband Superbike series that’s popular, a vibrant line-up of classes sees over 200 riders in the paddock, which in 2018 Öhlins took the majority of the main titles, namely:

Bennetts British Superbike Champion: Leon Haslam (JG Speedfit Kawasaki)

Dickies British Supersport Champion: Jack Kennedy (Integro Yamaha)

Pirelli National Superstock 1000 Champion: Keith Farmer (Tyco BMW)

Pirelli National Superstock 600 Champion: Ryan Vickers (Mototechniks Yamaha)

Dickies Junior Supersport (300) Champion: Eunan McGlinchey (Team #109 Kawasaki)

With customers in each of these classes the Öhlins service team are kept very busy! UK Race Manager for Öhlins Richard Brendish, explains: “We’ve been in the paddock since 2000, first with the Harris Performance set-up then as Öhlins directly. In that time the paddock has become more professional; teams realised they needed the best technical support and similarly we have grown in terms of our offering.

We still have competitors in the paddock, which is good as it keeps everyone on top of their game – you can’t become complacent in a series as fierce as BSB. We now have 85% of the Superbike grid, in Supersport we finished with the top 11 riders and we’re picking up support class teams all the time in the other divisions. We have three different levels of service support to suit teams, their infrastructure and budgets. Because we’ve been here so long and at such a high level, we can supply the answers for whatever a team is needing at a particular circuit.”

Five-time Champion Shane Byrne suffered a serious injury and had to sit out this season after battling with his great rival Leon Haslam, who came within a whisker of wining the series in 2017. A favoured son of Kawasaki, Haslam rides in the Suzuka Eight Hour for the Akashi based manufacturer and will be returning to the factory KRT WSB squad for 2019. Haslam’s JG Speedfit Kawasaki team is headed up by racing stalwart Jack Valentine.

Valentine, who was the team manger for Crescent Suzuki and the Foggy-Petronas WSB squad, explains his reasons for utilizing Öhlins; “I’ve been with many teams, and always used Öhlins, purely and simply I think they are the leaders in motorcycle suspension, you only have to look at the pinnacle of bike racing, MotoGP, to see their dominance, which then filters down to WSB and BSB. Our team used to be with another supplier but when I came in we looked to test with the Swedish brand. Immediately, and just with base settings, the rider could not believe the difference, how much plusher the ride was, how it soaked up the bumps and how good the feedback was, it proved a major point.

We have maybe two MotoGP style circuits but then some really quirky tracks in BSB so being able to have suspension that can work at these very different tracks is crucial.

The back up is so important when you’re chasing a Championship and running an official team like Kawasaki. We have a top rider in Leon Haslam, he’s very demanding and is always looking for improvement from himself and every part of the team and equipment. Öhlins are continually developing, for example they introduced new fork outers which gave us more options, which lets us move ahead as a team.”

One of the series’ most exciting young riders, Jake Dixon, pushed Haslam for the title to end up an impressive runner-up. He explained his own feelings about suspension on his RAF Regulars and Reserves Kawasaki machine, “It’s been fantastic working with Öhlins and I wouldn’t ride on anything else, its cool to have the level of service we have between the technicians and my crew chief Glen Richards. They obviously have so much data, it’s great to be able to tap into that at every track. I had a good run out in Moto2 also and the feeling was quite similar to the forks and shock we use in BSB to be honest which was very helpful for me jumping straight onto it.

We have some tricky circuits with lots of undulating parts such as Cadwell, Oulton Park and Knockhill in Scotland. Sometimes you have to find a good compromise and I find a good, consistent, neutral suspension setting is useful.”

British Superbike Championship - Öhlins Successes

Niall Mackenzie – Cadbury’s Boost Yamaha YZF750- 1996-8

Troy Bayliss - INS GSE Ducati 996 - 1999

Neil Hodgson - INS GSE Ducati 996 - 2000

John Reynolds – Reve Red Bull Ducati 996 – 2001

Steve Hislop - MonsterMob Ducati 998 – 2002

Shane Byrne - MonsterMob Ducati 998 – 2003

John Reynolds – Rizla Crescent Suzuki GSXR1000 – 2004

Gregorio Lavilla – GSE Airwaves Ducati 999 – 2005

Shane Byrne – GSE Airwaves Ducati 1098 – 2008

Leon Camier – GSE Airwaves Yamaha YZF-R1 – 2009

Ryuichi Kiyonari – HM Plant Honda CBR1000RR – 2010

Tommy Hill - Swan Yamaha YZF-R1 – 2011

Alex Lowes – Samsung Honda CBR1000RR – 2013

Josh Brookes – Milwaukee Yamaha YZF-R1 – 2015

Shane Byrne – Be Wiser Ducati Panigale R – 2016

Shane Byrne – Be Wiser Ducati Panigale R – 2017

Leon Haslam - JG Speedfit Kawasaki - 2018

Big Series from a Small Island
Leon Haslam BSB Champion 2019, image: Impact Images
Big Series from a Small Island
Race Bike Leon Haslam, image: Impact Images
Big Series from a Small Island
Öhlins Service Truck at BSB, image: Impact Images