Tom Sykes entered the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca round of World Superbike as the defending 2013 champion (after only missing out on the honor in 2012 by half a point) and the current series leader with a 41-point advantage. Add that to the attention the Ninja 30th Anniversary celebration that Kawasaki kicked off at Laguna Seca has attracted, and Sykes has a lot to be smiling about.
And smile he does. The 28-year-old Briton relishes his duties as top Kawasaki Racing Team rider, appearing to genuinely enjoy interacting with both the media and the public. At a team dinner in Monterey, he comfortably worked the room joking and telling stories to all in attendance, instead of huddling with his crew in the corner. He also isn’t shy about expressing his opinion about the SBK series – although he couches his comments with statements like, “But I’m just a rider.” However, there’s no “just” about it. After finishing third in Race 1 on Sunday, Sykes regrouped and won Race 2 by pressuring Marco Melandri, whose Aprilia had visibly more straightaway speed, into crashing out in Turn 11. If you thought his smile was big before the win, you should have seen him afterwards.
Motorcycle.com: Congratulations on the pole. Throwing down a lap a half-second faster than everyone else was pretty impressive.
Tom Sykes: We’ve been trying to improve the bike all weekend, and it just came good at the correct time. I’m happy for that.
MO: When you pulled into the pit and sat down to talk to your crew, looking really relaxed, like you were just waiting for time to run down on Superpole. Did you do anything different when you went back out?
Sykes: Basically, we tried some things at the beginning of Superpole. I came back in and, of course, relaxed. I knew what I had to do. When we put the qualifying tire on, we just have to do what we normally do. The bike was really great. It was definitely working very well with the qualifying tire and produced a good lap. While I was out for this lap, we learned a couple of things for tomorrow. I’m going to have a chat with the team, when I’m done here, and see the best way to do a couple of things.
MO: Do you have to change the setup for the qualifying tire?
Sykes: No, we basically took the race tire off, put the qualifying tire in and pulled the trigger.
MO: What is it that makes Laguna Seca an interesting track for you as a rider?
Sykes: Everyone talks about the Corkscrew, but with me, Turn 1 is incredible. Depending on your gearbox, you can use fifth or sixth there. We’re running through there very, very fast, and sometimes, you just touch the rev-limit. It’s not a big deal. It’s because you go on the side of the tire and the rpm increases a hell of a lot. For me, touching the rev-limit is not a massive problem. Sometimes, it can even help you because the front end comes off the floor, and if you don’t use the throttle in the correct way, you can also get the rear off the floor. So, yeah, big, big balls corner. I certainly enjoy it – especially when I get it right. It feels great.
MO: You’ve entered this weekend with 40+ points in your pocket. Have you changed your approach to the event?
Sykes: No, we’re just going to stick to our guns. The good thing is that we’ve got a margin, a better margin than our rivals. We need to stick to our guns and try and do the best two races we can tomorrow and see what happens. Laguna’s not our strongest circuit, but it’s a circuit that I enjoy, a circuit which provides great atmosphere. I love the U.S. So, I’m really hoping to get good results.
MO: What would you say is your favorite circuit?
Sykes: It’s difficult to know. I always seem to go well around Donnington Park and a few others. Generally speaking, I’ve worked hard with the ZX–10R to try and go well at all circuits. And it seems to work.
MO: Which circuit do you think you have the most room to improve?
Sykes: We had a bad deal at Imola through a couple of things. Portimao wasn’t a good circuit for me last year, but this year we won in the dry there. Every time we develop the Ninja, we seem to go better at some and worse at some others. Relatively speaking, we’re not in a bad situation. We’re doing OK.
MO: Kawasaki’s started their 30th Anniversary Celebration of the Ninja, is it special to be this far in the lead for that year? You couldn’t have paid for a better way to celebrate the Ninja’s birthday.
Sykes: To be honest, it’s great that the paint job of our race bike is awesome. At the start of the season, it became very apparent why we’ve got that color-scheme because they’ve got the same color-scheme on the anniversary [ZX-10R and ZX-6R]. Yeah, it’s definitely a good year. It’s happened at the right time – 20 years since Scott Russell last won. And now we’re moving into this year as world champions, and it’s the 30th anniversary. So, yeah, the numbers are working out quite well.
MO: And you only missed the championship the year before by a half point.
Sykes: So, yeah, it could’ve been the double and this could be the triple. It is what it is, and sometimes, you’ve got to deal it. It’s hard to take, but, hey, we’ll keep working.