When it comes to putting in a flying lap when it counts, no one in the WSBK paddock can top the Yorkshireman. So how the hell does he do it?
When Troy Corser took his final Superpole trophy in 2010 at Misano, his career total of high-pressure pre-race ‘wins’ rose to a giddying 43. It has been looked at as one of those records that is unbeatable or unattainable.
I mean, who could run that total down when even the other Aussie WSBK legend Troy Bayliss ‘only’ managed 26 when he retired?
But if Tom Sykes keeps going the way he is now, the 2013 World Champion from England is well on schedule to relegate the retired Corser’s total into second place, having already screamed past Bayliss’ tally some time ago.
So how does Sykes, the modern day prince of the Superpoles, do it? Quickly, of course…
With only one Superpole trophy earned per weekend, instead of the two real races held each meeting in the current WSBK format, there are basically half as many chances to win Superpole status across a rider’s career. And while it may not offer anything in the way of points, it is still a notch on the career bedpost, in its own specialised fashion.
A front row start is always seen as an advantage, particularly at world level, but being the first of the top three riders off the mark is not important in itself. Awarding Superpole, and making a fuss about it for current sponsor Tissot, does instantaneously show who is the fastest rider before the points are scooped up on race day one and two.
Absolutely no question Sykes or Corser or any of them would give back loads of Superpole watches to get more race wins. Being racers, however, every chance to demonstrate you are the fastest must be taken – that’s simply in a rider’s nature. And Sykes’ Superpole abilities verge on the supernatural. He has taken seven Superpole wins this year alone, from nine attempts. He’s also won five races and is currently second in the championship. Despite his unique style that needs a tyre to last all race long to fight for wins, he is no Superpole acrobat who can’t replicate his pace in races.
But there must be something in the make-up of Sykes that allows him to set such a pace when he needs to – a pace that no one else has been able to touch in the most recent seasons. We asked the two people who understand his own personal Superpole Superpower better than anybody: the rider himself and the bloke who makes his bike tick, crew chief Marcel Duinker.
How he does it: Tom Sykes
Simple question. What’s the pole position secret Tom?
“I have no idea why I win so many Superpoles,” says Sykes initially, before explaining the niceties. “Without sounding arrogant, I feel very lucky that potentially I am the fastest rider on the grid. Superpole is all about speed and we seem to be very good at that.”
As far as the ‘science’ goes, Sykes said that it is the change to a qualifying tyre, and what he can do with that sudden increase in rear grip with his style of standing the bike up and firing out of corners hard, that works so well.
“On a qualifying tyre it gives a racing bike a lot of advantages. At the end of the day, we are production racing. Rightly or wrongly I feel that I have limitations for my riding capacity. I feel like I am always making compromises. In MotoGP you have a lot more possibilities to iron out these compromises. In Superpole, with the qualifying tyre, this gives me a little bit extra. I am able to ride a little bit closer to my capacity. I am a straight talking man and this is the only explanation, from me, as to why we are so successful. This year out of nine events I think I have had seven Superpoles, which is not a bad a record. I feel quite at ease. It is something that feels very natural to me.”
Some riders in the past, like Bayliss for example, did not always use a qualifying tyre – aka a Q – to set their fastest laps. Just a soft race tyre at times. Some other riders fit a sticky Q in for Superpole and it upsets their bike. Some even have a different bike setting for Superpole.
Sykes and crew just stick in a Q, and watch the stopwatch go into overdrive.
“We do not really do anything special for Superpole,” he says. “It is our racebike. We do not change the bike but put in a ‘Q’ tyre and I feel we take the advantage from it 80 per cent of the time. I am not leading the championship but when you put in that qualifying tyre in for one lap I think it confirms I am the fastest rider. If we did it just once or twice a year … but we consistently get quite a lot of Superpoles every year.”
Sykes is adamant that pole or no pole, it is not that important for his readiness for, or confidence in, the races that follow.
“It is not important to me, psychologically, to be on pole,” says Sykes. “My target is the front row and even now I do not get to 100 per cent capacity in Superpole – because about an hour later we have a race on Saturdays.”
Hard for us mere mortals to contemplate, but in terms of risk versus reward, Sykes does not hang it out all the way to secure the top grid spot. “With the one bike rule a lot of the laps I am not on full stretch anyway. I always leave a couple of per cent in case of a mistake. So, psychologically, there is no difference. I know my capabilities. If you take pole that is nice, but it does not affect my race position if I miss out on it.”
How he does it: Marcel Duinker
For Sykes’ crew chief, the experienced Dutchman Marcel Duinker, Sykes’ Superpole prowess has a lot to do with rubber: “He is using more potential from the tyre than anybody else. Partly because of his riding style, he stays off the side of the tyre a bit than anybody else. He is always able to brake later, brake stronger. Especially on the front tyre, he is able to feel the very, very limit better than anybody else. What is very interesting is that if Tom takes the pole, you see in parc ferme the number two and number three riders, many times, have quite a lot of rubber remaining on the tyre. Out of the last corner most of the time Tom is riding on the construction rubber. There are exceptions but in general he is using all the tyre rubber to take pole.”
Duinker also confirms that Sykes is not overriding to take pole so often – he almost never crashes in Superpole.
“I think it happened one time in Phillip Island two years ago, but it was over Lukey Heights and the wind just came under the bike and he lost it,” said Duinker. “I believe that is the only time that happened. He never crosses the limit. There are many other examples in the paddock, especially during races, where people are always over the limit. During the races you can hardly find any mistakes from Tom. Races or Superpole, it is all quite similar. For him it is quite hard to cross the limit.”
Duinker also confirms that there is no magical Superpole setting that they try to find on weekends. It is his usual racebike set-up with a stickier rear tyre.
“We do not change the setting of the bike for Superpole – never, ever,” says Duinker for emphasis. “The main target on the weekend is to give yourself a proper race set-up. If your bike is properly set up, and you get a tyre that gives you more grip, then the bike improves in every single area. It does not make any sense to make a ‘Superpole’ machine. A nice race set-up, with added rear traction, will allow you to stop better, to turn in faster, to keep more corner speed and to accelerate better. So we never make any change, ever.”
Some thought that Sykes’ Superpole stride might have been hobbled a little by the change to the race weekend running order for 2016. Now all practice and pre-Superpole qualifying is effectively on Friday, with a 15-minute practice session on Saturday morning, Superpole itself, and then the first full-points race. But Duinker dismisses the idea that this has been a problem. “Superpole is not different this year. It just means that on Friday you have to prepare your bike set-up. You will start racing straight away on Saturday, so for sure the time to set up the bike has been reduced by more than 50 per cent. The people, the team, the bike that has the best base set-up will have the biggest advantage. At this moment that is Kawasaki, by far. At the end it is the same for everybody. So sure Superpole is different compared to last year, but the guy who was good in Superpole in the past is still good in Superpole now.”
The Superpole Super Humans
1st: 43: Troy Corser (Ducati, Aprilia, Petronas, Suzuki, Yamaha, BMW)
2nd: 37: Tom Sykes (all Kawasaki)
3rd: 26: Troy Bayliss (all Ducati)
4th: 21: Carl Fogarty (all Ducati)
5th: 17: Doug Polen (Suzuki, Ducati).
Sykes vs current WSBK Riders
Tom Sykes 37 poles
Jonathan Rea 6 poles
Davide Giugliano 5 poles
Sylvain Guintoli 4 poles
Chaz Davies 2 poles
Michael van der Mark 1 pole
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