EXCLUSIVE Leon Haslam - Q&A
9 May 2013
By Christian Tiburtius
An exclusive interview with Pata Honda World Superbike star Leon Haslam, currently recovering from fractures to both the tibia and fibula in his lower left leg at Assen.
The Briton gives the latest on his condition and target return date, whilst also reflecting on his past WSBK experiences with Stiggy Honda, Suzuki and BMW...
The first question has to be how are you?
It's really great to be home after the recent manic days of breaking the leg on Friday, going to two hospitals and then having surgery on Sunday. I'm feeling a little more positive now with the operation having gone better than expected and I'm now concentrating on getting the swelling down so that I can start on the rehabilitation of the soft tissue and getting some movement in the ankle.
Didn't you make a return in record pace after a leg break in Australia?
Yes, I broke the leg on the Tuesday and I was riding on the Friday. It was a difficult break and a couple of screws through the break allowed me to deal with the trauma and ride that weekend.
It was tough, the amount of painkillers I had to run with was huge and I couldn't put any weight on the right leg. Luckily it was my right leg though and I don't really use the rear brake so I was only really missing the anchor point on the bike. The track also helped because it's a left handed circuit.
With this being my left leg though, it's more serious because I need it for shifting gear and a number of other things
On this break I've had a proper job done and had a bar inserted through the centre of the tibia, which is obviously a pretty major operation. With the bar inserted in the bone I can more-or-less walk on it straight away.
The really disappointing thing was that it happened at Assen, a race I was looking forward to, and as Johnny [Rea] showed, one where we could do well. That's the worst part of this injury.
Are you saying you can walk on it now?
With the bone I can, but pain-wise I can't. The bone is still broken. The 10mm bar goes from my knee to my ankle and that supplies the strength and I can walk on the leg without damaging or stressing the bone.
I've got one of the biggest bars available in there with three screws holding it at the knee and two at the ankle joint. They drill the centre of the tibia out slightly smaller than the bar and then hammer it in.
I came back to the UK because I knew that if I had that operation I would have the bone strength straight away and I would just have to deal with swelling and ligament damage which is where I'm at now.
With any other operation I would have had to wait for the bone to heal which takes months and as a racer I haven't got that time.
And you are seriously thinking of Donington for your comeback?
Yes, that's my aim and I've got three weeks ahead of me to achieve that in. But first things first, I need to get the swelling down and remove that staples and stitches so that I can see what other damage there might be regarding ligaments and tendons.
I might not be able to walk in a month's time, but structurally the bone will be OK and I just need to get the movement in the knee and the ankle to change gear. I reckon that I'll be in a better position at Donington than I was in Australia because I will be able to put some weight through the leg.
With all your difficulties, what keeps you motivated to race?
Racing is my life, it's not just something I do at the weekends and when you have an injury like this, the only thing you think of is how to get back to it. Lying here I'm not doing what I want to do and I just want to get back there.
But where is the enjoyment?
For me, it's the thrill of controlling the uncontrollable and the satisfaction of competition. The last three years have probably been the hardest of my career because of injuries and bike difficulties, but that thrill is still there.
It's your fifth consecutive season in WSBK, which began with Stiggy Honda (2009) and Alstare Suzuki (2010). Tell us about those teams and bikes...
The Stiggy Honda was an undeveloped totally privateer machine and we got some great results on it including a podium at Assen. We also beat factory teams such as Haga on the Yamaha and importantly we also beat the Ten Kate Honda, that was like a dream at that time.
There were no expectations and we were overachieving everywhere. I felt as if I was making a great difference and to me that was very satisfactory. When you know that as a rider you've ridden a bike as well as it can be ridden, it's a great feeling.
When we went to [Alstare] Suzuki, it was a far more factory team, though in honesty, the expectation was again not so high. The bike hadn't won many races recently and our main aim was to finish in the top five. Testing showed that we could easily do that and when we got pole, fastest lap and a win at Phillip Island, it was again an absolute dream.
Suzuki stopped the bike's development so every result we got that year was a massive bonus. We got 14 podiums that year and we did everything we needed to do. For me it was almost a flawless season, to beat the factory Yamahas and riders like Cal Crutchlow was a great overachievement.
Suzuki were pulling out though. The year I was with Suzuki, the factory support had already been stopped and my contract was with Suzuki. I wanted to go to a bigger more ambitious team, someone with plans for the future. That was one of the main reasons I went to BMW. Suzuki were honest to me about their plans in WSBK and understood my reasons for moving, the split was amicable.
Which year for you stands out as your favourite in your career?
The whole year at Suzuki stands out because of the great results gained on a virtually privateer team against factory teams like Aprilia and Yamaha. Even when we didn't get the results, the way the team was run meant that we could roll with it more.
That's part of the reason I wanted to move to Ten Kate/Pata Honda because of the more old school family atmosphere of everybody working together, which I have definitely missed.
Is there any similarity between the Stiggy Honda you rode and the Pata Honda you are riding now?
Well, it's the same bike all the way back to 2008. Though the one at Ten Kate is far more developed. The engine is stronger now, it's got a new swingarm, but probably the main difference is the new electronics. It's got the same feel as the Stiggy though.
Take us through your two years at BMW…
I signed with 'Mr BMW' and the facilities and money for development were never an issue. In the first year alone we did 42 days of testing, but even with that, the bike and where they were was just too far away.
The first year was very hard and frustrating. It took such a lot to get them to listen, it wasn't that they weren't listening before, it was just that they didn't have any bike experience. They had some of the cleverest people I know in the various fields, but they didn't have any bike experience or knowledge.
The biggest thing that happened in the second year was that Bernhard Gobmeier got more of a hold of things and got Marco [Melandri] on board. Marco bought his crew and therefore the bike information that BMW was missing with him. For me that was the step forward in bike knowledge that the team needed.
My problems in that year were firstly that I broke my leg before the first race and that was just the first in a series of injuries which destroyed my confidence and secondly the information that came with Marco was controlled from Marco's side of the garage. There was a big divide in the team which worked against me.
It was a big disappointment to me because I felt I got the best out of the Stiggy Honda and Suzuki, but never felt like I got to the full potential out of the BMW.
I could finish in seventh on the Stiggy and feel satisfied because I'd got the most out of it, but even a second place on the BMW could be disappointing because I might have got more. I was really happy with my guys at BMW, but there was always tension because we knew we could win and the expectations were high.
I never felt that I was riding the bike as hard as I could because any time I did push the bike like I wanted to it would always bite me and I'd crash. That can knock your confidence. It did the same to Marco at the end of the season when I think he crashed out in 6 out of the last 7 races when he had to try a little harder.
By the time the end of last season came I was quite happy that BMW were pulling out factory support because it made my decision to leave so much easier.
There were discussions for me to go into the Goldbet team but by that time I found the division in the team too hard to work with. Also I wasn't enjoying my racing and was getting injured too much. I felt that I wasn't gelling with the BMW the way I did with the Honda or Suzuki. I still socialise and get on with the whole team though.
Did you feel that you had the same gear as Marco?
We definitely had the same equipment, it's just that a modern bike revolves so much around the electronics. I'm certainly not pointing any fingers at anyone; the situation was just rather political and awkward.
Did you get on well with Marco?
We weren't pally, pally and socialising every weekend or anything, but we had great respect for each other and that still remains. When I crashed at Assen, Marco came straight around to check if I was OK
From the outside it looked a bit as if your results went down a little after your coming together with Johnny and Marco at the last corner at Donington?
No, not really, I re-damaged my ankle and had a nightmare weekend in America afterwards but I beat Marco in both races in Italy after that and we had several other podiums in the season. Looking at the races after that, there was never one where I felt I should have won because there was always something out of my control that happened.
The exception was Assen where I crashed from a 10 second lead because I was pushing too hard in the rain. That was 100% my fault.
As regards Donington, it was Marco who instigated that. He just went in 15kph faster than he had ever done before and ran wide, which gave Johnny the idea that there might have been an opening for a pass when there wasn't.
There were several occasions where we threw away a lot of points, maybe from eight races, whereas in the year at Suzuki we probably only threw away points from one race. You just can't afford to do that in WSBK. Having said that though, throughout the injuries I had during the season, I never missed a race and it was perhaps the injuries that made it worse.
Tell us about the Ten Kate Honda…
The Ten Kate Honda allows you to ride far more aggressively than the BMW. Having said that though the new electronics package has changed how you ride the bike and you have to work far more on the set up.
The Stiggy and Suzuki had basic electronics which meant that the only option was to ride it hard whereas with these new HRC electronics you need to be far more considered. We're working on them with HRC.
In Australia we had a problem with the bike cutting out under acceleration because the ECU thought the back wheel was spinning and we've been working on a workaround for that during testing to try to trick the system not to do that. At BMW it took two years to get the electronics working though so spending some time getting them sorted on the Honda is normal.
If we went to the old electronics we might actually be faster on a specific race weekend but when we get the new electronics sorted we'll be faster in the long term. We need to persevere.
The bike's quite old and the improvements you can make to it are getting smaller and smaller and it's a credit to the team that they're still finding improvements, but Johnny showed at the weekend that it's still a capable package.
Would you prefer WSBK to have a more basic electronics package then?
That might suit me from the results point of view, but you have to remember why we race. The fact that we're developing such things as ABS, tyres and traction control mean that we're improving safety on the road and those improvements can come from the racetrack to the road quickly.
Also, like in BSB, you can get to a position where a racing bike has less electronics than a road bike and that means that we're not racing the best.
Tighter regulations would affect different teams differently anyway. They might suit the Honda but BMW and Kawasaki on the other hand would be penalised more because their future strategy is more electronics based so the difference in performance would remain.
It's a Catch 22 situation in that we race to promote the company and develop and sell bikes and what we use has to reflect that.
Perhaps electronic levels need to be looked at from a racing point of view though.
Did you feel like you were joining Johnny Rea's team when you joined Ten Kate?
No, not really, Johnny's got his own crew chief and I've got mine. The rest of the team work for the whole team.
When I had problems before Assen, it wasn't just my guys who were working on my bike, it was the whole team. I think at one point I had 15 guys working on my bike! It's a very unique philosophy and the mechanics have worked on the Honda for many years and often work 24/7. They've got huge depth of knowledge. In contrast to BMW, Ten Kate is all about bikes rather than cars.
It's a very pulled-together friendly team and when I do badly, the whole team does badly. When I do good we all do good. We stand and fall together. The frustrating thing for me is that just when I could see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel at Assen, I break my leg.
How 'factory' is the Pata Honda team?
We've got a great relationship with Honda, we communicate directly with HRC and we've always got Japanese technicians helping us out. The team's run by Ten Kate but it's fair to say that it is half factory in that we get direct connection and support from HRC and we report directly to them. Now that we're using new HRC electronics package we're working even more closely with them.
When you sign Leon Haslam, you're also signing the Haslam family right?
My father is employed by Honda in the race school and also to help out Honda riders on circuit even down to the rookie cup riders. On top of all that, he's also there for me every race and it's a great help to me to have a second set of eyes on circuit.
Sometimes he has found it difficult to be accepted into a team as my father, at BMW there were some issues at the beginning for example, but it usually only takes them a few rounds to realise what a benefit he is. 99% of the time if I come and say I've got a particular problem, he'll have come in beforehand and said exactly the same thing. His expert opinion allows us to pinpoint problems for resolution.
My wife and mother travel with me to races and just take care of everything I need to live; clothing, leathers equipment, planning schedules and PR - they do it all. When I'm at the circuit I don't have to worry or think about anything other than racing and all I have to do is turn up and ride the bike.
Ollie gets nervous when I'm on the bike, but if she didn't it wouldn't be normal. The nerves are all part of the job and show the passion we've got for racing. I get nervous before a race but more because I want to do well rather than being scared.
My baby daughter came to her first race at eight weeks old and I've got separate living quarters for her so there is no bother overnight. When you have a tough year like my last one at BMW, having my daughter there definitely put a smile back on my face a few times.
I've got a really good family unit around me.
Among his many achievements, your father was very successful at the TT, are you ever tempted to ride it?
I go to the TT pretty much every year. I'll go again this year with Gary Dunlop (Joey Dunlop's son) for my 30th. It's a fantastic event and you've got to admire the guys who do it. I don't feel it's right for me at this stage in my career, but it's something that I never would count out. The TT's a challenge on its own so you would have to focus entirely on that.
Thanks Leon and hoping to see you ride at Donington.