Face Off - Mackenzie V Hislop

In 1998 the fiercest battle between two team-mates took place in British Superbikes. Niall Mackenzie and Steve Hislop set the racing scene alight with their increasingly vicious clashes

“Now we know the rules - there aren’t any.”

Niall Mackenzie was not a happy man. Usually one of the most jovial riders in the paddock, his brow was clearly furrowed in the post-race interview. It was Oulton Park, 1998, the second leg of the second race of the BSB season and the source of his anger was his new team-mate, Steve Hislop, who had just beaten him with a last corner manoeuvre that left Mackenzie fuming. “I was less than pleased about the way he did it,” he said at the time. “I was leading on the last lap and thought a win was in the bag until Hizzy just barged past me in the last corner. I suppose that’s what I was used to doing to other people in GPs but it just particularly rattled me for some reason. I wasn’t impressed with it at all.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Mackenzie and Hislop hadn’t really known each other before becoming team-mates in ’98. Despite being fellow Scots, their paths had never really crossed. Mackenzie had been on the Grand Prix trail for 10 years before returning to Britain in 1996 while Hizzy had spent the early part of his career dominating the pure road racing scene, racking up 11 Isle of Man TT victories in the process. “I didn’t know Steve very well when he joined the team and I never really knew where I stood with him,” Mackenzie says. “Of course we’d speak to each other, but we were never ‘let’s go for a pint’ mates.” Hislop held a similar view. “I didn’t really know Niall when I became his team-mate,” he said. “We’re both Scottish and of a similar age so in theory we should have got on well, but it didn’t happen.”

But while Hislop didn’t know Mackenzie personally, he knew all about his GP career and that’s what drove him on. “Niall had been a GP star for 10 years before coming back to the UK and one thing I noticed out on the track was that the other riders seemed to be in awe of him. It’s as if they were thinking ‘God, here comes this GP legend, I’d best not rough him up.’ I don’t know if it was all in my head but that’s certainly the way it seemed to me - I just thought no-one had given him a good run for his money so I decided I’d be the man to do it.”

Mackenzie had already won two consecutive BSB titles for the Boost Yamaha team and was desperate to win a third. He was also the highest paid star in the BSB paddock and estimates that, including his personal sponsorship deals and prize money, he netted £130,000 during the ‘98 season. Hislop, on the other hand, didn’t get a penny; he agreed to ride for free just to have the chance of a competitive machine after two years of poor results and team bust-ups. “I survived that year on prize money (£1000 for a race win) and sponsorship deals,” he said, “I accepted that because I was desperate to get a good bike but it was annoying that my team-mate was the best paid guy in the paddock and I was getting nothing.”

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The financial gulf between the two riders acted as an additional incentive to Hislop and, from the very first test session, he shocked Mackenzie with his speed. The season got off to a bit of a false start at Brands Hatch with Mackenzie and Hislop only finishing in 6th and 7th places respectively but, after a different tyre choice in the second leg, Mackenzie took the win with Hislop chasing him home in second. After another hiccup in the first leg at Oulton where damp conditions saw the team finish fourth (Mackenzie) and ninth, the grudge match then began in earnest.

No matter how many times you watch Hislop’s move on Mackenzie at the last corner of the second race (Mackenzie had won the first), it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a hard but fair move. There was no clash of fairings, no elbows and knees involved, and no skittering into the corner all crossed up on the brakes. Yet Mackenzie was incensed. “When I got back to the pits I noticed that Niall was absolutely fuming with rage,” Hislop remembered. “I thought, ‘what have I done wrong?’ In my opinion the pass was forceful but clean so I couldn’t understand why Niall was so miffed at me. I think he was just pissed off because somebody had actually beaten him.”

Watching the race on video now, Mackenzie admits the pass was fair enough and that Hislop’s analysis was not too far off the mark - Mackenzie didn’t like being beaten. But ironically, by beating him, Hislop just made his own job much tougher because he’d lit a fire in Mackenzie’s belly. “With the luxury of hindsight,” Mackenzie says, “I’m glad Steve did that because it really fired me up and I couldn’t wait to get to the next race to beat him. I felt he’d started something serious and I was ready to play ball. Whatever I had to do to keep my title, I was prepared to do it.”

The Scottish civil war moved to Thruxton where Mackenzie enjoyed an easy win in the first leg but race two was to provide more fireworks. Hislop’s version of events: “I was leading going into the chicane on the last lap and was looking odds-on for victory. I took a defensive line leaving no room for anyone to come up the inside - or so I thought. The next thing I saw was Niall scuttling up the inside, his body actually hanging over the grass and his bike squeezed into the foot-and-a-half of tarmac between me and the edge of the track. His left footrest snagged my elbow and nearly pulled my hand off the bars as he scythed through and took the win.”

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Mackenzie: “That was the fist time we made contact. There was a bit of pushing and shoving and I forced my way past and got the result. To be fair, Hislop shrugged off that move and said he accepted it but I was starting to feel there was a real needle between us as the battle for the title heated up.” It reached boiling point during the fourth round at Snetterton. After Hislop won the opening race, Mackenzie pulled out all the stops in the second and simply refused to be beaten, no matter what the cost. Hislop had built a five second cushion before his tyres started going off and Niall closed in for the kill. “I could sense Niall crawling all over me on the entire way round that last lap,” remembered Hizzy, “and I was thinking ‘fuck, I can’t let him beat me.’”

He then described the mayhem that occurred at the final chicane. “Out of my peripheral vision I saw a purple projectile going far too fast to make the corner. If I had seen that bike just one-thousandth of a second later it would have been too late and Niall would have knocked us both off. As it was, I managed to lift my bike up and had to ride straight over the chicane and onto the grass on the outside of the circuit. It was an absolutely suicidal move - things were getting totally out of hand.”

Mackenzie was forced to run off the track too and, while both riders regained their composure and finished the race, it was in third (Hislop) and fourth (Mackenzie) rather than the guaranteed team one-two had they not collided. Team boss Rob McElnea went beserk. He had tolerated the earlier rivalry because his men were still finishing first and second and it was all good publicity for the Boost Yamaha team and the BSB championship. But this was unforgivable and Niall knew it. “The worst thing a rider can do is knock his team-mate off. I wasn’t the most popular person in the garage after the race.”

Understatement. “Rob Mac was furious and so was I,” said Hislop. “As I pulled into pit lane I was shouting ‘what the fuck was that all about?’ but Rob told me to disappear and get changed. He wanted to speak to Niall alone and didn’t want me ranting and raving in front of the TV cameras.” Mackenzie and McElnea had been close friends for more than 15 years and never had a cross word.

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Now, for the first time in their relationship they found themselves not talking to each other for a whole week - not an ideal situation for a team boss and his number one rider. “I’m sure Rob thought my mishap made a mockery of him, the team and the sponsors and the fact that I never apologised probably didn’t help,” says Niall. “I admit now that it was probably my fault but at the time I dug in and fought my corner. After all, it wasn’t like I tried to knock Steve off - it was just a racing incident and I couldn’t be sorry for that.”

However pissed off Rob Mac was, the rivalry was great news for bike racing fans. Interest in BSB had never been higher and TV audiences and spectators at the tracks couldn’t wait until the next bout. Needless to say, the motorcycling press had a field day and poured more fuel on the already well-burning fire at every given opportunity. A crash at Donington meant Mackenzie’s 10 point series lead turned into a seven point disadvantage and Hislop went to his home round at Knockhill as series leader. Two wins for Mackenzie on Scottish turf then swung the championship back in his favour and after Hislop could only finish 6th and 7th at Mallory, Mackenzie extended his lead with a second place and a seventh - after crashing and remounting.

The rivalry came to an abrupt end at Cadwell Park when Hislop crashed in practice and suffered serious injuries. “My hand was so dislocated that it was set at right angles to my forearm,” he said. He had also broken eight bones in the hand and snapped the tip of his radius clean off as well as breaking bones in his foot.

Pain aside, Hislop was more gutted about the championship situation. “I realised as soon as I crashed that my championship was over and I was gutted. It was the third straight year that my season had been messed up prematurely for one reason or another.” But while the championship rivalry between the two was over, the personal rivalry wasn’t and Hislop felt he had a point to prove when he returned for the penultimate round of the series at Brands Hatch. Despite the fact that he was still hurting badly, Hislop took an emphatic race win while Mackenzie could only manage a fourth place.

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Then, in one of the sport’s great ironies, it now fell to Hislop to help Mackenzie win the BSB title he had so desperately fought for himself. Despite the fact that there was another round remaining, it was possible for Mackenzie to take the title if Hizzy kept the chasing pack off his tail and team boss Rob McElnea told him to do just that. “I made that YZF as wide as a bus all race long. I think Niall was having some tyre problems so I defended his inside to stop anyone coming through.”

The plan worked and Mackenzie took his third straight BSB title. It was also to be his last and he was grateful for the help provided by his recent arch-enemy. “There was a happy ending to the feud between Hizzy and me,” he says. “After the race I went to see him in his motor home and thanked him for helping me. I gave him a Kevin Schwantz book as a peace offering and we shook hands.” Like so many great sporting rivalries, the Hizzy vs Mackenzie clash centred on the fact that the pair - for reasons neither could really explain - weren’t the best of friends. Although they became friendly after Mackenzie’s retirement in 2000, Niall feels that ‘needle’ between them ultimately earned him the title. “If Steve had been my best mate all season and never wound me up he might well have won the title that year because he rode really well. But as it was, my whole year focused around beating him and in the end I managed it.”

It wasn’t until Hislop’s tragic death in a helicopter crash in 2003 that Niall Mackenzie re-evaluated his relationship with his fellow Scot and established the truth behind it. In Steve’s absence, the last word goes to him. “When Steve died it completely changed the way I thought about him. He irritated me at race tracks but with hindsight I realise it was because he was pushing me so hard on the track and I didn’t like that because I was so used to winning.”

There could be no finer tribute.

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