Swan Yamaha’s Tommy Hill made up for some difficult times in the past few years by winning the final race of 2011 and claiming the championship.
After racing hundreds of miles up and down the length and breadth of the UK, all that separated the 2011 MCE British Superbike Championship was six-thousandths of a second and a hands width of pavement. Samsung Crescent Suzuki’s John Hopkins and Swan Yamaha’s Tommy Hill arrived at the final Brands Hatch ‘Showdown’ round separated at the top of the standings by just eight points. Three races would decide who would leave the picturesque Kent circuit as champion.
Race 1 ended with Hopper doing all he needed to do by finishing just in front of Hill. In Race 2, however, the championship was turned on its head after Hopper’s Suzuki stopped during the opening lap with an electrical problem. The Californian managed to get his Suzuki fired up again and sliced his way from dead last back to 12th, while Hill played a tactical game trying to bag as many points without risking a crash to come home in fourth. The pair would now start the final race of the year separated by just two points in Hopkins favor.
The pressure seemed to be getting to Hill, who had been rattled by Hopper’s teammate, John Kirkham.
“If he wants to play that game, than bring it on,” said Hill. “I know what game he is playing, let’s play the game!”
Hill was clearly aggrieved by some of the moves he described as team riding tactics from Kirkham. Hopper, meanwhile, was trying to keep to himself and be as invisible as possible. When the final approached it was time to put the calculators down, because it became a straight fight between the two for the championship. Whoever reached the line first would be crowned British Superbike Champion of 2011.
The first 19 laps of the 20-lap final quickly reeled off to bring the whole championship effectively down to a one lap, 2.6-mile shootout. It would prove to be one minute and twenty-six seconds of some of the best motorcycle racing ever seen. HM Plant Honda’s Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne had escaped at the front to secure third in the championship, followed by Hill and Hopper starting the last lap. Hopper moved first, powering out of Bottom Bend to get up the inside of Hill as they tipped into Surtees, disappearing behind the trees and onto the Grand Prix circuit for the final time. From there on the lead would change six times before the flag.
John Hopkins (#21) and Tommy Hill (#7) exchanged the lead a total of six times during the final lap of the championship.
The moves were getting more and more desperate as the lap wore on and passing opportunities diminished. Gasps from the huge crowd were getting louder and louder with every move. It all came down to Clearways Corner, the gladiators breaking into the amphitheater of the Indy circuit side by side, Hopper diving for the inside. The crowd was now silent and holding its breath as Hopper was carrying too much speed to get it stopped in time for the turn. Hill, anticipating the Suzuki would run wide, squared-off the corner and pointed his bucking Yamaha toward the finish line. Hill held the advantage from the outside, but Hopper was quickly gaining on the inside. They crossed the line almost touching together. Who had won? There seemed to be an eternal wait until Hill was announced the victor by just six-thousandths of a second – the closest finish in British Superbike history.
For Hill it couldn’t have been sweeter. The 26-year-old lost the championship in the final round last year while ironically riding for Hopper’s team. This year, however, Hill made the winning move on the final turn that claimed the life of his good friend, Craig Jones, a few years before. Indeed, 2008 had seen Hill at rock bottom, suffering a double femur break – the second in his return to World Supersport – and also his Dad being diagnosed with cancer.
After dedicating his win to Jones, Hill said: “I am gobsmacked to have won the title for Swan Yamaha; this has been my goal and I was trying to stay as relaxed as possible in that final race. It has just been a complete shock for me and I feel like we should be having another race next weekend now! It wasn’t until the other riders started congratulating me that I even realized I had won, as it was so close between myself and Hopper. It has been a long, hard season and it came down to that one race. Everyone wanted a Showdown and that is what we have given them. It really was make or break
John Hopkins: “Well, I don’t feel great obviously, but I don’t feel completely empty either. This has been a great season, I gave it everything I had but it just wasn’t to be. So hats off to Tommy for taking the title.”
time and I knew I had to do everything possible to beat Hopper. Coming across the line we didn’t know who had finished second, and with it the title. At the moment I feel like I need someone to punch me or something to bring me back to reality. I just want to go out and race again now! I just want to celebrate now with my family, friends and the whole of the Swan Yamaha team and I need to thank everyone for their support this season.”
An equally emotional Hopkins said: “Well, I don’t feel great obviously, but I don’t feel completely empty either. This has been a great season, I gave it everything I had but it just wasn’t to be. So hats off to Tommy for taking the title.
“I couldn’t be more grateful to the Samsung Crescent Racing team, they gave me everything including the best bike out there. I came into this year on a make or break basis in terms of my racing career, but with their help I’m now set for a world championship ride next year. The team has put me there. I’m hugely grateful.”
Watch highlights from Race 3 below courtesy British Superbike