Some seasons are remembered for one rider’s utter domination. Some for a long fight between two or more rivals. But 2002 in WorldSBK was all about the comeback from Colin Edwards and the official Honda V-twin. It all reached an astonishing conclusion at that most theatrical of racing amphitheatres – Imola.
There were plenty of golden age WorldSBK race meetings that had the fans on the edge of their seats but Imola in 2002 was so special it even had even the most experienced media bods joining in with the gasps and applause. Two of the best WorldSBK riders of all time battled, passed, overtook and re-passed each other like keen club racers – but with the entire World Championship campaign honours up for grabs.
It was a day burned into the hearts and minds of everyone in the vicinity. Even the most hard-bitten Italian fans that had seen it all before knew this was all something a little particolare.
Troy Bayliss (Ducati Infostrada 998 F201) and Colin Edwards (Castrol Honda VTR100SP2) had each lifted the crazy-heavy wood and bronze WorldSBK trophy over their heads before – Edwards in 2000 and Bayliss in 2001 – but this was their deciding bout, the title unification rematch that would decide which one was best before they both earned promotions to join Rossi and co. in MotoGP.
And let us not forget the small matter that with Honda winning WorldSBK at its first attempt with the VTR1000SP in 2000, then Ducati reasserting its V-twin supremacy with the 998 In ‘01, this was the real judgement of which official factory effort could flick the final 90° vees at the other.
There were sub-plots and intrigues as ever, but what made the 2002 season so compelling at the end was the eventual turnaround from the virtual domination of Bayliss and his Ducati at the start and largely through the middle of the year.
Any kind of comeback, even from Edwards and the big H, had looked impossible after how strong Bayliss and Ducati had started.
No others got a look in at that stage. Not even Edwards, who despite his virtual podium residency at almost every early round, could not beat Bayliss in a race until round four.
Edwards was already 45 behind Bayliss after Valencia, Phillip Island and Kyalami, mainly because Bayliss had won six races in a row at the very start. Hope appeared over the horizon for Colin in the land of the rising sun, as Bayliss went through a tough weekend in Japan, with a fifth and then a fourth, as Edwards scored that Sugo win and a second place (behind a fierce Honda wild card in the not-inconsiderable shape of a soon-to-be MotoGP race winner, Makoto Tamada).
Edwards left Japan a much more manageable 24 points behind, and the next nearest challenger Neil Hodgson (HM Plant Ducati) over 50 adrift of even second place.
After that un-Desmodromic valve bounce and flutter in his competitiveness at Sugo, Troy B got his campaign back into full metronomic mode in the big fat middle third of the points scoring year. He won eight of the next nine races, which is well on your way to championship invincibility with rounds to spare.
By the time the first race at Edwards’ home circuit of Laguna Seca was done, he was 58 points behind, even though more often than not it was only Bayliss he could not quite beat. That points gap meant Edwards was more than two whole race wins adrift from the lead, and with only nine individual races left.
Bayliss could follow Edwards home in second place in every subsequent race and still be champion by 13 points.
The pain of getting beat to third place in front of his home fans was torture, especially with his bike painted up like a mish-mash of General Lee and General Grant’s battle colours. I mean… Colin couldn’t have looked much more young-Texan-about-town in California unless he had a scale model of the Alamo bungeed to his tail unit…
A popular race two home win, the hypothetical roof lifted off the bleachers at Laguna, and Edwards had now scaled a whole new level of American dreaming as he headed of back for the final four rounds in Europe.
The gap was still an intimidating 53 points, the opponents were still Bayliss and Ducati, but somebody, somewhere had started playing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ in the back of Edwards’ subconscious.
And, as Colin affirmed, Honda was now back on board for the final journey.
It is not quite as profound nowadays, even after a recent resurgence in non-Japanese interest in the Suzuka 8-Hour, but in the old days of Superbike racing even full-on works teams had to wait until the biggest internal combustion Basho of all had been fully played out each year at Suzuka before focus turned to such trifles as FIM World Championship campaigns.
With new parts, new ideas and a whole new inner drive - Edwards continued winning.
Two full pointers for the Texas Tornado at Brands Hatch: Bayliss only third and then second. Two more Oschersleben wins: Bayliss second each time. And then came Assen.
Often a thrilling race venue, and almost as often a fateful one, Assen saw Edwards win race one with Bayliss second. Then… Bayliss fell in race two as Edwards won another.
Incredibly, it hadn’t even taken Edwards until the final weekend to get ahead because he had done it with two races remaining.
Admittedly he was just one point ahead, but that meant as long as he scored one more first place he could now almost let Bayliss win the other race and still be champion.
This sudden drop was the culmination of an unwelcome trend, according to Bayliss.
I was having problems with the bike where something had changed and I was struggling. I had a heap of chatter from the back. F***** if I know why they changed it but it was something to do with stiffness. I cannot remember all the details of it from back then.”
Bayliss knew that was the turning point, the real turning point. “Assen f***** everything. I was so angry when I left there. We had a test at maybe Mugello, I think, and the bike got put back – something to do with the stiffness of the bike - and it got changed back for the last race. We went to Imola and the bike felt good again. But it was all too late, it had come to a pressure point meeting.
“At Assen two times in the same corner I had exactly the same crash. I remember walking back in and my wife Kim met me at the door. I gave her my crash helmet and I said to her, ‘take this before I throw it at someone.’ I think that year was the same year that the same guys were chasing around doing the ‘Troy Story’ video as well. I had them guys with me all year, so it was a stressful season. It is what it is, but I remember at Assen I was at boiling point.”
The reason that Ducati maybe felt that needed to try something new was the Edwards was becoming increasingly competitive, after the 8-hour preparation window finally closed.
“After I got new parts and I was then able to pass Bayliss at Oschersleben, all the way up to Assen where the only thing I could do was put pressure on and try to destroy Bayliss, to beat him as far as I could, and push him into a mistake - which I did,” said Edwards. “Then we got the championship situation to what it was at the final race in Imola. It all became tactics, to try and beat some confidence out of Bayliss.”
Troy B knew he was up against a harder combo later in the year than in the beginning too. “It is funny because of course they have a high priority in the Suzuka 8 Hours, but also after that they always came back with something better,” he stated. “So when he came back I am sure his bike was better than it was at the start of the year.”
After Assen Bayliss and Edwards were each more than ready to fight for the title, and as the all-time great fight for the championship showed they were closely matched, taking the art of racing and passing to epic levels.
With his one point of advantage making a real difference, Edwards was determined to win race one at Imola, and duly did so. Advantage to Edwards, six points ahead. With one race to go. Only five points for a win mean that Edwards could just follow Bayliss and win the title.
But at the astonishingly curvaceous and undulating Imola, nothing could ever be taken for granted. Especially as there are few if any places to rest mind and body. Not with all those blind entries, multiple chicanes and almost every single section flowing quickly into the next.
One mistake can deliver three or four unwelcome consequences, even without the ultimate sanction of crashing. Endless concentration is required merely to lap it once, and that’s even before you start racing other world champions.
The build up was epic and surprisingly disjointed at times. But Edwards’ memories of the approach to the final base camp of the year are as clear now as they were then.
“I remember just about every little detail. How could you not? And right down to the seven race wins before that. I remember all of it, because we had such a big deficit.”
The wheels of the Honda machine had already begun turning.
He continued, “I was driving back from Assen when Neil Tuxworth (Team Manager) called me and said we could do a one day test at Imola, because we have not fulfilled all the testing we were able to do. He said, ‘Can you turn around?’ I said, ‘Hell, yes I can turn around!’
“So we ran over to Imola and did the one-day test to at least get some kind of advantage in settings, or just get that little bit ahead of the game. I already knew I had a front tyre that worked and a rear tyre we were playing with. That was the build up to it.”
Check back tomorrow for part two