If ever there was a race that made me sit on the edge, then this was it.
If ever there was a race that swung back and forth – from absolute despair to hope – then this was it.
If ever there was a race where there was a tinge of disappointment in even victory, then this was it.
If ever there was a race that decided the champion by the smallest margin, then this was it.
This was Magny-Cours, the final round to a season, which has been nothing but a rollercoaster of emotions, peppered with pain, glory, ambition, mystery, and disappointment. It was the ultimate whodunit, a thriller that hinged on points till its very end. This was Magny-Cours: the ultimate face-off between a hardened emperor who has seen many seasons of battle, and a young warrior who found himself at the edge of victory.
But Tom Sykes was not nervous. Instead, even at the cusp of what could have a phenomenal victory, he was calm. The day before, there was a certain precision as he surged forward during the Qualifying, an unshakeable confidence, as he moved through the undulating track and brought home a pole position. It was his 9th Super Pole with a track best of 1.36.950s.
Race day was gloomy and wet. The track showed deceptive signs of drying. Max Biaggi took his place in the third row of the grid. He had managed a dismal 10th position. The pressure was on. Biaggi may have been in the championship lead, but mathematically, he was not in the clear. His closest contender was Sykes, the edgy Kawasaki rider, 9 times Super Pole winner and a clear favourite.
The first race began to the sound of growling bikes and wary riders, carving a path through the slippery track. Then, it happened. The Emperor made a mistake and crashed. His Aprilia bounced across the gravel, as Biaggi ran towards it. He tried to get back on to the track, desperate. But the Aprilia was damaged. He was out of the race. Ahead, Sykes was busy holding off a charging Jonathan Rea. He passed the team pit signal that screamed: Biaggi Out. The pressure intensified. Sykes had a real chance of winning the championship – his first with a team seeking to make a comeback after a series of seasons that have been nothing short of disappointing. Sykes, in his bright yellow #17 helmet – dedicated to teammate Joan Lascorz – hunkered down and tried to stay ahead. Rea shot ahead in a burst speed, disappearing into the distance. Sykes found his rhythm and fought to catch up. But the race was not over and the track hadn’t emptied its bag of tricks. Rea crashed. Sykes was in the lead again. It wasn’t long though, before privateer Sylvain Guintoli and Marco Melandri came through charging, leaving Sykes in the 3rd position. Sykes was 14.5 points behind Biaggi. He was closing in, and the Championship was still wide open.
The second race started on a drying track. I was at the edge of my seat, praying. This was WSBK and anything could happen. The lights turned red and the riders took off, searing the track. But no one could match Sykes. He seemed almost calm, as he leaned in to take the turns, and stayed ahead, keeping his rivals at the back. Head down, he pushed the Kawasaki, as it roared through Magny-Cours. Yes, he wasn’t fighting for a win. He was fighting for the championship. He was riding like a champion.
But that’s the thing with championships. In the end, it is about the points. And, as Biaggi made his way up through the pack, it became obvious that the end was still undecided. He slid into 5th spot and sealed the deal. Up ahead, Sykes rode a perfect race; clean, in control. Rea made up for his first race crash and grabbed the 2nd spot, while Guintoli took the 3rd. But the race and the season ended with an emotional Biaggi who pulled into the pits, hunkered down and took in the moment. He had made history in so many ways.
It was the closest Championship battle in the history of the series – a mere 0.5 points separated Biaggi from Sykes. It was also one of those rare times where there was no one clear rider, dominating the season. But none of it mattered. For, in that moment, Biaggi looked his happiest, hugging his fiancée and taking in the cheering crowds.
He said in a press release, “This is the 4th world championship out of 6 that I have won at the final race, I seem to like difficult challenges! The 2012 season went right down to the wire: we started well with a win at Phillip Island after totally renewing my team and we also had some difficult moments. We had to work hard to win the title, and maybe for this reason, it’s even better.”
The battle was indeed close, and for Sykes, there was a sense of satisfaction with a tinge of disappointment. “It’s difficult to accept that half a point separates us in a full season, but that’s all credit to World Superbike and how close it is,” Sykes said in a press release. “Max did a great job, but for me and my season, I’m very happy. Everyone gave me a full package to do something with and this weekend, I was very strong. Overall, we had a pole position, circuit record, two podiums, and I’d like to dedicate that to Joan Lascorz, I’ve had some help from him this weekend. To close 30 points on Biaggi was magical. Now we’re all signed and sealed for next year, hopefully we can deliver!”
In so many ways, this was a perfect end to an emotional season. There have been highs and lows, and the show continued even as teams recovered from the news that Joan Lascorz would not return to racing. The riders now go on their well-deserved rest as we gear up for the 2013 season. For many, including me, this promises to be eventful. The first WSBK race in India is scheduled for March 10, 2013, the second race on the calendar. I will be there in my sunshiny best. But till then, ride on, and ride safe!