After a disappointing run in the UK, Josh Waters returned to Oz and got his mojo back on home soil. He talks us through his come-from-behind 2017 ASBK title victory
At the start of the 2017 Australian Superbike season, pundits predicted a championship for the ages. Herfoss, Maxwell, Allerton, Staring, Bugden, Falzon… more than half a dozen riders were considered genuine contenders, yet few predicted that the man holding the trophy in October would be Suzuki’s Joshua Waters.
It was a campaign that almost didn’t even begin, as the 30-year-old from Mildura emerged from a difficult three-year stint riding in the British Superbike Championship fearing he’d lost his edge.
“I hated it in the UK,” he tells us candidly. “I liked racing, but I didn’t like it over there for some reason. It was just different, and I wished that I could ride over there like I did in Australia.”
Already a two-time Australian Superbike champion for Suzuki (’09 and ’12), Waters began his UK career riding an R1 for Milwaukee Yamaha before switching back to the familiar GSX-R in 2014.
“The middle year (2014) was the best year for me because I got on really well with the team. I won some races – I know it was raining, but I still went good in the dry – and the last half of the year I was always in the top six. My teammate was John Hopkins, he goes alright, and I was able to match him or beat him, so it was quite good. But 2015 was just bloody difficult.”
Waters returned to Australia in 2016 with his motivation at a low, but former racer Jordan Coote (the man behind Apex Civil) contacted him with the ambition of starting his own team. That interest, combined with the enthusiasm of long-time friend Nobuatsu Aoki, led to a ride at the Suzuka 8 Hours.
“Nob thinks I’m better than what I am and he wanted me to be his teammate. I was just working in Mildura, doing my normal thing, but that’s how I got my enthusiasm back. We went well, finished fifth, and it was just a little private team. Then with the MotoGP support races [at Phillip Island in October 2016], Jordan stepped up and put a bike together and we were lucky enough to win there.
“Working with those guys, they weren’t pumping my tyres up or anything, but they really helped get my confidence back on track.”
The plan was then to form a team with Coote for 2017, but the backing failed to materialise.
“When I rode for Jordan previously we were like a factory team – if I needed something he didn’t hold back one bit. We tried to make something come together … but we needed more support and he really wanted to do it properly.”
This led to Waters calling Paul Vandenberg and Lewis Croft at Suzuki, with initial signs looking positive for Suzuki’s ASBK return. The problem was not only securing funding but also that the new GSX-R had not even been launched yet, the world unveiling was due to take place in Phillip Island just weeks before the ASBK season opener.
With the international press contingent ready to descend on the Island for the bike launch, Suzuki was keen, but Waters still needed a partner with backing to run the team.
That’s when Dale Brede from Canberra Motorcycle Centre came into the picture.
“I gave Dale a call and the next morning he said, ‘Yeah, let’s race!’ It all happened just like that.”
As a bonus, Suzuki planned to have Phil Tainton working with the team. Before going overseas, Waters rode for Tainton for seven years.
“It was incredible to work with Phil again. I’ve got complete trust in him, and with the bikes so close in performance now the relationship with your crew chief is more important than ever.”
Yet, despite the solid plans and a positive experience riding the new GSX-R, Waters wasn’t getting ahead of himself.
“I remember Paul Vandenberg saying at the launch, ‘We’ve got the bike, we’ve got the rider, and now we’re going to win the title!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, quieten down!’
“Being a racer, you want to win, but I’d been working a normal job. I was training, but not training in the way you do to win races, mainly because I didn’t even know if I’d actually be racing. I had to be a realist – you have to when you get a little bit older. I’d started thinking maybe if someone was unfortunate and crashed, maybe a team would need a rider…”
From there unfolded one of the most unlikely ASBK success stories we’ve ever seen.
Phillip Island, Vic
The first time I rode the racebike was in FP1. I unfortunately got a hole in the radiator in the first race because there was no cover for it yet – the GSX-R being so new – and the bike cooked itself. That was a pretty unusual thing, but it caused a DNF.
After that DNF I remember pushing the bike back from Honda corner and thinking, ‘Oh well, it’s not my year, but at least I’m still racing.’ I wasn’t angry or anything.
I ended up with two fifths. I was so far off the pace. I was near them at the start, but the electronics were still totally standard.
Wakefield Park, NSW
Unfortunately Phil couldn’t be at Wakefield Park, so my brother, Brodie, stepped in as my crew chief.
One thing I struggled with in the UK was that they were all great blokes and I had some great mechanics, but sometimes I wasn’t 100 per cent sure of them. With Brodie and Phil there is no doubt.
Race conditions were pretty sketchy and I buggered up the tyre choice. First race was not great, second race I got fourth but I was still off the pace.
I had a new rear shock for Winton, and I was thinking, ‘Yeah, all my problems are solved!’
I was on the front row, but I’d really put my neck on the line to do it. It was fake pace and I knew I couldn’t keep doing that all year. Race 2 I was beaten by over 30 seconds. I was pretty down again and thinking it just wasn’t my year.
But Dale was still upbeat, and our aim was to just get a podium somewhere. But then we started thinking maybe that was unrealistic.
Hidden Valley, NT
There was the winter break before Darwin. We had plenty of time, new parts and a new bike.
Daniel Falzon out-qualified me on the last lap and, even though he crashed in the race, I think I could have stuck it to him if he didn’t. Race 2 we did the fastest lap we’ve ever done there.
The feeling was really good. We’d just picked up a double victory and then I flew straight to the Suzuka 8 Hours for testing.
My race was the best I’ve ever ridden there. We qualified 16th and in my first stint I had us in the top five. We ended up ninth but I was really happy with my stints, so I was confident for the ASBK return at Morgan Park.
Morgan Park, Qld
I thought Troy Herfoss would towel us all up at Morgan Park. Even last year, I made out like I had no interest, but I watched every single session. I actually had a huge interest in racing still, so I knew how strong Troy would be.
We tested there like everyone else, but unfortunately Phil couldn’t make it – it was just myself and Brodie. The speed was really good in the races, but I got a bit stiff on the bike because it’s such a physical track. I looked back at video of this and thought, ‘You should have just kept riding and stayed relaxed, you would have won it’. It was a little bit frustrating because the way my bike was set I couldn’t out-brake anyone. I couldn’t fight back. If I tried fighting I’m 100 per cent positive I would have crashed. Anyway, I got a 4-4 and it bought me closer in the championship.
Sydney Motorsport Park, NSW
By now I was thinking we might get top three and I might get a bonus – sweet!
I honestly thought Wayne and Glenn would whip everybody there. But for whatever reason they couldn’t match my pace. I ended up doing the fastest laps I’ve ever done there.
Other people had bad luck, like at Morgan Park, and all of a sudden things looked totally different in the championship.
Wayne was trying his hardest. He’d just done the fastest motorcycle lap of SMSP ever [when he crashed], and I said to him that bad shit happens when you’re on the limit like that.
Watching on the TV, they didn’t even mention me as a championship contender at the start of the telecast. Then Steve Martin at the end said, ‘Now that’s a turnaround!’
Phillip Island, Vic
Before the race, Phil and I had a chat. He said, ‘We’ve got this far, just don’t leave today thinking you should have done this or you could’ve done that. If you crash, you’ve done it trying your hardest.’ Something in my head clicked, and I was able to win that race.
On the TV the track mightn’t have looked damp, but it was a lot worse than it looked, especially through the Hayshed. I took bigger risks than the others through that back section on those first two laps, and that’s what won me the championship. Other people had bad luck during the year, but I could’ve crashed then too.
A trillion things were going through my head for the second race. I wanted to try and break the field up if I got a good start, but I never blocked my lines. I knew I only had to finish fifth. I was doing the math, but all I was worried about was the gap to sixth.
You have to be so focussed to get these kind of results, I’m just lucky to have a great family and wife, my brother Brodie and my mum and dad. I was just bloody lucky that Dale wanted to be involved, that Suzuki wanted to be involved, and that Phil wanted to come on board.
Like Phil told me on the startline at Phillip Island, I wanted to put everything I had into winning. I didn’t want to have any excuses in the back of my mind.
When I pulled into the pits, seeing everyone at the end of the year, it was so special. I didn’t get emotional or anything, but when I talk about it now… it was an unbelievable feeling.
As published AMCN (Vol 67 No 11)
Words Matt O’Connell
Images Andrew Gosling