The Goodwood Festival of Speed

Published: 08 July 2001

LINED up in front of me are four NS/NSR500s from the Honda Collection Hall museum in Japan. The men who make this museum and the bikes inside it their lives are looking anxious as they explain how to turn the fuel off, unclick the battery connection and kill the kill switch.

Normally, remembering three things wouldn’t be a problem. But this is no ordinary motorcycle. I’m about to ride my dream bike – Mick Doohan’s NSR500. The one that took Doohan on to his second title with seven wins in 1995. All 180bhp and more of its savage two-stroke power around a park in the middle of a country estate. I’m crapping myself and just to make things easier there are 100,000 people waiting for me to stall it off the line. The pressure is immense as the bike’s run up to temperature before it’s put out on display with a novice (in 500 terms) operating the throttle.

You might ask how we managed to blag our way on to this one? Basically, because of commitments at the British GP, the man himself couldn’t make it to Chichester for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. So I was invited to ride his bike instead – the Honda staff feel they’ve got some trust in my riding after I rode Alex Criville’s NSR500 in Japan last year. Then I got four laps. This time, without any practice, I get to ride up the hill in front of the Festival of Speed crowd on three different GP bikes.

Freddie Spencer couldn’t get over from the U.S. to ride his 1984 three-cylinder NS500, so I got the nod. It’s the last Honda V3 Spencer raced in 1984. Just for good measure, Honda also let me loose on Eddie Lawson’s 1989 world championship-winning NSR500 – after Wayne Gardner had finished with it and decided he wanted a go on Doohan’s bike. Surreal? Just a bit. Excuse me if I drop a few names…

Before anyone starts sending hate mail, let me explain that I’ve been dreaming of riding these three bikes since I was a very small boy, so I reckon I deserve it. And I still can’t believe it’s happening.

After the briefing on the NSR, which I got to ride first, the assembled bikes and heroes, including Gardner, Jim Redman, Luigi Taveri, Mick Grant, and, er, me, head down to the holding area where the Formula One teams have set-up for their demo run on the hillclimb.

I’m a complete bag of nerves. The fact that this bike – and all the others I’m due to ride – is insured for £1 million doesn’t help. But as soon as I climb on and crack the throttle to hear that two-stroke rasp, things seem a lot better.

Sitting in the holding, area I’m beginning to feel comfortable – even though I haven’t seen the one-mile hill climb and have never ridden this bike in my life.

Just as I’m starting to feel relaxed and up for riding an NSR500 in front of 100,000 or so people, Mr Wayne Gardner pipes up with some advice: " That bike’s got carbon-fibre discs and pads so you really should be careful as one minute there’ll be no brakes, especially at a place like this where they won’t get a chance to get warm, and the next minute they’ll have you over the front. "

I laugh nervously and Gardner, also here to do some demo runs on the NSRs, takes it as meaning I think he’s joking. He says: " I’m serious, Marc, they could get you in real trouble. " Just to top it off he starts sniggering about how big I look on the tiny NSR!

In the nicest possible way I reply: " Thanks for the advice but it’s not really what I need right now. "

This is from a man who rode during the period that some call the golden era of bike GPs, who manages the up-and-coming Broc Parkes in WSB and who races cars in the GT series in Australia and Japan.

We get the all-clear from the marshals and I jump start the NSR. Gearbox up, kill switch on and bang… clutch out and off she goes.

The assembled bikes and riders are led down to the start line and I’m sat in a cacophony of noise that money could not even begin to buy. Jostling for a place next to me is Paul Smart on his 1970s Ducati and behind him is Carl Fogarty on the bike he took to his last world title.

Next there’s Doug Polen’s mechanic on Polen’s Ducati 888 and John Reynolds on his Red Bull Ducati. On my left is Gardner, who seems to be the nicest man in the world, and just behind me is off-road god John Deacon on his monstrous BMW Dakar bike, who tells me: " I think I’m going to ride on the grass as I feel a lot safer that way. My tyres are half flat and they’ve still got the mousse in them I used in the Dakar! "

This is not right. I do not deserve to be in such high company. But hey, I’m here now and I’m going to milk it for all its worth. And I’m still scared.

Just as the sound of Luigi Taveri’s uncorked four-cylinder 125 is getting too much, the marshals come along and tell us to cut our engines. We have to let the modern F1 cars run before us and need to pull off the track, cover our eardrums and wait. With no mechanics around I’m not quite sure what to do with the NSR, so I watch the various world champions as they lean their bikes against specially-designed, extra-dense hay bales.

Now this really doesn’t seem right, but I’m instructed by one of the marshals to leave the bike against the straw and get back behind the bales. So there I am in yet another weird world hanging out under a tree with Gardner and Fogarty while my £1 million NSR500 leans on its handlebar. To top it all, there’s Eddie Irvine and the like leaving 50-yard black lines as they power their F1 cars a few feet from where I’m standing. I do not feel like I belong. Nerves? Total panic, more like.

With the F1 guys despatched in a blur of tyre smoke and high-pitched rev limiter abuse, we’re instructed to fire up again. I’m not entirely sure of the order, but the Japanese are waving me forward as I sit blipping the throttle around 5000-6000rpm. Just for good measure Gardner reaches over and grabs my twistgrip – spinning Doohan’s bike up to 11,000rpm. For no better reason than he’s a petrol-head just like us who wants to hear it on full chat. What a man.

Gardner gets called up to the line next and I sit behind as I’m covered in two-stroke fumes from Eddie Lawson’s old bike. Honda hasn’t got Gardner’s NSR running yet, so he has to put up with Lawson’s. The Collection Hall staff promise it will be up and running by October.

Gardner pulls off up the straight giving the crowd a wheelie away from the start and then it’s my turn.

I dial in about 6000rpm and three, two, one… the marshal’s hand drops and I slip the clutch away from the line. The noise of the 500 on full chat should have an 18-certificate. I let the clutch out when I think the bike will pull cleanly, keen to make the right impression in front of all these people, TV cameras and heroes. But it bogs. Instead of being on full screaming chat I chug up the start. Just before the first corner it chimes in on its powerband in second, the front goes light and I’m genuinely scared.

Bikes this small and this light should not be able to accelerate so hard. Remembering Gardner’s warning, I pull on the brakes gingerly and feel, well, not very much as the discs are still cold. I change down and wobble round the corner before the hill opens up and I give it some past the crowd. I can’t help but get it on the pipe for the audience, but it is absolutely evil.

I scream past the pits and brake for the left-hander which I’m sure I could get round at least 40mph faster. Not today, though.

Wobble, wobble, brrrrrr. And then I turn all brave again and get on the gas. The NSR screams like only a real GP bike can and I consider whose motorcycle this is. OK, it’s Honda’s, but more than that I’m sat where Mick Doohan has been before me. An honour. A big honour.

There’s a straight past the crowd and I can see people clapping and camera flashes going off as I short-shift, head round a walled part of the track and down the final straight. Again I give it some gas and the thing bites really hard.

Crossing the finish line about one minute later, I coast down the hill and past orange-clad marshals to the finish bay. Christ, what a minute that was.

There’s a load of F1 cars that left before us and a few bikes from Ducati, Honda and BMW. And sacrilege. The only place they’ve got to park the bikes is against a load of fence posts. I pray to the god of NSR, lean the bike against a post, then hang with Foggy, Gardner and Reynolds. Unbelievable.

Eventually, we get the go-ahead to ride back and the crowds in the grandstands and banks surrounding the beautiful Goodwood Park are all waving and clapping. Naturally, I have my moment and wave back.

The Japanese staff are waiting and my time with the NSR500 is done. It’s parked on its paddock stand in the cordoned off garage and the polishing rags are out.

" What’s it like, Marc? " a mate asks and I just start laughing. The NSR500 is like nothing else. Pure evil. Pure madness and I have the ultimate respect for its performance.

It’s impossible for people like you and me to ride the NSR fast – especially at a place like this. The course dictates you need to ride it on low revs for a while so you really feel the kick around 10,000rpm.

Now Gardner is back and asking: " Did you give it some? " I tell him I tried, but got scared. " Aw right, I gave it some real stick, sliding it around and pulling wheelies all the way down the back. " Legend isn’t the word.

With sweat dripping off I start to come back down to reality and grab a bite to eat before my next outing.

I’m told it should be around 4pm, in around three hours time. But a couple of hours later I pop back to the garage and the bikes have all left and are being warmed up in the holding area. I grab my lid and leg it, but it’s a false alarm, the Japanese are just extra-keen.

Eventually we get going and I get hold of Freddie Spencer’s V3 two-stroke NS500. Compared to the NSR, Spencer’s bike looks ancient – though in a very cute way. It’s hard to believe it’s only a few years older than the Rothmans bike Gardner is riding.

The NS looks boxy with a straight front, plastics that extend all the way down to the swingarm and a really flat seat. In fact, the riding position is very much like an SP-1… only smaller.

Here’s my chance again. I blip the throttle as we head to the start. The clutch is a bit grabby, but otherwise the Honda feels box-fresh.

This time there’s no waiting around. Three, two, one, go. The lights change to green and the marshal’s hand drops. I slip the clutch and get a much better start. Though most riders and drivers are running against the clock, we’re here to demo some of the most important bikes in history so there’s no watch on us. Thank God.

Even so, I can’t help giving the triple some stick off the line. As the clutch engages, the soft rear suspension squats and the front wheel lifts. I stay with it and work the crowd, hoping this won’t all end in £1 million worth of tears.

The Honda keeps going and comes down smoothly. That’s more like it. Though this bike accelerates faster and with a lot more kick than an R1, it somehow feels more rideable than the NSR. I give it some on the next straight and am rewarded with another wheelie. Oh yes. How good is this?

Before I know it, the run is all over and my minute with the NS500 is done. But those 60 seconds will stay with me for ever. Riding GP bikes is an honour, doing it alongside childhood heroes just doesn’t happen every day.

As a bonus, I get to ride Lawson’s 1989 NSR500 and I’m absolutely blown away. Just as you’re beginning to get used to these bikes they kick you in the balls and frighten you all over again, this time with a little rear-wheel spin.

Doohan’s NSR had a huge kick to it, but this thing feels ballistic. It’s down to the Screamer engine. Doohan’s had the Big Bang – designed to give tyres and riders an easier time. The revs chime in so viciously it’s scary. Yet the bike isn’t quite as powerful and for some reason feels easier to ride. The chassis is sweet and there are no carbon brakes to worry about. A few seconds later and it’s all over as I cross the finish lane. Amazing.

And Gardner? The old magic hasn’t gone and it seems he’s perfected his wheelies, even managing to pull them around one of the corners. He says the ability to ride these bikes is something you never lose. Some of us will never have it, but that doesn’t mean you should miss the chance if you get it. Honda, I feel very honoured indeed.