Back in 2006 Chris ‘Stalker’ Walker had already been a PSG-1 Kawasaki rider for a season, before embarking on his second year with the Italian team on the new model Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R.
He would eventually finish his career in WorldSBK with 12 podiums, but his one and only WorldSBK race win was a truly special affair, in the wet at Assen Race One, in 2006.
Last to first, in horrendous conditions, at one of the most challenging venues on the entire calendar, that is how special; and even more exceptional as he almost never got to the starting line!
“We had a problem with the bike on the sighting lap so the mechanics had all the bike in bits, squirting contact spray overall anything that was electrical,” said Walker, who still holds his one and only WorldSBK race win close to his heart.
“I knew I could go well in the wet as wet conditions are a great leveller. The bike was not the fastest thing out there at that time, but in the wet none of that mattered. It was just down to how much grip and feel you had.” (Walker had opted, as he usually did, for the narrower section Pirelli wet tyres, and said that that choice was in some ways a ‘secret weapon’ that day).
“The team boss knew there was a chance of a result and he was trying to calm me down on the grid,” said Walker. “He squeezed my leg and said, “piano, piano…” which means like calm down, calm down in Italian. “He said, it is a long race, a long race, let it come to you.”
Long it was to be, and full of drama for Walker, right from the start. “I set off down the start finish straight… and got hit from behind by Karl Muggeridge. I then ran into the gravel trap on the first corner and got back in last place. I remember thinking, ‘the team manager was not wrong, this is going to be a long race!’ I did not think for one minute that I would get back to a position where it mattered. I thought if I had a good ride I could get into the points.”
Walker’s epic run through from absolutely last started strongly and just got better and better. And not only because of his own mesmeric pace and confidence. “I was picking people off, one at a time but yellow flags were also coming out all around the circuit where people had been falling off. The forces of nature were out of control that day… The bike was running perfectly so I just carried on.”
Ironically, a worsening of the weather actually came at just the right time for Walker, if not for others. “Where I was really ‘saved’, I think, is mid-race, as the rain got so bad that the leading riders all seemed to be falling off. Bayliss was down, Kagayama, Corser; crashing as they were all racing for the win. Because I was mid-pack – and in traffic – I was prevented from going at the same pace of the leaders at that time. I was not catching them, but I was staying safe. Before I knew it, I was in the top ten and in the points.”
In a TV commentary booth, one-time WorldSBK racer James Whitham was alongside his partner Jack Burnicle, and was one of the first people outside Walker’s team to realise just what was brewing for Walker behind the leading fight.
“It looked like Chris’s opportunity had been wasted after he went off the track,” said Whitham, “When you are commentating one of you has to watch the timing screen more than the racing. I noticed the pace of Walker and said to myself, ‘hey, Stalker is going here…!’ He was the fastest man out there and after we started doing sums in our heads it was obvious he could do it. It was just fantastic to witness it.”
Walker had not been paying too much attention to his pit board early on, but eventually, it provided a window into his winning future. “The pit crew were keeping me updated but I had not looked for quite a long time,” said Chris. “It gets quite depressing with 20-odd laps to go at Assen and it says on your pit board that you are last! I didn’t look for a few laps. I did five laps and looked again. It became quite relevant, with ten laps to go, what the team were telling me.”
Walker’s pace took him right into the leading group, and he first took the lead on lap 15. “When I got to Andrew Pitt, and I was in P2, I was not finding it hard to be behind him,” said Walker. “I definitely had more grip than him and at that point, I was calculating when to make a pass while not risking anything.”
The rest is history, an important win for Kawasaki the manufacturer (the first for a ZX-10R), the PSG-1 team… and Walker the rider who had achieved a lifelong ambition.
“I still have to pinch myself now to think that there were riders like Bayliss who went to WorldSBK and won every week,” said Walker, a Kawasaki dealer in his native England since his retirement. “I never had the skill level of Bayliss and never had quite the equipment of some riders that went WorldSBK and won lots of races. But that day I could do no wrong and it was phenomenal. It was so nice to win one, so nice.
Up to that point I had won a Le Mans 24 Hours race with Steve Hislop and Bertrand Sebileau (on a Kawasaki), but it was not ‘my’ thing. My thing was Superbikes and I wanted to win. I had turned down a huge amount of money to ride the Foggy Petronas team for another year to go off and ride the Kawasaki for, basically, a “fresh air wage” in comparison. I wanted to win a WorldSBK race and it is special that it all came good.”