Leon Haslam will make his return to the World Superbike Championship in 2019 and join forces with reigning four-time champion Jonathan Rea at Kawasaki.
Haslam’s move comes after he clinched his first-ever British Superbike title this season for JG Speedfit Kawasaki. The 35-year-old dominated this year, picking up 15 victories and six podiums, whilst securing a 100% finishing record.
In the second part of our interview with the new British champion, Haslam talks about his move to the world championship and whether he can challenge Rea on the same bike.
You return to World Superbike next year. Can you tell me a little about how that deal came together and did you ever expect to go back to the world stage again?
Every year I had options to go to the World Championship again, but nothing that was capable of winning or nothing that was a full package to win on. I always said I would go back there if I got a full factory ride and when the interest came along from Kawasaki directly, it was for me a no brainer.
It’s an absolute dream ride, an opportunity that I’ve never had in my whole career. I think the deal mainly came from the work that I’d done in Japan with Kawasaki for the 8-Hour and some of of the development work that we’d done out there. It’s nice to be involved with a manufacturer like Kawasaki, as I believe they’ve rewarded me for the efforts that I’ve put in for them and this was all before I’d even won a championship for them.
Honestly, it was an absolute no brainer when Kawasaki put me forward for it and to actually get the ride was a dream come true.
If you weren’t in a position to win this year’s championship, do you think you would have held off making that decision, or would you have still taken the opportunity?
I would have taken this opportunity at any point, at any time of my career – I could have done absolutely nothing before now. I think when this opportunity arises, every single person in the paddock, in any championship, would jump at the chance.
You only have to look what it’s done for Jonathan Rea you know, he’s a four-time world champion on the bounce. Before he arrived there he hadn’t won any single championship, so that shows just how good of an opportunity it is and I know how good the Kawasaki is. I’ve got a tall order – I’m against Jonathan on the same bike but at the same time it’s an opportunity that I literally can’t turn down.
Nobody can get close to Rea in WSBK, do you think you can challenge him for the full season in 2019?
I know it’s going to be a big ask and he’s the best in the world right now, but I’ve raced with Jonathan for around 12 years and I’ve beaten him in championships as many times as he’s beaten me. But, I also know that if I’m anywhere near him, we’re going to be fighting for the top two spots on that podium so that’s my first objective.
It’s mainly down to me, we know the bike and the team are there. I’ve got plenty to learn with a new bunch of guys, a new bike, a bike with electronics, a couple of new circuits, and even when I’ve learnt all that I’ve then got to go out there and beat him. It’s going to be an exciting year and I’m definitely going to give it everything I’ve got.
Rea and Tom Sykes have had their problems this year. If you were to challenge him for race wins, and perhaps the title next season, do you think your relationship with him would be affected?
Me and Jonathan have been riding together since 2005 so we’ve got a good relationship and I think the one thing that we both can do is to leave whatever happens on the track, on the track. A lot of riders struggle with that but I never have, and I think with Jonathan’s mentally and his achievements, he’s not trying to prove himself anymore, he’s just trying to do the best job possible… and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do as well.
WSBK will have a three-race format in 2019, with a new sprint race on the Sunday. Do you think that will help to improve the overall quality of the racing, and in-turn help boost attendance and TV ratings?
I think the racing, from a British point of view at least, can’t get any better as you’ve always got four or five Brits inside the top six or seven. The series is the best of Ducati, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Honda, all the manufacturers are there, and the fundamentals of the championship are there too.
People who come to the races now have one extra race and not only that, but it’s a sprint race which should, in my opinion, play into the hands of people like Sykes, who is fast over one lap, can have a good grid position and then doesn’t have to worry about tyre management and other things.
It will play into different people’s hands and different manufacturers. I still think that the best will come out on top but over three races, all of different lengths, it will mix the racing up quite a bit.
Which circuit are you looking forward to going back to next season, after spending the last three years in Britain?
My favourite circuit is Phillip Island, which is round one. I’ve won there on the Suzuki and Aprilia, alongside podiums on the BMW and Honda, so from my point of view it’s just one of those circuits that you love to ride; you’re in Australia and just everything about it is really good.
We’ve got to wait to see what the final calendar is. There is talk of a return to Kyalami. The last time I rode there was 2010, and I was the last guy to win there in the championship. I’m not sure if it’s still the same layout, but that would be one that I’d look forward to.
Do you ever see yourself returning to BSB? Or do you think you’ll end your career in WSBK?
BSB has been fantastic through my whole career, it’s such a competitive championship and getting to race in front of the British fans is great. It’s the dynamic of how fair the racing is; pretty much any manufacturer can win with the rules that are in place.
I’d love to go back to England and try and get a couple more championships, but at the same time I want to become world champion as well so we’ll see how far that takes me.