Kawasaki has ushered in a new era for its WorldSBK program, as the Japanese brand continues to be the team to beat.
For 2019, the Provec Racing run operation has cut ties with Tom Sykes and brought Leon Haslam back to the world stage to partner Jonathan Rea.
After four years of tension spilling over in the garage between two world champions, there is a hope that Haslam – the reigning British Superbike champion – can finally bring harmony between both sides of the garage.
As Haslam joins the team, he will instantly know his place and what he has to do. After four years of dominance, Rea is clearly rooted as the team’s leader and any other sentiments from within the team would be little more than playing the PR game.
That being said, Haslam will know that he can race with little pressure this year. If he wins he’s gone into the lions den and come out victorious. If he loses he’s gone into an environment where Rea has cultivated success and loyalty since 2015.
It’s almost a win-win situation for Haslam from the outside, but from the inside the WorldSBK race winner knows exactly what he can do.
“This year is so different for me,” said Haslam. “Honestly, for my whole career in WorldSBK – nine seasons – I never had the bike that should have won the championship.”
“Even when I rode the Aprilia, it wasn’t the bike from the year before that won, it wasn’t the team that won. With BMW we had a good package, Suzuki was a non-factory bike. So there was never a year that I’ve got on a bike and a team and said, ‘If I do my job we should win.'”
“This year is different because if I do my job it’s obvious that we can win. This bike has won the last four titles with Johnny. My own expectation is higher because of that success.”
“You always put your own pressure on yourself, but I’ve not had any pressure from the team. This is the biggest and best opportunity of my career, so I’ve got that pressure to deal with. That pressure is coming from inside me, but I’m not getting any pressure from anybody else.
“I’ve got a big learning curve, and I’m not going to say that I’ll win straight away, but obviously that’s what I always aim for. I’m coming into the number one team where Johnny’s won the last twelve races and four world championships.”
“It’s taken four years to get as good as he is on this bike. We’ve raced against each other for years and it was always tough, so with him at his highest now I know it’s not going to be easy. I can’t wait for that challenge though!”
For Rea the song remains the same for 2019; to keep winning. The biggest change is that with Haslam beside him, he feels they can work together. That’s been missing in recent years with Kawasaki, where Rea says the tension between him and Sykes made it almost impossible for them to agree on anything.
It will be refreshing for the reigning world champion to work with a teammate rather than against one, but he also knows that when the racing starts his relationship with Haslam will also start to change.
“With Tom, we never had a working relationship,” admitted Rea. “When I came to the team, all my ideas were quashed because my way wasn’t seen as the right way.”
“He was the development rider, but even after four years he was finding limitations every year. I had a clear target of where I wanted to go. If I said ‘left,’ he said ‘right.’ If I said ‘black,’ he said ‘white.’ When I arrived at Kawasaki I felt like I had to earn my place in the team because of Tom’s success.”
“That was the case even after winning a world championship. Tom is just a very different guy: there was zero relationship between him and Spies, zero between him and Baz, and zero between him and Lascorz.”
“It was the same with me. I don’t feel like it’s me that changed the dynamics inside Kawasaki. I just feel like he works his way and it works for him. He’s a great rider and a champion, and last year he rode some amazing races, particularly in Australia and Assen.”
“With Leon we’re trying to develop the bike together. During the Jerez test, I even said to Pere ‘we need to get this okay’d from Leon so that we can start working with it.’ In Portimao we followed each other for ten laps and came back to the pits and talked about how our bikes were feeling.”
“There’s a lot of guys we need to beat, so we need to make this bike as good as we can. You have to forget about how the bike felt last year because this is what we have now.”
Last year the bike was a winner, the year before it was a winner, the year before that it was a winner. There’s a pressure that comes with being at a top team in any championship.
When success is measured in titles the pressure mounts on riders. For the moment Haslam can ride the early season rounds knowing that after three years in Britain he’s fallen on his feet with the best of the best in WorldSBK.
“A team is a team, and even though I’ve only known these guys for a few tests, I’ve already got a lot of trust in them,” adds Haslam. “I’ve ridden for nearly every manufacturer in WorldSBK, and I know that it takes time to trust somebody.”
“Usually you have to experience good times to build that trust, but with this team they know what they’re doing. When you talk to them, they give you confidence. There’s no second guessing. It’s been really easy for me to trust them. They’re not just saying something might work with the bike. They’ve experienced everything with this bike and that’s gives you confidence.”
Riders always want to beat their teammate. and even though they’re singing off the same hymn sheet in the pre-season, it will be when the Superpole sessions starts in Australia that we’ll get our first indications of what we can expect from the Kawasaki pair in 2019.
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