Regardless of his familiarity of the bike or the circuit, it takes a special rider to challenge Troy Bayliss for race honours at World Superbike level.
Indeed, when Tom Sykes took on and very nearly beat one of the series’ most successful riders around a damp Donington Park, his immediate future was effectively secured.
Up to that moment, while Sykes was being tipped for great things after a progressive rise through the ranks, he certainly wasn’t expected to become a works Yamaha rider in the world championship by 2009.
Indeed, Sykes is yet to win a professional motorcycling title, but with race wins at British Superbike and Supersport level, ‘the Grinner’ has nonetheless established himself as a welcome addition to the grid.
After finishing runner-up to the late Craig Jones in Junior Superstock (even though they finished equal on points), Sykes made his British Supersport debut in 2003 aboard the Northpoint Yamaha. A modestly successful season ensued, Sykes ending the year eighth in the standings and with a handful of points in the world series courtesy of a wild-card ride at Brands Hatch.
TAS Suzuki would provide his home for the next three seasons though as Sykes steadily ascended the Supersport hierarchy, finishing sixth in 2004 and fifth in 2005 – with two maiden wins to his name – before securing the runners-up spot behind Cal Crutchlow in 2006.
Together with Crutchlow, Sykes graduated to the British Superbike category in 2007, but while his rival received factory backing at Suzuki, Sykes settled for a privateer Honda prepared by top independent outfit Stobart Vent-Axia.
Paired with former champion Shane Byrne, Sykes was one of the year’s revelations, completing all but three races and never once finishing outside the top seven. In all, Sykes scored five podiums – including two second place finishes at Donington Park – to end the season sixth overall, just behind Byrne but comfortably ahead of Crutchlow.
Ironically, Sykes would take Crutchlow’s place in the Rizla Suzuki team in 2008, where he would lead the Jack Valentine-led squad to better fortunes. Shrugging off an indifferent start to the year, Sykes scored his first BSB win at Oulton Park before following it up with victories in the two following races.
Lifting him into a provisional runners-up spot, although Sykes was eventually overhauled by Leon Haslam and Crutchlow to leave him fourth by the season’s end, it remained a satisfying campaign.
Even so, it wasn’t Sykes’ performance on the national racing scene that caught the attention of world series bosses. Instead, it was his two wild-card outings on the same Rizla Suzuki that would smooth his passage into a plum ride with Yamaha WSB for 2009.
Debuting at Brands Hatch, Sykes qualified and raced competitively for the podium at that round, but it was his performance at Donington Park, when he diced for the win with Bayliss, that raised most eyebrows.
Indeed, Sykes – who had pulled out a three second lead over Bayliss when the race was initially stopped -, seemed destined for victory on aggregate, but when he misunderstood a slippery surface flag (BSB and WSBK flags have different denotations) and slowed down, it would allow Bayliss to pass and overhaul the gap Sykes had built up. Nonetheless, second position remained a remarkable achievement for Sykes and it wasn’t long before he was confirmed as a factory Yamaha rider for 2009.
Sat alongside fellow rookie – and highly-rated rider – Ben Spies, Sykes would find himself overshadowed by his title-challenging team-mate. In isolation, Sykes began the year well, scoring a best of fourth at Assen and finishing each of the first twelve races inside the top ten.
However, while Sykes held a solid seventh in the standings by mid-season, a dip in form would dent his reputation before an injury sustained in a crash at Magny-Cours ruled him out of the final four races. With no chance to fight for his ride, Sykes was subsequently dropped from the Yamaha team having failed to stand on the podium with arguably the most competitive bike on the grid.
Despite initial rumours linking him to a BSB return, Sykes was saved from that indignity by Kawasaki, who poached him to pair Chris Vermeulen in the invigorated factory team.
The move, which would see Sykes reignite his relationship with Paul Bird (who previously managed the Stobart team in BSB), proved a shrewd one as he flourished in the lower pressure surroundings.
Though he wasn’t a frequent front runner on the unloved ZX-10R, Sykes was a consistent mid-fielder, who on his – and the bike’s - day bothered the head of the field with some extraordinary performances. Scoring a top five finish at Monza, Sykes repeated that feat at the Nurburgring before stunning the paddock by claiming pole position at Imola.
Leading both races, while he didn’t quite complete the podium finish he deserved, it proved what seemed doubtful towards the end of the 2009 season – that Sykes deserved a place in World Superbikes.
While Kawasaki hadn’t planned on offering him an extended contract (having committed to Vermeulen and Supersport ace Joan Lascorz before Sykes was even signed for 2010), it retained faith in him by offering him a third machine for 2011.
For Sykes, the deal represented an exciting development as it coincided with Kawasaki’s launch of the new ZX-10R, a bike that many felt would return the manufacturer to the sharp end of the grid.
As it happens, though the bike was a considerable improvement over its predecessor, niggling issues prevented it from showing anything more than bursts of speed. Indeed, though Sykes was often impressive over a single lap – particularly at Donington when he qualified third and at Misano when damp conditions helped him take a second career pole position -, it was often negated by lacklustre race pace.
Even so, regardless of the wider picture, Sykes’s 2011 season will always be remembered for its surprise maiden WSBK victory at the Nurburgring, the Briton furthering his reputation as an excellent wet weather rider to come through the storm with Kawasaki first win in five years.
It’s that performance, rather than his fairly disappointing 13th in the standings behind rookie team-mate Lascorz, that would earn Sykes a stay of execution with Kawasaki in 2012, where he had the chance to impress under the new guidance of Pere Riba’s Provec team.
Immediately noticing an improvement from the bike, Sykes hinted at his potential with impressive pre-season form, promise he went on to fulfil during the opening round with a pole position and only his second-ever podium finish at WSBK level.
It was a performance that would set the tone for his season, Sykes starring in qualifying especially to claim nine pole positions, four wins at Monza, Moscow, Portimao and Magny-Cours, and 13 podiums in total.
Such results would contribute to an unexpected title tilt, Sykes’s greater consistency during the latter stages of the season allowing him to emerge as Max Biaggi’s biggest challenger heading into the final round. Famously, Sykes would fall short by a mere 0.5 points, but by securing the runners-up spot on a Kawasaki – for so long a minnow at WSBK level -, Sykes emerged as arguably the biggest moral winner in 2012.
Not surprisingly, Sykes had no problems securing a renewed contract for 2013, the Briton no doubt confident that the lessons learned from this year will help him in his quest to go one better next year. Career Highlights: 2013:
Pens a new deal with Kawasaki in an effort to go one better in 2013 2012:
World Superbike Championship, Kawasaki Racing, 2nd (4 wins) 2011:
World Superbike Championship, Kawasaki RT, 13th (1 win) 2010:
World Superbike Championship, Kawasaki SRT, 14th 2009:
World Superbike Championship, Yamaha WSB, 9th 2008:
British Superbike Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 4th (3 wins)
World Superbike Championship (4 races), Rizla Suzuki, 21st 2007:
British Superbike Championship, Stobart Honda, 6th 2006:
British Supersport Championship, TAS Suzuki, 2nd 2005:
British Supersport Championship, TAS Suzuki, 5th (2 wins) 2004:
British Supersport Championship, TAS Suzuki, 6th 2003:
British Supersport Championship, Northpoint Yamaha, 8th
World Supersport Championship (1 race), Northpoint Yamaha, 31st 2002:
Junior Superstock Championship, Suzuki, 2nd