Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Playing with the big boys

So here I am, a little over halfway through my first season of road racing. Regular readers (if there are any) may remember I had my first outing at Cadwell Park in April, having missed the first two rounds at Brands Hatch in March after a bit of overexcitement while testing the bike at Cadwell a weekend earlier. Hurt my wallet more than anything, but allowed Mark to open up a championship lead over me early on.

What have I learnt over the last few months? Well, for one, that I'm pretty rubbish. Being lapped by the front-runners has become something of a fact of life, and once I'd got the circuit I know best (Cadwell) out of the way the last-lap board became little more than a distant memory. For another, that trackdays taught me nothing about racing. They taught me plenty about trackcraft - how to throw a bike around to get it to go round a circuit at a reasonable pace, which has very, very little to do with riding a bike on the road. But racecraft? That, it turns out, is another thing altogether.

After Cadwell came Oulton Park. I'd been to Oulton a few times for trackdays. My first trip was pretty much a write-off due to being put in the novice group and not moving up when I should have done. My second was ended after one session by a fatality, and my third ended after four sessions with me on my arse and the bike on its side. A bit of a mixed bag. As to the racing, not much to report - I only had two races, it being a one-day event, and achieved little more than collecting a signature for a finish, putting me one step closer to losing the novice jacket.

Next up was Castle Combe. This was a circuit I'd never seen before, let alone ridden. They do run trackdays, around once a month, but noise limits are fearsomely strict and even standard road bikes fail at times. This ruled out using the race bike, so I took the mirrors off my trusty old gixer thou and booked a day of practice. It wouldn't teach me much about riding an R6 round the circuit, but would at least let me learn whether it went right or left at each corner. And it'd be a day ragging the gixer round a circuit - some things just have to be done.

Because I'd never ridden the circuit before, I had to go to a novice briefing and was obliged to wear a natty blue jacket while out on track, to let people know this whole riding-on-a-track thing was new to me. Alright, not obliged, more recommended, but I thought it'd give me a chance to showboat past the photographer and get a happily ironic photo with my bib on.

Showboating as a novice at Castle Combe

If I learnt anything from that trackday, it was that road rubber was no longer going to be good enough. I'd been using Michelin Pilot Supersport tyres on the gixer for a couple of years, and always found them up to the job, but every time I took the right-hander at Folly, doing the thick end of 140mph, I could feel the bike skipping sideways. Not sliding, not at one end, both ends skipping across the tarmac, taking me towards the outside of the bend. I'd been using the same rubber on the R6, to keep the tyre bills down, but the time had come to start spending money, and I swapped the Michelins for a set of Metzeler Racetec RRs, full-blown race rubber, second only to slicks.

Castle Combe only sees one bike racing event each year - the Motorcycle Grand National, for which NGRRCC provides the bulk of the racing. Also on the schedule would be the British F2 sidecar championships, featuring all the big names from the TT podiums, and the Lansdowne Classic series, with big names from the past riding fifty year old GP bikes. Making room for those meant compressing the schedule, and that meant losing the Newcomer races and merging the PI700 class with Streetstocks. The former meant one less race over the weekend, which I was happy to trade for being able to race in front of a decent crowd, and the latter meant sharing a grid with 48 other bikes - a somewhat daunting prospect when starting 45th on the grid. That's a lot of bikes to dodge when trying to get a good start, and a lot of bikes piling into the first corner.

Getting lapped, and trying hard not to be

The weather was, on the whole, pretty good, but my results were pretty dreadful, crowned with a personal low in the last race of the weekend. Fluids on the track meant an extended wait on the grid and a second warm-up lap, and by the time the red lights went out my bladder was full to bursting. Unable to focus on the race (look, this is my excuse and I'm sticking to it) I found myself crossing the line in flat-out last place, and the only bike on the grid to be lapped. Still, at this level finishes are finishes, and I picked up two more signatures, putting me halfway to a Clubman licence. Despite the results, two days' racing is still two days' racing, and I drove the van home on Sunday evening sublimely happy and ready to put my entry for the next round in the post.

I also left with one glimmer of hope - wet practice times. From my first time using rain tyres on a wet trackday at Oulton Park, I knew I was happy to push in the wet. Almost happier than pushing in the dry. This was backed up by my times from wet practice sessions - whereas dry sessions would see me bringing up the rear, around 14 seconds behind the fastest in my class, wet sessions would see me close that gap by up to ten seconds. Nobody really wants to be labelled a Wet Weather Specialist, but with no other specialism I was happy to play the Ant West card if the opportunity arose.

First day on rain tyres

The next round would be at Thruxton, which only sees four race events a year - two for cars (British Touring Car and BARC) and two for bikes (British Superbike and NG). Beyond that it's used for little but car experience days - there are no trackdays, so if you want to ride a bike there, the only option is to go racing. This was one of the reasons I wanted an ACU licence. The fastest circuit in the country? Let me at it!

Friday started badly with heavy rain and I arrived in the paddock two hours later than intended. Scrutineering had already started, so I threw up my shelter as quickly as I could, removed the sidestand from the bike and pushed it over to the scrutineering shed. At the first round the procedural side of racing - scrutineering and sign-on - was completely new to me. I had no idea what I was doing, had no confidence the bike would be fit to race, and was a bit of a rabbit in headlights. Four meetings later and it's a different story. No more than half an hour later the bike and my riding gear had passed inspection, I was signed on and I had my practice card for the first session on Saturday morning.

Apart from setting up in the paddock and getting an early night, I had one other thing to do: walk the circuit. This being my first visit to Thruxton, and there being no way to ride the circuit beforehand, my first time on track would be timed practice on Saturday morning. I'd watched some onboard videos on Youtube, but all that'd done was scare me silly. I was properly nervous about Thruxton, and watching laps of BSB races wasn't the right way to improve matters.

The track walk was very useful - in the company of a couple of experienced racers, we spent an hour or so walking round the circuit, making a note of kerbs and apexes, and memorising which way it went at each corner. Even for an airfield circuit (with a live airport in the centre), Thruxton is featureless and offers very little to use as markers for braking and turn-in. Fortunately there aren't many places where braking is needed - with a couple of exceptions it's mostly a case of "how big are your balls", with vast sections taken at full throttle with the bike on its side. By the end of the walk the circuit no longer felt threatening, and I got an early night feeling fairly confident.

First practice on Saturday morning was a little different. A bend that feels comfortable at walking pace is a different matter with 155mph on the speedo. My times from practice weren't going to set the world alight, with a best of 1:44.24, but they were coming down with each lap and the bike was working perfectly. And I'd had the chance to ride Thruxton. As I said at the time, that alone made every penny I'd spent racing feel worth it. And it's a lot of pennies.

The rest of the day was mostly the same old story - I was able to keep other bikes in sight for the first lap or two, and then watched them vanish into the distance. At the end of lap four I saw the last-lap board, which meant I was going to be able to finish full race distance. I took the chequered flag without being passed, and the results showed I'd knocked five seconds off my lap time from practice, a best of 1:39.31. I had only done twelve laps of the circuit in total - including one on foot and one warm-up lap at near-race pace. The second race saw me put in a best lap of 1:38.76 and collect a handful of championship points. With another signature and another nibble into Mark's championship lead, I looked to the sky and prayed for rain.

The last race of the day was the Open Newcomers, for anyone on a bike over 500cc who'd been racing less than two years. At my first meeting, this was my highlight. This time I can't really remember much about it, but I put in a 1:37.86, my fastest lap of the weekend.

The forecast for Sunday was rain. Biblical rain. The kind of rain that makes people build boats and load them with animals two-by-two. And, luckily for me, the forecast was spot on. The day started with wind and heavy, diagonal rain, which stopped just minutes before third practice, when I was due on track. That meant the circuit would be soaking wet, but with no rain, which is pretty much my idea of perfection. The results, at first glance, told a different story. 17 seconds off the pace at the front. But a closer look showed me only 7 seconds off the pace in my class. Things looked promising.

The qualifiying race was a revelation. Rather than watch the pack run off into the distance, I found I could stick with them. Not just for the first lap, but for the second and third. And then I was closing the gap. For the last three laps I was tagged to the three bikes in front and had a chance to measure them up, work out where I was stronger and they were weaker, while watching them come close to disaster into the final chicane, enough distance between us that I could avoid the fallout and pick up a place or two if things went wrong. On the last lap I took a different line through the last turn of the complex, drove out of the corner, and passed bike 41 in front. He'd finished 31 seconds ahead of me in the qualifying race on Saturday, but had been slower than me in wet practice and now I was ahead. But not for long - he dived past me again into the next corner and the pack of four bikes crossed the line a quarter of a second apart. For most of the cool-down lap I was laughing inside my helmet, cackling with glee. For the first time I'd had an actual race, rather than an extended practice session; I'd had a chance to size up the bike in front, work out where to pass, and made the pass work. But I'd failed to make it stick. But this was progress, real progress. And my best lap was a 1:44.37, as fast as I'd been in practice the previous morning, in the dry.

I turned this slider round before the last race to extend its life. It didn't last long.

The second race on Sunday was the last of the day, and the last of the weekend. Buoyed by my performance in the qualifier, I was itching to get out and see what I could do in the championship race. So long as I could get a reasonable start, and keep the pack in sight over the first couple of laps, I stood a chance. And so it was - lights out, first lap done, and head down. On lap 3 I passed 41 again, and this time I was determined to make it stick, taking defensive lines into each corner to make sure he couldn't dive inside me again to take the place back. This meant compromising the chase to the next bike, but I knew from the earlier race that I stood a chance of closing the gap. Half a lap later I glanced over my shoulder and 41 was nowhere to be seen, and I knew I'd pulled it off. That just left the gap to 113 in front.

Corner by corner I closed the gap down, and spent a couple of laps watching to see where he was strong and where I might be able to make a pass. On the last lap I knew what I had to do - carry more speed through Church, the last fast right-hander, and use that speed to draw level on the final straight, a flat-out sixth-gear left kink leading to the final chicane. As I exited the corner I could see he wasn't pulling away, despite being ahead, and as we passed through the kink I was alongside. That just left the chicane. In near zero-visibility with the spray, on a soaking wet track, I left it to the absolute last moment before hauling on the front brake, and immediately thought I'd made a terrible mistake. From roughly 145mph to under 30 in a matter of yards, I might scrub the speed but there was no way I was going to make it through the corner. But I was wrong - I just managed to haul the bike up, throw it in right, throw it back left, throw it right again, and I was onto the finish straight. In the wrong gear, with no drive, this would be all about the dash to the line, so I stamped down the box, whacked the throttle open and ducked behind the screen to take the chequered flag.

And that was it - I'd made another pass stick. Sixth place, my best ever result, beating seventh by half a second, and with a best and final lap of 1:38.87. Only a tenth of a second off my best time in the dry the day before, and only four seconds off the pace of the class winner, and almost six seconds faster than my previous best in the wet. A huge improvement over anything I'd done before.

It turns out I have bollocks after all. Big ones, when they're needed. And oh god isn't racing fun when you're doing it properly?

Next up, Anglesey. Another circuit I've never seen before. Suffice to say, I shall being doing my best rain dance.

Results here and here.

No comments:

Post a Comment