WorldSBK 2002: Colin Edwards’ big comeback - part two

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Picture: GeeBee Images

Part two of Gordon Ritchie’s story of the 2020 WorldSBK season and how Colin Edwards made a remarkable comeback. Click here for part one

Bayliss knew what he was up against, even if he had ‘home’ advantage. “I approached it knowing it was going to be a hard weekend and knowing it was going to have to have the ride of my life because if I remember correctly them guys had been testing at Imola, and Colin was on the pace from the word go - on form and on a run after Assen while I had been on a bit of a down,” said Bayliss.

“I had a couple of crashes at Assen. I went through a little bit of tough patch after such an unreal start to the year. I went there with the pressure on and it was massive weekend. There were so many people there and in the whole time I rode Superbikes the only time I saw a crowd like that was at Imola, Brands Hatch and Monza. Those were the only three tracks where I remember when you went into the corner you could hear everyone screaming. It was crazy man.”

It was a big build up for Edwards too. “Getting to the race I still know all my crew, my travel agent and in-laws and everybody that came there to support. The atmosphere that weekend was so thick you could cut it with just your hand. I even said that to Troy on Thursday or Friday.

“Me and Troy get along great, we were always buddies. We raced each other hard, but we had mutual respect. Win or lose it was just cool to be a part of the weekend. The atmosphere was electric, you could feel it. Everybody could feel it because went into the last two races with a championship gap of one point.”

Going into that final round, at Ducati’s almost literal home circuit, just some tens of kilometres up the Autostrada from Borgo Panigale, the desmo mob were very much playing a home fixture.

Bayliss knew all about that.

“I did feel it just because it was all of that and every boss from Ducati was there,” remembers Bayliss. “They had very, very, very high expectations and I think in the end Ducati was very disappointed. They were pretty devastated that we lost really. But I did what I could do and that was all there was to it.”

Edwards, a long-time fixture in Europe and already an adored World Champion, also felt at home, however. “I didn’t feel like the underdog, that’s for sure – if that is what you are asking me,” said Edwards.

I had been in Italy since 1995 and gained a lot of fans, and Bayliss had only been there since 2000. Even though he was on a Ducati I felt it was pretty even-handed, if not I felt like more were on my side. Only because I had been there to gain fans. I felt like for most people there it did not matter who won; they went to Imola to see some good racing. They were hooting and hollering at a good race.”

The championship would not be decided until the final Imola race of course but even though the tension lasted until the very last corner of race two, the championship was arguably wrapped up after a bizarre and tension-filled race one.

“I was leading the first race and it got red flagged,” said Edwards. “That was the time of aggregate scoring as far as race time was concerned. So I was saving everything I had for the last race. I had some kind of time advantage over Troy and I knew that going into the second part of race one all I had to do was just follow him and I would win it. So I just stayed on his tail. In that race I felt if I had to I could have pushed harder and could have done what I had to do - but I didn’t have to do it. I saved everything for race two.”

The final game was clearly a case of advantage Edwards. “I won the first race on aggregate and then that made it a six-point differential,” said Colin. “I did not have to win it. But I knew that Troy had learned something in that first race. I knew that because his times were a little bit better than what they were in practice and qualifying. That was Troy, he was just a fighter.

“I knew his pace was going to be a little bit better. He had learned a couple of lines, blocking and keeping me behind and he knew where I was faster and he was faster. In that second race I knew his plan. All he had to do was slow me up so that Xaus or somebody could get by me, and it would be down to the last lap and then cause some mayhem, I would finish third and he would win the championship.”

Bayliss recollections are thus, “It could have gone either way. In race one it was all a bit of a mix-up with someone crashing and it went on aggregate times. So it came down to the actual last race. Colin and I were out in front, duking it out. I remember trying to slow him up in some places, trying to get Ruben across to join us. He was basically there at one stage but it just did not quite happen.”

It could have happened, as Edwards knew well until the final laps of the very last race of that astounding 2002 season. “At the start of the race it was a nice steady start and I knew that Troy had learned something, or made a change to the bike, and his bike worked a little bit better,” said Edwards.

“I could not leave him; he was right there. We passed back and forth a few times throughout the race, and then he started slowing up. I think were had been doing 1’48s and low 1’49s and then we started doing 1’50s, with me behind him and I thought, ‘Oh shit here we go, he is trying to work the game.’

“Then Ruben started catching us and I was getting it on my pit-board, that lap after lap he was almost catching and catching. He got to within a second or second and a half. I think we had three laps to go and I just said, ‘That’s it!’ I knew the plan too… My plan was that I was going to pass him and if I lose the front he is going to be on the outside of me. It was just plain and simple; if I crashed I would have taken him with me, and would still win the championship. I have an electric starter on my bike and he doesn’t!”

Edwards’ potentially hardcore approach was not finally needed, even in a race that was full of epic riding and risk for all.

“You play all these tactics but if you look at the last three laps - I never made any crazy passes - I was always inside of him where if something happened we were both going. I did not know on the last lap that Ruben had encountered a clutch issue or something and dropped back quite a bit.

But I had already decided with three laps to go that I’m winning. Screw, it there is only one way to do it. I wanted to win both races because I got cheated a little bit in the aggregate race, where he finished first in the first part of the race. Once I made my mind up, it was done.”

Edwards indeed got it done, putting in his fastest lap of the race on lap 20 of 21. Bayliss responded by putting in his two best splits in sector one and two on the final lap, but after one section of the track in particular it was check mate for Edwards.

The final few laps are also burned into the memory of Bayliss. “I remember the last few laps because we were really going for it, and I though it was going to come down to the last, last, last bit - but I made a mistake. The bit where you approach Acque Minerali, I lost the back there and that opened up enough gap for him – not to be comfortable – but certainly after that I though ‘Oh, man, he is going to have to make a mistake now for me to be able to do something in this last half of a lap.’ His championship was sealed.”

So did the extra pressure of that final weekend finally get to Bayliss? “The extra pressure did not hurt me because I rode as good as I ever have,” said Bayliss. “It was a stressful weekend but come race time I rode really well. He had a better race than me in race two but it could have went either way, really easy.”

For Edwards, winning race two was about winning the game of two halves of the circuit. “I was getting a good run out of the Acque Minerali and I knew I was faster around those two little rights and up that hill towards the Variante Alto chicane, and then I knew I was fast on the run down to the Rivazzas. I knew I had that last half a lap, I was faster than him, every lap.

“He could pull me a little bit in the beginning of the lap. But as long as I was ahead of him going into Acque Minerali I knew he could not pass me. He did not have the pace or bike setting or whatever it was, but as long as I could be in front him there I kinda knew I had it. I just made sure that plan stuck.”

As well as the more obvious memories of winning and losing it all on the final day, each rider actually remembers the massive crowd reaction to the historically epic scenes unfolding in front of them.

“It is weird but it is probably one of the only races I can remember,” said Edwards. “Because a lot of our passing was done under braking, and the engine sound goes down, you could physically hear the crowd roars. And as you were focusing on turning in you could see people going nuts, waving their arms, banners, whatever they had.

It’s one of the only races I can remember hearing a crowd. Where you could feel the intensity - that’s for sure!”

Now, after all was done and almost all has been said, Bayliss has taken solace in all the other astounding days of his almost peerless WorldSBK career – and his friendly rivalry with Edwards. “I was really angry after Assen but after Imola, at the end of the day, I was absolutely fine and happy and I have got no bad feelings about anything,” said Bayliss from his family home in Australia.

“It was just one of them days. Colin had a great day and I had plenty of great days throughout the year, but it turned out his great day made the year a better year for him. Basically that was it. I was happy for him and we had a mega race.

Bayliss and Edwards remain on long-distance friendly terms, as Bayliss outlines via another memory of long before that final Imola decider.

“We are mates of course, for sure,” said Troy. “We do not speak to each other a lot but when we see each other we have a laugh. I think he is a great guy and because some of the races we have had together have been so good, we have never had a fall-out by taking each other out or anything. I am pretty sure I learned from him. He has made me a stronger rider.

“I remember the first time I saw him on track. It was 1998 and I was riding for GSE. I was a wildcard at Donington WSB round. I was riding around and Colin and a few guys came past and I was like, ‘I want to stay on track with Colin, boy this is cool!’ Then racing head-to-head with him was great times.”

Bayliss, the same grounded person he has always been even after winning three world titles, has an admirable viewpoint on that fateful weekend, even though many others would look back in sadness, or even anger, at the result of Imola 2002.

“Even though I lost, the Ducati fans that were there were not bothered at all,” said Bayliss. “It was a good show and of course people still talk about it. But there is no great loss there, really. It would have been nice to have won another championship, but three championships, or four championships, what difference does it make? Fuck all.

“It certainly wasn’t life threatening or changed the outcome of my life. I used to love winning races and if you win the championship that’s a bonus. Even if I had only won one championship I still would have been very happy with that, but to win three…? Man, that is still pretty cool. But I do not walk around saying ‘I am a three-times world champion.’ I was lucky enough to do that.”