x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A setback that became Leon Haslam's big break

A horrific leg injury cemented the aim of the 12-year-old Leon Haslam to follow in his father Ron's tracks.

It may be 14 years ago but Leon Haslam vividly recalls the broken leg he sustained in a seemingly innocuous fall in a British Motocross race. The excruciating pain following the then 12-year-old's crash is not the thing he thinks of when he casts his mind back, nor is seeing his shattered femur having broken through the skin, nor is it the three weeks he was forced to spend in hospital as he recovered from the accident.

Bizarrely, the current World Superbike Championship (SBK) leader looks back at the moment fondly as career-defining. The son of "Rocket" Ron Haslam, the three-time world champion and four-time British champion, Leon Haslam grew up around a racing circuit as he travelled the globe with his famous father, and all he ever wanted was to emulate him. However, Haslam Sr had other ideas - up until the injury. The younger of the Haslam racing dynasty recalls: "I think Dad always worried that I was only doing it because he did it and I remember him trying to dissuade me from going racing anymore. He first said he couldn't afford it and suggested that I try my luck at football instead.

"So there I was sitting in hospital with my leg up following the nasty break and I told him it was the only thing I wanted to do and that I'd find another way of doing it. I think for the first time he realised I was serious, and he's backed me every single day since that moment. And I know I couldn't have done it without him, so I guess I'm sort of grateful for having broken my leg." Unsurprisingly, their hospital spat was not the last of the duo's fall-outs as Haslam climbed up the racing ranks during his teenage years through British Motocross, the junior classes of MotoGP, the British Superbike Championship and finally to WSB.

"Dad's my biggest critic, and I actually really appreciate that now," says Haslam. "Even if I win a race he'll say 'you did this wrong' and that's OK. I'm all about improving as a rider, but that's easier to take now I'm 26. We had a lot of arguments in the past, particularly in my late teens. I felt he was being negative all the time, but I now realise he was trying to help." Haslam Sr's aversion to his son going racing is all the more understandable considering his own personal experience with motorcycles. Having lost two brothers to race crashes, the thought of his only son going the same way was unimaginable.

"Dad realised long ago that it didn't matter what he said or did, this was what I was going to do, and so he thought it was best to be my side to ensure things were as safe as possible," he says. The father-son relationship appears to finally be working, with Haslam at long last realising his immense potential this season. Until now, Haslam has very much been the nearly man of bike racing. He made his debut in SBK in 2004 as Noriyuki Haga's team-mate, earning the rookie of the year award as he finished eighth overall.

But a move to British Superbikes essentially pegged back his career. He came close to winning the British title in 2006 and was due to return to World Superbikes the following year, but a full-time drive disappeared until last year. Without a competitive bike, his stock began to fall. Then a double podium at Assen for Stiggy Honda earned the attention of Suzuki's factory team and, for the first time in his career, the offer of a factory ride finally came for 2010.

For Suzuki's part, it was something of a gamble, but Haslam has clearly repaid the faith. He has won two out of the first eight races of the season and only twice finished outside of the top two. In the process, he has eclipsed far more experienced racers such as Haga, Max Biaggi, Troy Corser and James Toseland, and he has every plan to continue that to the seaon's finish. "I've been crying out for a factory ride in my career and this is the first time I've ever had that," he says, "and hopefully I've proved a lot of people what I'm capable of. Honestly, I don't think the season could have gone any better. Even my fourth place in Valencia was pleasing as I had mechanical problems, but I got the bike back only 10 seconds behind the leaders."

Whether Haslam can maintain his charge remains to be seen, but the English racer is adamant the title is within his grasp. "I don't think we've necessarily got the best package right now," he says, "and I think there's a lot more still to come from us. I feel the bike can get better and I can get better but, with 26 races this season, it's all about consistency. It's been a dream start, but all it takes is for me to fail to finish one race and Max or Nori will come flying past me. But I believe I can be World Superbike Champion come the end of the season."

Despite being the championship leader, Haslam still has his doubters. Arguably the greatest World Superbike rider of all time, Carl Fogarty, who won a record four titles, believes that Haslam is not even the best British rider in the series, insisting that honour is reserved for Johnny Rea. However, Haslam is happy to have his critics. "I don't mind what anyone says about me, as I know what I can do and how good I can be.

"I feel I can stay at the top even if it took a bit of time to get here," he says. "I'm only 26, so there's still time, but it already feels like I've had a long career. I certainly wouldn't change any of the career moves I've made. My time in MotoGP, they were big, big learning years and I wouldn't change what I've learned from those years. "I got a bit stuck at one point in the UK - maybe a little longer than I'd have liked - and I missed out on the British title, but I'm doing what I want to do now, which is race in World Superbikes."

The obvious suggestion is that, should Haslam win the title, he will make the switch back to MotoGP much like his predecessor, Ben Spies, did this season. However, the championship hopeful is not so sure. "I've got a two-year deal with Suzuki with an option to extend that," says Haslam, "and I see no reason to change that. I only want to go to MotoGP if I have a factory bike that can win races. I wouldn't go there to make up the numbers, there'd be no point. And even if I was offered a top bike I'd have to think about it, as I love it in World Superbikes with Suzuki."

Haslam describes himself as "born for racing - it's all I've ever known since I was six" and is at a loss to think what he might have done had he not decided at the age of 12 to be a professional racer. This year, he has been invited for the first time to take part in the prestigious parade lap at the Isle of Man TT at the end of the month, although has no imminent plans to tackle the legendary course at full tilt.

"You never say never, but I don't fancy it yet," he says. "It's a very different style of racing to track racing but I have the ultimate respect for those guys. They're proper speed demons." On current form, the same could be said about Haslam. The next World Superbike Championship race is tomorrow at Kyalami in South Africa. motoring@thenational.ae