The Zolder race was to be started as a rolling grid, 2 laps behind a pace bike in qualifying order and then racing kicks off as the start line is crossed.
And so this is how it began – I was on pit wall for the start and it’s nerve tingling. No longer with a pace bike ahead of them as they round the last chicane, the attitude of the pack as it tears into the clear track down the straight is purposeful and mean, visibly so much more aggressive than the warm up laps…
We had decided we would run the most competitive stop profile – 2 stops only with Neevesy doing 2 stints to my 1, giving me the middle stint. We were advised to do this by people that knew more than us – their words when we said we’d do 3 stops and get 2 stints each were: “You look like you want to be competitive, if you want to do well, you can only do 2 stops….”
The other thing that makes you competitive in Endurance is not only removing stops, but minimising time when stopped. None of us had ever done fast fuel stops or anything Endurance related before. Our team comprised not only of Neevesy, but Big Paul Baker (of PJB Technical Services www.pjbts.co.uk) and Keith Flint, the ‘wild bloke’ in The Prodigy who is a perfect Gentleman when kept away from eyeliner and 70,000 screaming fans.
We set out to do a bit of swap/fuel practice, using our pitbox, an empty fueller and a rolling plan of who went where, held what and what they had to do. Change riders and fill a bike up with fuel – easy huh?…Well this is where the bad news starts, it’s actually not a straightforward thing to do!
Our first attempts at doing these dry runs had amused the Germans so much in the garage next to us that they stopped what they were doing and watched us. And then laughed at us. They were so keen to help (or perhaps show off), that they wanted to demonstrate the way they did it to give us something more tangible to follow. Being only partially interested in this to their faces didn’t discourage them, and they pulled a bike out, all got into position and did their thing. We maintained an heir of mild disinterest in their demonstration, whilst actually filming it covertly to rerun it and give us the magic when away from their prying eyes!
Keith pretty much took control of these drills and drove everyone firmly towards perfection – there’s a steely determination in him that channels nicely into any task that needs doing properly; an absolute perfectionist in everything he does, he was a perfect bloke to have around on a day like today! We got drilled, we were prepared, our stops were going to be smooth and hot!
In the race, the jostling for position at the start was stock-in-trade club sprint stuff, the pace didn’t look anything like an easy paced Endurance event. Neevesy was as usual rock-solid. If you wanted someone to ride swiftly, consistently, and always get it home without fuss, Neevesy’s your man. Very smooth and also a damn good racer – he’s got really solid passing and racecraft which pulled us up into the top 6 and cemented our place amongst the front runners.
As his allotted hour unwound, I became more nervous – mainly to be honest about the rider swap – as swap rider I was tasked with receiving the bike into the pits, holding it until the rear stand was on, then moving around to cup the fuel dump with a towel, mop up any spillage, get on and go. In that order and in harmony with the jobs the other 3 guys hovering around the bike had do. Pressure – fantastic, what a buzz!
The last 3 laps of Neevesy’s session really saw the tension ramp up, until his last pass of the pit straight saw our pitwall signal “IN” and gave me the nod we’d be swapping in less than 2 minutes. They had to get across to the fuelling rig, Keith had to don his crash helmet for fuel handling as protection must be worn by the fuelling crew.
For his arrival in the pitlane, we waited, we watched – your mind fills with all sorts of things – has he seen the signal? will he actually come in? hope he doesn’t speed in the pitlane….a tension that is only enjoyable after the event, at the time, it just makes your heart beat faster and makes your stomach do backflips…
He appeared, we assumed position and Paul took the job of making a clear signal to guide him to our box. The instant he stopped, it started. The crew jumped on their jobs, Paul put the bike up on a paddock stand. Fuelling had to be done with the bike turned off, static and raised, Neevesy scrabbled to get the fuel filler off (it was a horrid thing, a really shallow thread and caused a lot of grief, especially when being put back on) I had to wrap a towel around the filler as Keith applied the fuel dumper into the tank.
The towel proved to be totally necessary as the fuel filler had about a mug more fuel in it than the tank could take (1 mug = quite a lot!) Thus when I got on the bike, although I’d mopped most of it up, it still had fuel all over the place! As I tried to start the bike it was in gear (we’d forgotten about making sure it was in neutral for starting…) – reselected neutral and got going – the intoxicating and consuming smell of fuel reminded me I was sitting in a pool of petrol and surrounded by flammable fumes, and I genuinely spent the roll down the pitlane thinking more about the potential for becoming a human fireball than anything that was about to happen on track!
I joined the track and was instantly dropped into a really busy little plug of riders. Now, me being me, although I’m naturally a very calm and easy going person, I do get competitive when I am on track. So it seemed only fair to get stuck in. Stuck right in!
I had this little block pass move worked out in my head. Practice proved going over the blind left hand crest just after the back of the pits created a good opportunity; once through the chicane, exit keeping on the right hand side of the guy you’re trying to pass, then as you go over the left hand crest, just keep it pinned (most guys seemed to roll a little) and hey presto – by the next chicane you’re blocking the entry to the chicace for the guy now shoulder to shoulder with you on your left.
I picked a couple off on the first 2 laps doing this and some in other places. I felt my pace was good, but the bike was a bit wheezy and slow and it meant having to work it really hard around the twisties. The busy track emptied with just one guy on an SRAD making a fight of it. Whenever I passed him, he came back at me – for the first 4 laps we had an epic battle which made my stint feel more like the last laps of a club sprint! I had to remind myself it was an endurance event! I simply didn’t have the power to be able to fight him off down Zolder’s 3 straights and I was inviting a little more potential risk to the party than was sensible.
After trying everything, I just had to drop an anchor in Reality Bay and accept that I wouldn’t keep that pace up for an hour. I knocked it back just a tad and watched him edge out a lead. Very grown up of me (for once). I just cracked on with getting fast consistent laps in. Passing the same highsided SRAD laying in the track a few laps later produced the usual rather callous racers reaction “one less to pass”…sadly racetracks are no place for compassion, but it vindicated my “get it home” mentality 110%!
Funnily enough, you know you just have some days where you keep bumping into the same people?, being the next vehicles along from this guy’s van on the Chunnel, 180 miles from the circuit on the way home proved the point! – We had a chat, he was gutted but pretty much physically unharmed. 6 hours after the event, I was finally pleased he was alright…!
The next thing that took my concentration was the time. I had pledged to myself that I wouldn’t be looking at the big clock on the straight for as long as possible. My first peep turned out to be at 29 past the hour – as we swapped on the hour, it meant I was just under halfway into the stint. It seemed like longer than 29 minutes, but it wasn’t a problem, my concerns about being fit enough to do an hour weren’t playing out, I felt fresh, I felt good. I think you could call it a happy place – enjoying the race, long enough left to enjoy a bit more, and enough in the bank that half the job was done. Good sometimes to realise where you’re at, actually at the time. Not usually possible in short club sprints, but hey, this was endurance – time is on your side!
With another 10 minutes gone a recent personal issue of mine started to come to light – brake fade. I had experienced brake fade on my GSXR just a few weeks earlier at Brands Hatch. If I’d missed the subtle signs before going onto the back straight that day, I’d have been trying to pull the bike up at 160+ 10 seconds later with nothing at the lever…you work it out. It’s a messy ending.
I felt the lever pressure dropping, I tried 2 things -the first took 2 laps to get sorted, which was to adjust the lever throw and bring the lever further out as it was a bit too far back to the bar to feel comfy, the second was simply to brake less and try and let the things cool down.
Adjusting the lever was a pain in the ass! I tried doing this with my left hand – reaching across to the gnurled knob on the front right of the bike was about 90% possible, I could find the adjuster, I could get my fingers around it, but I couldn’t move the bloody thing!!! I eventually only cracked it by doing it with my right hand, which meant moving to the side of the straight, slightly off line and letting go of the throttle, but it only took a couple of seconds, and the lever position came back to somewhere near perfect.
In the meantime having knocked off the braking by about 50% made me feel like I was bimbling around with my finger shoved somewhere dark. Imagine my surprise when my next pitboard showed a near 3 second drop on my laptime!!!
Here then is a lesson I’m continuing to learn; braking heavily feels fast, but can crucify outright pace. I felt so much slower braking less, but was 3 seconds faster! If you ride on track, try learning this lesson too – Here I am with years of experience on track and yet I am aghast at how simple it is that riding in a much easier fashion can actually be much faster!
Aside from the brake fade my hour stint was unwinding well, I was as a rule passing and not being passed and the bike was doing just great. As mentioned before it wasn’t the fastest thing out there (it may have been one of the slowest!) but it handled beautifully. I could feel the tyres starting to ‘float’ a little towards the end of my session. They still had more than enough grip to work with, they just ‘felt’ a little different.
The first 2 long long right handers at Zolder let you get the bike into them and then drift it around on the throttle – probably at 90-100mph. When I talk of encouraging full lean 90mph slides in normal life, it makes me go a bit – “errrr, are you sure?” or “mmm, no thanks” but when you’ve dialled in to a bike, a track and a set of tyres for the best part of an hour, it really isn’t so much an issue, you break traction, it loosens up for a bit and then hooks up again. Makes you feel a little bit MotoGP, which is no bad thing!
In fact hell, I loved it; life running a small business can be so bloody dull – tax bills, book-keeping, trying to keep yourself afloat without a single scrap of meaningful help from your bank etc, so to get on a race bike, on a foreign track 100′s of miles from home and poke around at the edge of available grip getting the thing loose at 90mph – this, this feels great, it’s what life is about and all the grief suddenly seems worth it!!!
Moments – every race has them.
I only had a couple of close ones during the race, these are the moments that you get through but aren’t so in control of!
1) Mistaken Chicanery.
Plan: to take more kerb at the chicane to help straightline it even more.
Result: the huge raised metal bumps put there to stop this happening had been suitably camouflaged by car rubber. I hadn’t seen them.
Conclusion: Effectively I hit something the size of a house brick whilst at full commitment. I picked the bike upright after flying off of it, I ran off the other side of the track, managed to not fall over on the grass under the trees and got it back on track, with surprisingly no harm done.Given my arse was a foot out of the saddle at one point, I found both amazement and relief in equal measure at this!
Lesson learnt: don’t straightline the chicane so much. How you had it was about right.
2) Not everybody brakes the same
Plan: to roll up behind a slower rider and through the next sharp turn before passing.
Result: the target had brakes that pulled their bike up a lot more effectively than mine!
Conclusion: Committed to the same line as the bike in front, I found myself barrelling into the back of them without a single scrap of reserve control left to move off line and miss them. In my head I got so close to this rider I had actually hit them and was waiting for the crash; and then they turned – phew!
Lesson learnt: leave 5% of something in the bag, be that brakes or ability to steer when approaching slower riders, just because they’re slower, doesn’t mean they can’t outbrake you! (although it is rare!)
3) Mistaken Chicanery part 2.
Plan: to get a faster entry into the chicane after overtaking a slower rider.
Result: the bumps put there to stop this happening suddenly were on my line as opposed to off it.
Conclusion: Effectively I hit something the size of a house brick whilst at full commitment (again). I flew, I landed, I saved it and cracked on. Given my arse was a foot out of the saddle at one point, I found both amazement and relief in equal measure at this! (again)
Lesson learnt: it’s becoming apparent that I don’t learn so well when it comes to chicanes.