Hold on tight…

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This is my second cigarette in ten minutes. It’s also only my second cigarette in five years. The reason for my nervousness is just a few feet away. It’s Steve Webster’s sidecar outfit. And he wants me for a passenger.

The anticipation is killing me far faster than any reawakened nicotine addiction would.

I’ve been invited to Donington by Paul Marsh, Team Manager to eight times Sidecar World Champion Steve Webster and his passenger, two times champion Paul Woodhead. The team line-up is completed by Ian Guy and his passenger Andy Peach.

Most race teams invite you to the launch of their season’s campaign with a chat with the racers, perhaps a track session where you can glimpse their hopefuls whistle past your nose, while you sit safely behind Armco and concrete. Not today, not this team. They want me in their machine. I’m actually quite scared.

Steve Webster’s office is a GSX-R1100M, bored and tuned to produce 190bhp at the massive, car-sized back wheel. It weighs a biscuit over 200kg. It has just set a new lap record at Valencia and holds the overall full-circuit lap record at Brands Hatch, half a second quicker than the nearest Formula 1 car. It’s safe to say then; this machine goes like a cat with a Catherine Wheel up its rear end.

As I’m about to find out you have to be phenomenally fit to ride shotgun in a sidecar. Chatting to Steve’s passenger Paul Woodhead puts it all into perspective:

“You have to be in very good shape, mentally and physically. Steve always makes the point that you should be fit enough to do your fastest lap on the last lap. If you can’t manage that then you’re no good.”

Oh great. The last time I went to a gym there was a Conservative government in office and foot and mouth was just something minor royals were good at.

Actually I was just starting to feel better about it all – no one had died yet and all I had to do was sit there like a bag of spuds and all would be fine. Then it started to rain. I asked one of the team whether Ian Guy, the driver who was about to take me around the famous Leicestershire circuit, would take it easy, now that the water was inches deep in places.

“No – that’s no problem, we’ve got some special wet weather tyres for you. Anyway you’ll be glad of a soft landing.”

There’s not much to a sidecar outfit. A huge engine, stretched tubular frame and a tea tray for the passenger to sit on. There are cutouts in the bodywork and a handle in the cabin, which the passenger uses for purchase while they lean out into the slipstream, using body weight to give the outfit more grip in corners.

I climb into the passenger’s ” seat ” , the rain continues to pour down torrentially. I make my handholds and the outfit is bumped into life. The noise from the flat-slide carbs and exhaust is apocalyptic, like standing next to a methanol burning drag bike. We lumber down pit lane and out onto the track.

Ian opens it up and we scream through Redgate. The way the outfit corners reminds me of the Batmobile of Gotham City’s most famous crime fighter. At ballistic speeds it could fire a grapple around, say, a lamppost and use the extra anchorage to fire itself around a corner. The way the sidecar corners is almost as unbelievable; the line is just incredibly tight, and the G-forces try to tear my hands from their holds.

Down through Craner, and although normally this whole section is taken flat out at almost 150 mph, Ian restrains himself to around 120mph, pedestrian by his standards, mind warping for me. I’ve ‘done’ Donington a few times, but never just a foot from its surface. The impression of speed is much higher and the presence of danger much closer.

Hard up through the gears, the back end fishtailing under the power, my arms already pumping up under the strain. It’s a bizarre feeling, approaching Coppice under some-one else’s steam, you want to brake, do something, but Ian keeps on the power and suddenly we are flung around and through the blind, double apex and onto the Dunlop straight.

No power wheelie under the bridge, just insistent urge from the tuned Suzuki engine and the exhaust note gives away the gearchanges. I’d swear he never lifted off for the Esses, but I couldn’t spare much time for thought, as Ian was hammering hard towards the Hairpin, the rear tyre squirming with the enormous surges from the engine.

The slowest corner on the circuit gave my burning forearms a few moments respite from the pressure needed to keep me in place, my fingers already numb with the effort.

Then it was up the hill, again the back end trying to swap places with the front, precision steering from Ian keeping us face forwards, rocketing towards Goddards.

As we hurtled round that tight left, I could see the pit lane entrance, Thank God, a cup of tea, a bit of a sit down and an chance to get my heart rate down. No problem. Hang on, where are we…that was my stop…? Then the penny drops; OhmiGod, that was just to get the tyres warm…

Sidecar racing doesn’t have the big buck glamour of Superbikes, GPs or even World Supersports. For the majority of them theirs is a part time obsession, holding down regular jobs and competing at the weekend. Paul, Steve’s passenger, still bears the scars from an 150mph get off from Assen last year. He went back to work on the Monday. Side car racers; hungry for victory, driven by passion and mad as a sack of badgers.

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MCN Staff

By MCN Staff