Whitham and Plater ride British Superbikes

Published: 04 November 2001

The season’s over. The flags are all packed away. We’ve had another thrilling season of British superbike action, with incredible battles everywhere from rostrum results to the final points, but now it’s all over. All that’s left now is to savour a few favourite moments on the video and wait for next season.

Well, not quite. Because we’ve got our hands on Cadwell Park in Lincolnshire and a bevy of top BSB tackle to test. The crowds might be gone, the leaves may be falling on the mountain section of the track, and the dark clouds may be gathering, threatening yet another torrid winter, but it can’t discourage us. Jamie Whitham and Steve Plater have got their leathers on, the mechanics have got the bikes all revved up and ready to go, and the marshals are at their posts. Narrow your field of vision and it could be an extra round of the championship.

Cadwell Park is probably the most popular event on the calendar for BSB fans. Held on the August Bank Holiday, the weather can be a scorcher, but it’s the all-action circuit that really warms the crowds. It’s a pretty narrow ribbon of Tarmac that winds its way through a little valley, climbing up from the start-finish line to the double apex Charlies corner. From there it drops down into the Park straight, rising again to Park corner, where it flattens out around to Chris curve and the top of the famous Gooseneck. Then it drops sharply where the track turns left, down to the not-as-tight-as-you-think Mansfield left-hander. Out of Mansfield you almost straight line it to the bottom of the mountain section. With the track wearing its winter coat of wet, slimy leaves that section was out for us, however. Instead, our riders turn right on a tight hairpin that completes the club circuit and leads immediately back uphill into Charlies.

Other than the relatively short Park Straight, there are no places to relax on Cadwell’s club circuit. The constant flow of corners, combined with never ending changes in elevation make it a great venue for testing bikes. Stability in the corners is tested both in fast and slow turns. With half of the back straight being uphill, acceleration gets a thorough workout. Braking into Park corner tests the sheer stopping power of the brakes and the bike’s stability on the brakes, while slowing for Mansfield puts more emphasis on brake feel and feedback.

That’s the track. What about the machinery? Despite what the racers want, and what many of us choose to believe, the wheels don’t stop turning the moment the last race finishes. Whitham, racing in the supersport class where modifications to the bikes are pretty minimal, says: " We do more miles testing than we do racing. It’s crazy – you can hardly make any changes to the bike but they still make us test with the same thing. " And that’s supersport – the superbike class is under even more pressure.

For that reason, it was a nightmare trying to get everyone in the same place at the same time. Title winners Red Bull Ducati couldn’t make it to the party at all, but with the Monstermob Ducati of Steve Hislop on hand, we knew we had a bike every bit as capable.

In case you’ve been under a rock for the past month, a season’s battling saw Hislop was leading the championship ahead of Reynolds until the penultimate round at Rockingham. Hislop’s season ended in the barrier there, when he crashed and broke his leg, following a collision with Reynolds, of all people. It was a racing incident, fair and square, but it deprived the fans of a nail-biting culmination to the championship. At the final round, instead of a head-to-head battle to win between the fastest men in the country, Reynolds took the crown with Hislop unable to do anything about it from his sick bed. Had the two been on track together in the last race, the outcome wouldn’t have been certain but the quality of the racing would have been. As he proved by holding the championship lead, the Monstermob Ducati 996 was a match for the Red Bull bike.

Hizzy’s bike has something of a pedigree, too. This is the actual machine Neil Hodgson won the title on in 2000, following a similarly spectacular season-long battle with Chris Walker. Lap records have been broken this year, so the pace has been as fast or faster than last year, so the Monstermob team has clearly done a good job of keeping the year-old bike up to speed.

Next in the line-up, and top four-cylinder 750cc bike in the championship, is the Virgin Yamaha R7, as campaigned by James Haydon. The Buckinghamshire 26-year-old had a fair few off-track excursions this season, as the " warning – rider may eject at any moment " sticker on his crash helmet testifies. The fact that he still managed to take the bike to fourth in the championship (behind a trio of Ducatis) shows that when he stayed on he got top results. Riding a Ducati last year, Haydon claimed he would prefer a bike to slide around more. He proved that on the R7, backing it in to virtually every corner in Britain.

Then there was the Kawasaki ZX-7RR, taking fifth in the hands of Michael Rutter. Kawasaki was another team with after-season commitments – this time to tyre testing – but they managed to make one of their bikes available to strut its stuff alongside its championship rivals.

Rutter, like Plater, had a bit of a mid-season hiccup when the team was left unable to compete after sponsors failed to come up with the cash. However, he found himself a one-race ride with privateer team Hawk Racing, keeping his season Kawasaki green right through as he returned to the factory team for the rest of the year. At Rockingham Rutter proved the competitiveness of the machine, narrowly missing out on a double win. He was second by a narrow margin in an aggregate race one, but went on to take the second race.

Suzuki fielded a one-man team in BSB this season, with John Crawford the sole factory entrant on a GSX-R750. He started the year with a string of rostrum finishes, but suffered a bit of a mid-season slump, not to mention possibly the scariest crash of the year. At the end of Pilgrim’s straight, the fastest part of the Brands Hatch full circuit, Crawford was battling for a rostrum place but in the tussle ended up off-line and having to bale out. At 150mph – nice. The bike was totalled; Crawford thankfully wasn’t and managed to return to the fray for the rest of the season.

Backing up the factory outfits this year, the privateers have been closer than ever. The quality of machinery from the front of the grid to the back is incredible, and ex-250 racer Lee Jackson made a good impression, taking second in the privateer championship in his first year on a superbike. He raced a Yamaha R7 supplied by Virgin Yamaha team boss Rob McElnea, so we brought it along to see how it would fare against his own factory bikes.

Keen to get the battle under way, we sent our intrepid duo out on the Monstermob Ducati and the Virgin Yamaha first. Plater had raced the R7 before so to some extent it was a known quantity, though not set up for him. In the damp conditions the teams had softened all the suspension settings and supplied full wets to ride on, so all the bikes were going to be something of a compromise for the riders. Plater led out onto his home track, screaming the R7 up through the gears.

Whitham hasn’t raced a Ducati since 1994. Watching him take off with a controlled foot-high acceleration wheelie through the water collecting on the lowest point of the circuit, you’d have thought it was only yesterday. Everyone’s pulse settled as he finally put the front wheel down at about the same moment he tipped in for the left handed climb to Charlies.

On race day the noise is terrific. There’s no doubt that it adds to the atmosphere. However, the sound becomes one great flood of gorgeous race tuned pipes. It great to hear the whole orchestra, but sometimes it’s also to enjoy the solos.

With just two bikes on the track and nothing except the occasional military jet to interfere, we were able to enjoy the pure sounds of the bikes. The low revving drone of the Ducati is most at odds with the screaming Yamaha, which will keep pulling for about another 5000revs after the 996 wants a new gear. Listening to the pair, you could tell who was where on the track without needing to see them. You could also tell who was going to have the most footwork to do.

The sound of a race bike being downshifted with little blips of throttle is something you get to enjoy twice as much with the R7. The Ducati never seemed to change more than two gears at a time, while the R7 made the most of the six gears in its box.

After a good session came one of the most bizarre sights. Plater pulled up at track side, Whitham followed him in and they dismounted. OK so far. Now you expect them to go and talk to the mechanics. Instead they swap bikes and, with barely an intake of breath, head back out onto the track.

When they get back again it’s time to debrief them. Whitham sums the Monstermob Ducati up with what you think is going to be one sentence. " It’s all about the engine. You’ve got to set the bike up to let you use that motor, " he says. Then he says more. " The chassis is good. You’ve got to get the idea of carrying huge corner speed but then getting on the power on the exit and getting the engine going. "

Both riders concur that the engine is " awesome " but both add a note of caution. " You could crash this anywhere, " Whitham says to an audience of raised eyebrows. These have been the least crashed bikes of the year, surely. Plater explains: " There’s so much power right through the rev range, if you give it a handful it could just have you off. " Whit adds: " Even at tickover there’s about 100bhp under your hand. You could go from driving out of a corner to spinning the back tyre in about two piston movements and it would keep spinning and dump you off. With the Yamaha, by the time you’re into the tyre spinning power you’re getting to where it’s going to tail off a bit so you can slide it there. "

Plater and Whit describe the 996’s power as building continuously until it stops dead at about 12,200revs, while the Yamaha builds to a peak before tailing off towards the limiter -–that's the zone you can safely spin the tyre in. Apparently – talent may also help.

The pair are split on the look and feel of the bike. Whitham likes the look and says it’s as good as it’s always been. He also feels that the bike feels smaller than the Japanese four-cylinder machines. Plater, meanwhile, describes its looks as only " OK " , and adds that the high screen on Hizzy’s bike is comfortable but makes it feel big and detracts from the looks.

Interestingly, neither rider liked the bike’s set-up. Plater has ridden this machine before, when it was still set up for MCN Man of the Year Hodgson. He liked it then. Now it’s just too soft. Whitham’s notes read almost identically to Plater’s – " too much weight transfer when you go from acceleration to braking " is the verdict. But that’s not a problem. A matter of a few hours testing with the team and you’d get it how you want it. The only other fault they pick – and again one that is adjustable – is the amount of slip from the clutch. They have slip built in to prevent the rear wheel locking up on down changes. Both wanted more slip as they felt the back was moving about too much. It can be done with a little time. We haven’t got that, so it’s time to talk Virgin R7.

Once more it’s the engine that dominates both rider’s thoughts. Plater says: " It revs for England " while Whitham has to admit that he failed in his attempt to bounce it off the rev limiter – it kept revving longer than he was prepared to keep turning the throttle.

However, the revvy nature has a knock-on effect through the bike. The gearbox becomes critical – miss a gear and you’re knackered, where the Ducati would probably let you away with it. Whit noted the R7’s lower first gear, needed to make up for the lack of grunt at low revs. That should have made it happier in the slow hairpin – a point where the Ducati was revving so low it became slightly lumpy. However, the super-sharp throttle response made the R7 snatchy on the exit. Whitham said: " I like a bit of slack in the throttle and a slower twist grip ratio would be better for me. " As it is, it takes about a quarter turn of the grip to go from shut to wide open – a half-turn would allow the rider more precise control.

Plater was pretty happy with the whole package. He liked the soft set-up and noted the weight transfer was better for him than with the Ducati. Steering was sharp enough for the damp conditions, letting him change direction easily, and even a slight lack of initial " bite " from the brakes was preferable for the wet.

By contrast, Whitham felt the set-up was too hard for the conditions, but still noted how sure-footed the front end was. He felt the brakes didn’t offer the same level of feedback as the Ducati’s but said he wanted more lever travel to help with that.

Given that both riders commented on how user-friendly the bike is as a package, you have to ask why Haydon got off it a lot this year. Whitham has an answer, which team staff seem to back up. Haydon, it seems, likes his bike set up very hard, more like a GP bike according to Whitham. " That’s fine, " he says, " it lets you slide the bike around and push it hard, but at the same time your margin for error goes from this (with his hands three feet apart) to this (hands six inches apart). A rider has to ride how he feels comfortable and that’s up to him, but he is riding with a smaller margin with a hard set-up. Also, when it’s that hard it spits you off more viciously. On softer settings you might be able hold a bit of a back end moment – you’re more likely to lose it the harder it is. "

Next up for a thrashing was the Suzuki GSX-R750. Whitham said: " This looks like the most " factory " of the lot. " Presumably a comment on the classic blue and white paint job. He added that it seemed big. Plater was less kind – " It’s like a 5-bar gate compared to the Yam – it’s big and wide! " Then they rode it and forgot the size.

Whitham first. " The engine has a much flatter power curve, " he said, " with much more mid-range than the Yam. There’s more raw power but it’s a less refined feel. " The next bit is difficult to print. He says: " It feels like a bigger engine than the Yam, a bit like an 850cc we built for open racing a few years ago. " Right. Well it isn’t. This is a 750cc bike so don’t go worrying. It’s actually a testament to the development of the GSX-R that the bike manages to combine a strong mid-range with plenty of top-end as well.

The throttle, like the R7, he felt was too harsh. He added: " It’s probably OK for most riders, though " before reiterating that he likes a bit of slop in the throttle. Whit felt the clutch offered the least slip, and blamed that for the rear end seeming to squat on the way in to turns. Into corners, too much weight at the front made it run slightly wide. However, he enjoyed sliding it in the wet and noted that it had a more sit-in than sit-on feel to it.

The gearbox made the engine’s job easier too, with a good quick-shifter and a smooth change. Whit concluded: " Suzuki’s always have strong gearboxes. "

Plater’s thoughts were close to Whitham’s, but he added: " I’d like a lot more time on this bike to change the settings to suit my riding. " Not job hunting, are you Steve?

He differed on the throttle, saying the engine’s mid-range gave better feel on corner exits than the Yamaha. He said that it pushed wide on exits, and he wanted more weight on the front to make it hold line and turn better.

Everyone was keen to see how the privateer R7 would measure up against the works bikes. Except Lee Jackson perhaps, who voiced the sentiment that if they thought his bike was good, it would make him look bad. After all, if your bike’s as good as the best, you should be mixing with the big boys.

To put him out of his misery, both Plater and Whitham said his bike could get close to the factory machines. But there’s still a margin there.

Initially, Plater thought it was better than the Virgin bike. But that was his impression after a few laps. As the speed rose closer to race pace, so the differences between factory and privateer made themselves felt.

The engine, both said, made less power flat out. And, while smooth, it simply wasn’t quite as refined as the Virgin bike. Plater thought the throttle response was a little softer; Whitham said it was still too sharp for him.

However, both felt it could get closer with a better set up. Whitham felt the back was working in a similar way to the Virgin bike, with one vital difference – it was way too high at the back end, as if it was using every scrap of rear ride height possible. Not good in the wet. Plater said the hard front suspension made the bike fine through fast turns, but made it suffer through the slower ones where there was a lack of feedback. He also felt there was a problem with the pads, saying the brakes lacked both feel and power.

Jackson’s bike won for Whitham in one respect – looks. He said: " The stock bike looks really good – I’ve always liked them. This paint job is good. For me it’s the best of the bunch. " Plater concluded: " I don’t like the set-up … but it obviously worked well for Lee. "

Finally, the Kawasaki ZX-7RR. The Kwak is perceived as a big bike – even Plater expected to find it that way. Instead he was surprised. He said: " The Yamaha feels small, but the Kawasaki didn’t really feel big. The Suzuki is big around the headstock so the ZX-7RR didn’t feel any different to that. The screen on Hizzy’s bike made the 996 feel probably bigger than it really is, so the Kawasaki didn’t stand out. "

Another preconception: that the engine is fast and has loads of mid-range. This one sticks. Again, you might not expect him to feel it, having ridden it so much, but after trying the others the Kawasaki’s mid-range stood out.

" There’s masses of mid-range and good power all the way, " he says. " It stops revving a bit earlier than the other four-cylinder machines – 14,000 is about it – but out of corners the power is instant. In some places that’s good, in others it isn’t, but it’s a very fast motor. "

Making it slightly odd for Plater, this bike is Michael Rutter’s. The suspension set-up is different, the brake set-up is different, the geometry is different. But it still works for him.

He says: " The brakes weren’t as good for initial bite as the others, but I reckon the pads and the discs were worn. A change of pads would have made a big difference. "

Around the turns he highlights the difference between his and Rutter’s riding style. " It’s typical of Michael – I’ve ridden his bike before. The front is too hard while the back is too soft for me. It obviously works for him – after all he won a race – but I want it a bit different. I’d like it to tip into corners faster and be quicker steering. "

However, with his experience on the bike he knows he could make it different. He adds: " The WP suspension is really good. A few changes and it’d be where I want it. I used the radial brakes, whereas Michael didn’t – that’d sort the whole brake thing for me. I know the bike will suit me, and I’d be more than happy to race it again if the chance came up. It’s a great package really – a strong motor, a good chassis and I think it looks good too. It may not be the sharpest styled modern bike, but I kinda like it. It’s just green like all Kawasakis, but it looks sort of mean. "

When all’s said and done, neither rider wants to pick a winner, but in a sense that isn’t what we’re here to do. This is more about looking at who’s fielding what – the winning has already been done. But still there’s an obvious question: was it inevitable that the Ducati 996 would win the championship?

Whit looks at Plater; Plater returns the look. Then, almost in unison they say: " No. " Plater adds: " Just from this test, I wouldn’t choose the Ducati for me. I didn’t like it how it is, but clearly we know all of the bikes can be changed to suit different riders. I loved it when I rode it last year, when it was set up for Hodgson. "

Whitham adds: " The Ducati is a better package – for some riders. But you have to ride it how it wants to be ridden. It’s a bit like a 500 GP bike – you have to make it work for you, not against you. " Which clearly implies that for other racers, other bikes would give them a better chance of winning.

" I don’t know whether you could get away with as much on the Ducati, " Plater says, " but then, maybe the Yamaha is less forgiving than the Kawasaki or the Suzuki when you get down to the last 1/4 of a second on a lap time. "

Whitham counters: " But the Yamaha feels most like a race bike when you just sit on it. On the Ducati you have to carry a shit-load of corner speed and gently tickle the throttle on the exit. Sometimes you can use that mid-range to your advantage, sometimes not. "

" Like the Kawasaki at Coppice, at Donington, " Plater says. " There, the mid-range isn’t what you want, when the bike’s right over on its side. But the Kawasaki is the best for making a really good start off the line. "

Whitham ponders for a bit. Then he says: " The Suzuki is a really strong package too. It’s good good mid-range and you feel it’s not enough to become a problem. But it also revs really strongly and has good top speed and power. You could really make it work for you. "

It has the feeling that the debate could go on for as long as the championship. Time to try and force a conclusion. Choose a bike. And that’s where they finally stand their ground – they won’t pick one.

All of these are good bikes. There isn’t one that stands out as the " best " – it depends how you ride. If you can ride a Ducati how it wants to be ridden, you might be able to take advantage of the 1000cc grunt. If not, maybe the sharp chassis and front end of the Yamaha would suit. Seemingly, the Suzuki and Kawasaki split the ground in between, the GSX-R750 offering less grunt, more revs, the ZX-7RR the opposite. And don’t forget the privateer machinery – get it set right and you’ll be hounding the factory boys all the way.

The off-season team shuffling is about to begin – we don’t know who’ll be riding what yet. But we can be sure that these bikes will continue to offer us great entertainment. But next year they’ll have to face 1000cc four-cylinder machines too. Now that should really open the competition up.