Whether it’s the public roads of the Isle of Man and Ulster, or the circuits such as Thruxton and Cadwell Park, all roads appear to be leading to success for Peter Hickman so far in 2017. Both disciplines have brought their fair share of silverware this year and the Louth rider arrives at Silverstone eying up plenty more as the British Superbike season reaches a critical stage.
A switch from JG Speedfit Kawasaki to the family-run Smiths Racing squad could easily have been seen as a step down for 2017 but Hickman and the team have risen to the challenge. As the 30-year-old himself points out, the partnership has flourished from the get-go.
“Right from the start, the first race we were fourth, and actually in every single race this year in eight rounds, we’ve been inside the top nine in every single race. There’s only one other rider that’s finished every single race in the points. My worst result all year has been ninth and the last two meetings we’ve been up on the podium and really strong. The BMW has been working really good and the team have been working really good. We’re third in the championship and fingers crossed we’re in the showdown. We’re looking good at the minute but nobody’s confirmed yet because we have a three-race weekend at Silverstone. I’m fairly safe but not quite so we’ll have to see how the weekend goes. I’m looking forward to it but having a crack at the British Superbike Championship is the main aim.”
Hickman’s road racing campaign didn’t get off to the strongest start by Hickman’s own admission with the North West 200 falling short of his own expectations but together with Smiths Racing, he soon hit top form for the Isle of Man TT.
“The North West 200 was average, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. We had to turn up a little bit unprepared, I’d never even sat on any of the bikes before free practice which makes things really difficult”, he explained.
“I actually finished every race inside the top six but was never really in a position to win a race which was a shame. After that, we moved onto the TT and got five podiums from five starts and got third places on the smaller bikes which we weren’t expecting, the Supersport and the Lightweight. That was a nice surprise. I knew I could be there or thereabouts on the big bikes but the smaller bikes, I’m a bit big for! The Ulster GP was really good. I won the Dundrod 150, on Saturday we won the first two events and were second in the main Superbike race after a slight mistake on my part. We could’ve won that really, I led every lap except the one lap I was meant to be leading! We won the next Supersport race and were actually leading the last Superbike race before we had a bike problem but to join a long list of big names to win three races in a day was really awesome.”
The two different disciplines place very different demands on a rider, both physically and mentally, with the highly-charged circuit racing environment providing a stark contrast to the rawness of road racing with the dangers clear to anyone who chooses to face that challenge.
Getting into the mindset of a top-level road racer is a challenge in its own right given that the risks involved are incomprehensible to mere mortals like us that watch from the sidelines, but Hickman doesn’t feel it requires a change in mental approach, more a case of subtle tactical tweaks.
“Preparation is the same, physically and mentally. The short circuit is absolutely on the limit, every corner, every lap, all the time you’re on the point of crashing. You don’t get that at the TT so you approach it slightly differently, you ride the bike slightly differently and brake a bit earlier and run through the corner because generally there’s a big long straight after it and it’s all about the exit onto the straight. If you did that at BSB, you’d be passed by about three guys going in! You’ve got no time to do that. Also, because of the danger element, you’ve got other factors to take into consideration but other than that, the preparation is very similar. The bike at the TT was perhaps a bit more robust, everything that could remotely go wrong was double-safety-checked.”
“It’s a bit more relaxed in road racing, it’s definitely not relaxed in BSB! If you give half an inch, somebody will take ten inches so you’ve gotta be aggressive straight away into the first few turns especially until everyone sorts themselves out. Tyre warmers are so good now. We don’t sit on the grid for very long without warmers so the tyres are generally up to temperature before the start. A bit like on the TT, one of the things I don’t like to do is go fast immediately and I always like to get myself bedded in, then I’ll go.”
At any level, a rider puts so much trust and faith in the tyres underneath him but on the roads of the Isle of Man, that trust is especially important. With its Heat Control Technology, the Dunlops provide Peter with the platform to push immediately out of the gate and he has pinpointed three key factors that he requires from the rubber to enable him to push to the limit while feeling safe on the machine underneath him.
“Stability is a big thing, especially in the high-speed corners. Places like the North West and the TT, we’re doing 200mph so the last thing you want is an unstable bike and a lot of that can come from the tyre. There’s only one thing that sticks you to the floor and that’s the tyre. You obviously want good grip and durability as well and that’s what we get with the Dunlop. Always have and always will. Anytime I’ve ridden a Dunlop, I’ve had all of those, stability, grip and longevity.”
Despite proving so competitive in both, Hickman finds it difficult to choose a preference between the short circuits and the roads. Be it the frenetic pack racing of Cadwell Park or Brands Hatch or the race against the clock at the TT, Hickman takes enjoyment from both.
“I like the close quarters, close proximity of circuit racing, but I also like it at the TT being by yourself. I actually like being by myself at the TT, I don’t like following people, mainly because I like to see where I’m going and what’s coming next. When you’re following someone, you can’t always see what’s in front and you have to trust the person right in front of you. Obviously at the North West and the Ulster GP, it’s a little different with more people around you but most people are fairly safe. We all know the dangers so generally when the passes are made, they’re fairly clean.”
The immediate task facing Hickman is securing his spot in the showdown, requiring a maximum of 39 points from this weekend’s three races at Silverstone to secure his spot in the top six and ‘Hicky’ admits he may decide to exercise caution to ensure he advances.
“Even at Cadwell, I played it safe a little bit. I’ll end up doing the same thing at Silverstone I think, depending on the race situation. Obviously, I need podium credits to go towards the Showdown so there are two considerations all the time but the first port of call is to make sure we make the Showdown and after that, maybe we can take our brain out if we need to!”
“I need to make the most of every opportunity but I don’t see a reason why we can’t make the showdown but also compete for the top three.”