On Sunday 2 May 1999, 21 years ago today, James Whitham’s victory at Donington Park marked the beginning of the R6’s highly successful WorldSSP journey, which has seen it claim 14 World Championship titles over the past two decades.
Finding himself without a ride for the 1999 Superbike World Championship season, Whitham hadn’t intended on joining the WorldSSP that year but was called up by the Belgarda Yamaha team to replace the injured Massimo Meregalli, who was injured at the season-opener in South Africa, for Donington Park on the Wednesday immediately prior to the event.
Having never raced the Yamaha R6, the first four-stroke machine to produce 200 bhp per litre, Whitham was facing a tough challenge, but his prior knowledge of the Donington Park circuit together with a long-standing relationship with the Belgarda team meant it wasn’t entirely a baptism of fire for the Yorkshireman.
“For me, the weekend started on the Wednesday when I was called up by the Belgarda team,” Whitham recalls. “They wanted a pretty sharpish response, so I rang back on the Thursday to say I could do it. I realised that if I went and finished 15th it wouldn’t be good for my future as I was still looking to land a World Superbike seat. When I first rode the bike in practice, I really loved it.
“My last Supersport race was around 10 years earlier and I hadn’t raced with treaded tyres in just as long. The R6 was pretty much brand new, worlds away from the Supersport bikes I’d previous race, and it was the birth of the benchmark 600cc Supersport bike for me, even in the years that followed it was always the reference.”
After getting up to speed throughout practice, Whitham continued to explore the limits of the R6 in qualifying, which he finished in ninth place to secure a start from the third row of the grid.
“I didn’t qualify particularly well because I just didn’t know my way around the bike yet,” Whitham said. “I didn’t want to throw it into the grandstands during practice or qualifying and I put it ninth on the grid. It wasn’t the best session for me, but I thought I was fairly quick and had a lot left in me. I just didn’t know what everyone else around me had in them.
“I’ve always been a racer more than a qualifier, so I wasn’t too worried, although I’d have liked to have been a bit further up. I was learning slowly and there was a lot to figure out. Another thing was that because I got the call late on, I’d already agreed to play the drums with the Po Boys, the band I was with at the time. So, after qualifying, I headed to the exhibition centre at Donington and played until almost midnight. I never get much sleep before a race anyway, so I wasn’t too worried about that.”