“Sorry, I can talk for a long time…”
For some reason Tarran Mackenzie is apologising to me.
Having spent an awkward 15 minutes trying to communicate in the most 2021 of ways by locking eyes on Zoom with an internet connection more akin to a 1995 dial-up era - leading to moments which I can only describe as now knowing what it would sound like if a Dalek was jammed on saying the word ‘Yamaha’ in a tin can - we’ve reverted to spending the next 45 minutes chatting on the phone.
It’s a personal tactic and pleasure of mine to (politely) extend an interview as far as I can before recognising the moment to wrap it up because they’re side-eyeing the clock (otherwise known as the press officer) or have suddenly committed on an evening of washing their hair.
You can only go so far with internationally reputable riders and drivers, dozens of which I have been fortunate to engage with over the years. Some are happy to chat for a long time, others become suspicious if you’ve lurched into double digits on the stopwatch. I won’t mention names but let’s just say one of the spikier individuals has one of motorsport’s most impressive trophy cabinets… and I guess just doesn’t particularly like me. You can’t win them all.
Regardless, Tarran believes he has taken up too much of MY time, which is quite an honour. After all, if I was the 2021 Bennetts British Superbike Champion, I’d rather spend my evenings polishing my trophy than talking to a journalist. Wait, does that read correctly?
Point is, Tarran is a talker and far from it cutting into my evening of, erm, spit-shining my assets, he’s given me a window into a rider who is only too happy to delve into a career-defining 12 months discussing the downs than ups of his title charge, the literal ups and downs of some wilder on-track moments and how he ended up top in the 2021 Title Showdown.
“Six rounds into my first year of BSB, I did a 1m 24.6 or a 24.7 [Ed: It was a 1m 24.769, good enough for fourth] in qualifying round Brands. I have not gone faster than that since.”
We’re reminiscing about his progress since Tarran made his BSB debut in 2018 aboard the McAMS Yamaha that would act as his ‘company motorcycle’ for the next four seasons.
The switch to superbikes had come after a near-full season in Moto2 [replacing Danny Kent on the Kiefer Suter], an opportunity that was difficult to turn down but one that proved a direct shift from British Supersport, a championship which he’d won the previous year, didn’t quite prepare you for transporting into the depths of GP’s intermediate class with no prior testing or knowledge of either the bikes or the circuits.
Indeed, the experience didn’t so much allow him to cut his teeth as have them yanked out on uncompetitive machinery, with just a single point to his name come the season’s end. In retrospect, had he doubled down and carried on things might have been different - riders with only a few digits more than him included current Moto2 standouts Joe Roberts and Augusto Fernandez, plus Yamaha WorldSBK star Andrea Locatelli and would-be MotoGP rider Iker Lecuona.
Nevertheless, Tarran returned to the UK and began re-establishing himself on the domestic scene, becoming a fine example of the UK’s fertile proving ground. What follows are four very methodical seasons in which he freely admits was a fast but unrefined style, before evolving into what is now a complete champion.
Not that the growing pains weren’t exactly that at times.
“In 2018 I had a lot of raw speed that I didn’t really know where it was coming from. In 2019 I had a lot of crashes, but I was probably more consistent. Then in 2020 I kind of understood how to win and what I needed to do to win, and I kind of upped my fitness and everything like that.
“It was about these three years of taking all the positives, taking the raw speed, learning from the crashes, learning how to win, and it was about just moulding all of that into one proper season and learning from the negatives and taking the positives.”
After agreeing he doesn’t crash ‘quietly’ - he’s managed to launch his Yamaha so far over the barriers at both Brands Hatch and Cadwell Park it required multiple people to find it among the trees - Tarran suggests he subscribes to the effective, if riskier style of exploring the limit. Otherwise known as ‘the Marquez way’ it’s a manner of overstepping before dialling it back to the threshold.
While the approach is stamped with six MotoGP titles by way of endorsement, it has led to some acrobatics and a familiarity with the interior of medical centres.
“I have had a lot of crashes,” he says, spoken in the confident manner of a person who knows he is bouncier than others. “There have been a lot of trips to the medical centre and operations. I think that has actually in a weird way made me mature because I know where the limits are.
“I’ve crashed at a lot of places and I kind of know what to do to not do that again. I have learned the hard way, probably. But, it has paid off. Maybe some riders don’t commit as much.
“I feel like there’s been no lack of commitment, rightly or wrongly. Sometimes it pays off. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the team is happy about that and sometimes the team isn't, and Dad isn’t happy but sometimes he is. Sometimes I’m not, but sometimes I am.
There is something very satisfying about declaring Mackenzie as a BSB title winner. He is a homegrown talent from impressive stock - his father Niall is of course a triple BSB champion and GP podium winner, while his brother Taylor won the 2016 National Superstock 1000 title - and he did it by working his way to the top in a very domestic manner.
Indeed, whereas the BSB was once viewed as an anchored steppingstone in the direction of WorldSBK for the likes of Jonathan Rea, Cal Crutchlow, Leon Camier and Tom Sykes, more recent champions - such as Scott Redding, Josh Brookes, Shane Byrne and Leon Haslam - came in the other way.
In fact, you have to go back to Alex Lowes in 2013 on the Samsung Honda for the last time a BSB Champion hit the springboard for the first time and nailed the landing.
When I say ‘nailed the landing’ I don’t necessarily mean head feet first onto the world stage. Instead, the landing in a BSB context is hitting your mark at the right time in the fabled Title Showdown.
Indeed, Mackenzie will be the first to admit there was a fortuitous element to his 2021 BSB title win and the more cynical reading this will be pained to point out that he didn’t score the most points over the course of the year.
It has raised questions of the Title Showdown’s credibility of whether the cream does indeed rise to the top, but these are ageing hypotheticals date-stamped to what feels like an era ago when the format was first introduced in 2010.
As it happens - whether by sheer fortune or savvy fortune-telling - the Title Showdown has never failed to deliver a worthy champion, and this doesn’t end with Tarran. Any argument against this smacks of a contrarian being delighted that their views of ten years ago are now finally relevant a decade on.
As a rider for whom the format had been etched in stone long before he turned his first wheels on a superbike, he is fairly relaxed about the notion of luck playing a part in his title success.
“I know it has helped me in 2019 that I had no chance of winning it. I broke my wrist and it didn’t look like I was going to get into it, but I scraped through.
“Then it gave me an opportunity to win. I was never going to win it, but it adds something different. It’s made it exciting every year. It’s not boring.
“You do end up playing it slightly differently. It is just purely about these last three rounds. For me, I’ve kind of carried this momentum on in these last three rounds. I didn’t have an easy last three rounds at all - I got penalised at Oulton and breaking down at Donington and both in tricky conditions, a couple of crashes. It wasn’t easy, but it swung around.
Indeed, Tarran deftly avoids my question asking whether he prefers the Title Showdown to the points-mean-prizes system adopted almost universally elsewhere, admitting simply it has helped him in the past. That’s not to say he’s against defecting to the other side…
“I might get to the end of next year and actually hate the showdown because I’ve had a massive points lead that’s taken away from me. But then I’m sure Jason, if he’s in a similar situation next year, he’ll try and improve his last three rounds and try to be better. People have got different opinions on it, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
By Jason, Tarran is of course referring to his McAMS Yamaha team-mate Jason O’Halloran, the man whose name would have been half etched into the championship trophy had the Title Showdown not ‘Jenga-d’ a 110-point lead down to 30 points before he wiped out the rest by reverting to a shadow of the rider that won 11 of the 21 races prior to it.
It’s an inter-team partnership that is very well-established, the pair having represented McAMS Yamaha since the start of 2019. Not that the relationship started well, the pair colliding on the final corner of the final lap at the Silverstone opener, sending O’Halloran skidding off into the gravel trap.
Tarran crossed the line first for his maiden win to conflicted team celebrations, only for officials to slap him with a time penalty that demoted him down the order anyway.
Perhaps, much like a colleague you’d share pleasantries with during the working day but wouldn’t pop down the pub with, the pair have maintained a progressive working relationship designed to help the team but one that clearly defines them as rivals too.
“It’s hard to have friends, but being teammates is probably even worse because we sign our contracts that say, ‘we are employing you to win BSB’, and unfortunately there can only be one winner and we signed the same contract to try and win.
“He wakes up every day, eats, breathes and sleeps motorbike racing, just like I do. We’ve got the same goal at the end of the day. It’s hard to see past that and be good friends on a race weekend and try and help each other when we’re rivals at the end of the day.
“It’s even worse because we are team-mates. We’ve got the exact same bikes. We’ve got the same electronics guy. We’ve got the same Öhlins technician. We’ve got the same engine builder. Same components on the bike. We train at the same place. We wear the same helmets. We’ve hardly got an advantage over each other.
“For me, we still have this working relationship where we might not sit down together and debrief together but we give feedback that’s going to help each other. He can see my data. I can see his data, and that helps us each at the end of the day. It’s hard to hide anything in the team, really.”
Despite this, there is mutual respect between the two and Tarran admits to feeling bad for the manner in which O’Halloran’s erstwhile dominance whittled to a flaccid trio of Showdown podiums stacked against his team-mate’s five wins.
“From a team point of view, all the hard work that me and Jason have put in to make the bike better and stuff like that and the team and everything, for me to win it was a good thing,
“It is tough, and it is rubbish for Jason. He put together an amazing season and it didn’t work out. But it turned out alright eventually for me, which is easy for me to sit here and say that.
“Since Brands, we’ve actually spent a bit of time together. We’ve had a few team parties. We’ve been away to Milan with each other. We’ve had a few beers with each other. We kind of chatted about it and laughed about it. I’d say out of the four years, we’re probably getting on best we ever have.
“We do have mutual respect. He respects me. I respect him. We always shake each other’s hand. The sportsmanship is still there, which is nice.”
Looking ahead, the fact Tarran didn’t score the most points or win the most races means there are still boxes to tick when he returns to defend his title in 2022.
Indeed, it’s all setting up rather nicely for Tarran in 2022 because though it is his name on the champions’ trophy, it’s clear his skills are developing in real time. If that reads as a critique, it isn’t supposed to, more symbolic of a rider who is still gaining experience at 26-years old but just happens to be one of the UKs best already.
With his WorldSBK aspirations on hold for now, Tarran says it was a no-brainer to re-sign with McAMS for what will be his fifth season in BSB… despite an interjection from the ever ‘shy, retiring and un-opinionated’ Scott Redding
“Scott commented saying something like, ‘Boring. You should have changed manufacturer’,” he adds, laughing when I suggest Scott is just looking for someone to distract from his own Ducati to BMW WorldSBK switch.
“I didn’t write back, but I felt like saying, I didn’t actually have any other offers other than the Go Eleven [WorldSBK] offer.
“It wasn’t like I had Paul Bird and BMW or these guys pushing like mad and sending contracts through the emails and all that. It genuinely wasn’t like that. I kind of said to Steve [Rodgers], and he was happy to do that and happy to wait to push me down this route of trying to get me to WorldSBK and if it didn’t work, we’d go again in BSB.
“I think you’ve got to look at the way the team performs, as a team performance, not just myself and Jason but coming back with a similar bike and just making small improvements that made a massive difference. I’d be silly to go anywhere else.”
As it happens, the 2022 season is going to be momentous for the entire Mackenzie family, one that is going to keep Niall with his hands full and each eye looking at different monitors (you might want to consider a broadband upgrade…)
In addition to Tarran wearing the coveted #1 plate on his Yamaha, the newly-retired Taylor Mackenzie will swap his helmet for ear defenders as he takes up a managerial role at the new VisionTrack Honda Moto3 team at the tender age of 28.
Tarran is younger still but whatever happens next season, the Mackenzies are a racing dynasty that now spills over pages in the motorcycle racing history books… and more ink will surely spill in the coming years.
In that case, I’ll get organised and book in another 45min chat around this time next year… I’ll make sure I clear some space in my schedule for it.