Tom Sykes has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, the 2013 World Superbike champion overshadowed by Kawasaki teammate Jonathan Rea since the Northern Irishman joined the factory team and claimed three consecutive titles.
Sykes has been a title contender for six years and his name is etched at the forefront of the record books. Only four riders have won more races, but you wouldn’t hear Sykes talked about in the same vein as Carl Fogarty, Troy Bayliss, or now Rea.
This has been tough for Sykes to deal with in the past, but following successful preseason testing just ahead of the 2018 World Superbike campaign, the 32-year-old Yorkshireman claims to be refreshed and ready for action once again.
“I’m more prepared this year than I have been in the past,” Sykes claimed. “The November test was great, and the January tests have been the same. I’ve been able to concentrate on tire wear and race simulations, and the bike feels a lot better on old tires now.
“I can’t hide that I don’t like the direction the regulations have taken in recent years. I’ve had to adapt my style and change what I do on the bike. I still think that my style would work really well on a ‘proper’ Superbike.
“I’ve had to adjust my style a lot to each of the changes. I’ve been working hard to make those changes more natural and think about what I’m doing on the bike. The goal is to give the bike an easier time and let it do what it can do.”
Sykes’ career trajectory has been unlike that of almost any other top-line WorldSBK rider. His only major title is a world championship, but he’s never been afraid of pitting himself against the very top riders.
As a teammate to Shane Byrne and Ben Spies before racing alongside Rea, Sykes has been able to test himself against the best. Despite having come up short the past three years, Sykes feels that he has the best chance in 2018 to offer a much sterner test to his rival.
“I think I’ve improved a lot since winning my title,” he said. “There’s a big difference between me now compared to 2013. I’ve learned so much since then and I understand far more about the bike, but my performance has been limited by the regulations.
“The regulations haven’t allowed me to showcase what I can do any longer. It’s a shame and it’s disappointing because I think that I’ve more to offer. I’ve been able to accept that now though and change my style a lot more.
“In 2012 to 2014 I was always able to win a lot of races and challenge for the championship, so the last three years have been difficult for me mentally. I know that given a similar bike now I’d be able to use my experience to achieve even more.
“That era of Superbike was great for me, and I could utilize the power of the bike and its performance to get off the edge of the tire a lot better. A lot has changed since then, but the key for me is to adapt and fight for the title again.”
Having been able to stand on the podium 100 times and win 33 races, Sykes has a very enviable record in the class. His reputation, however, hasn’t been a match to his résumé in recent years.
The oldest adage in racing is that the first person you have to beat is your teammate. He’s the rider on the same equipment, and Sykes has come off second best far too often compared to Rea. Sykes admits that in recent years he hasn’t been able to do as good a job as Rea.
“Jonathan is so talented and at one with the bike at the moment, but I know that I’ve got the capability to win the title again,” he said. “I’m feeling more and more prepared for the opening round because the gap to him at Phillip Island is always closing.”
If Sykes can somehow reclaim the title, he knows the first person he would thank. Family and loyalty have always been the most important things for Sykes, and one man stands out above many in his life.
“My granddad isn’t like most 79-year-olds,” Sykes said. “He still rides his Kawasaki on the road and just loves bikes. There was no history of racing in our family, but my granddad was such a big fan that when he thought I had some talent he wanted to help me.
“He saw potential when no one else did, and I owe everything to him. He’s one of life’s gentlemen. He told me when I was a kid, ‘You’ll be a world champion,’ and I always laughed thinking it was a crazy dream, but he was right.
“When I won the title in 2013, it was worth everything to me to see his reaction. The emotion of that title was huge, but winning for him and repaying his trust was just as big. I’d love to be able to win another title for him.”