After four memorable years together, Billy McConnell and Smith’s Racing have finally parted ways but a change of scenery is the source of great excitement for the Australian who will look to lead the challenge from Down Under in the absence of departing champion Josh Brookes.
McConnell’s biggest moment of triumph (no pun intended) came with Smith’s Triumph in 2014 as he saw off Graeme Gowland and Alastair Seeley in a gripping Supersport title tussle but rider and team couldn’t have chosen a tougher season to join the BSB party. “The competition was ridiculous”, he told TCF. “Every track we were under the lap record and at Silverstone I was 0.8s under the lap record but that was only good enough to scrape into the top ten.”
“I thought it was a good year for us and the team. It was the first time Smith’s Racing had done superbikes so we always knew we would be up against it, especially with no factory backing and only one rider to develop stuff. But in my eyes, it was a productive year especially as it was one of the toughest years with the competition. Overall it was a little frustrating as well, coming from winning a championship but we had one podium which we worked hard for but it was good though because when you did get a good result, you knew you weren’t given it”.
Although he was a regular top ten challenger in the first half of the year, Cadwell Park was unquestionably the highlight as McConnell claimed a sensational podium, defeating Tommy Bridewell in a late battle in race one. Testing dates were few and far between in 2015 with other commitments understandably demanding a lot of the team’s time but McConnell was pleased to demonstrate his talents at a circuit such as Cadwell with the benefit of some extra preparation.
“We knew we wanted to be in the top ten and anything in the top five would be like a podium. Unfortunately we didn’t get any development as the team were busy with the TT and things like that. Obviously the first year with a superbike is massive expense so we were testing the waters. We didn’t know which linkages to run and what paths to go down development-wise because the Supersport class was limited. Cadwell has always been a good track for me and we did do a test there beforehand so we had a good setting and eliminated a lot of the problems we’d normally have on Thursday/Friday. A little bit of testing, a little bit of trial and error and we were ready to roll.”
From there, results were much harder to come by but McConnell wasn’t about to let a disappointing end to 2015 temper four fantastic years with Smiths. With their future directions unclear late in the season, Billy believed the time was right to make the switch to Anvil Hire TAG Yamaha but he admits he will do so with a heavy heart given the support Smith’s have provided him with.
“Smiths have been a fantastic team for me. They didn’t know what they were doing for the following season between 600s and Superbike so when Rob (Winfield) rang me with a fantastic deal to come with the Yamaha, I jumped on it. We left on good terms and I can’t thank them enough for four fantastic years and my first British championship. I even stayed with them on the farm for a full season and they looked after me and my partner so they took us into the family. For me though, it was good to go to a new team and spice things up a bit”.
McConnell and TAG are no strangers to each other either, having teamed up in Supersport in the past, but surely neither have been better placed to demonstrate their talents in British Superbikes. After showing flashes of promise aboard the BMW S1000RR last term, McConnell now takes possession of the formidable Yamaha YZF-R1, the machine which Josh Brookes took to title glory and several others did too in their own respective national championships.
The competition between Anvil Hire TAG and Tommy Hill’s ePayMe squad is sure to be intense with both teams intent on finishing the season as Yamaha’s leading outfit but McConnell is hopeful the bike will suit his riding style. Even before he has turned a wheel on it, the R1 has already made quite the impression on McConnell.
“Just the sound of it sounds bloody awesome!” he beamed. “When I’ve seen it on track, it looks very flowing through the corners and I’m hoping with my Supersport background, it will just click for me and we can get away. Looking at every other championship around the world, it looks like it’s got a good background. The BMW was a good all-round bike but there’s a little fine window and we didn’t quite always fit it in there.”
Shaun Winfield and American hotshot James Rispoli will partner McConnell in a three-pronged assault on the 2016 British Superbike Championship and the Australian feels strength-in-numbers could prove to be an advantage as they seek to unlock the incredible potential from Yamaha’s latest machine.
With a heavy testing schedule lined up, Billy expects no stone to be left unturned as he prepares for the opening round at Silverstone on April 10.
“They know all the ins and outs. They’re prepared and they know what it takes to put a good superbike out there. You need a good team around you and they’re a good family team with good people. We’re going testing too on the 20th with some bikes so they’re definitely keen. Now we’ve got three teammates, we’ve got three lots of data to overturn. With TAG, they’ve got a massive testing team and we’ve got one test before Christmas plus an extensive programme once the New Year comes. It will give me more time to understand the bike and build confidence. More track time is good for any rider.”
With another star-studded line-up coming together, McConnell knows once again that he will have to work phenomenally hard to achieve the targets he and TAG have set for the new season. The drive and determination of both team and rider suggests they are sure to spring a surprise or two and with world class opposition standing in their way, Billy McConnell and Anvil Hire TAG Yamaha may be BSB’s 2016 giant-killers.