2018 was the year that Leon Haslam finally captured the Bennetts British Superbike Championship. After finishing as runner-up on three previous occasions, and cruelly losing the title after a brake failure in 2017, he dominated the 2018 season to secure his first title.
Haslam took 15 race wins, six podiums and achieved a 100% finishing record on his JG Speedfit Kawasaki, ending the season 70 points clear of his nearest rival, Jake Dixon.
In the first of a two-part interview, Haslam speaks to The Checkered Flag about his title-winning campaign in BSB.
Congratulations on winning the BSB title. How does it feel to have finally captured the championship after coming so close on many occasions?
I think it’s a relief. It’s one of those things where you work every year and you do your best, but in racing there a lot more downs than there are ups, so you have to take the positives out of every situation. Every year I’ve felt like I’ve been riding good enough to win and I can always extract positives from each year, but to finally get a championship to show for that obviously makes it more worthwhile.
What was going through your mind on the final lap on the Saturday (Brands Hatch). You were in sixth and you could see Dixon up in second – What were you thinking?
It was a strange race for me because all year I’d been pushing on to win. I won 15 races by having a strategy and a tactic, and by not trying to risk too much. I knew I only had to be top seven, because I could see that Jake wasn’t going to win in the position he was in.
I think it would have been different if Jake was winning. I would have probably pushed on to be in the top three but just to roll round in sixth was hard and a little strange. I did what I needed to do. I knew the weather was going to be bad on the Sunday and I didn’t want it to be my mistake which lost me the championship so we just brought it home.
How difficult was it for you to motivate yourself and go again after the unfortunate turn of events at Brands Hatch last year? We all remember the great scenes of sportsmanship as you went to congratulate Shane Byrne.
Honestly, it was easy. I lost that championship through three mechanical failures at the final round. I had eight DNFs that season and only one was my fault, so I knew I was riding well and doing everything I needed to. All I needed to do then was to get back to being fit again and I had the whole winter to do that, plus I was staying with the exact same team, the exact same boys, to refine all the areas that we may have struggled with – and that’s exactly what happened.
So, for me it was very easy and very clear to know what we needed to do to get that championship.
You mentioned the eight DNFs last year – this season you had a 100% record. Alongside the reliability, which areas of the bike were improved upon the most?
Material wise the bike’s exactly the same. In the British Championship we’re all on the same equipment; you get the engines tuned by a local tuner, you buy the same suspension from Öhlins – it’s a superbike so you’re not allowed to change anything else from the standard bikes.
Fundamentally everything was there. It’s then down to the work that was done in the workshop with the mapping, the fueling, getting a steady base, understanding how to set the bike up with the chassis to help tyre life and to help me. And also, to know from my point of view the strengths of the bike and work to those in setting it up.
This year, even though we got more than double the fastest laps compared to everybody else, I was never setting the bike up to do one lap, I was always setting up for race pace and to be strong towards the end, which is where I won most of my races. Where others would probably set up for qualifying or one lap-time, we knew where we needed to be to fastest over 20 laps rather than just one.
You enjoyed quite a comfortable lead in the standings for a long period of time. As a rider, mentally, is that a good or bad thing?
With the Showdown format it actually makes no difference whatsoever. I was just thinking about race wins because it didn’t matter if I crashed. I got into the Showdown way before the cut off point, so really all I knew was that every time I won a race I got five points. That was the only thing in my head all the way through the season.
Then, when the Showdown arrived, because I had one of the biggest leads ever in terms of podium credits, I didn’t then have to go and win. Even though we went and got the double at Assen and places like that, I knew I didn’t need to win but I didn’t want to change the way I approached the weekend so it was difficult.
When you have a lead where you don’t have to win it can make you second guess whether you need to push, or if you need to take risks, but it had been working all year long to ride how I had been doing so for me it was a no brainer to go at it in the same way.
Looking back over your 15 race wins this year, which one stands out to you as your favourite, or perhaps the one you had to work hardest for?
I think my Thruxton win was one of my best, purely because I’d never won or come close to winning there on any bike. I have struggled with my style there and Kawasaki has struggled as a manufacturer, so to win there and overcome some demons on how to ride that place and how to set the bike up was a big thing.
The battles at Cadwell Park were fun. A lot of the time I was racing people who didn’t really have anything to lose. They were just desperate to prove themselves as young riders, wanting to win races. People like Jake, who only had one win before this season, so anytime I was battling with him he was willing to take risks just prove that he could win, whereas I was thinking more about being solid, stable and calculated.
To actually beat someone with that young mindset was really nice. It’s fair play. Jake didn’t really make any mistakes this year, his was riding really hard and he was strong.
Talking about Jake Dixon. He’s moving on to Moto2 in 2019, how far can you see him going in Grand Prix racing?
Honestly, I think that it may be a mistake going to Moto2 – but I wish him all the best because I think it’s a tough class and yes, 22 is a young age but it isn’t in the scheme of Moto2. He doesn’t know any of the tracks, but he does have the fact that they’re all going the Triumph so that does level the playing field a little bit, but I think it will be tough.
If he’s in the top 15 I think he will have done an exceptional job, but if he is in the top 15 I don’t know what he’s going to get off the back of that. I think its going to be tough. If he’d have stayed in Britain I think he would have been the main man to win the championship. I think he could have perhaps gone to World Supersport and won there.
Moto2 is the best place for him to learn as a person and as a rider, and I do wish him the best but I do think that it’ll be a tough year for him.
If we take a look at next season, you and Jake are both leaving. This opens the door for the rest of field, who’s your money on?
If you look at this year, who have people like Glenn Irwin who is moving into the Kawasaki squad. He’ll have a big learning curve with the change of manufacturer, but he finished third in 2018 so in theory he’s got to be the next guy.
I think Josh Brookes showed glimmers of what he was but he’s struggled this year, although he’s going to be on a full factory Ducati next year. Obviously, we have newbie in there with Scott Redding, he’s more than capable of winning but he has to get his head around so many things; the tracks, no electronics, Pirelli tyres and BSB itself, so even though he has the capability I think he’s going to find it more difficult than he thinks.
Bradley Ray impressed me a lot this year, then you have Peter Hickman – aka Mr Consistent. There are so many options and I think out of the youngsters, I believe Tarran Mackenzie is the next guy.
He’s clicked with the superbike, he dominated on the 600, and he has a lot of world experience. Even this year, out of all the riders I would pick him to go on and do better in the world than the others just based on his experience so far.
In the second part of our interview with Leon Haslam, we’ll talk about his move to World Superbike and whether or not he can beat Jonathan Rea.