You are about to leave this website. Are you sure?

I agree, take me there

Donington Park 1999: Where the Yamaha R6’s WorldSSP Dominance Began

Donington Park 1999: Where the Yamaha R6’s WorldSSP Dominance Began

In recent years, the Yamaha R6 has been a dominant force in the Supersport World Championship, having won three consecutive riders’ and manufacturers' titles since 2017 and 26 of the last 28 races, including the 2020 opener at Phillip Island.

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.”

Whitham 1999

Come race day, Whitham knew that if he was to earn a full-time ride then a solid debut aboard the R6 wasn't enough; he had to push and be in the fight for victory

After a solid getaway in the race, Whitham quickly caught those ahead and was soon out in front. From there on in, he pulled away from the field with a blistering pace, posting the fastest lap in the process. 

By the chequered flag, Whitham had built a lead of several seconds and crossed the line with his front wheel in the air, to secure Yamaha and the R6 a first race win in the Supersport World Championship.

“I had a good start, got to the front and at that point all I thought was about putting my head down and just going at my pace, see who comes with me,” Whitham explained. “It just kept getting better and better, I was pulling out a second each lap. I couldn’t really understand why, there was nothing that spectacular going on. Obviously, I knew Donington like the back of my hand, and in the end, it just worked out.

“After the race, I just remember thinking ‘what happened there?’ because I couldn’t work out how it had gone so well. I thought I must have been a born Supersport rider or something. Even the team were at a loss to how we’d won by such a margin. They were really pleased and even offered a third bike for me that year. I was still holding out for a WorldSBK ride so that didn’t come to fruition, but I did end up having a great few years with them after that season.”

The Yamaha R6 went onto score five further wins that year in the hands of Jörg Teuchert, Wilco Zeelenberg and Rubén Xaus to claim the inaugural manufacturers’ title. That success continued throughout the Supersport World Championship’s history, with Whitham hailing it as the “benchmark 600cc bike”. 

“I look back now on it as a bit of a dream weekend really, I can’t really put my finger on why I went so well on it, I just clicked with it,” Whitham remembered. “I didn’t ride the R6 for the rest of that year but I had three full seasons riding for the Belgarda team on the bike and I always liked it. I remember it as a bike that did exactly what you wanted if it was going to go wrong it was going to tell you. It’s been proved since it was the birth of what became the benchmark 600cc Supersport bike. For me, it was the best of the Supersport bikes for years.”