Motorcycle racing is a sport of fine margins. A blink of an eye can make the difference between winning and losing, success and failure, agony and ecstasy. This year's MCE Insurance British Superbike Championship took those margins and slashed them, providing one of the most dramatic climaxes to a season ever seen in motorsport.
On paper, the 2011 season promised plenty with defending champion Ryuichi Kiyonari joined by former double champion Shane 'Shakey' Byrne, the Londoner making a welcome return after two years in the World Championship.
Shaun Muir Racing swapped Honda power for a Suzuki GSX-R1000 with Swan remaining as title sponsors. James Ellison and Stuart Easton had departed though with Tommy Hill and Michael Laverty taking over, both eager to make up for their Showdown disappointment in 2010.
Easton had switched to MSS Colchester Kawasaki but he wasn't the only man on the move. With Byrne moving in at Honda, 2010 runner-up Josh Brookes had taken up the vacant seat at Relentless Suzuki while reigning Superstock 1000 champion Jon Kirkham secured one of the vacant Suzukis at Samsung Crescent Racing. The identity of his teammate was one of the stories of the off-season.
Jack Valentine pulled off a huge coup by signing former MotoGP star John Hopkins in January of 2011. An already star-studded British Superbike field had just been added with a touch of American stardust.
In the competitive EVO class, Team WFR were expected to be the team to beat with Alex Lowes, Glen Richards and Graeme Gowland on board but former MSS Colchester Kawasaki rider Simon Andrews was looking to stop them. The Easter weekend would signal the start of the 26 race journeyâ€¦
Many questions needed answering but any doubts surrounding Shane Byrne's quality after two years away were dispelled in the very first qualifying session. The 34-year-old outpaced Kiyonari for pole position on the tight Indy circuit with Hill and Laverty locking out the other half of the front row for Swan Yamaha. French teenager Loris Baz was a superb fifth for Motorpoint Yamaha while at the other end of the scale, 39-year-old BSB stalwart Michael Rutter took sixth for Rapid Solicitors-Bathams Ducati. John Hopkins and Josh Brookes were surprising casualties in Q2 though and found themselves on the third and fourth row respectively.
In a dramatic opener, Byrne secured maximum points in a race which saw Laverty crash spectacular out of the lead. Stuart Easton also led at one stage but had to settle for fourth behind Hill and the impressive Tommy Bridewell whose podium finish had Tyco Honda in dreamland. The BSB's international stars had a tough start with Kiyonari's Honda Fireblade breaking down while John Hopkins and Josh Brookes had trips through the gravel and failed to score.
Byrne had his eyes on a home double but Hill had other ideas in race two, overtaking him at half distance. Kiyonari capitalised on a late error from his teammate two laps from home to score 20 valuable points with Laverty doing likewise in fourth. Hopkins also opened his account with fifth while Glen Richards stole an early march in the EVO championship by winning both races.
Only a week had passed before racing resumed, this time at Oulton Park and Swan Yamaha were in dominant mood, leaving the rest of the field trailing in practice before securing a 1-2 on the grid. Hill had edged out Laverty for pole but disaster struck in morning warm-up. Loris Baz had already fallen with fluid believed to be on the circuit and Hill was the next to fall, suffering ligament damage to his shoulder.
Laverty inherited pole position but couldn't convert it into victory, that honour going to defending champion Kiyonari, his fourth Oulton Park win on the bounce. John Hopkins and Stuart Easton impressed to complete the podium with Byrne beating Laverty to fourth. The star of race one finished down in 12th though with Alex Lowes setting a lap time quick enough to put him on the front row for race two, winning the EVO race in the process.
The 20-year-old did the double later on but couldn't stick with his more powerful counterparts, the fight for victory involving Stuart Easton and Josh Brookes. The race was blown wide open on lap nine though when Brookes crashed at the Britten's chicane, destroying his Suzuki. The ensuing safety car wiped out Easton's comfortable lead and John Hopkins took full advantage, becoming the first ever American winner of a British Superbike race.
The opening four races of the season had seen four different winners and the opening race at Croft made it five out of five, as Jon Kirkham broke his duck for Crescent Suzuki. The Derby rider shone in damp conditions to win from 16th on the grid, although he did have a touch of fortune with 'Shakey' Byrne suffering an engine failure when well placed. Byrne bounced back with victory in race two as Kirkham and Michael Laverty came together with the 25 points enough to give the Byrne the overall lead, three ahead of Hopkins and six ahead of Stuart Easton whose 100% record of top six finishes kept him in contention.
Sadly for the Scot, his title hopes, and his very career in the sport, were thrown into doubt with a moment of misfortune in Northern Ireland. Competing in the North West 200, Easton suffered a heavy crash during practice, suffering serious injuries to his pelvis and femur. His season was finished and MSS Colchester Kawasaki were missing their lead rider.
Team Owner Nick Morgan's replacement of choice came in the form of Alex Lowes who surrendered his 60 point lead in the EVO class to get his hands on the ZX-10R. His response to being handed the opportunity of a lifetime was nothing short of stunning. The Lincolnshire youngster took a shock pole position at the ultra-fast Thruxton, beating Hopkins and the fit-again Hill in the process as the British weather continued to show its grim side.
The rain continued into race day, playing beautifully into the hands of wet-weather specialist Michael Rutter. After starting fourth, the Ducati rider fought out a thrilling battle with 'Shakey' Byrne for second place behind Michael Laverty, who became the season's sixth different winner. Rutter would sneak past Byrne for second within sight of the flag, riding around the outside of the Honda at the final chicane. Lowes ended up down in seventh, losing out to John Hopkins and the privateer Hondas of Peter Hickman and Dan Linfoot.
The star of Sunday wasn't enjoying his Bank Holiday Monday too much and crashed out second place in race two, bringing a promising Kawasaki debut to a disappointing end. As at Croft, Byrne came to the fore in the second race of the day, claiming his third victory of the year, while Hickman's impressive afternoon reached new heights with second place, beating Rutter who crashed out on the penultimate lap.
Byrne's championship lead was now up to 15 points with Hopkins' third place in race two the highlight of Thruxton for the American. Despite his enforced lay-off, Easton was still up in third ahead of Swan Yamaha's Hill and Laverty in fourth and fifth. By missing Oulton Park, Hill had fallen 66 points off the pace but with the top six qualifying for the end-of-season showdown, the Kent rider was still handily placed. That's more than could be said for the defending champion who was down in seventh after picking up a measly seven points from the wet meetings of Croft and Thruxton.
He wouldn't trouble the top step of the podium in Knockhill either with Hill completely dominating the weekend. Pole position was impressive enough but race day was sensational. John Hopkins was the only man anywhere near him on Saturday but didn't see Hill for dust in race one, finishing nine seconds adrift in second despite late pressure from Shane Byrne. Rear tyre problems put paid to Hopkins' hopes of a race two victory but that was the least of his concerns as the issue caused him to crash out, resulting in a fractured collarbone joint. Hill stayed well out of trouble, cruising to victory ahead of Byrne and Laverty with Kiyonari returning to something like his best in fourth.
This brought 'Kiyo' back into the top six at the expense of Peter Hickman and Tyco Honda revealed another piece of bad news in the days following Knockhill, announcing that they had parted company with Tommy Bridewell with the Wiltshire man admitting he was struggling to get to grips with the Fireblade. The Quay Garage team opted not to call in a replacement, meaning Hickman and EVO rider Patric Muff would remain in a two rider line-up for Snetterton.
The Norfolk circuit had undergone a facelift since the BSB's last visit and the new 300 layout stood in front of the riders this time around. Opinions were varied with Shane Byrne feeling it provided more of a challenge and Ryuichi Kiyonari admitting it took some getting used to but John Hopkins acclimatised the quickest, claiming pole position from Hill and Kirkham with both HM Plant Hondas on the second row. The spectators were unanimous in their approval and turned out in record numbers or race day.
From an entertainment point of view, the '300' didn't disappoint with both races going down to the wire. Hill and Hopkins disputed the opening victory and the American prevailed, snatching the lead at the Montreal hairpin on the final lap, much to Hill's chagrin. The tight right-hander would catch him out in the second race too as Hopkins fought with polesitter Ryuichi Kiyonari on lap one. Hill tripped over the back of the HM Plant Honda and was out on the spot but his fall was child's play compared to what was to come.
Shortly before half distance, Alex Lowes was forced to pull out with mechanical problems, leaving oil on the start/finish straight. Simon Andrews and Jentin Racing's Steve Brogan were next on the scene and crashed in spectacular fashion, with both bikes sent skywards after making contact with the Riches tyre barrier. Andrews injured his shoulder while Brogan suffered a broken leg but considering the nature of the accident, the injuries were thankfully minor.
When the race resumed, so did the drama and Hopkins found himself embroiled in another last lap dogfight, this time with Shane Byrne. An outstanding move at Coram gave Byrne the lead two laps from the finish but Hopkins was in no mood to settle for second, diving up the inside into Oggies next time around. Contact was inevitable and both ended up on the grass. Third-placed Ryuichi Kiyonari couldn't believe his luck and inherited a first victory in over two months with Josh Brookes promoted to second. Hopkins and Byrne did make it to the finish, albeit in third and fourth.
For Brookes in particular, the 20 points were all important as it moved him back into the top six at the expense of Stuart Easton but with six riders within 17 points of him, the race to qualify for the Showdown was very much alive heading to Oulton Park in mid-July.
The excitement was cranked up another notch by the return of another former MotoGP rider, and recent BSB race winner, in James Ellison who took over from Dan Linfoot on the Sorrymate.com Honda. The World Supersport frontrunner made an inauspicious start in qualifying, only managing 19th, while Hopkins' pole streak continuing.
His victory hopes were scuppered by the great British weather though as he slid off at Lodge, presenting Tommy Hill with a lead he never looked like losing. Shane Byrne had difficulties in the torrential conditions and lost ground to Josh Brookes and Michael Rutter who deprived him of a place on the podium. Michael Laverty was sixth behind Gary Mason but all thoughts were with younger brother John who suffered multiple injuries, including two dislocated shoulders and two broken ankles, after a horror crash in Friday practice.
Michael had a place on the front row for race two at Oulton but the weather conditions deteriorated still further and rendered any further racing impossible. The outstanding race would take place at Cadwell Park instead but before that, there was the summer triple-header at Brands Hatch to get through.
As has become tradition, Paul Bird's Kawasaki WSBK team joined the paddock but Tom Sykes had suffered an injury weeks earlier, ruling him out. Joan Lascorz was fit and ready though with Australian Broc Parkes joining him for three races on the GP circuit.
Lascorz impressed to put his ZX-10R on the front row but yet more wet weather changed everything later in the day, turning race one into a lottery. Josh Brookes pulled out the winning ticket after an inspired decision to start on slicks, a choice shared by Michael Rutter and Gary Mason who joined him on the podium to boost their chances of making the showdown. The championship leaders didn't cover themselves in glory with Hill, Byrne and Kiyonari struggling on wets while Hopkins and Laverty could only manage fourth and eighth respectively.
Byrne and Hill atoned with a victory apiece on Sunday to seal their places in the Showdown with Hopkins picking up a brace of podium finishes to join them in the top six. Michael Laverty's place was also virtually secured while Josh Brookes and Ryuichi Kiyonari still had work to do. The Australian was 16 points clear of Michael Rutter in seventh but Kiyonari's position was much more precarious, only five points ahead with 75 on offer at Cadwell Park.
For Hopkins, it was just as well that his Showdown place was sewn up as the Californian wouldn't make the trip to Lincolnshire. 'Hopper' had been given a wildcard entry with the Rizla Suzuki team for the Czech Republic MotoGP at Brno but only made it as far as Saturday Practice when a crash left him with a dislocated finger, necessitating a couple of weeks out of action.
Sunday's race was carried over from Oulton Park and Michael Laverty made good use of his front row grid slot to lead a Swan Yamaha 1-2 but plenty of action took place in their wake. It all centred on the fight for third between Brookes and Rutter with a podium and a possible showdown spot up for grabs.
Brookes sensed an opportunity coming into the Hall Bends but Rutter didn't give an inch. In the end, the Ducati rider came off second best and retired while Brookes raced on to finish third. On reflection, the stewards deemed the Australian to be at fault and threw him out of the race, promoting Shane Byrne up to third. Kiyonari was a solid fifth for HM Plant Honda and Rutter's misfortune gave him valuable breathing space in the race for sixth spot.
Rutter wouldn't score a point in Monday's two races either, confirming Brookes and Kiyonari as the final pieces of the championship puzzle, and Tommy Hill ensured he would begin it as leader with his sixth and seventh wins of 2011. Despite scoring the most points in the 'regular season', Shane Byrne would start the Showdown seven points in arrears while Hopkins had 11 points to make up. Eight points further back, Michael Laverty held fourth place with Brookes and Kiyonari each a further point behind.
With momentum firmly on their side, Swan Yamaha dominated qualifying at Donington Park with Hill smashing the lap record on his way to pole. Hopkins was back in action and took third on the grid with Peter Hickman the wildcard in fourth. Byrne, Brookes and Kiyonari had to satisfy themselves with a place on the second row.
Kiyonari may well have aced the Showdown 12 months ago but luck wasn't on his side this time as mechanical problems took him out of race one. Josh Brookes didn't make the best of starts either with sixth a poor start. It was left to the other four contenders to decide victory and despite leading for much of the race, Byrne missed out on the podium. Hill couldn't convert pole position into 25 points either and with a late overtaking move on Laverty, Hopkins drew first blood despite feeling the after-effects of his Brno injury.
Incredibly, 'Hopper' did the double later on after holding off Hill but two more title contenders took themselves out of the mix. Laverty and Byrne had their eyes on first place on the run down to Redgate on lap one but both ended up in the gravel and well down the order. Both scored points, but Hopkins and Hill had pulled out a lead. Kirkham took the final place on the podium and with it, the lead in the Riders' Cup while Martin Jessopp claimed his best ever result in fourth, giving Rapid Solicitors- Bathams Ducati a welcome boost in Rutter's absence.
The penultimate round of the Championship took the BSB to Silverstone and Laverty felt immediately at home at the “home of British Motorsport”, securing pole position. Hopkins would continue his 100% record in the Showdown though with another supreme victory while Laverty beat teammate Hill to second. Brookes and Byrne finished right on the tail of the Swan Yamahas but further ground was lost in the title race.
With that in mind, Brookes' performance in race two was outstanding as he brought Hopkins' winning streak to an end, although third was far from disaster for the American. Hill was delighted to pull some points back on him though with second place, giving him eight points to make up at the Brands Hatch finale. Laverty, Brookes and Byrne needed snookers going into the final weekend but Kiyonari's hopes had already been extinguished, ending his reign as champion.
One title had been decided at Silverstone though with Glen Richards wrapping up the EVO Championship. With Alex Lowes leaving WFR Honda early on, the Australian took over with consistent point-scoring. Graeme Gowland ended the year with nine wins out of ten but Richards had built up such a lead that the crown was his with three races to spare.
And so after five months of flat-out wheel-to-wheel combat, just three races remained and we were effectively left with two realistic challengers. It was Hill vs. Hopkins for the title of British Superbike Champion.
Hopkins got the jump in qualifying, taking third with his rival in fourth, but Josh Brookes stunned everyone with a wonderfully taken pole position, edging out Laverty on the other Swan Yamaha. The battle for pole was repeated in the race as Laverty and Brookes dominated with the Ulsterman taking the honours, but the two title contenders were inseparable right the way to the finish line.
Hill dived up the inside of Clearways to snatch third but the Suzuki had the legs down the home straight, giving Hopkins a crucial advantage into the last two races. This wouldn't be the last time they'd arrive into Clearways side-by-side.
We'd all hoped reliability issues wouldn't come into play but disaster struck for Crescent Suzuki in race two. Hopkins was brought to a halt by an electrical problem on the opening lap and Hill closed the gap with fourth, although he was beaten to the podium by an inspired James Ellison, giving Sorrymate.com Honda their first ever rostrum finish. Hopkins fought desperately to salvage some points and made it up to 12th but his lead was now a mere two points and suddenly there was everything to play for in the final race of the year.
Victory in race two had gone to Shane Byrne, an emotional moment for the Londoner who had recently become a father for the second time. 'Shakey' dedicated the victory to Lilly-Jade and followed it with another stunning success in the final race but in truth, all eyes were on the events taking place behind him.
Ellison led the battle for second from Hopkins and Hill with the respective teammates looming just behind but Hill grasped the initiative with four laps to go before depriving Ellison of second shortly afterwards. Hopkins followed him through, as he had to, but with four points difference between second and third, he had to overtake Hill and had one solitary lap to do it.
At Surtees, Hopkins made his move with authority but with everything on the line, Hill was in no mood to let it lie there. At the end of the back straight, Tommy dived past, only to lose the place back at Westfield. Sheene's curve is certainly not renowned as an overtaking spot but Hill threw caution to the wind to regain second. This time he had one corner in which to hang on.
There was no point holding back now and Hopkins gave it everything. The GSX-R1000 was first to the apex of Clearways but ran slightly wide, giving Hill the edge coming onto the start/finish straight. As each metre disappeared, Hopkins drew further and further alongside the Yamaha and Tommy had never been so desperate to see a chequered flag. It came, in the nick of time.
The season was over but neither knew who had taken the spoils but the reaction of the crowd said it all. Tommy Hill was the 2011 British Superbike Champion. Understandably, Hopkins was devastated to have come so close but as a BSB debutant, he had everything to be proud of.
Shane Byrne finished the year as the highest overall points scorer and left to rue the showdown format which potentially cost him a third championship but if the Showdown had ever shown its value, it had done so in 2011. Star performers came in the form of Kirkham, Riders' Cup winner, and Peter Hickman who ended the season in ninth place while Graeme Gowland was the top EVO rider in the overall classification despite missing out on the title.
In total, the 2011 MCE Insurance British Superbike Championship saw over 13 hours of racing and who would imagine that 0.006 seconds would decide it all. It is indeed fine margins that decide matters in motorcycle racing and in 2011, Tommy Hill was marginally better than the rest.
2011 MCE British Superbike Championship with Pirelli & BSB-EVO
Riders Championship (Final Standings)
|1 (C)||Tommy Hill||Yamaha||Swan Yamaha||7||647|
|2||John Hopkins||Suzuki||Samsung Crescent Racing||5||645|
|3||Shane Byrne||Honda||HM Plant Honda||6||625|
|4||Michael Laverty||Yamaha||Swan Yamaha||3||601|
|5||Josh Brookes||Suzuki||Relentless Suzuki by TAS||2||598|
|6||Ryuichi Kiyonari||Honda||HM Plant Honda||2||526|
|7||Jon Kirkham||Suzuki||Samsung Crescent Racing||1||210|
|8||Michael Rutter||Ducati||Rapid Solicitors-Bathams Ducati||164|
|9||Peter Hickman||Honda||Tyco Honda||155|
|10||Gary Mason||Kawasaki||MSS Colchester Kawasaki||139|
|11||Martin Jessopp||Ducati||Rapid Solicitors-Bathams Ducati||110|
|12||Chris Walker||Kawasaki||Pr1mo Racing||105|
|13||Graeme Gowland||Honda||Team WFR||92|
|14||Loris Baz||Yamaha||Motorpoint Yamaha||88|
|15||James Westmoreland||Honda||Team WFR||88|
|16||James Ellison||Honda||Team Sorrymate.com||79|
|17||Tommy Bridewell||Yamaha||Motorpoint Yamaha||76|
|18||Stuart Easton||Kawasaki||MSS Colchester Kawasaki||69|
|19||Dan Linfoot||Honda||Tyco Honda||63|
|20||Alex Lowes||Yamaha||Motorpoint Yamaha||60|
|21||Glen Richards||Honda||Team WFR||54|
|22||Ian Lowry||Kawasaki||MSS Colchester Kawasaki||27|
|23||Scott Smart||Ducati||Moto Rapido Ducati||21|
|24||Joan Lascorz||Kawasaki||Kawasaki World Superbike Team||17|
|25||Barry Burrell||BMW||Buildbase BMW Motorrad||13|
|26||Patric Muff||Honda||Tyco Honda||11|
|27||Karl Harris||Aprilia||Splitlath Motorsport||10|
|28||Steve Brogan||Honda||Jentin Racing Honda||8|
|29||Simon Andrews||Kawasaki||Buy-Force.com PR Racing||8|
|30||Jake Zemke||Honda||Team WFR||8|
|31||Broc Parkes||Kawasaki||Kawasaki World Superbike Team||7|
|32||John Laverty||BMW||Buildbase BMW Motorrad||6|
|33||Hudson Kennaugh||Kawasaki||Buy-Force.com PR Racing||5|
|34||Dan Kneen||Kawasaki||Marks Bloom Racing||3|
|35||Tom Tunstall||BMW||Doodson Motorsport||1|
|36||James Hillier||Kawasaki||Bournemouth Kawasaki Racing||1|
Throughout this week, The Checkered Flag will be looking back on motorcycling in 2011. Relive the thrills and spills at www.thecheckeredflag.co.uk. Here is when you can see the seasons revisited…
Tuesday 6th December: 125cc Season Review
Thursday 8th December: Moto2 Season Review
Friday 9th December: World Superbike Championship Season Review
Sunday 11th December: MotoGP Season Review