With news of Leon Haslam’s return to BSB for the 2016 season, it made sense to pick up the phone to BSB series director Stuart Higgs and get his feelings on Haslam, Josh Brookes departure to WSB, Byrne’s feelings on 2016 and the young guns in the series.
SB: So who approached who to get Leon back on the BSB grid?
SH: Leon pops up on the rider radar every year around September time. Sometimes it seemed to be something that could be used to help move deals along in WSB and other times there was never quite the right set of circumstances to make it happen. As his options unfolded in WSB with letters of intent from various teams approaching deadline, it was clear that there was a chance for us to put a package together. We were keen from the outset but with Leon being the last race winner in WSB, I was always on guard that they might try and gazump us at the last minute. It was a dicey old time and I’m relieved that it has come to fruition, Haslam is great addition to the championship. He comfortably covers off Brookes moving on. If your current champion has gone to WSB, but the guy that replaces him won the last race there, you’ve done a good thing.
SB: How much of an impact did Milwaukee and Josh Brookes leaving have on the series?
SH: To use a football analogy, if you won the league and then your top goal scorer said he was leaving to go and play for a different club, it would mute the celebration. Up to and including the final round of the championship, the Milwaukee team were still saying to me that they weren’t going to WSB immediately, even booking hotels for BSB races in my presence! Either that or there’s a Premier Inn in Doha! Them leaving it late to move to BMW in WSB has had a knock on effect in terms of the merry go round process with our teams and riders, but you only have to have a quick look at how the 2016 season is shaping up to see that we have it covered. If Milwaukee announced their intention to go earlier in the year, then it would have been easier to take it on the chin and prepare.
SB: Did you take their decision personally?
SH: Look, I got a call on Xmas eve 2009 when the team told me their title sponsor had gone pop, we pulled a rabbit out of a hat for them and they carried on racing, we worked together as professionals and dealt with it. This could have been handled much better. Josh Brookes had a phenomenal second half of the season in 2015. In his own words, the R1 in BSB spec was amazing. Arguably the factory Kawasaki in WSB is at a level above everyone else’s, though the factory Ducati is also very good. The WSB spec Yamaha is as yet unproven and BMW are only operating on a customer level. Anyone that knows racing will know the difference between a full factory bike and a customer one and the differences that brings on track.
SB: How do you think Josh will get on in WSB?
SH: The last thing we want to see is our champion struggle and I would love to see him emulate Troy Bayliss and Neil Hodgson by adding a WSB crown to his BSB one. I think he’s an adaptive guy that is very good at getting on a bike and riding the wheels off the thing. He’s on a new bike, in a championship that is quite different to when he was last in it. Though his character is his strongest attribute, he has always had very strong personal desire to prove himself in WSB, this is his moment. I really wish him well.
SB: What about your thoughts on Haslam’s success in BSB? It’s fair to say that in the past, we’ve seen some big-ticket riders coming into the series that haven’t lived up to the hype.
SH: Leon has the distinct advantage of having raced here before. Last time he was here, the series was as competitive as ever. He comes to BSB off the back of being the most recent winner of a WSB race. People seemed to doubt his credentials before the 2015 WSB season. He proved with wins and podiums that he is as good as he’s ever been and that expectation will be high. I’m positive he’ll be able to do the bike and the team justice.
SB: In racing terms, how do you think the rest of the grid will get on with Haslam?
SH: Leon Haslam coming in won’t have changed things over night. Aside from the obvious talent that we saw on all three steps of the podium throughout 2015, a stack of new blood has crept up on the front-runners. Danny Buchan, Luke Mossy, Glen Irwin and Peter Hickman will all feature at the sharp end next year I’m sure. The level of young homegrown talent that is ready to mix it up proves how good the depth of the field is. Also, in terms of the manufacturers, the final race of the year saw two of the oldest bikes on the grid in the Honda and the Suzuki finish within two seconds of the winner on a BMW. Testament to the series and the rules.
We also caught up with Leon Haslam and Shane Byrne.
SB: Leon Haslam, welcome back! What are your thoughts on racing with Shakey again?
LH: Shakey and me have had some epic battles in BSB. He’s the rider that has won the most and he’s back with Ducati on a factory backed bike, a manufacturer that he has done a lot of winning with in the past. For sure he wont be out there with anything other than wins on his mind.
SB: It’s been a fair few years since you lined up to race him, what can we expect?
LH: The last time we raced in BSB was 2008, he hooked my handlebar going into the last chicane of the last lap and I came off worst, landing on the grass while he took the win. I’m really excited at the prospect of racing him and the rest of the grid in BSB again. If we pick up where we left off, the fans are in for a treat.
SB: So now you’ve signed and you know what’s happening for 2016, what does that mean for your training schedule?
LH: Obviously things have been up in the air over the last month or so in terms of me sorting my ride for next year. By now I’ve usually finished my little bit of down time and I’m back into a testing and fitness training programme for WSB. With this shift and the very recent signing of the BSB contract, I’ve got something to focus on now and my training has already been tailored to suit. I’m working with the Lowes brothers, a couple of mx riders and some top level boxing trainers and fighters. Although I’ve recently had a small operation on my arm, it feels like the first season in ages that I’m not carrying an injury around in the run up to the start of the season. I’ll be ready to go for round one and will be giving the GBMoto Kawasaki and the race fans everything I’ve got.
SB: Shane, what are your thoughts on Josh riding the BMW in WSB?
SB: To be fair, in some ways I respect the move. I always wanted to be a world champion and know that 20 BSB titles won’t make me one. In my opinion, Josh got out probably at the only time he ever could, although I don’t get why you’d contemplate going on on without a factory ride though.
SB: Shakey, we’ll let you have the last word on Leon’s return to the series. What are your thoughts?
SB: I think it’s great that Leon is coming back. The tougher the competition, the greater the satisfaction when you win. He’s been in WSB for years and him winning the last race of the season there clearly shows that he’s definitely fast. People will get a true feel for how fucking fast and competitive BSB actually is when they see how he gets on in the races.