Motorcycle racing can be a largely psychological game
Of course riding skill, race-craft, strategic intelligence and bravery are all important, all top riders possess these traits in spades to various degrees, but when the level of competition is extremely tight there is another final piece of that puzzle that can heavily slew an outcome one way or the other, that is confidence.
Racers play head games via various tactics aimed to try and undermine the confidence of one another or get under the skin of a competitor. Trying to make your opponent lose focus on the main game by playing to their weaknesses or insecurities.
In the small fishbowl that is Australian Superbike it is always interesting to see these games play out. The main riders have been racing each other for years, have often been team-mates with one another at various stages of their careers, and know each others strengths and weaknesses inside out.
It is also interesting to see how far that rollercoaster of confidence can range between deep troughs and high peaks, and how quickly that train can change direction.
In the lead up to season 2021 there were plenty of disturbing anecdotes surrounding the psychological condition of Troy Herfoss.
At the 2020 finale it looked clear that Herf’ had the wood on Wayne Maxwell at Wakefield Park, so much so he was toying with him, only for a mechanical failure to rob him of his shot at stealing the championship from Wayne at the final juncture. Still, he was doing it so easy on track the others weren’t really in the same race. A great confidence builder heading into a shortened off-season, despite Wayne taking the title.
However, only days later Herfoss suffered a massive crash during testing. It was big, proper big, and real scary. To the point that there were real fears on the scene that he might not make it. Yes, that big. Herf’ was unconscious and not breathing due to a blocked airway, it was touch and go.
Herfoss can’t remember the accident and as it happened on a bike without data recording equipment fitted, the team were also at a loss to definitively nail down the exact cause. A brake failure was suspected but an examination of the bike suggested the brakes should have been operating effectively. That might play on your mind somewhat…
Thanks to his genuinely elite athlete level of fitness, the physical affects of that crash healed relatively quickly. He couldn’t train for six weeks or so but could keep moving at a modest enough pace not to lose all condition. The psychological effects though were much more alarming.
Herfoss got back onboard the bike for the first time less than two months after the accident, at a Phillip Island track day. Many other competitors were also in attendance and for much of the opening day they made Herfoss look like he was a public track-day punter. This Superbike Champion, X Games Gold Medallist, Dirt Track, AMA Supermoto Champion, Road and Mountain Bike Title holder, a winner in every type of contest he has ever entered and a fierce competitor in every sense, was breaking down in tears. His confidence shot to a degree that nobody could have ever predicted, those close to him were shocked to their core in witnessing it.
By the end of the second day at Phillip Island he had steadily built up some reasonable speed. Not true competitive race speed, but enough positives to see a way forward. While the team still had faith in him through knowing just how much of a competitive animal he is by nature, I think it fair to say that there were still some very genuine worries about how long it might take for that animal to be growling rather than whimpering. Would he be up for the fight when the lights went out at round one?
Thus the postponement of the original season opener at Phillip Island has been a significant blessing for Herfoss. The circuit is scary at the best of times, and one that has from time to time intimidated Herf’ more than any other on the calendar. He doesn’t like to admit to any weaknesses and will claim to have no real weak points and no weak tracks, but that’s not the full story. The Island has always seemed to test him more than the tight and technical circuits that he always shines on.
Immediately after the Phillip Island Test Troy’s wife Emily gave birth to their first daughter and he got back to Queensland just in time to welcome young Mia into the family. That’s a fair size milestone in anyone’s life and can certainly change a man, generally for the better.
This week, more than a month later, Herfoss participated in a two-day test alongside many of the ASBK regulars at Winton. He immediately looked like the one to beat, Troy was back.
As always, he seemed to be keeping one eye on the progress of the rider that he always sees as his main rival, Wayne Maxwell. Sometimes it seems as though this pair don’t even really take any notice of what the other competitors are doing, only each other.It’s clear to me that they see themselves as the fastest pair out there, that the others aren’t really in the same game. They might not say that out loud, but I am damn sure that is the prism through which they look. Troy looks at Wayne for signs of strength and weakness, and Wayne judges Troy the same way. The only gauge they seem to take any notice of is the scale that balances between them.Sometimes Herf’ has the upper hand, sometimes Wayne.
Troy shrugged those demons off his shoulder from that Wakefield nightmare and came out swinging at Winton this week.It didn’t take him long to be in the 19s and a 19.6 came despite very warm track temperatures on day one. That’s almost four-tenths below the qualifying lap record set by Mike Jones at the circuit in 2019 on the 1299 Ducati.It was clearly visible that Herfoss was on the pace, and he was setting those lap record times on hard tyres. Maxwell went down at turn one late in the day. Those psychological scales were tilting back in Herf’s favour.
Cooler temperatures on day two saw the top riders quicker again but their time attacks late in the day were cut short when Maxwell crashed again. Two crashes in two days for the defending champ… Those scales were tilting a little further again…. Fortunes though can change in the blink of an eye.
With no official timing present there is no perfect gauge to measure themselves against, just stopwatches. The consensus before the day was cut short put Herfoss at 19.3 with Maxwell clocking a 19.5. Track conditions were such that the Penrite Honda camp had reckoned that the first ever 1m18s lap of Winton might have been on the cards today if not for the premature end to proceedings.Herfoss was reeling off 19s with apparent ease while Maxwell looked to be on the limit while paddling at that deep end of the pool. As his crashes would suggest.
Mike Jones was also under his previous qualifying lap record which is a danger sign to the others that the DesmoSport Ducati squad and himself now have the V4 R set-up much more to their liking. Was he as quick as Herfoss and Maxwell? I suspect he was not that far off, I did hear mention of a 19.8.
Mike would make a great poker player, you never really know what he has got until the lights go out. As much as Herf’ and Maxwell measure themselves primarily off each other, they do glance over their shoulder every now and then to keep an eye on Jones. He used to have the nickname Skeletor, but perhaps Predator might suit him better these days…
In the BMW garage Glenn Allerton was smiling and that is always a good sign. The team looked to be working well and Glenn is sounding confident. He was more a consistent low 1m20 man than a 19 runner but was looking and sounding satisfied. He is confident of getting back to winning races this season.
In the Yamaha pit garage Aiden Wagner looked to be working studiously with his crew while in the opposite corner Cru Halliday was just engrossed in his phone when ever he wasn’t on the bike. I think it’s fair to say that YRT were struggling and well off the pace. Both Cru and Aiden haven’t forgotten how to ride a Superbike, but some ingredients in the mix do seem to be missing. They will need to turn something around between now and next weekend to put up any sort of contest.
Smiles were also few and far between in the BCperformance Kawasaki garage. Consternation seemed to be the default facial expression throughout the garage. There was some mention of them waiting on new parts as they were shaking down new motorcycles, but one suspects that they are not going to be up the front next weekend. I hope they prove me wrong, but the odds are not in their favour on my form guide.
Josh Waters and Bryan Staring have the credentials to win races, they already have more than half-a-dozen Australian Championships between them across the Superbike, Supersport and 125 Grand Prix categories.If given the tools for the job they will be in the thick of the action. Will they be in the main game next weekend? I suspect not.
Privateer Matt Walters looked to perhaps be the fastest Kawasaki on track during the test. The Cessnock Kawasaki rider never has the resources to explore any real changes to the electronics over a race weekend thus two days on track this week was a rare luxury that allowed him to learn a lot about the package. His aim is for top five finishes all season, with hopes for a podium here and there when the cards fall his way.
Young Lachlan Epis looks to have found his feet with the BMW Superbike and was circulating quicker than many of the fancied runners.
In fact, if the likes of YRT and Kawasaki don’t find significant pace between now and round one Epis could be a top five contender.
Mark Chiodo does not yet look comfortable on the YZF-R1 and suffered a crash on day one. I hope he finds his groove and makes some progress.
The youngest riders on the grid are Luke Jhonston and Oli Bayliss.Jhonston is running under Patrick Li’s MotoGo Yamaha banner in 2021 and seems to be coping with the learning curve quite well.
Throughout the 300 and 600 Supersport years I would say that Oli would have been the cool, calm and collected one in the Cube Racing garage, while dad seemed more often than not to be the one revved up. With the move up to the main game it seems that balance has changed somewhat. In previous seasons it seemed as though TB actually put Oli on edge at times, but Troy was looking more relaxed this week, intent on keeping things on an even keel and putting no pressure on Oli.Conversely, you could tell the weight of this new challenge was resting a little more heavily on Oli’s young shoulders. He looks to be handing it well and I don’t think anyone has any unrealistic expectations for the 17-year-old’s first year on a Superbike. Mike is expected to get the results for the DesmoSport Ducati Team, Oli is there to learn the ropes and gain experience. That V4 R Ducati sure is fast though and no doubt would be more than a little daunting to pilot around the tight confines of Winton. He kept it upright and worked at gaining a feel for the Superbike so that would be mission accomplished for the test.
The 2021 mi-bike Motorcycle Insurance Australian Superbike Championship, presented by Motul, is expected to fire into action at Winton Motor Raceway on March 12-14 with all the action on SBS HD and Fox Sports Australia for Australian fans. Whilst across the globe on Fox Sports Asia and Eurosport.
2021 Australian Superbike Championship Calendar
Australian All Wheels Race Fest (SBK, SSP, SSP300, R3, OJC)
Phillip Island, VIC
Winton Motor Raceway (SBK, SSP, SSP300, R3, OJC, Sidecar)
Mar 12-14, 2021
Wakefield Park Raceway (SBK, SSP, SSP300, R3, OJC, Sidecar)
Apr 16-18, 2021
Hidden Valley Raceway (SBK Only)
Jun 18-20, 2021
Morgan Park Raceway (SBK, SSP, SSP300, R3, OJC)
Aug 20-22, 2021
The Bend Motorsport Park (SBK, SSP, SSP300)
The Bend, SA
Sep 23-26, 2021
Symmons Plains (SBK, SSP, SSP300, R3, OJC)
Nov 4-7, 2021
Round 2 | Winton Motor Raceway | 12th-14th March Schedule
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