2010 World Superbike Championship leader Leon Haslam has confessed that he is hoping for 'a big improvement' over his form at Monza twelve months ago when the travelling WSBK circus returns to the historic Italian track this coming weekend – and as he evinces a pivotal few weeks ahead in the title battle, the Alstare Suzuki ace admits he is eager to get back to winning ways.
Haslam has triumphed twice out of the opening eight races of 2010 – once in the Phillip Island curtain-raiser Down Under and then again at Valencia in Spain last month – and has finished up on the podium in four more of them to arrive at the legendary, high-speed Autodromo Nazionale with a 20-point margin over closest pursuer Max Biaggi in the chase for the coveted crown.
The British star's advantage in the riders' standings has thus far steadily increased with every round, but he is well aware of the importance of keeping the pressure on around Monza's revered, 5.793-kilometre, 300km/h-plus flowing layout – a veritable mecca for petrolheads worldwide, and modified since last year's WSBK event there by way of a change to the first chicane designed to provide a faster and smoother start to the lap – before the championship heads off for a brace of 'flyaway' outings at Kyalami in South Africa and Salt Lake City in the USA.
“Monza is steeped in history and it is always a pleasure going there and seeing the remnants of its past,” enthused the 26-year-old Derbyshire-born star. “The old banking is amazing, and it's hard to believe how people got round it so fast! Fortunately, we don't have to try and do that, but the track we race on is pretty fast also. It's a different circuit to anything else on the calendar; you're sat at around 200mph for a good part of the lap, so engine performance and fuel consumption are pretty crucial to success.
“It's a track where tactics are very important and you have to be able to get your slipstreaming just right. It's easy to be leading a pack of riders going into the Parabolica just before the start/finish straight and end up second, third or fourth! Although there are some very fast bits, there are also some slow-ish corners where hard-braking is called for, so it's important to get a good set-up on the bike.
“Last year I was on a different bike, I qualified 17th, scored no points in race one and got seventh in race two, so I will certainly be looking for a big improvement this time. I had a problem in the second race in Valencia [in 2010] when I could have possibly won, and then I had a first race issue in Assen – so I'm just happy to be knocking on the door of victories.
“In America we'll reach the halfway point in the world championship, before we're back to Europe for the final six rounds – including the British round at Silverstone on 1 August that I'm really looking forward to. The Alstare Suzuki Team continue to improve the GSX-R1000RR, so I'm confident we can maintain our good start to the year for the rest of the 2010 championship. That said, I would really like to get a few more race wins in the bag now – hopefully starting in Italy on Sunday!”
Team-mate Sylvain Guintoli, for his part, is keen simply to put a poor recent run behind him around a circuit he has never raced at before – after the Frenchman failed even to make the top ten in the Netherlands last time out, lapping some way off Haslam's pace as qualifying proved to be a particular Achilles' heel.
“This is going to be a new experience for me,” acknowledged the former British Superbike Championship front-runner. “I know that it is a high-speed track and that slipstreaming can play a crucial part. Obviously, my first job will be to learn the circuit and then try and qualify well.
“That has been a bit of a problem for me recently, but I aim to turn up with my race head on and find a good rhythm right from the start. Anything less will be a problem, so I have to get down to it as soon as I can. Although it is a new track for me, I am looking forward to a good weekend and an upturn on my recent results.”