Kawasaki Racing Team’s Leon Haslam Interview – Bucket and spade brigade member Leon Haslam has been at it in professional superbike racing for 20 years. After winning his first major title—the 2018 British Superbike Championship—the son of three-time World Champion Ron Haslam plans to take advantage of his big break in the sport.
Kawasaki Racing Team’s Leon Haslam Interview
By Eric Johnson
Twenty years after being named the MCN Young Rider of the Year award for placing seventh in the British 125cc Championship, it all came right for veteran racer Leon Haslam last October when the JGR Speedfit Kawasaki racer clinched the 2018 British Superbike Championship. The 35 year-old rider’s first professional championship, it had been a long time coming, but oh so fulfilling after being named Vice Champion in the British series three different times as well as placing in the runner-up position in the 2010 World Superbike Championship. The finest season of the 35 year-old’s career, and perhaps a sort of reward for such a dominating and consistent year, during the late summer months word broke that Haslam would be replacing departing Kawasaki Racing Team rider and former WorldSBK Champion Tom Sykes for the 2019 World Superbike Championship.
“The KRT team is awesome,” said Haslam from a November test on the 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10RR at Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. “I’m sort of moving to the side of the box that Tom [Sykes] had, but with all new guys. Marcel [Duinker], Sykes’ longtime Crew Chief, has been with Kawasaki for 15 years and has been on this project from the start and knows the bike inside and out. Coming over to that side and everything working like clockwork from the get-go, well that definitely gives you a lot of confidence to push on.”
Two decades in the making, and at many times a slog, Haslam lined up in the WorldSBK Series from 2004 through 2015, racing for five different manufacturers, namely Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, BMW and Aprilia along the way. Now, come the extinguishing the lights at the majestic Phillip Island circuit in Australia come February 24, 2019, he will go to the grid on, arguably, the greatest motorcycle the WSBK has ever seen.
“Yeah, honestly, it’s the best opportunity that I’ve had in my whole career,” says Haslam. “I finished second in the world on a private Suzuki, where I wasn’t really expected to even finish in the top five. I’ve had race wins and podiums with six different manufacturers at a world level, but never have I felt I was with a package or with a team that should win. Obviously, [this] year this bike is proven to win. It’s won the last four world titles and has been the work of Johnny and the whole team. It should win and from my point of view, it is an opportunity that I’ve never had before. It’s exciting and I think the hardest thing is going to be Johnny Rea himself. He’s obviously on a roll right now. He’s riding real good. I’m on the bike and with the same team, so now it’s down to me to learn and sort that out.”
As racing fate would have it, reigning WorldSBK Champion Jonathan Rea, and Haslam know each other quite well. The English duo paired together at the Pata Honda outfit in WorldSBK in both 2013 and 2014, and furthermore, teamed together at the 2018 Suzuka 8 Hours, where they finished a fighting third.
“Me and Johnny have known each other for a long time,” said Haslam. “We started schoolboy motocross back in early 1990s. I actually picked him to go road racing as a Red Bull Rookie back in 2003. We’ve been racing together for nearly 14 years. We’ve had some fantastic battles together, and have run some really good championships and races together. We’ve been teammates before and we can get on socially away from the track, but at the same time, it’s all about competitiveness between us and that will obviously drive us both forward.”
And do the two world-class racer see making the KRT team something of a cooperative effort come 2019?
“Definitely. I think that has been one of Jonathan’s main concerns. He’s probably not had the relationship he wanted with Tom [Sykes] over the last few years and Johnny and me do get on well. From a development point of view, we both know that we have similar setups. In fact, we were teammates with each other this year at the Suzuka 8 Hour and used the same bike, so as far as feedback, settings, etcetera, we’re not too far different from each other. That will be good for the development of the bike and we can obviously push one another.
“And with the new bike, the package is real stable. The hardest thing for me was coming from the BSB [British Superbike]-spec bike, you know, no electronics, no traction control, no anti-wheelie, so basically, the feedback that the bike gives you isn’t that much; it just does everything really, really well. Initially [testing in] Spain, I was entering the corners a bit too fast and opening the gas a little bit too early. That all sounds like it should create a fast lap time, but that’s not the way the bike needs to be ridden, so for me it has been more about adapting my style and understanding everything. However, and obviously in this electronic age, the bike gives you that feedback directly because if you enter too early, you spin and you crash. With the electronics, it allows you to open the gas too early and just lets the bike accelerate. For me, it has been more about understanding how the bike needs to be ridden rather than exploring setup or whatever else you can do.”
Haslam actually left the WorldSBK Series at the conclusion of the 2015 season when bike maker Aprilia exited the series. A man without a plan, Haslam made a decision to gravitate back to the British Superbike Series, vowing never to return to WorldSBK again.
“I’ve had a great three years in England,” Haslam said of his three-year stint in Great Britain. “I left the world championship in 2015 and I won my last-ever race at Qatar, so leaving the world championship was kind of tough, especially when I had won that last race. From my side of it, I wanted to be on something competitive and with Aprilia pulling out that year, it kind of made the decision to come join forces with Kawasaki in the 2016 British Championship quite easy. Since doing that, we narrowly missed out on the championship the first two years. To get the championship in the third year was really nice. The team was really good and allowed me to build a really good relationship with Kawasaki. Yeah, the three years that I’ve been in the UK have been really exciting and I’m grateful to get back to the world scene and get back to winning races.”
During the 2010 WorldSBK Championship season with Alstare Suzuki, Leon Haslam won three races and nearly stole the title away from multifold champion Max Biaggi of Italy. And while the Londoner was disappointed with the end result, the year resonates strongly with him as he knows he is more than capable of being a WSBK World Champion.
“Can I win a title? Yeah, for sure. Finishing second in the world seems like a long time ago and I’d love to make that one better. But for me, it’s more about the opportunity and the excitement of what that possibly can be. I’m just going to grab it with both hands and see what we can do. The bike and the team are there and I’ve got a lot of things to adapt to and learn with a new team. In general, I’m pretty excited about it.
“It’s always about the package, you know?” he says. “The bike, the team, the experience and all of those factors will kind of create that opportunity and that championship. For me, it is one of my best opportunities, for sure. At the same time, I know it is going to be a hard year to achieve all I want, but my concentration right now is to maximize what I’ve got and to maximize the bike and maximize the team and if we do that, I’m pretty confident that we can be winning. We’ll have to wait and see where we can get from round one here shortly.”
With what’s left of the winter with only a couple of months remaining before everybody gets on the airplane chartered for Phillip Island, Australia, Leon Haslam has a busy off-season ahead of him.
“Honestly, things have not really stopped for me from finishing the last round of the British Championship,” Haslam says of what’s coming next. “We’ve done a couple of tests and I have a lot of motorcycle shows to do. We have a few more tests on the superbike and then we’ll pretty much fly straight out to Australia on the 11th of February. It’s actually not too far away, but there is a lot to do until then.”
And when he does land in Australia to contest the kickoff of the 2019 WorldSBK season, Haslam feels like he’ll be going back to visit an old, wayfaring friend.
“When I left the World Championship, the one and only race that I really missed was probably Australia,” says Haslam. “I got my first-ever world championship win there and I won there the last time I raced there with Aprilia. I beat Johnny Rea to the line by half a wheel. I have a lot of good memories of Australia and the circuit is one of my favorites. I can’t wait for that whole experience of that approaching first round in 2019.”
And of the goals and objectives Leon Haslam has in mind for the forthcoming WorldSBK world tour, Haslam was declarative in stating, “The goal for any race is to win, especially in my shoes with the bike and the team that I’ve got. I never put too much pressure on myself and I always set little goals and eventually we’ll move towards the top and try to win the championship. The first goal is to win on a Kawasaki and to maximize the package that we’ve got.” CN