Leon Haslam: Superbike Rider from Smalley, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 13:18 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:33 20 February 2013
Superbike rider Leon Haslam at home in Smalley
With motorcycle legend 'Rocket' Ron Haslam for a father, it was probably inevitable that Leon Haslam would follow in his footsteps. At the age of 25, Leon is one of the leading riders in the British Superbike Championship. His aim is to win one of the world's major series on a competitive bike, and he already has an enormous wealth of experience behind him, as well as the support of a family that knows the sport inside-out.
I caught up with Leon, at home in Smalley, just a day after a frustrating meeting at Snetterton, back in June, where the scent of victory was snatched away late in the race. 'I was battling for the lead with Camio (Leon Camier),' he explained, 'and made my move on him with four laps to go. I took the lead but made a mistake on the straight and Camio came past. I went into the chicane right behind him when Shakey (Shane Byrne) came up underneath and lifted me up.'
Taking avoiding action, across the grass, Leon lost momentum and rejoined fifth with just three laps remaining. 'From what could have been a win, or definitely a second place, I ended up in fifth - and that has been my season so far this year,' he comments.
A new team and a brand new bike in 2008 have also brought with them a few gremlins and a share of bad luck. Leon failed to finish the second race at Thruxton with electrical problems, was disqualified from second place at Oulton Park after a collision with Tom Sykes and ran off the road while leading at Brands Hatch. His best results (at the time of the interview) were a brace of second places at his home Donington circuit in May. In spite of his disappointment, Leon was very positive about his move to the HM Plant Honda team, riding the new Honda Fireblade. Regarding his move to Honda, Leon commented, 'We are showing that we can run at the front of races. It's very early in the development and we're still not 100 per cent with it, but this bike can win. The results haven't reflected how good the bike can be. There hasn't been a race where I haven't thought that we could win and there are still plenty of circuits to come where the Honda will be good.' Indeed Leon went on to win at Knockhill in August. His schedule with Honda is extremely hectic, in the two weeks between Donington and Snetterton he squeezed in a trip to Japan for the eight hour race on the incredibly fast track at Suzuka.
Racing has been Leon's life for as long as he can remember. His dad, Ron, was at the height of his fame when Leon was born and Leon made his first appearance in the Grand Prix paddock at the tender age of six weeks. 'Being brought up with it from such an early age, it's what I've always wanted to do,' he says. 'I have some old school diaries from when I was about five. Every week I wrote "I'm off racing" and a sentence about wanting to be World Champion in 500s.'
Leon had his first bike when he was four years old, riding a little QR50 Honda around the GP paddock and his first taste of success soon followed. 'I won my first race when I was four, in Austria at a little event for children. I think my dad finished third in the Grand Prix that weekend, but I actually won the mini-bike race, so that was pretty cool!'
With so much time spent travelling during the racing season much of young Leon's early education was provided by another rider's wife at the circuits. 'I always got into trouble when I went back to school,' Leon recalls. 'I was so used to one-to-one teaching that to queue up and wait your turn used to be quite an issue, but I always loved school, probably because I was never there for a full week!'
His education continued at Heanor Gate School where he would frequently return with a cast on one broken limb or another, and he studied Sports Science at college, reflecting his love of sport in general. However, it was on two wheels that Leon was determined to make his mark.
Aged twelve, Leon took the first of two National Young Motocross Champion titles. On switching to road racing in 1997 he won the Scooter Championship, then in 1998 he became the youngest rider to win a British motorcycle race in the British 125 Super Cup and earned the Young Rider of the Year Award from Motorcycle News magazine. In 2000 Leon had his first taste of Grand Prix with Italjet in the 125cc class. His three victories that when he was the youngest rider to compete at that level.
It can't be easy to follow in the footsteps of a father who's performed brilliantly in the same sport but Leon doesn't seem to have been affected by this, commenting 'I never looked at it like that, it was just a help to have all that experience in my corner. We did find it hard to get sponsorship and backing in the early days because with dad being who he was, everyone assumed that that would be all sorted.'
'That was the biggest problem,' Ron agreed. 'At that point they all thought Leon could have everything he wanted, but it was just the opposite. The sponsors didn't come in because they thought it wasn't necessary. The best result he could ever get in Grands Prix would be midfield, with the machines he'd got, and that was like a win.'
Knowing the highs and the lows of the sport, Ron never pushed Leon to take up racing, but when it became clear that it was what he wanted, Ron encouraged him to aim high. 'Before he had the glory of winning at one level I'd take him to the next step. It was hard for him to go through it all, but he stuck with it and didn't let the difficulties put him off.'
After a third year in Grands Prix, in the 250cc class, Leon raced in British Supersports and World Superbikes before concentrating on British Superbikes from 2005. Riding for the Airwaves Ducati team Leon finished second in the 2006 championship. However, he is keen to return to the top flight.
'Definitely in the next three years,' Leon declares, 'on a competitive bike. I want to get to World Superbikes, I want to win that and I'd love an opportunity to get back to Moto GP. I think the move to Honda will open the right doors.'
Ron firmly believes that his son is on course to challenge for titles. 'He's got the potential and his experience is way ahead of where I was at his age.' I wondered how Ron felt about watching Leon race? 'It's a lot more frightening,' was his instant response. 'When you race yourself you don't believe you're going to get hurt. I probably know too much of what can happen, sometimes when it isn't your own fault. I can give him some short cuts but he's out there racing alone and he's got to be able to do it for himself.'
Ann Haslam has already lived through the watching experience with Ron, and is now going through it again with her son. 'It was different with Ron,' she reflects. 'I was younger, you're excited, you want it to be your man who's the winner on the podium. With Leon I just want safety. The only thing that keeps me going is knowing just how much he wants it. We've never pushed Leon into the sport, but he's always had our full support.'
For Leon that support comes from the whole family, as racing is the life blood of the Haslam family. Ron, Ann and Leon's sister Emma run the Haslam Racing School at Donington Park, while younger sister Zoe is still at school. Further support comes from girlfriend Oli who moved to the family home in Smalley and manages Leon's busy schedule. 'You live and breathe bikes here,' she says. 'There's no getting away from it even if you wanted to.'
Oli met Leon five years ago on a visit to the race school, but she was already working in the sport as a television presenter. 'I've been in PR all my life and it's natural for me to do it for Leon. I enjoy watching bike racing, but working as a professional in the sport is very different to becoming emotionally involved with someone who races. I don't enjoy watching Leon race - it makes me nervous.'
Oli also looks after Leon's nutrition and trains with him at Breadsall Priory. He works hard to maintain his fitness all year round. 'I train there twice a day in the off season,' he says. 'I have a trainer, Kirk Gibbins, based in Derby. It's pretty intense through the winter months and during the season he's there just helping me maintain my fitness.'
Breadsall Priory also offers Leon the opportunity to indulge in his favoured relaxation pastime, golf. 'I just love going to one of their fantastic golf courses, it's a really good social thing and something I like to do through the winter as well.'
Leon hopes that his move to Honda is the beginning of a long and fruitful association, giving him the all-important works' support that he lacked in his early career. And with such a wealth of family experience and support behind Leon's talent, enthusiasm and determination, it surely can't be long before he brings home that first major title.