Steve English looks ahead to what is set to be an emotional UK WorldSBK
The WorldSBK paddock will join this week at Donington Park in a sombre mood, with thoughts of Nicky Hayden on everyone's minds. The American's passing this week has cast a huge shadow across the paddock, and the outpouring of emotion that has been seen is the mark of the man, the rider and the effect that he had on so many people’s lives. The Hayden family, his fiancée Jackie Marin, Nick Sannan his assistant and close friend and Nicky's racing family are in all our thoughts this week.
Racing wasn't a part of Nicky's life, it was his life. Growing up in Kentucky there was nothing else that he ever wanted to be. If he wasn't riding, he was thinking about how to get the most from himself and get results to make his family and his community proud. Speaking after his sole WorldSBK victory at Sepang last year, his first thoughts were of his father Earl rather than finally having got back to the top step of the podium.
Giving back to the sport was important to Nicky, and the role that he had with the European Junior Cup in the WorldSBK paddock, and within the American Flat Track scene was testament to this. Hayden's work ethic has always been praised but perhaps the only role he took more seriously than that of a rider was of being a son, brother, uncle and friend. He'll be sorely missed.
Ahead of Donington Park one of Nicky's favourite phrases comes to mind; “In racing you never know what's going to happen; that's why you've gotta line up on race day.”
The British round of WorldSBK has been dominated by Tom Sykes for the last four meetings, but all that could change this weekend. With eight wins at his home round, Sykes has certainly made Castle Donington his Kingdom, but is this year when the King is challenged for supremacy?
Jonathan Rea (Kawasaki Racing Team) is the man most likely to challenge his Kawasaki team-mate and this is a round that has been earmarked by the reigning champion for some time. Speaking at the Jerez test last November Rea said, “There's some rounds that I know are very important and Donington is one of them. Tom is so strong there and he's always expected to win so to get the bike working well and be able to win there would be very important for us.” Aragon was a similar situation, with Chaz Davies (Aruba.it Racing – Ducati) having been the dominant rider at the Spanish venue and Rea was as fired up for the battle - expect some fireworks from the Northern Irishman this weekend.
Expect the unexpected from the rest of the field though. In the form of former British Superbike champions, Leon Camier (MV Agusta Reparto Corse) and Alex Lowes (Pata Yamaha Official WorldSBK Team), their home round represents an opportunity to spring a surprise. Both riders have had strong starts to the campaign, and with Camier having crashed out of a podium position last time out at Imola he'll be keen to make amends. The 2009 British champion has claimed three home podiums in the past at Donington and Silverstone, and he could make the difference this weekend.
The same can be said for Lowes with the Yamaha rider sitting fifth in the standings after a strong start to the year. The R1 has made some strong steps over the winter, and Lowes with his teammate Michael van der Mark, have found their form. The Englishman claimed a home podium in 2014 and with the support of the loyal British fans, it won't come as a surprise when the Yamaha claims its first rostrum.
Leon Haslam (Kawasaki Puccetti Racing) is a wildcard in the deck for this weekend's race, and a wildcard in the truest sense. The 33 year old has never won at his home track and while he'll be at long odds to put that record to bed, nobody knows the Donington Park track better than Haslam. One podium at his home venue is scant reward for the Kawasaki rider and while it'll take a tremendous effort to jump onto a WorldSBK spec machine and stand on the podium, the possibility shouldn't be discounted. Haslam has done the double at the track twice in the British championship, including this year's opening round.
The UK round is one of the highlights of the WorldSBK season, with the first ever round having taken place at the famous venue in 1988. With Rea and Davies out to unseat Sykes and the Yamaha and MV Agusta riders seeking milestone podiums, this year's race could be an all-time classic.