Sylvain Guintoli’s return to the British Superbike Championship with the new Hawk Racing-run Bennetts Suzuki squad sees the Frenchman’s career go the full circle as he aims to fight for the title he was cruelly denied a shot at eight years ago.
The 2014 world superbike champion is no stranger to British superbikes. Having been squeezed out of MotoGP, the Frenchman joined the Worx Crescent Suzuki team for 2009 (pictured below) and made an immediate impact. Four races saw four podiums, but in the fifth race of the season, at Donington Park, he was wiped out by an out of control Josh Brookes. That led to broken tibia and fibia that kept him sidelined for three months and when he did return to action, at Cadwell Park of all places, it was clear that the Frenchman was far from fit.
The 34-year-old, who has lived in Leicestershire with his wife Caroline for the past 12 years, went on to enjoy a successful career in the world championships but has no qualms about returning to the rough and ready world of BSB, with its narrow tracks and often cold track temperatures.
“I have always followed BSB and the championship is at a very high level,” he says in an accent that's now more Midlands than his native Montélimar. “I watch all the races and know what is going on. This year was interesting and I think that 2017 will be even more interesting, with Davide Giugliano and myself joining from world superbikes. I have seen that times have been very fast and it is a massive challenge and and I expect some really strong battles.
“The tracks are challenging and interesting and part of the fun. When you get it right they are very satisfying and I’ve ridden all the tracks except Thruxton and Knockhill. When I raced here in 2009, Oulton Park was very interesting. It was difficult but I could learn it quickly.
“Racing is about different things and different challenges at different times in your career. For me, this year is about taking on a challenge that will be really exciting. I think it’s the right time. I have a lot of experience with various different superbike teams and with Suzuki coming back with this bike that looks really, really good on paper and as soon as I met with the Hawk Racing team we were straightaway on the same page. The bike has been developed from the MotoGP bike, both in terms of the engine and chassis. It’s a really interesting project.”
Despite the injuries suffered in his previous British superbike campaign, Sylvain ended the year with a trio of fifth places at the final round of the year and gained a call up to the factory Alstare Suzuki world superbike squad as a replacement rider at the season-ending Portuguese round. His performances led to a full-time world championship ride on the GSX-R1000 in 2010, riding consistently to end the year seventh in the standings with three fourth place finishes to his name.
That was the first of a seven year spell in world superbikes. A heroic 2011 saw him take two podiums and move up one place in the world rankings with the privateer Effenbert Ducati squad, and he remained with the Czech-funded outfit for a challenging 2012 that saw the ambitious four-rider team flirting with bankruptcy from round to round. Sylvain took his first win at round three but controversially lost his ride mid-season. Despite missing one round, his year was rescued by the PATA Ducati team and he rewarded them with an end of season win at his home round.
That made him a man in demand for 2013 and despite publicly agreeing to re-sign for Crescent, now running Suzuki’s official squad in the class, he snubbed his former British championship squad to join Eugene Laverty at Aprilia. Despite demonstrating great consistency and winning the opening round in Australia, the Frenchman was unable to stand atop the podium again and ended the year third, behind his team-mate and eventual champion Tom Sykes.
That 2013 campaign was the only time that the Frenchman finished behind his team-mate in the championship standings. For 2014, Sylvain found himself with the unenviable task of lining up alongside Aprilia's golden boy Marco Melandri and although the RSV4 looked the class of the field, it was Kawasaki's Tom Sykes that led the majority of the season. Neither Guintoli nor Sykes (who had Loris Baz on the opposite side of the garage) had much assistance from their team-mates, but Guintoli kept his best 'til last and scored a sensational double in the last round in Qatar to take the title by just six points.
Despite winning the championship, Guintoli found himself with surprisingly few options after Aprilia disbanded their factory superbike team. Eventually Honda snapped him up as a replacement for Jonathan Rea, but the champion never gelled with the increasingly uncompetitive Fireblade. He had to wait until October to take his only podium on the Honda, with third at his home race in Magny Cours.
Last year saw a move back to Crescent, now charged with running Yamaha’s official team, and despite high hopes from the much vaunted YZF-R1, it proved a tough year. Sylvain had been the top Yamaha runner when he broke his ankle after suffering a vicious highside during qualifying at Imola. That ruled him out for the majority of the summer, but he still came back to end the year as the top R1 rider, taking Yamaha’s only podium of the season in the final round at Qatar.
"I had two very good years on the Aprilia and winning the championship remains a very special moment for me," says Sylvain. "Unfortunately I had some big injuries (on the Yamaha) last year. It was a big, big crash (at Imola) and took me a while to get back. I came back after about four months out, I had nine fractures, all over, so it took some recovering. It’s about building fitness on the bike because when you stop for four months you are behind the others in bike fitness. But when I came back it was alright. I got a fifth in my first weekend back and ended the year with a podium in Qatar."
Sylvain’s journey to becoming a world champion started 20 years ago in his native France. He explained: “My dad was a big bike enthusiast and I started racing scooters when I was 12 years old. After that I did a few promotion (one make) cups before going into Grand Prix. I raced private bikes in 250 Grands Prix, as it was then, before spending two years in MotoGP.”
His first full season in Grand Prix came in 2001, with a best result of fourth at Assen on board his customer-spec Aprilia. After a year spend as a 500cc test rider for the Tech3 Yamaha squad, he returned for four more years in 250s, where he scored one podium (third at Assen in 2003) and was a consistent top 10 runner despite running second-tier Aprilias.
A surprise move to MotoGP followed in 2007 but again the package was not of the top level. Running for the Dunlop Tech3 Yamaha team (below), Guintoli found himself on uncompetitive Dunlop tyres in a class dominated by Bridgestone and Michelin. Despite the challenges, the MotoGP rookie scored points in all but three races and outscored team-mate Makota Tamada, a previous MotoGP winner.
Sylvain’s supreme consistency was confirmed in 2008, when he switched to the Pramac Ducati squad. Finishing every race and scoring in all but one, the Frenchman ended the year as 13th in the world championship. It wasn’t enough to retain a place at the top table though, pre-empting his first switch to British superbikes. A case of history repeating, perhaps?
Guintoli’s return to British superbikes gives a welcome boost to the ‘greatest domestic bike series in the world’. The championship has been hit by the departure of two top teams in GB Moto and Halsall Racing but the signing of a former superbike world champion, as well as fellow world series refugee Davide Giugliano, is a significant coup.
The Frenchman is arguably the highest profile signing in the history of the British Superbike Championship. He’s only the second superbike world champion to join the British series after a spell as world champion, and while 2003 champ Neil Hodgson made an ill-fated return in 2010 (quitting after just one round due to historical injuries) Guintoli joins the domestic championship at the height of his powers.
What’s also apparent when speaking to the new Bennetts Suzuki signing is just how much of a thoroughly nice bloke he is. A devoted family man with four kids, he carries with him an air of professionalism and an attitude that should be right at home in the family-run Hawk Racing team.
“For me, BSB as a lifestyle is good,” he confirms. “I live in the Midlands so it means a lot less travelling and should work well.
“Racing is about different things and different challenges at different times in your career. This year is about planning a challenge that will be really exciting. I think it’s the right time. I have a lot of experience with various different superbike teams and with Suzuki coming back with this bike that looks really, really good on paper it is a really interesting project. As soon as I met with the Hawk Racing team we were straightaway on the same page.”
Since the end of his last spell in BSB in 2009, the British series has undergone a number of changes. While the bikes still make in excess of 200bhp, BSB bosses have banned traction control and limited electronic aids allowed on the bikes, while the championship is now decided over the novelty of a three weekend ‘Showdown’ system rather than a more traditional system where the champion is determined by counting points from all races, a system which ironically came in following Camier’s runaway title in 2009.
“The only difference (between world and British championship bikes) is the electronics and even though there is no traction control there are still some interesting areas where you can work with the electronics and the engine braking. It’s going to be something for me to adjust to but the system is a lot less complex than those used in world superbikes. It will be interesting to get the best out of it.”
Speaking of the showdown system, Guintoli adds: “In respect to coming into the championship with a new bike, it is (likely to be beneficial to us). We are more likely to be competitive towards the end of the year than at the start but even then we just don’t know. The bike might be very competitive immediately but it doesn’t take any pressure off or make it any easier, because we will be flat out from the beginning.
“The conversation with Hawk Racing started two months ago and when you make an important choice you don’t make a decision just like that. You have to understand the people and the product you will be working with. Everybody has to show commitment to it and I think that is the same for the team, they want to know that I’ll be committed too. I was the same, I wanted to have a good feeling. They were keen and there’s a good vibe, which I why I signed.”
It’s hard work, but all racing is about hard work
Like the other leading British superbike teams, Bennetts Suzuki will be testing in Spain in the new year. The team have had a road bike for the past three weeks and have confirmed that they could have some shakedown tests in the UK in December. They are currently awaiting delivery of a BSB-spec ECU for the brand-new GSX-R1000 and when that arrives, Guintoli could find himself pounding around Mallory Park as the team try to gain valuable data before build of the full superbike spec machines begins.
“It’s hard work, but all racing is about hard work,” he concludes. “I am not scared of the cold, we’ve tested a lot at Aragon and the temperatures can be cold but with the modern tyres you can still get grip anywhere.
“We need to get a really good understanding of the bike and we can do that in the UK as well. Just now, all we have is a road bike but we will see in the new year where we are when the racing parts come in and we put it all together. When we go testing can look at where we are and what our potential is. It’s always about trying to win the title. That’s our aim.”
Pictures: Gold and Goose