Top 10 Donington Park World Superbike battles

This weekend sees the British round of the Superbike World Championship take place at Donington Park.

The Leicestershire venue has been one of the backbones of the series, with only Assen and Phillip Island having held more races. In that time there have been plenty of highlights and highsides, and Bike Social brings you 10 Donington delights from the past quarter century.

1988: Superbikes are go!

Donington will forever be in the history books as the host of the first ever world superbike round.

Held on April 3rd, a Bank Holiday Monday, and sharing the bill with the Eurolantic match races, a massive entry list of 66 for the 40 grid slots.

Among the ragtag of competitors were contemporary British aces like Roger Marshall, Kenny Irons, Keith Huewen and Paul Iddon, but it was suave former TT winner Roger Burnett who grabbed pole around the national circuit layout (bypassing the Melbourne Loop section).

In the race, it was the turn of the international stars signed up for the complete season of the new championship who shone. Italian Davide Tardozzi won the first ‘heat’ on a works Bimota. Originally, superbike rules had been written to award one set of points for the aggregate winner over the two heats, and with Tardozzi crashing out on the last lap of the second, it was Marco Lucchinelli, the 1981 500cc world champ on the comeback trail, who took the chequered flag and the overall win from eventual champ Fred Merkel, the three time American AMA superbike champ. TT legend Joey Dunlop was third overall.

It was the only event to be run under those regulations. The idea of confusing aggregate races was quickly dropped and all future events were to take place with the distinct two race formula that still exists today.

1992: A star is born

Carl Fogarty was already a top class rider before superbikes, with TT, Formula One and Endurance titles under his belt, but on April 20th 1992 the first words in the defining chapter of Foggy’s career were written.

Despite his excellent pedigree, the then 26-year-old from Blackburn was a jobbing rider in 1992, riding Kawasakis in world endurance and Yamahas at the TT to pay for the privately entered Ducati 888 he ran in world superbikes.

After a largely unimpressive opening round in Spain, Foggy came of age at round two of the series at Donington Park. Race one saw him crash out shortly after setting the fastest lap of the race, before making amends in the second outing. Clad in lurid ‘acid worm’ Fieldsheer leathers he led home works Ducati man, and former champion, Raymond Roche, to take the first of his 59 race wins and secure a coveted factory ride for 1993.

1994: Sky’s the limit

Something extraordinary happened to world superbikes in the early Nineties. Fuelled by Foggy and powered by groundbreaking coverage on Sky TV, the four-stroke class became bigger than GPs in sportsbike mad Britain.

Donington Park was the stage for the first round of this exciting new era for superbike racing, with Foggy, narrow runner up to the American Scott Russell in 1993, debuting Ducati’s sexy new 916, while two-time champ Doug Polen came back to the series to spearhead Honda’s megabucks works entry with the new RC45.

Foggy gave the 916 a perfect debut, winning from Aaron Slight, although race two went to Donington specialist Russell on the Kawasaki ZXR750. Such was the popularity of superbikes in the UK, Donington hosted a second round in October 1994. On that occasion, Russell posted the final two wins of his career (in total he won 14 races, with five coming at Donington), while Foggy had an absolute ‘mare. Despite this, King Carl still took his first world superbike title later that month in a Phillip Island showdown.

1995: King Carl to the fore

With Foggymania in full swing, Britain was superbike crazy in 1995. Once again, Donington Park hosted one of the early rounds of the championship, while Brands Hatch also became a fixture in the calendar. 

Foggy came to Donington leading the championship and swept to a dominant double in front of a huge crowd. Donington specialist Russell was strangely subdued and came to the UK carrying an injury which it later transpired happened during a covert test of Suzuki’s 500cc Grand Prix bike, to which he made a midseason switch as a replacement for the injured Kevin Schwantz.

It was a performance that epitomised Fogarty’s dominance in a season in which he won 13 races en route to the title.

1999: Whit whips them all

It’s not just the world superbikes that will be on show this weekend. Since 1997 the Supersport Wold Championship has supported the headline class, delivering some manic racing that usually involves some fast Brits,

Sixteen years ago it was an unemployed northerner called James Whitham who took a last minute call to replace the injured Massimo Meregalli on the new Yamaha YZF-R6.

With no prior practice on the bike, no one was expecting too much when the popular Whit, out of work after losing his seat with the Suzuki world superbike team, took the one-off ride. Ninth in qualifying gave no indication of what was to follow as the Huddersfield man stuck his neck out in the race to scythe through the pack and win by over four seconds.

Despite the spectacular victory, it was his only supersport outing of the season. After spending the rest of the year crashing Kenny Roberts’ Modenas GP bike, he returned to Belgarda in 2000 following the retirement of Meregalli.

2000: Wildcards go wild

The 2000 British Superbike Championship was a classic that will long be remembered by those who witnessed it, but as the world championship rolled into Donington Park on May 14th, there was little to suggest the fireworks that lay ahead.

Indeed, a cloud hung over British racing with the realisation that the injuries suffered by Carl Fogarty a year earlier were most likely career threatening. Three rounds into the British series, it was trusty veteran John Reynolds that led the way in the standings. Then it all happened…

With world superbikes still reeling from the loss of Foggy, the top six riders in the British series all accepted their wildcard entries. The one-lap superpole saw Neil Hodgson, whose three seasons as a full-time world superbike rider had seen just one podium, on the front row, with fellow wildcards Reynolds, Chris Walker and James Haydon occupying the second row alongside wild-riding Japanese star Noriyuki Haga.

Race one saw a remarkable podium for Hodgson, quite an achievement against the latest works bikes, but race two was just breathtaking. Suzuki’s Pier Francesco Chili led much of the race after pole sitter Colin Edwards crashed out, but as his rear tyre went off, Hodgson and Walker smelled blood and hunted down the hapless Italian. Charging down Craner Curves the pair, in their own words, ‘made Haga look safe’ to take first and second at the flag.

The race also set the blueprint for the season ahead – Hodgson emerging as the smooth and confident rider who would take the world title three years later and Walker winning the hearts of the fans as he backed his GSX-R750 sideways lap after lap. The pair had an intense battle that frequently crossed the line and went beyond simply hard riding, with the title being decided on the same Donington tarmac that the rivalry began. The title went in Hodgson’s favour after a spectacular engine failure for Walker in the very last race of the season.

2001: Hizzy takes pole

By 2001, British superbike’s stock had risen sufficiently that 1999 and 2000 champions Troy Bayliss and Neil Hodgson had moved to become front runners in the world series, taking young gun James Toseland with them too. With Chris Walker moving to 500 GPs, it was a fallow time in the British series, with a pretty shallow depth of field headed by elder statesmen Steve Hislop and John Reynolds, who both accepted wildcards to the British round of the Superbike World Championship.

It would prove to be one of the finest weekends of the enigmatic Hizzy’s career. Despite not yet having the super-trick ‘Testastretta’ Ducati or the more fancied Michelin tyres, the 38-year-old Scot took a silky smooth superpole on his aging V-twin.

Hodgson won the first race, but Hizzy took the plaudits with a new fastest lap and third place, his one and only podium in the world championship. The second race at Donington in 2001 also created a footnote in history. Although not known at the time, Frankie Chili’s win on the Suzuki GSX-R750 was the last victory for a 750cc bike in the series, while Silverstone was to take over from Donington Park as the host of the British round.

2007: The homecoming

Toseland won just one race at Donington

Following a five year absence, world Superbikes returned to Donington on a chilly April 1st 2007. With James Toseland at the height of his powers, it was the first of three rounds to be held in the UK, and what a cracker it was.

It was a cold and windy start to the European season and pole man Troy Bayliss’ strange crash out of a commanding lead in race one typified the bad luck and inconsistency that was to result in the Aussie losing his title.

With Bayliss out, James Toseland went on to take his one and only win at Donington Park, extending his championship lead in what was to be one of the closest and most exciting championship battles.

While the opener was intriguing rather than exciting, the second race was a classic. Toseland led and looked a good bet to take the double when his Honda stopped on the fourth lap, leaving a race long three-way battle for the win to be fought out between Suzuki’s Max Biaggi and the Yamahas of Troy Corser and Noriyuki Haga. The trio swapped position throughout the race, with the result only being decided on the very last corner, when Biaggi ran wide at Goddards and left an inviting gap for fan favourite Haga to take the chequered flag. 

2008: Brits shine in the chaos

Sykes chasing the Ducati

While 2008 was hardly a vintage year for the Superbike World Championship, the opposite could be said of the British series, whose switch to Pirelli control tyres and FIM technical regulations opened up wild-card entries again for the best riders from the national championships.

With runaway BSB leader Shane Byrne and his Airwaves Ducati teamster Leon Camier not taking up the wild-card slots, the British championship’s golden generation got their chance to shine at the largely wet ‘European’ round in early September.

Where only Rizla Suzuki’s Tom Sykes had taken on the world regulars at Brands Hatch a month earlier, the Donington Park round saw him joined by Cal Crutchlow, Leon Haslam and James Ellison, who all made the best of their audition on the global stage.

Clouds hung over the circuit as the lights went out for race one and a number of riders, including race leader Ryuichi Kiyonari sliding off early on.

Eventual champion Troy Bayliss and Sykes broke away, with the Brit leading by almost four seconds when the race was stopped as a result of oil on the circuit. Back then, restarted races were decided on the aggregate of the two (or more heats) and when Sykes streaked away into the lead of part two, it looked like he would be the first BSB rider to take a wild-card win since Byrne at Brands Hatch in 2003.

However, when the white and red flag came out to denote a slippery surface (due to rain), Sykes misread the situation. The same flag means the deployment of a safety car under national championship rules and as the Brit mistakenly slowed down on the third lap, he lost his lead to Bayliss, who was able to pull about a five second lead before a second red flag came out and a result declared.

The day’s second race was marginally less chaotic, but still something of a crash fest. Former BSB champion Kiyonari led from start to finish in soaking wet conditions, with Crutchlow taking over second after Bayliss became another victim of the Craner Curves.

It was a day packed with incident for the fans who braved the conditions, and to this day Cal’s podium remains the last time that a wild-card rider stood on a world superbike podium.

In fact the only loser was the British Superbike Championship, which lost its top four riders for the following season. Byrne, Haslam and Sykes all headed to world superbikes, while Crutchlow took up a world supersport ride with Yamaha, en route to MotoGP.

2012: BMW bash up

Donington’s dead stop final corners at Melbourne and Goddards always create plenty of last lap drama, but perhaps none more so in recent years than the clash of team-mates Leon Haslam and Marco Melandri on the last lap of the 2012 round.

Having taken the big budget BMW team’s first win in over three years of trying, the pair were en route to record a second one-two finish for the German marque when they were wiped out at the final corner by a charging Jonathan Rea.

The event had provided some exhilarating action. Race one had been good, with Tom Sykes and Max Biaggi hassling the BMWs most of the way and Honda’s Rea closing in on the later laps. The result only went Melandri’s way in the closing stages, when local man Haslam outbraked himself going into the Foggy Esses with five laps to go.

Race two was all-out warfare between the same five that came down to the last few corners. Haslam led into the last section, with Melandri trying some crazy lines in a bid to take the double win. Running wide through Melbourne, he ran too fast into Goddards and found himself wide of the racing line. Haslam, hugging the inside, looked set to take what would have been a popular win, only for Rea to charge up the inside for the win, sending the BMW rider down the road and skittling into his team-mate for a dramatic end to a dramatic day.

With four Brits, possibly five, at the top of their game in World Superbikes this year, who will come out on top this weekend? or !

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