Chris Walker wasn’t expecting to win at Sugo on Sunday in his first competitive ride for Kawasaki – but ninth place against some of the best bikes and riders in the world felt almost as good.
For the first time in a year Walker enjoyed himself. He finally felt like he could race a bike again after a year of disappointments and inability to perform which culminated in him being dropped from the Shell Advance Honda 500GP team less than half-way through the year.
Walker was taken to Sugo to race in the penultimate All Japan Road Racing series as an extended test on the Kawasaki ZX-7RR he’ll ride next year in WSB and to learn the Sugo track which he has never seen before.
A year ago Walker would have been gutted to get ninth in a race – on Sunday he managed at a track he had never been to before and despite being really pleased he still wants to do even better in 2002.
Speaking to MCN just minutes after the race had finished on Sunday, he said: " Today has been the first time I have actually enjoyed racing a road bike in a year. I feel like I have achieved everything I needed to on my first ride on the Kawasaki and I loved every minute of it. I did the Weston Beach race last week and did that Mettet supermoto event and they were great fun but nothing can compare to racing a superbike on a race track. It felt great and I loved it.
" There were some seriously fast guys out here and some of the moves they were pulling were awesome – real win it or bin it stuff. I loved it.
" There was nothing dangerous but it reminded me how much I still have to learn before the start of the WSB season next year but that was what this weekend has been all about.
" I was glad to be able to stay on the bike this weekend because I can barely remember what it is like to finish a race weekend not feeling battered and bruised. The best bit was being able to finish in front of Bostrom because he was in pretty much the same position as me – except he has ridden the Kawasaki in American for the past couple of years. "
Walker’s ninth place was made even sweeter because he was able to beat Ben Bostrom’s brother Eric who has been riding for Kawasaki in the competitive American superbike series. Bostrom managed to finish in 11th overall.
The winner of the race was the man who Walker will partner at the works Kawasaki team in WSB next – Hitoyasu Izutsu. Izutsu managed to win the race despite falling off his push bike in the paddock on the morning of the race and smacked his head on Tarmac. He was forced to got to the medical centre and had to race with his head bandaged under his lid.
Walker said: " I’m not sure what happened but he turned up before the start of the race with a big bandage on his head so it must have been pretty serious. I was really pleased for him being able to win the race in that state. "
Walker’s team boss Harald Eckl was particularly pleased with the way he performed throughout the weekend. There were no crashes and Walker was consistently getting quicker throughout the three days of practice, qualifying and race day to log a best time of 1:31.0s on race day.
Walker’s time compared to the fastest race lap was just over a second down on factory Honda VTR SP-2 rider Makoto Tamada – winner of both WSB races earlier this year. Tamada’s pole position time was even faster than pole set at the WSB round this year.
The Japanese Superbike series is the most impressively-backed superbike series in the world. The bikes are the cutting-edge of the bikes the factories produce and the riders are extremely talented.
Walker added: " Some of the moves being made out there today were extreme and I am not quite ready to start racing like that yet. I need a bit more time to test and get used to riding a four-stroke bike again before I will feel comfortable doing that. But even so I loved every bit of the weekend and with more testing planned in December in South Africa I know things can improve. "
One of the most important parts of the weekend for Walker and the factory Kawasaki team was to find out how well they could all work together. Both sides seemed very pleased and worked on the bike very well together.
The nest step for Walker was to stay at Sugo with the Kawasaki team on Monday and Tuesday to carry on testing both tyres and new engine components that are aimed at making the 2002 ZX-7RR more competitive. New rules for 2002 have allowed four-cylinder bikes to shed some weight so the team wants to work out the best way of doing this.
Before the race team boss Harald Eckl said: " The weekend at Sugo is not about winning – it’s chance for the team to work together and for Chris to remember what it’s like to ride a superbike again. I want him to relax and enjoy himself but also work out what he can do to go faster for the start of next year. "
Walker will be returning to Britain today (Wednesday) and will be at the NEC bike show in Birmingham for much of the motorcyle chow. He will be there working for new employer Kawasaki.
He said: " It will be nice to be able to go to the show and be able to wear a shirt and be working rather than wandering around unemployed and seeing all the other riders wearing team shirts. I’m really looking forward to seeing the fans again as well because I have been a bit miserable in recent months and everyone has seen that in me. See you all in Birmingham I hope. "