The British Superbike Championship returned with a bang at Oulton Park at the weekend and although there were only 4000 of them on race day, how good was it to see fans back at trackside??!!
They were treated to three superb races with close racing all the way through the field but they only got to see one winner as Jason O’Halloran swept all before him, the McAMS Yamaha rider leaving the Cheshire venue with a maximum haul of 75 points.
In a way, it wasn’t a surprise. The Australian took two out of the three wins at the venue in 2020 and had topped the timesheets in two of the four pre-season tests so came into round one very much as a favourite for honours. It’s fair to say, he delivered on all fronts.
O’Halloran has been a mainstay in the British paddock since 2008 but it’s taken him a long while to really establish himself as the real deal. He’s had to do the hard yards in Supersport and Superstock on more than one occasion and prior to last season he’d only won one BSB race.
Last year though saw him revitalised as he was finally free of injury after a torrid few seasons and had the consistency of remaining with the same team. That trend has continued into 2021 and, after finishing second overall last year, he now has the belief he can win and, importantly, win regularly.
Of course, it’s only round one and there are 30 races still to go with the Showdown also coming back into play this year so it will take a few more rounds before we see the real pattern of the season emerge.
Race long rival
O’Halloran’s closest rival all weekend was the VisionTrack Ducati of Christian Iddon and he had to settle for second on each occasion as the Yamaha man let him do all the work before making his move in the closing stages, doing so on the final lap on two occasions.
Like O’Halloran, Iddon’s results were also no surprise as he took second in all three races at Oulton last year, results he repeated at the weekend. Six runner-up spots in a row is some achievement and he’s another who’s been part of the BSB fabric for some time but is only now truly in a position to become Champion.
Indeed, they’ve both competed in a near identical amount of BSB races, 156 for Iddon and 157 for O’Halloran and the former also looks, and believes, he now belongs at the head of the pack. He’s in his second year with the Ducati Panigale and Paul Bird’s team and has the settled environment needed to challenge for the title. Although, O’Halloran beat him in all three races, he rode superbly well all weekend.
Best of the rest
Whilst O’Halloran and Iddon filled the top two positions in each race, they had Tommy Bridewell, Tarran Mackenzie and Peter Hickman for close company on each occasion, the latter impressing on the new BMW M1000RR.
It’s been a torrid time of late for the German manufacturer in BSB and they failed to register a single podium in 2020 whilst Hickman’s best result was a relatively lowly eighth. However, if Oulton is anything to go by, they’ve most definitely turned the corner and the combination of man and machine was the best it’s ever been.
The most experienced man in the field has lost two stone in the winter months – weight which is of benefit at the likes of the Isle of Man TT but the opposite in BSB – and is clearly seeing the benefits.
That, together with the feel-good factor of both a new bike and a new team, Faye Ho Racing, has given Hickman fresh impetus. And with the International road races again absent from the calendar, this year is the time to make it count on the short circuits.
Third, fourth and fifth place finishes meant he ended the weekend in third overall but Mackenzie and Bridewell weren’t far behind with the latter taking a brace of thirds, which sandwiched a DNF after a coming together with Mackenzie dislodged the chain on the Oxford Racing Ducati.
Third overall in 2019, Bridewell struggled last year as he failed to get a decent set-up with the Ducati on the Pirelli tyres but he too looks reborn this year. The results were good at Oulton but it was the manner in which he achieved them that really impressed.
Mackenzie, meanwhile, wasn’t a million miles away and was never out of the top six but he’ll be hoping team-mate O’Halloran won’t be the one grabbing all the headlines as the season progresses.
Disappointment for Brookes
It wasn’t a weekend to remember for reigning champion Josh Brookes with the Ducati rider struggling all weekend and failing to find a decent set up with the Panigale, citing a lack of drive out of the corners as the main issue. The Australian had a quiet pre-season but few would have expected him to have opened his defence with a tenth place finish in the opening race of the season.
His Oulton Park campaign last year opened with similar disappointment with an eighth but whereas he was able to turn it around then with fourth and then a win, that wasn’t the case this time around.
Instead, sixth was the best he could manage, in the final race, and he never got near a podium place. As he said afterwards, carrying the number one plate can come with a burden but tenth isn’t where the reigning champion should be finishing, a point he was quick to make and acknowledge.
At 39, he’s one of the oldest riders in the field and it does get harder to keep on top but Brookes has all the experience in the world and all it means, at this point, is that he’s had a steady start to the season. Both he and the PBM team are winners and will be back on the top step sooner rather than later.
Shoots of recovery
As well as Hickman, there were other BMW riders to impress, albeit not consistently in each race, with Danny Buchan and Bradley Ray also taking results inside the top five.
Buchan took a best of fourth as he made his debut with the Synetiq team with Ray recording a fifth for Rich Energy OMG Racing. Unlike Hickman though, they were unable to sustain that pace all weekend with Buchan’s other results being eighth and 12th and Ray suffering two retirements.
However, it’s clear the BMW is a different animal this time around and the M1000RR is most definitely an improvement, as it should be, upon the old S1000RR model. Aerodynamic wings have created the downforce to keep the front wheel on the ground whilst the engine and chassis have more adjustability than ever before.
The gearbox has also been significantly improved and the signs, albeit early, are promising for all of the BMW riders.
Further improvements required.
Having surprised a few people in 2020 with their near year-long push for the title, Glenn Irwin and Honda Racing outlined their ambitions to challenge further this time around but the opening round showed they still have work to do.
Oulton was the circuit where they struggled the most last year, the undulations, hills and crests not playing to the strengths of the Fireblade and although they’ve worked all winter to make the bike a better all-round package, Irwin again found the going tough.
He was one of the few riders to use the harder compound rear tyre in the races and was constantly making changes in order to improve the set-up, doing so right up until the final race. However, sixth was the best result he managed all weekend and, like their WSB counterparts, the package needs to be refined further so that it offers a more consistent and more balanced ride.
It also looks like Irwin will have to do it all by himself at Honda with rookie Japanese team-mates Ryo Mizuno and Takuma Takahashi struggling at the back end of the field all weekend although, in their defence, there were some mitigating factors.
As mentioned, Oulton is one of the worst circuits for the Fireblade whilst it’s also one of most technical circuits and physical circuits in the UK for a newcomer to make their BSB bow. Takahashi was also making his return from a damaged shoulder but they now know just how tough BSB is and how big a challenge they face if they’re to push for results at the sharp end of the leaderboard.
Having started watching motorcycle races all over the world form childhood, Phil Wain has been a freelance motorcycle journalist for 15 years and is features writer for a number of publications including BikeSport News, Classic Racer and Road Racing Ireland, as well as being a regular contributor to MCN and MCN Sport. He is PR officer for a number of teams and riders at both the British Superbike Championship and International road races, including PBM Ducati, RAF Regular & Reserve Kawasaki, Dafabet Devitt Racing, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston and KMR Kawasaki. He is also heavily involved with the Isle of Man TT Races, writing official press releases and race reports as well as providing ITV4 with statistical information