Blade Brothers: Family Feud or Sibling Strength? The Irwin’s on the 2020 BSB season

 

“We’ve actually been team mates twice before…,” says Andrew Irwin, younger of the Northern Irish brothers who’ll sit in opposite sides of the Honda Racing garage for the Bennetts British Superbike championship in 2020.

His older brother, Glenn, interrupts with an inflection of surprise, “Have we?”

We sit in the foyer of the W Hotel in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The three of us have just ridden the 2020 Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP at the international press launch of the road-going 2124.56bhp missile that represents a whole new chapter in the Fireblade Chronicles.

Andrew confirms, “We did a one-off race in 2015 for Gearlink [the Sunflower Trophy]. There was actually three of us and we all got on the podium. It wasn’t a proper race…

Glenn butts in, as the dynamic between the siblings becomes clear, “Oh sh*t yeah, I forgot! You say it wasn’t a proper race but that was your first Supersport race, and that included Ben Wilson and Alastair Seeley.”

Glenn pauses and Andrew spots his chance, “That was probably the first race that gave me the belief I could make a racing career. To beat Seeley at home, who was at that time was battling for the British Superstock championship against Josh Elliot that year, I beat him and it gave me the belief. After that I started training, I never trained before that…”

These boys are mates as well as brothers, reminiscing about racing together is making them giddy.

Glenn adds, “You did really good that weekend but that’s when you started the trait of hitting other riders, because Ben Wilson was our team mate that weekend and you still hit him at turn 2…”

 “He was as aggressive as I was…,” comes the retort before they’re both off laughing again.

“Andy met his match! He hit someone and couldn’t knock them off! Thankfully, I holeshotted both races so got away from them.”

 

Their past teammate experiences, how influential Andrew was in Honda’s recruitment of Glenn, first thoughts on the new Fireblade and Showdown predictions!

Above: Andrew’s BSB deep-end Ducati debut

 

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 2018 BSB season when a nasty injury for six-time champ, Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne, created an opportunity for a racer to join Glenn Irwin in the PBM Ducati team, and it didn’t take long for Glenn to recommend his brother.

“I didn’t ring them at first. I’m quite loyal,” admits Andrew who was racing in World Supersport for Simon Buckmaster’s PTR Team at that time.

He continued, “I don’t like to upset people, I had a really good relationship with Simon and still do now. I spoke to a few people that I trusted as well as Glenn and they were like “Andy, you’re crazy”, so I rang, it was Johnny Mowatt (PBM Team Co-ordinator) at the time and he rang me back an hour later and said, “it’s yours”. I was paying to be in World Supersport and here was an opportunity to have a small bit of money from PBM plus all my expenses covered, and looking back it was the best thing I’ve done. To progress in World Supersport, I’d have needed €300,000 probably, to get a competitive ride where in BSB I think I’ve got as much chance of getting to World Superbike which is the ultimate goal, as I would if I’d have carried on in World Supersport.

“It was difficult [being in WSS] because I was on my own and driving around Europe on my own and didn’t have a lot of money. I’d made enough money in 2017 in British Supersport but my bank balance was just draining, I had enough money to see out the year.

“Glenn told me to ring Simon Buckmaster to ask him about doing the Snetterton BSB round which clashed. I’d made up my mind that I was going to do BSB but I still had to go to Brno to race. I had it in my head to tell Simon but I couldn’t build myself up to do it. I think my flight was 2.30pm/3pm out of Brno so as soon as my race ended I had to get ready and go.

“So after the race I said to Simon “I’ve got to go” and he said “What do you mean?” and I [puts on his nervous, fast-talking voice] said, “I’m going to test the PBM bike tomorrow”. I told him that I can’t say no to this and he completely understood. I’d only done five races and I paid him back all the money for the ride. He’s always been great with me, he’s someone I have to be thankful for a lot. I was under contract and it was a different manufacturer so he could have been awkward.”

Glenn ended up third in the championship in 2018 while Andrew weighed in with credible eight top 10 finishes which was enough to warrant a knock on the door from Honda Racing for the 2019 season where he’d end up 8th in the championship with 17 top ten results, including a win at Thruxton.

 

Above: Glenn began 2019 on a Kawasaki then switched to BMW

 

Towards the end of the season, teammate Xavi Fores announced he was returning to World Superbikes despite rumours of a new Honda Fireblade, and that opened a spot alongside Andrew for 2020, but how influential was the younger Irwin in terms of recruiting his brother?

“For sure, for the last few rounds, Glenn was hovering around our garage, helping where he could but around May/June time, Harv [Havier Beltran, Team Manager, Honda Racing] had half an idea that he’d be running the TT effort, and Glenn was toying with the idea of doing the TT. I told Glenn that Harv was going to be doing that and if he runs it then it’ll be a proper show, he runs a very professional outfit. I think from that, that gave him confidence,” said Andrew.

Glenn then opened up to chat through how disturbed his 2019 was, “It all came about at the right time. At Oulton I had my first proper conversation with Honda. Philip Neil [Tyco BMW] gave me the opportunity to get my form back and start qualifying on the front two rows again, and having strong races: 4th, 5th, 6th. Considering where we were in the first half of the year, it was ok.

“I think Honda were looking at who can they have in road racing, maybe at the North West, to fight with the likes of Peter Hickman. And then one day, maybe at the TT. If you didn’t have Hickman or Harrison available then who do you have?

“I like how Harv went about it. There was no pressure whatsoever, he asked me, “do you want to do the TT?” He could see that if you’re into road racing then of course you want to do something like that. I liked what I saw, I like the professionalism and the man management. The one person I give a lot of respect to for man management skill is Mike from Gearlink. He was very disciplined, got your head in the zone and there was no outside distraction and both Andrew and I have both said to Harv independently, we’ve both compared him to Mike. He’s never been in the army but he’s quite regimental. He used to invite us into his motorhome, with Norma (who has since passed away), and offered you a sweet. You never took the sweet because if you do you learn about it the next day! I used to love how he taught you to be like that, on race day you are in the zone but in the evening you can relax. And working with Harv, that side of me is coming back – being smarter and not saying the wrong things.

 “I just need to be nurtured. I’ve made some mistakes in my career and I don’t want to go through what I went through last season. Your results were terrible and that made it terrible off track. It’s good now, it’s positive. Two times on the bike already and I’m enjoying my riding.”

 

Their past teammate experiences, how influential Andrew was in Honda’s recruitment of Glenn, first thoughts on the new Fireblade and Showdown predictions!

Above: Andrew (right) and Glen get to grips with the new SP

 

On the new Fireblade Glen said, “We knew there was going to be a new bike, and I don’t think Harv was keeping anything from us because with HRC’s involvement it was so secretive. Yes, there was a new Fireblade coming but was it going to be a facelift like the previous one? Is it going to be a radical new bike? Nobody knew.”

“We knew when we signed our contract there was a new bike coming,” confirmed Andrew

Glenn added, “But when [Alvaro] Bautista signed for Honda and left Ducati… I thought this is a guy who’s fighting for the world championship and he’s no mug, he’s had a good career but he knew what was coming. So I thought that if it’s good enough for someone to leave a bike that he’s fought for a world title on then I’ll take my chances.

“I was happy where I was and I’m thankful to Philip but sometimes you have to make a big, bold decision. I liked what I heard from the beginning.

“We first saw the actual bike at the NEC, we ran around with hard-ons that morning! We were allowed in early to meet Honda dealers before the show opened.”

Andrew added, “We saw it on a computer for the first time in October. We knew it was good just from the images.”

Glenn then said, “You could see the wings straight away. There were rumours flying around the internet – some true, some not – and the horsepower figures were being quoted. We’ve ridden the bike today and last week for two days in Spain and it’s a fast, fast motorbike. It’ll take a lot of work to turn it into a winning superbike but that’s the work the team understands, and we understand that needs to be put in.”

It was only the previous week when the Irwin brothers got to ride the 2020 road bike for the first time.

Andrew beams, “Yes, at Andalusia last week. The first time we went out of the pit lane… well, you know when you start a bike and it purrs like a little pussycat, I rode out of the pit lane for the first time and it went, “waaaaaaaahhhhhhh”, and I thought “F*CK!”

From Glenn’s perspective, “We were all on pit wall, and Andy was always going to go out first, he’s been in the team the longest. So, he started it up in pit lane and the bike sounds like any other road bike. There’s a long first gear on this bike and as soon as he turns the throttle and the revs spike, I thought ‘woah, this sounds mint!’.

“It was a completely standard road bike. Just like today (no mirrors, indicators or tail tidy). We tried some of last year’s rear-sets for positioning. It was more like an evaluation,” said Andrew.

“We experimented with wheelie control and traction. We ran Superstock SC2 front and rear tyres in. We heard a lap time at the end of today (at Qatar) and again last week, and we won’t mention them, but as a racer it’s great to know this bike straight out the box is able to do that. It gives you confidence,” said Glenn.

Andrew added, “It give you confidence but I don’t think this is going to be easy. Honda’s kit electronics are awesome but the MoTec system is completely different.”

Backtracking slightly, Glenn said, “We are under no illusions. Just because this week was good and last week was good but we’re not complacent. I probably went into last season slightly complacent, hopping into a title winning team and I’ve seen what that mentality going into the season did to me. Whereas now, I’m going in prepared to put a lot of work and effort in to do things right. If that puts us up the front then happy days, or if it puts us somewhere else then happy days. We’ll just keeping working. We’re not going to peak after two days of testing.”

The boys are under no illusion in terms of the work required to develop a brand new road bike into a race winning BSB machine. And working together may be the key to getting the most our of the new Honda. Instead of Sibling Rivalry, the Northern Irishmen are focussing on Sibling Strength.

Glenn: “You’ve ridden the bike, you know where it is in terms of development. This is only going to get better. It might be a basic superbike at round one, knowing there’s a lot to come it allows you to grow as well. That can be a good thing for the format of the BSB championship.”

Andrew: “It’s like growing with the bike. Sometimes you have a complete bike and you have to grow to the bike and you’re instantly under pressure.

“I get excitement from being in a position to develop the bike. I’ve never done it before, I’ve never been in the position. Last year I rode the Fireblade where Dan Linfoot and Jason O’Halloran had done all the hard work. Before that I got on the Ducati and that was its last year of development and it was the ultimate package so all I had to do was learn how to ride it. I’ve learnt things in the past so I’m looking forward to it and I think with Glenn we can work together.”

Glenn: “Last year, with Xavi Fores was his team mate and he became a good friend. Andy learnt a lot of Xavi about setting a bike up and I saw that first hand when I was in the garage towards the end of last season when I wasn’t racing. Knowing that he learned a lot of him, that experience will be critical. We are very, very honest with each other and I trust my own development too. I have a valuable input and that honesty is key. Anyone that works together will be able to improve the motorbike, it’s like a football team playing for each other.”

Andrew: “You don’t have to hate someone to have a rivalry.”

Glenn: “I’ve always said that – like, Seeley has to hate everyone at the North West. It really annoys me, I’m like “mate, we live down the road from each other. I like you. You don’t have to hate me!”

Andrew: “Glenn’s moved in, like a 90-second walk away from where I live. We got to the gym together, we do everything together, so if we hated each other, it’d be hell.”

Glenn: “I’d have to leave the village! Sibling Strength is a really good phrase. I’ve said a few times, I think Honda have played a smart card with their line-up. Not just on ability but with everything that comes with it. Nobody wants to get beat by their brother and it definitely brings out something more in me but something more in me will bring something more in him. We’re not that kind of family to have a fall-out. As much as we enjoy working together, we’re very different people.”

Andrew: “Completely different personalities but that’s probably why we get on.”

 

Their past teammate experiences, how influential Andrew was in Honda’s recruitment of Glenn, first thoughts on the new Fireblade and Showdown predictions!

Above: Glenn at the Qatar-based Fireblade press launch

 

After just two outings on a heavily road-biased CBR1000RR-R SP, the brothers admit they’re not even at stage one with the BSB race bike development but how are they feeling about the raw equipment and the demands of the team providing a real challenger?

Andrew begins, “I think we need to ride it before we can say. We don’t know what we have yet. As a road bike, I feel like you can ride it like a 600.”

Glenn continues, “As a road bike, it’s great for punters, it’s a great superstock bike, it’s ready to be competitive but in Superbike it will be different. But we don’t know what it’s like. I don’t even think we’re at stage 1 yet, that’ll come at after the first day testing in Monteblanco [26-28 February]. This is like evaluation time.

“It’s like you asking me about how my date next week went. I hope it goes really well, she looks mint but I don’t know what she goes like!”

Andrew adds,” What we expect is a challenge but Honda’s DNA normally doesn’t go away from what it is, everybody knows they make the best chassis’. The fundamentals are there for it to be good. Whenever we change it into a superbike, if we can get the electronics with MoTec then it’ll make things a lot easier.”

Glenn confirms their enthusiasm for they’ve ridden thus far, “They’ve made it close to a race bike. I think you can hop on this road bike that we’ve ridden today and put the correct gearing for the circuit plus your BSB Superstock tyres and you could run competitively straight away. They’ve done a really, really good job in bringing a bike that you can buy as road rider that you can turn up to a track day without needing an extra bike, you already have the complete package. Superbike: it changes. That’s the unknown.”

 

BSB Dates 2020

2020 British Superbike Championship Calendar

Round

Date

Circuit

1

April 10 - 12

Silverstone (National)

2

May1 - 3

Oulton Park

3

May22 - 24

Donington Park (National)+

4

June19 - 21

Snetterton

5

July10 - 12

Knockhill

6

July24 - 26

Brands Hatch (GP)

7

August7 - 9

Thruxton

8

August21 - 23

Cadwell Park

9

September4 - 6

Oulton Park+

BSB Showdown Dates

10 (1)

September18 - 20

TT Circuit Assen

11 (2)

October2 - 4

Donington Park (GP)

12 (3)

October16 - 18

Brands Hatch (GP)+

denotes triple-header round 

 

The 27-race 2020 Bennetts British Superbike championship takes place over 12 rounds and all kicks off on 12th April at Silverstone but who are the Honda pairing’s nearest rivals?

“It’s BSB so you never know, someone always pops up! I think the underdog is Christian Iddon. He’s a really good rider and he’s had good bikes in the past but this is his first proper opportunity. He deserves it,” says Andrew.

Glenn agrees, “The BMW was still very early in development in BSB terms, and I really rate him. In terms of raw pace, he’ll be faster than Josh but you don’t win a championship with raw pace. You win it on consistency. That’s the question mark over him.”

Andrew continues, “You’ve got the three Ducati’s. Gino Rea will also be fast… Yamaha have improved their engine and they already had a really strong bike. Looking at World Superbikes so far, you look at Toprak, Van der Mark, even Gerloff and Caricasulo in the end in Portimao. Ok, it’s World Superbikes but they’ve also done really well already.

Glenn picks Peter Hickman, “He’s strong every year. He’s a Showdown man every year. Not that you don’t expect it, you really should expect it.”

What about their Showdown predications, will they stick their neck out and choose six riders who’ll be in with a championship chance by the end of Round 9 at Oulton Park? Glenn voluntarily walks off so as not to influence Andrews choice!

Andrew is up first, “You need to be consistent. Taz [Tarran Mackenzie, Yamaha] will make the showdown because I think he’s a serious championship challenger. I really, really rate him because I grew up riding with him and I have a lot of respect for him, and Peter Hickman. O’Halloran, Yamaha; you never know what you’re going to get. He was awesome in pre-season last year and at Silverstone. I really like him too. I think it’ll be Taz, Tommy Bridewell, Josh Brookes, Christian Iddon, me and Glenn.

If you take the top three bikes from last year, only one has changed rider. Scott was the best rider in the championship last year and if Christian was on that bike he’d have probably made the Showdown, he wasn’t that far away in the end. So you expect him to do it. Josh is the championship favourite isn’t he? Taz was strong and is only going to get stronger. I believe in Glenn’s talent.

Glenn steps back in, “I’m going to put Josh and Tommy in, they were so consistent last year. Particularly Tommy, he was impressive. I’m going to put O’Halloran in, they’ve made a step as it looks at the minute. Jason has always been super, super fast. You can’t keep saying that he’s not had the luck. I’m going to say the same for Christian, so you’ve got two guys who should have been in the Showdown more and haven’t been. I’m going to put Andrew in because he should have put the old Fireblade in and this one is going to be better. And I’ll put myself in – the year previous, I finished third in the championship. Super difficult first half of last year but came back and finished in the top 6 in nearly every race for Tyco, and I was riding with a bit of an eye injury.

Andrew spots the only difference, “I have Taz and not Jason. And we haven’t got Hickman or Buchan in…”

 

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