The 1990s and early 2000s were amazing. Britain was swept by cultural change, political change and sporting greats. Whilst England failed to do anything special in football and Scotland’s David Coulthard started to turn heads in F1, a bigger storm was brewing in the World Superbike paddock. Brits were everywhere, although mostly concentrated at the very top. And by top, I don’t mean the top of the World Superbike paddock; I mean the top of the sporting world. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, World Superbikes was the pinnacle of sport and looking back, you can see and feel why.
However, there was something else about World Superbikes back in ‘the day’. Not only was it the pinnacle for motorcycle racers; the destination where they wanted to be. It was where the British people wanted to be too. Tens of thousands of people would descend on Donington Park and Brands Hatch to watch Carl Fogarty and Jim Whitham, not to mention a whole host of youthfully exuberant wildcards determined to put their name on the world stage. For one wildcard however, it was all about putting his name back on the world stage. GSE Ducati’s Neil Hodgson, under the watchful eye of Colin Wright.
The start of 2000 was scintillating in every way imaginable. In BSB, Neil Hodgson and Chris Walker were ripping it up and forming what would be one of the championship’s most formidable and memorable rivalries. Both would head to Donington Park and look to take the opposition by storm; they’d look to be the new faces of Superbike racing in Britain after Foggy’s career ending crash. So, Hodgy and Stalker packed their bags and went to Donington Park. Whilst Britain was basking in Oasis’ new album of ‘Standing on the Shoulder of Giants’, who would’ve thought that Neil Hodgson and Chris Walker would’ve done just that a little over a month later?
Hodgson and Walker – no, it is not a solicitors – took 1st and 2nd in a breathtaking second race, to the roar of what was nearly a six-figure crowd trackside. Both had done the unthinkable of handing the regular guys their ass at home. Frankie Chili, Noriyuki Haga, Troy Corser, Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards, who? It was a defining moment in the career of both Hodgson and Walker, as both would move into WSBK as full time riders a year later.
Now, World Superbikes has rolled back the years with a fresh look. And yes, that makes perfect sense. The fresh look of a mass invasion of wildcards – and bloody fast ones at that. Brad Ray is Britain’s big prospect at the moment and he may well be off to Donington Park to give the regular stars a hard time. Leon Haslam – looking to almost replicate Hodgson and put his name back in the brains of team owners on the world stage. Mason Law, looking to build more confidence. Gino Rea, arguably doing the same as Haslam.
Whilst wildcard numbers are nothing like they were a few years ago, World Superbikes is heading back in the right direction. It is getting wildcards – both young and old – to race against the series’ biggest names. The likes of Bradley Ray taking on Jonny Rea – whilst a nightmare for commentators, would be a Dorna dream; it’d be perfect for them if the former was to win. Of course, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. This is the first step of a long road to recovery for WSBK but Donington Park 2018 could be the turning point. It could be the moment that WSBK becomes the magnet for fans that it once was.
Nostalgia is a terrible thing, it never really allows anyone to think clearly or positively when they continuously compare something in its current form to something when it was enjoying its ‘Golden Era’. However, I’m optimistic in the way that this round may actually bring back credibility to the championship. And if you think that is too harsh a statement, then that is fine. But we can’t hide the fact that the last few years have not been the best for WSBK but now, with the help of wildcards, manufacturers, rule changes and the championship going properly global, with Argentina a welcome addition, it is starting to become a bit more than a shadow of its former self.
Whilst Hodgson, Walker, Reynolds and even Steve Hislop stood on the shoulders of giants, it is important to not look back in anger. That Sunday morning call for WSBK racing could be pivotal, all around the world. Gone are the days where it was all about cigarettes and alcohol in racing, but we have to stop crying our heart out about the past. Some might say that WSBK is still on the decline and ‘boring’, but don’t go away, come on, feel the noise of that crowd once more. Do you know what I mean? It’s more than just an oasis of peace and sanity amid the surrounding chaos, it is heat of the moment action, of something much bigger to come.
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