After winning the 2002 British Superbike Championship, Hislop was back on top of the domestic scene. But just two weeks after giving the Paul Bird Motorsport team their maiden BSB title, his world came crashing down once more when – despite winning 20 BSB races and taking a total of 37 podiums in his two years with the team – he was told he wasn’t to be re-signed for the 2003 season.
A decision, allegedly at the request of the team sponsors, had been made to go with a younger rider for the year ahead rather than the 40-year old Hislop, and he was subsequently replaced by the then 26-year old Shane Byrne.
For Hislop, it was back to the all-too-familiar situation of finding a new team again, but former team boss Rob McElnea knew a title-winning rider when he saw one and, for the third time in his career, Hislop signed to ride for the Official Yamaha Team.
The big difference this time around was that he’d be on a 1000cc four-cylinder machine as, in 2002, the British Superbike Championship opened its rules to allow the litre-capacity machines to compete in the series. It was a new challenge for Steve having only previously ridden 750cc four-strokes or Ducati twin-cylinders in the series.
The Ducati 998 had still dominated the Championship in 2002 with the top four places all taken by riders on the Italian bike – Hislop, Michael Rutter, Sean Emmett and Byrne. Emmett had actually ridden the Yamaha R1 in the final few rounds after his original team had folded, but regular riders Steve Plater and Simon Crafar had only managed 5th and 8th overall on the Japanese superbike.
Plater had taken two wins at the back end of the season though and with a year’s experience now under their belt, the Virgin Yamaha Team were confident of improving upon that and mounting a challenge for the title, particularly with Hislop’s renowned skills as a development rider on board. Both Hislop’s and McElnea’s aims were simple – to win the British title.
The R1 had proven itself at all of the International Road Races with David Jefferies and Michael Rutter, but it was still finding its feet on the short circuits. Ultimately the Ducati was still the bike to beat, particularly in the hands of Byrne, Rutter and Emmett. Byrne’s nine wins in the first twelve races on what was a World Superbike specification bike saw him build up an unassailable lead in the championship standings. He went on to win the BSB crown and give the Monstermob Team their second successive championship.
For all Hislop’s world class abilities, it was widely recognised that he wasn’t at his best with a less than perfect bike. He knew what he wanted and could be very demanding at times, but if he couldn’t find the sweet spot then things quickly unravelled, as had previously been seen in 1997 with Ducati, 1999 with Kawasaki, and now 2003 with the Yamaha R1.
One of his strongest skills had always been his ability to carry high corner speed, an attribute that he’d used to devastating effect at both the TT and the short circuits but he was never able to use that on the R1. The heavy crankshaft of the in-line four meant it was always pushing the front end of the bike into the corners and Hislop struggled to adapt his style to make the bike work.
5th and 8th was the outcome at the opening round at Silverstone but a dismal outing at Snetterton two weeks later saw him fail to score a point and the threat of the sack was already looming. This was averted with 2nd and 5th at the following round at Thruxton, with another podium coming at the following round at Oulton Park.
That was as good as it got though, and while two more 5th place finishes were taken at the next three rounds – Knockhill, Brands Hatch and Rockingham – he also took less impressive finishes of 10th, 11th and 13th. He was also being comprehensively outperformed by inexperienced team-mate Gary Mason and he was subsequently shown the door after the Rockingham round.
After his sacking from the Virgin Yamaha team, Hislop missed the Mondello Park meeting but was then brought in to the ETI team, where he was to be reunited with his 2002 title-winning 998cc Ducati Testastretta for the next round at Oulton Park.
The circuit was a venue where Hislop excelled at and the prospect of him being back on the Ducati at the Cheshire venue was one to relish. Spectators, friends and rivals were expecting him to be back to his best, especially as he once again had a point to prove, but tragically he never got the chance.
On 30th July 2003, he was killed piloting a helicopter shortly after taking off from his home-town of Hawick. British racing had lost one of the most talented racers it had ever known.
As part of this year’s ‘Back to the Future: The Hizzy Years’ Parade, Hislop’s 2003 Virgin Yamaha R1 will be paraded by Steve Plater – a two-time TT race winner, host of ITV4’s TT coverage and the man who rode for the Virgin Yamaha Team in 2002.
For further information about the festivities across the Classic TT weekend, visit the Festival Pages.
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