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Harley Davidson XR1200 Challenge Brands GP 7th August

By Michael Neeves -

First rides & tests

 08 August 2011 16:37

Well, that was a surprise. I didn’t think I’d enjoy racing a Harley so much, or do that well – I finished 7th in Sunday’s XR1200 Challenge feature race, less than two tenths behind 6th place after our 10 lap race on the glorious Brands GP circuit.

To be honest I was a bit wary to start with and didn’t know what to expect. Seeing them race on TV the Harley-Davidson XR1200s look fearsome and they’ve claimed the bones of many racers over the last two seasons, one of which is my mate and fellow road tester Kev Smith, who had a biggie at Thruxton, but is now recovering well from his injuries. It couldn’t be more different to the BMW S1000RR I usually race, that’s for sure.

All the way through Friday’s practice, qualifying and sprint race on the Indy circuit I think I gave the immaculately-prepared, 95bhp, 230kg, XR1200 too much respect. I was riding it with my fingertips, scared to really move on it, as everything I did made it weave. Braking, accelerating, turning and even blinking set it off in a wobble. I managed to get rid of most of it with some tweaks to the Showa Big Forks fitted, but the old girl clearly wasn’t impressed with my gentle riding. It was the same story on Saturday’s 20-minute practice session on the GP circuit.

But I had an epiphany during the race. With the red mist down, quite by accident, I discovered the harder you ride the Harley, the better it behaves and I went three seconds a lap faster than I did in practice, recording a best lap of 1:41.4. In fact you can take diabolic liberties with the XR1200 and it goes far better than you’d ever give it credit for.

Take it by the scruff of its neck, stuff it hard into the corners, bang the engine off the rev-limiter, stamp up and down through the gearbox, lay it on its ear and it feels every inch like a proper race bike, which it is really. It’s got lightweight Dymag wheels, sticky Dunlop GP Racer tyres, Ohlins rear shocks, a brilliant brake set-up and my trusty Aim lap timer stuck on to the clicks with black tac (amazing stuff!) completed the racer look.

To be honest, I’d have never figured out how to ride it like that at a trackday. It needed the leave-brain-in-the-toolbox attitude of a race to break through the weaving and discover what the Harley could really do.

I was a bit sceptical about getting into a battle as I hadn’t ridden with any of the riders before. The last thing I wanted to do was get into a battle with the class axe-murderer, but everyone was fast and fair. I had some good tussles with Alex Hutchinson, Gary Byrne, James Wainwright and James Hurrell. The pack from first to fifth, including James Webb, Peter Ward and Rob McNealy were two seconds a lap faster than me, so I never say them apart from the sighting laps!

My bike, prepared by Simon Parry and Stuart Wallace was properly race-prepared too, with everything meticulously lock-wired and fettled. I felt completely comfortable riding it – you’re literally trusting someone with your life when you turn up to do a guest ride on an unfamiliar bike like this.

All the Harley teams live in one big tent and the atmosphere is great. Series organiser and ex-Harris Performance man, Ian Mcleod has created a fantastically run series with the help of Rebecca Brocklesby and Carli Smith from RBP. I’d love to ride one again.

It was nice to be back at BSB again after my year in the R1 Cup in 2008, it’s run with military precision and it’s a real honour to be riding as part of such a hugely prestigious series.

Now it’s off to Ibiza on my GSX-R750 and my next MRO Powerbike race at Snetterton 200 during the first weekend of September.

Pictures by Impact Images