For a rider that has two British Superbike titles, is a World Superbike race winner and has competed in MotoGP, it seems surprising that Shane Byrne has only completed one full season in World Superbikes.
Although his experience often mistakes him for being considered ‘too old’ to make the step to World Superbikes, particularly amongst the glut of young British talent coming through, a year of discovery at Sterilgarda Ducati should put him in good stead for a stronger year with Althea Racing in 2010.
Focusing on trials when he was younger, Byrne made his road racing debut in 1996 aboard a Kawasaki, stepping up to the Supersport 600 Championship in 1997 and winning the title on his first attempt.
Smoothing his path to the British Supersport Championship, Byrne was a race winner at Snetterton on the way to securing a sixth place position in the standings. The results persuaded him to remain in Supersports with a view to challenging for the title in 1999, but despite signing a deal with Honda initially, he was quickly promoted to British Superbikes to ride a privateer Harris Kawasaki.
Despite a slow start, Byrne was in the points from the sixth round onwards and he eventually lifted himself into the top ten towards the season’s end, finishing seventh twice and eighth twice. He would go on to better that at the Donington Park season finale, scoring a fifth and sixth place result to lift him into a respectable 15th in the overall standings.
Sticking with the same team in 2000, but switching to Honda machinery, Byrne’s hopes of progressing up the grid were dealt a blow by a mid-season injury that forced him to miss several races. Nonetheless, he was a consistent top ten threat when he was racing and scored another fifth at Brands Hatch to end the year marginally higher in 14th.
Joining Performance Suzuki in 2001, Byrne was the dominant privateer entrant, scoring 22 class wins in 26 races. Furthermore, he finished inside the overall top eight on twenty occasions, lifting him to an impressive eighth in the final championship table.
As expected, Byrne was rewarded with a top ride for 2002 as he joined the Renegade Ducati team. Although it was a fifth consecutive change of manufacturer for Byrne, he found himself immediately at home on the works-prepared 998 R, winning his first race in the wet-dry Donington Park round. Further success came at Knockhill and Thruxton, while Byrne would manage sixteen top five results in all. It helped Byrne to finish fourth in the overall standings, while a top five result on a World Superbike wild-card outing did wonders for his reputation too.
With reigning champion Steve Hislop bound for Yamaha, Byrne was the immediate choice to replace him at MonsterMob Ducati and success was instant. Winning on his debut outing with the team at the Silverstone curtain raiser, Byrne simply romped away with the championship lead over the first half of the season, winning nine of the first eleven races. Another six second place finishes over sixteen races saw Byrne open up a three figure advantage over John Reynolds, an advantage he maintained to wrap up the BSB title two rounds early.
Perhaps more significantly, Byrne had also burst onto the world scene with two stunning WSBK wild-card wins at Brands Hatch.
Naturally, the results caught the attention of several manufacturers, not only in World Superbikes, but also MotoGP. One such offer came from Aprilia, who were persevering for a third season with the technologically-advanced, but temperamental, RS3 Cube in MotoGP.
While the bike showed promise in 2002 and 2003, the Cube remained a handful and Byrne struggled to haul it further up the grid. A best result of tenth came in the shortened Mugello round, but Byrne was out scored by British team-mate Jeremy McWilliams. Additionally, Byrne’s cause wasn’t aided by injury woes that forced him to miss several races and by the season’s end he was classified a lowly 20th, while Aprilia had decided to quit altogether.
Nonetheless, Byrne was thrown a lifeline by Team Roberts Proton, who entered a single bike for him equipped with KTM’s new V4 engine. However, the unit was not competitive and Byrne struggled to squeeze into the points over the first half of the year. When Byrne did eventually get on the score sheet with a 15th place finish at Laguna Seca, KTM decided to withdraw just two events later, leaving Byrne without a ride.
Shortly afterwards, an injury for Troy Bayliss saw Byrne drafted into the Camel Honda team for two rounds, but 14th and 13th place finishes didn’t entice the manufacturer into offering him a longer stay of execution.
As such, he was forced to turn his back on MotoGP in favour of a return to the British Superbike Championship, Byrne being lured to the Rizla Suzuki team for 2006. Although Byrne replaced the man he beat to the 2003 BSB title, John Reynolds, the GSX-R1000 could not match its Ducati and Honda rivals and Byrne often found himself on the cusp of the leaders.
While unusual incidents, such as Byrne’s bike being stolen from the team garage during a test at Croft, set him back, he still broke the Honda-Ducati deadlock with a victory at Knockhill, a result that put him on course for fourth in the standings. However, a big crash at the final event ruled him out for the two races, allowing Jonathan Rea and Karl Harris to overhaul him.
Dropped by Suzuki at the end of the season, Byrne stayed in BSB aboard the Stobart Honda which, despite its privateer status, was at least being prepared by the Paul Bird Motorsport team that masterminded his BSB title.
While the lack of factory backing meant there was no repeat of his 2003 success, Byrne did often perform above and beyond his bike’s capabilities, scoring a pole position at Snetterton and turning it into a podium finish. Indeed, Byrne was a regular visitor to the podium – ten times over the season -, but his crowning glory came with a fine victory at Mallory Park, ahead of the factory Hondas.
Lifting him to fifth overall in the standings – ahead of the Rizla Suzukis -, Byrne had earned himself a ticket back onto factory machinery in 2008 by returning to Ducati and the Airwaves-sponsored GSE Racing team.
Byrne was the dominant force over the first-half of the year, echoing his 2003 performance by winning six of the first eight races to give him a commanding lead in the standings. However, his success did spark controversy, his bike’s 1200cc provoking a rule change that rivals deemed gave the Italian machine an unfair advantage. MSVR bowed to pressure and introduced success ballast to the Ducati from Snetterton onwards – Byrne promptly responded by taking a win and a second place finish.
While Byrne’s relentless race-winning form waned into the second-half of the season – he didn’t win any races between rounds seven and eleven -, the inevitable still came with a round to spare at Silverstone. Two superb wins in the final two races – including a last lap pass on Leon Haslam – left Byrne with a winning margin of 117 points.
Having foregone World Superbikes in favour of MotoGP following the completion of his first title, Byrne wouldn’t make the same mistake again, even if the identity of his employers provoked fever in the rumour mill.
For a time it appeared as though he was in competition with Max Biaggi for a ride on the factory Ducati Xerox, but when they opted for Noriyuki Haga, Byrne was promptly lined up to replace Aprilia-bound Biaggi at the manufacturer’s favoured satellite operation, Sterilgarda Ducati.
A race winning operation in previous years, Sterilgarda Ducati appeared to give Byrne the tools he needed to be a consistent front runner, a status he confirmed with a dominant turn during pre-season testing. However, by the time the first round had come, Sterilgarda were beginning to suffer financially and having already slimmed to a single rider at the expense of Alex Polita, development was slow.
A poor start to the year saw Byrne languishing well outside the top ten overall, but he launched a swift turnaround during the second-half of the season, beginning with a star turn at Misano when he almost claimed victory in the wet-dry race. While his eventual second place finish would be his sole podium finish of 2009, Byrne finished top six on a further six occasions, lifting him to a more representative eighth overall.
The flurry of good results ensured Byrne was still being mentioned in the same breath as ‘factory-backed ride’, with Aprilia and Kawasaki being mooted. However, Byrne would eventually land at Althea Racing, who go into 2010 having swapped Honda machinery in favour of Ducatis.
Joining forces with Carlos Checa to form an experienced rider line-up, Byrne brings a useful amount of Ducati knowledge to the Italian team. With greater backing than he enjoyed at Sterilgarda, Byrne could now be well placed to deliver on the promise he showed prior to the 2009 season.
He may be 33-years-old, but Byrne’s best days may be yet to come…Career Highlights:2010:
World Superbike Championship, Althea Ducati, 10th2009:
World Superbike Championship, Sterilgarda Ducati, 8th 2008:
British Superbike Championship, Airwaves Ducati, Champion (10 wins) 2007:
British Superbike Championship, Stobart Honda, 5th (1 win) 2006:
British Superbike Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 6th (1 win) 2005:
MotoGP World Championship, Proton Roberts KTM / Camel Honda, 24th2004:
MotoGP World Championship, MS Aprilia, 20th2003:
British Superbike Championship, MonsterMob Ducati, Champion (12 wins)
World Superbike Championship (2 races), MonsterMob Ducati, 16th (2 wins) 2002:
British Superbike Championship, Renegade Ducati, 4th (3 wins)
World Superbike Championship (4 races), Renegade Ducati, 21st2001:
British Superbike Championship, Performance Suzuki, 8th2000:
British Superbike Championship, Harris Honda, 14th1999:
British Superbike Championship, Harris Kawasaki, 15th1998:
British Supersport Championship, Yamaha Thundercat, 6th