Tom Sykes will not return next season to the factory Kawasaki team with which he has spent most of the past decade and, to date, earned one World Superbike title, 34 race wins, 105 podiums, and a series-record 46 pole positions. According to a press release issued this past week, the 32-year-old Brit and the Barcelona-based squad "mutually agreed to end their sporting relationship" at the end of the current season.

“I feel I have given all I can within KRT,” Sykes said. “I am now the best rider I have ever been, and I have the experience and performance to keep winning. So I have decided to make a step away from the KRT project for 2019 and look for new goals and challenges. The timing of this big career decision is never easy, but it is especially difficult as my personal life also faces big changes.” Sykes and his wife, Amie, are divorcing. The couple has two daughters.

Team manager Guim Roda anticipates Sykes’ decision will provide renewed focus for the remainder of the season. “In the most recent rounds, Tom’s concentration was not able to be the best, as he was dealing with a big decision—apart from some family points to solve. I hope this confirmation will give us room to finish the year in the same way we dominated in Assen. We have a big job to do until the end of the year, so is not time to say goodbye yet.”

Tom Sykes
Tom Sykes will leave the Kawasaki Racing Team at the end of the season. Will crew chief Marcel Duinker remain with the Barcelona-based squad or join Sykes elsewhere for a new adventure?Brian J. Nelson

Since Sykes won the title in 2013, his annual victory haul looks more like a countdown for a rocket launch—nine, eight, four, five, two, one—than the success rate for one of the world’s best production-bike racers. That being said, he has never finished lower in the championship in the ensuing years than third overall. This season, Sykes has one win, race 2 at Assen in Holland, and six podiums. He is currently fourth in points.

No one is closer to Sykes professionally than his longtime crew chief, Marcel Duinker. During our annual sit-down this past June at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the Dutch engineer provided Cycle World Technical Editor Kevin Cameron and me firsthand insight into Sykes' struggle to adapt to a motorcycle that, due to tighter series regulations, has changed dramatically in the five years after he won the title.

“Tom is a very brutal rider,” Duinker began. “His apex speed is lower than what you see as an average in this paddock. He relies on the bike to help him stop as much as possible, turns the bike, and rockets it out of the corner. Johnny [Rea] is completely the opposite and relies on the drivability of the machine. It’s still amazing that, after every year [of the series] reducing our performance, Johnny is still leading the championship with a big margin.”

Laguna Seca was a snapshot into the challenge Sykes faces. On Saturday, as Rea cleared off for the win, Sykes slipped from third on the opening lap to seventh at the finish. "Tom struggled with the front end of the bike big time," Duinker explained. "On Friday, he was able to do 1:23.8 on lap 21 or 22—okay, this is not 22 race laps but he had good speed—and today we are far from that. We dropped 2-1/2 seconds per lap from beginning to end, which is unusual."

Looking forward to Sunday, Duinker made a telling statement. "It's something we need to improve for tomorrow, which is not easy because I've known the character of the bike and the character of the rider long enough to understand it will be a quite difficult job." In fact, Sykes, starting from fourth on the grid, crossed the line eighth, more than 17 seconds behind double winner Rea.

Tom Sykes
In 2013, Sykes became the first rider since American Scott Russell 20 years earlier to win the FIM Superbike World Championship on a Kawasaki. The 32-year-old Brit has since finished second and third overall twice.Brian J. Nelson

After the spectators had gone home on Sunday, Kevin and I sat down once again with Duinker in Kawasaki’s paddock hospitality. Looking across the table at Duinker, Kevin said, “If Rea weren’t here, people like myself would be tempted to say, ‘Well, the Kawasaki is obsolete. It’s very hard on tires.’ And we would be wrong because, clearly, the pieces are there to win races. So I think it must be very hard for Tom.”

Duinker nodded. “Johnny came from a bike that was not as advanced as the Kawasaki, especially in terms of electronic strategies,” he said. “Once you step on a bike that is much more advanced in this area, you will automatically make a big step forward in terms of performance and lap time. This is the way he instantly got fast on the Kawasaki. Since then, all the manufacturers have improved.

“Tom is a different story. He uses the engine to accelerate as fast as possible. At the same time, you need to be able to stop it. At the end of 2014, we had an incredibly strong engine—250 hp at the output shaft. Since then, both acceleration and braking were taken away. On Saturday, Chaz Davies braked, put the [Ducati] sideways, and still made the apex. Tom could do this in the past easily, but he can’t do it anymore.

“Johnny is really managing the rear traction during braking and corner entry, which he learned with his previous manufacturer. We taught Tom to ride a brutal machine—a bike that is very easy to stop and very easy to accelerate. In the early years, end of 2011, we started to bring bike and rider to a match point. Three years later, it got taken away from him. Why can’t he adjust? I would love to tell you exactly why, but I can’t.

“In the past, I’ve used Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso as an example,” Duinker added. “[With Lorenzo winning in Italy and Spain], it’s been the opposite but at the beginning of the season I would say, ‘Okay, Dovizioso can win with this bike.’ Is Dovizioso a better rider than Lorenzo? I don’t think so. It’s just that the machine suits one rider better than the other. And that’s the same situation as we have here.”

Kevin told Duinker about a discussion we had earlier in the weekend. “I am thinking about learning to ride a bicycle whose steering is backward,” he said. “You can do it in six months if you try hard, but then you can’t ride a normal bicycle again. Lorenzo has made a great achievement, but he had to give up 18 months of his racing career, of which there is not very much left.”

“Tom hasn’t forgotten how to ride,” Duinker replied. “His style is well-suited for a powerful machine, maybe even the best suited in this championship, but at this moment we cannot adopt the bike to his style. The good thing is, at Misano in the last few years, we’ve been very fast. I am confident that I can give Tom a bike at Misano that will perform better than this bike did at this track.”

Two weeks later at Misano, Sykes broke his own track record in qualifying and earned another pole position, but he finished fifth in both 21-lap races. Rea doubled for the third time this season and left Italy to begin the 10-week summer break with a 92-point championship advantage. Ten days later, Kawasaki issued the release announcing Sykes’ departure at the end of the year. A replacement rider has not been named.

Update: On Tuesday, July 25, Kawasaki announced that current British Superbike championship leader Leon Haslam will join Jonathan Rea on the Kawasaki Racing Team in 2019. Haslam, 35, has completed eight World Superbike seasons, earning five wins and 39 podiums, but he hasn't raced full-time in the series since 2015. Haslam finished second overall in 2010 on a Team Suzuki Alstare GSX-R1000. "There’s a complex sporting strategy behind this decision," team manager Guim Roda said. "To satisfy our team goals we felt that Leon was the best possible rider for the job."