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Tom Sykes
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Every [under]dog has his day: WorldSBK speeds into action

Feb 212018

2018 WorldSBK will soar into a blur this weekend. One of the world’s best and fastest circuits – Phillip Island in southeast Australia – will again stage an exhilarating and pulsating opening fare for riders, teams, fans and motorcycle racing followers around the planet.

The framework narrative for 2018 has already been cast: three times world champion Jonathan Rea is chasing more records and history with a fourth crown on the ZX-10RR Kawasaki, his same factory team are one of the worst penalised with the new technical rules to slice revs away from manufacturers on a sliding scale of capacity and success and Rea’s opposition is expected to be harder than ever with Ducati, Yamaha, Aprilia and Honda all upping their game to alter the green ‘shade’ to the series.

Someone other than Rea is looking to maintain the dominant colour of WorldSBK: 2013 champion Tom Skyes. The 32 year old has existed largely in his teammate’s shadow since 2015 and on the racebike he helped morph through variations based on the uppity regulations in the last half a decade. Sykes’ 52 podium finishes and results of 3rd-2nd-3rd in the last three seasons indicate that #66 is very much one of the pace-setters of WorldSBK but his chances to re-assert a position as the ‘No.1 Ninja’ has been limited. One of the lowest points came in Portugal last summer when a fast and fiery crash in Free Practice at Portimao, Portugal led to a mangled left hand and blunted his challenge to Rea even further.

“Many people probably thought ‘it’s just a little finger blah, blah, blah’ but it was actually two fingers and the base of my hand,” the direct and no-nonsense Englishman says from the confines of the temporary stage erected in the team’s Barcelona workshop and at the scene of the 2018 Team Presentation two weeks prior to Phillip Island. “I’m not sure if anybody has ever noticed but to ride a superbike then two hands is a bit more beneficial than one. There were a lot of clueless people making comments at the time but the truth is that it was difficult. Up until the end point of the season I had been mostly riding with my thumb and the first two fingers – a bit of a ‘claw’. After testing I thought ‘enough is enough’ and had the metalwork removed. I feel that it will be better for Phillip Island. I feel very prepared this year.”

 

Rea may have lavished Kawasaki in WorldSBK glory since 2015 but Sykes is quick to remind the large audience in Barcelona that he has been a championship player for six years with the ZX. Three attempts to get-the-better of Rea have not paid off though and Sykes is again altering his approach to the coming campaign. The goal? To be consistently vying for position as de facto head of the mighty Kawasaki set-up.

 

“Hmmm, it is just a shame for me with this bike that I am not getting the best from myself. Jonathan is doing a great job but when I’m in the motorhome thinking of the situation then I’m disappointed because I know I have more in the tank to give to Jonathan and the competition,” Sykes describes. “So I’ve been working hard in winter testing to not push the bike to the limit in order to brake earlier and do things differently. Ride more softly. At the moment when I give the bike the ‘Tom Sykes shoulders’ it doesn't like it. We have two different dynamics here and two very strong and competitive guys in the Kawasaki camp. It will be interesting on race day at Phillip Island,” he adds.

 

 

“We’re in a world championship,” he underlines. “When people say Jonathan is clearing-off with it and it is boring then I think that is a load of sh**e to be honest. You have factory riders and factory teams: Chaz [Davies] has his days, I have mine and so on. Sometimes the cream rises to the top and that's the nature of the beast.”

 

A Superbike stalwart and the fourth Briton to enter the Champions list since the Production-based competition originated in 1988, does Sykes still think it is a good time to be a Superbike rider? “I don't know,” he muses. “It is difficult to say. It seems there are certain people who want to dumb-down the series and give it a bad reputation. It is not right and it is not racing. What kind of example is it to teams, manufacturers and riders that when you put in the effort then you get penalised? The way I was brought up [then] the more effort you put-in the more rewards you get for it.”

 

Meanwhile Rea still talks of “living his dream” with Kawasaki despite awards, acclaim, an impossibly busy schedule and constant rumours of a berth in MotoGP for 2019. Tests in Spain, Portugal and lastly in Phillip Island itself confirmed that the ‘clipped’ ZX-10RR is still a formidable weapon in the Northern Irishman’s hands.

 

Rea is again the principal target in WorldSBK and one of his hottest pursuers could be Pata Yamaha’s Alex Lowes. The 27 year old enters his third term with the sumptuous R1 and after having claimed four podiums appearances in 2017 on the ever-improving YZF package. “We have had a really strong test because we have managed to find solutions to all the issues I had here at the race, which means I have a lot of optimism heading to Phillip Island!” the Englishman said after the recent Portimao sessions. “I've tried to not push too hard and 'keep my powder dry', as they say, before the first race and I am ready to go!”

 

Superbike fans remain poised with a similar sense of anticipation and to see who will be the first to crack into the granite Rea-era.

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