THE GSX-R rider nods in the direction of the gleaming red Virgin Mobile R7 as it’s wheeled out of the back of a van in the middle of a bustling paddock.
Surprised that such a humble rent-a-van could contain such a thing of beauty, it doesn’t take long before the bike’s mobbed by people. A drunken Jennifer Lopez shouting " I need a man " would struggle to get more attention in a paddock full of petrol heads. Soon they are all clambering to get a look at one of the hottest race bikes, if not in the world then certainly in Britain.
GSX-R man looks over again: " Are you riding that? " " Yeah " I respond without much conviction. " You’re a very lucky man " , he says back with a sly grin in return. And then it dawns on me. Just a few short months ago I’d been at Brands Hatch watching Steve Hislop muscling this very same bike around the circuit and setting the fastest short circuit lap ever. Today, Hislop’s here, his bike’s here and I’m here. But this time not to spectate. This time my lanky frame is going to be wrapped around the Team Yamaha Virgin Mobile R7’s carbon-fibre bodywork, gently exploring the curves of Brands Hatch.
I’m going for my own personal lap record rather than the fastest lap ever on an MCN track day. And I’m papping myself.
GSX-R man’s right. I’m a very lucky man. But do I feel lucky? Only if that feeling involves a certain amount of stomach churning.
Hislop’s feeling a bit queasy, too, but it’s nothing to do with having to chaperone me on an R1 that’s giving him the jitters, or the fact I’m riding his bike. This man could do that with his eyes shut and it’s not like the Hislop stickers on the screen and his number eight mean he actually owns it.
As we get kitted-up he tells me he’s had a bug which had him up half the night emptying the contents of his stomach. The same bug has hit half the BSB paddock – and his entire family. " Aye, I don’t mind being sick if I’ve had a few beers, but this is just taking the piss. I couldn’t even run to the pub at the moment. "
The laughs from the mechanics and the gathered crowd are silenced as the bike gets put in gear and bump-started outside the garage, firing in an instant with a rasp from the Akrapovic titanium exhaust.
The tyre-warmers are put back on and it’s gently brought up to temperature as Steve’s mechanic Mel and Steve himself run me through everything I need to know before riding this hundred grand beast.
Hold your breath: It weighs 162kg, puts out 170bhp at the crank, we’re running medium compound front and rear Dunlops with a 16.5in front and it revs to 14,300rpm. It’s got a race shift, so that’s one up and five down, you turn the quickshifter on or off with a switch on the left handlebar and you can adjust the brake pressure on the fly. But Hizzy never has. I can’t see myself needing to.
With the bizarrely standard showroom issue temperature gauge showing 70 degrees and the standard Yamaha rev counter bouncing up and down, Mel hits the kill switch and the engine dies instantly like only a truly well set-up bike does. A good job because I don’t think my stinging eyes could take any more of the fumes now filling the area. Stick your head in the garage and you would think it’s a really high octane fuel. It’s actually just 98 octane but just more heavily refined and cleaner than the stuff we get at the pumps, hence the intoxicating smell.
The R7 drinks it like no other road bike, SP-1 included. A new, bigger fuel injector and new fuel injection map sent from Japan after being proved on Noriyuki Haga’s WSB R7, help the bike use half a litre a lap on Brands’ short circuit.
With the bike up to temperature, me up to speed on how to ride it and which way the gears go, the red session board is called and we’re off. Steve gets the key to the R1 and finally tells me how even though I’m a few stone heavier than him it should be all right as 15-stone team boss Rob McElnea took the bike out a few weeks ago and was going well. That’s fine, but McElnea used to race in 500 GPs.
I snap my visor shut, flick the kill switch to on, remember to snick the gearbox up into first gear and get a push out of the garage. The clutch is out quickly and it fires the first time and scares me by how completely, utterly and stupidly responsive it is to every slight movement of my right wrist.
We gather in the queue among everything from a BMW R1100GS, a Buell X1, a couple of old two-stroke race bikes and an awful lot of GSX-Rs, ZX-Rs, Blades, R1s and CBRs. It feels a bit odd not to be on something similar. With an eye on the rapidly increasing temperature gauge we creep up to the front, the ZZ-Top replica marshal checks mine and Hislop’s wristbands and we finally head out on track.
I short-shift up the pit lane then tentatively tip it into Paddock Hill bend and ease on the power as the outside kerb approaches and the dip pushes the bike out. I’ve watched at Paddock Hill tons of times and always thought it looked as though they were being sling-shot out of the dip and now I’m starting to understand why. The R7 revs towards 12,000rpm and I shift before easing on the brakes and then down one into the Druids hairpin. Already I’m on the back of a couple of Blades but they’re easily dealt with on the way out, even though I’m barely using half of what the engine has to offer.
Into Graham Hill bend I just brush the brakes, bang it down one and pull it in to the kerb then almost run into the back of an R1 as the Virgin bike lays down its power. And that’s just warming up.
I trickle through the Surtees chicane constantly aware I’m riding a £100,000 race bike with Hislop breathing down my neck, then set it up for Clearways. To be totally frank, at this stage I’ve hardly got an idea of what the tyres are doing as the suspension’s so stiff and cold it’s barely moving yet. The slicks are up to temperature, thanks to the tyre-warmers and it’s a boiling-hot day, but God knows how guys like Hislop can go straight off the grid into a warm-up lap and know exactly what’s happening between them and the Tarmac.
At the moment I haven’t got a clue. At this kind of speed, a road bike starts moving around and the tyres’ treads start to vibrate, but the R7 is hardly moving, let alone putting any gyp through the slicks. I’ll tell any onlookers that I’m running-in.
Waiting for the maximum footprint of the rear tyre and holding my breath, I feed in a bit of power and short-shift again down the start-finish straight up to around 12,000rpm. I shift up as fast as I can through the gears and there’s still more there, with the engine throwing itself through the revs faster than any tuned road bike I’ve ever had the chance to be near.
As we head into Paddock Hill bend, I shut off so early that I barely need to use the Brembo four-piston calipers. Hislop shows me his front wheel, a manoeuvre I’ve seen him do hundreds of times but normally on blokes like Haga or Chris Walker. Then he slips back to his following position. This is the man who’s fifth in this year’s British superbike championship. His CV reads like a hall of fame: Four fastest laps this year, former TT lap record holder, numerous wins and podiums at world endurance level and many wins at British superbike rounds.
Five slow laps later the session’s called to a halt by a CBR600 playing hide and seek with the gravel. I pull in to be greeted by a gorgeous blonde, just like a real racer. Unfortunately, she’s in our garage by mistake...
I kill the engine, the mechanics put on the warmers and put the bike back on the paddock stand and I hook up a Marlboro Light. I swear I was so nervous that my last time at Brands Hatch on my SP-1 would have been faster. But it was never this much fun and I know there’s so much more to come.
Hislop resists the urge to have a jibe, even when prompted. He simply says: " You’ll get into it later. " He’s right. I’ve popped my genuine superbike cherry and I badly want some more. Even more so after riding it, it’s hard to take your eyes off the bike.
OK, so there are some very nice bikes in the paddock, ranging from a supermoto which wouldn’t look out of place at the Guidon d’Or, to an RGV250 which would look more at home parked up in a field at a custom bike show. But the R7 eclipses everything.
Out of the crate they look good, but nothing like this. The fat, anodised gold Ohlins forks lead your eye to the black front wheel and on to the Brembo four-piston brake calipers and fully-floating discs. Even sat on the stand, the bike points to the ground in an aggressive way with the back end up high. Hislop tells me that after some advice from Anders Andersson at Ohlins they’ve actually dropped the bike by 10mm and extended the factory swingarm at the pivot point by 2mm. You’d think it would make the bike turn slow, but apparently the R7’s centre of gravity is naturally high so you can get away with this while still making it out-turn Ducatis.
Run your eye over the carbon-fibre bodywork and it ends up on the footrests. They’re high and stubby but adjustable for almost every way possible to allow riders to get their ideal set-up. I’ll leave them where they are for now, unless they start grinding out. Ahem!
After what seems like an age of re-topping up fluid levels with Evian and more and more cigarettes I get the chance of another session and this time I’m not going to waste it.
I get on board the bike dropping my shoulders down to the fairly wide handlebars and begin the starting procedure. Hislop’s coming out again on the R1 but he’s going to disappear after a few laps so I don’t feel so pressured.
Out on to the track a TL1000S flies past as I accelerate down the straight before peeling into Paddock Hill. The bike is lighter than any 600 I’ve ever ridden and it turns like a very well set-up 250 race bike with the power of a ZX-12R. It’s a stunning combination and not at all hard to tip it in, hitting the apex, then wind it on to out drive the TL – even on the out-lap.
With more confidence in the slicks after the first session, I put it into Druids hard up the inside of an R1. On a road bike I’d have never made it, but this thing just takes massive liberties with lean angles. My line’s better, too, as I’m not so scared and I get on the power hard while still cranked over. This time I can feel the suspension doing its work as the back end squats a fraction and the fat rear slick bites hard driving me down the hill. I stay in second, winding it up to the shift light. Then it’s a slight pull on the brake lever, let go and bang it on to its side. As I ease the power on, I’m suddenly on about three other riders – and blast past them like they’re hardly working their bikes.
And I’m only coming out of the bend at 8000rpm. Surprisingly, it’s got a very driveable engine. It all starts happening at 8000rpm and goes on to 14,300pm. Once you get past 12,000rpm there’s even more of a peak, but the rev counter moves so fast and you’re through the factory short-ratio gears so quickly it’s hard to keep track of.
But it’s not some kind of bucking bronco trying to wheelie through every gear. It would if you sat back, but you can nail the power on hard and the front wheel just hovers off the ground as your brain tries to take in the acceleration and how quickly the next bend is approaching.
I brake like I know I shouldn’t into the Surtees chicane and Hislop sweeps past, carrying at least 10mph more cornering speed than me. I sit behind him and I’ve got the big advantage as I blip the throttle, down one then peel in to Clearways. He’s running a slightly wider line than me and I manage to stay with him through the corner. But I’m on it and he looks like he could do this smoking a fag. As I wind on the power out of Clearways, the bike starts to move around over the bump as the straight opens out and I feel like a proper hero. If it’s starting to weave a bit down the straight at least plenty of people will see it. At least it shows I’m trying.
I accelerate out of Paddock and my head almost hits the screen as the shift light flashes its warning and I stab it into fourth, hardly even having to think about the reverse shift now. There are four sports bikes and MCN editor Rob McDonnell’s XJR1300SP in front of me. And if you think I’m going to " let the boss win " ...
I keep the power on later than I’d have ever dared on anything else before round Brands, pin the front end down with the Brembos and the back wheel starts to lift as I change down into second. It all sounds frantic but feels beautifully controlled. I run a bit wider than intended then bang it up the inside.
McDonnell told me later he thought I wouldn’t make it round. But it put up with being put right on its side. I hate to think what speed Hislop must be able to get round here.
My personal leanometer already thinks it’s faulty. The chassis lets you alter your lines and pull it into the apex and know exactly what the front and rear ends are doing like nothing else I’ve experienced.
I’m trying to stay in sight of Hislop. But I see him lighting up the R1’s rear end on the way out of the downhill Graham Hill bend and decide it might not be wise to chase him.
After what seems just five minutes, but was actually more like 20, the flag’s out and we’re back in again. My head hurts from concentrating so hard. I couldn’t tell you how many laps I’ve done. I have been in a zone I’ve never experienced before, a zone where your brain switches off all irrelevant trivia – and that includes counting laps. All has been focused on making everything smooth, hanging on and clipping apexes.
My mouth’s dry and it’s all I can do to say thanks to the mechanics as they take the bike from me. I’m smiling because the slicks actually look like they’ve seen some action, and I’m chuffed.
This is the ultimate track day bike but it’s wasted here. I want it on a track all to myself. It’s scary how capable the bike is and how quickly it catches up and outbrakes, out-turns, out-corners and out-accelerates the fiercest road bikes. Because of that you have to hold it back when it really wants to go.
My SP-1 is never going to feel the same again, but I don’t let that worry me. I’ve got another session and a date with a bloke on a GSX-R750 race bike. Red mist? Who, me?
VIRGIN YAMAHA R7
Cost: £100,000 (est)
Power and torque :170bhp, 75ftlb
Weight, power to weight ratio: 162kg (356lb), 1.05bhp/kg
Top speed (est): 199mph
Acceleration Standing 1/4-mile time, terminal speed (est): 9.8s, 154mph
Geometry Rake, trail, wheelbase: 22.8°, 9.5cm, 138cm to 141cm
Engine: Liquid-cooled, 749cc (72mm x 46mm) 20v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Mitsubishi programmable fuel injection system with WSB-spec ignition map and 50mm throttle bodies, kit radiator, lightened and balanced crank, 6 gears.
Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar from race kit with works aluminium swingarm and adjustable wheelbase
Front suspension: 43mm Ohlins inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Ohlins single shock with rising rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping and ride height
Tyres: Dunlop 787 slicks; 120/70 x 16.5 front, 190/50 x 17 rear
Brakes: Brembo; 2 x 298mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 245mm rear disc with 4-piston caliper