The silver BMW purrs into the Mallory Park paddock and slots in next to the battered Transit vans of the track day goers. The driver gets out, accompanied by his blonde, supermodel-skinny girlfriend, and is instantly hit for autographs by two dazed-looking women.
Less than a year into his first season of 500 GPs, Chris Walker is unemployed – not that you’d notice. He may be a bit down in the dumps after being sacked by his Shell Honda team last month, but the man is still a massive star.
And even without a team, the Stalker’s enthusiasm for riding remains undiminished. Which is why he has agreed to become an MCN tester for the day and take out three road-going 750s at the track where he had his first ever road race – on an RGV250 at the age of 22. They may not be quite up there with the British Superbikes on which he claimed three second places in the domestic series, but he’s genuinely looking forward to it. You and us both, Chris.
Walker and his missus, Sarah Tunningcliff, have obviously come over all patriotic today. He’s wearing a Union Jack T-shirt while she’s sporting a jumper that wouldn’t look out of place on the top of a pole. But the first thing that grabs their attention as they walk across the paddock doesn’t boast the red, white and blue design, but the green, white and red stripes of the Italian equivalent instead. Well, a Casoli Moto MV Agusta is enough to make anyone wish they’d been born in Milan.
When Walker isn’t admiring the MV’s sleek lines, he’s looking up at the clouds and talking about his ducks. Yes, one of the first things Walker does when he gets up in the morning is feed his ducks at his farmhouse near Nottingham. He says ruefully he hasn’t got much else to do at the moment apart from wait for the phone to ring to offer him a slot on an injured rider’s bike until he can get something better sorted for next year.
But one thing he is doing apart from keeping mallards in bread crusts is training. Hard. Because when that offer does come, the last thing he wants to be is unprepared.
He says: " This year has been a bit difficult and I’ve had quite a few injuries, so the time I’ve had off up to now has given me the chance to get back to full fitness. I broke my shoulder at the first race of the year and I got ran over and bits and bobs and hurt my wrist and things and I felt a bit secondhand for most of the season.
" But one good thing that’s come out of this is that I’m back to brand-new again and down the gym and on my mountain bike trying to get the fitness back again so if I do get the call-up I’m ready to go. "
Right now he’s ready to go, too. After a less-than-glamorous change in the back of the MCN van, he emerges in those distinctive red and yellow Shell Advance leathers. Yes, Chris Walker is about to make his Mallory Park comeback. The last time he rode here was on his Crescent Suzuki GSX-R750 in BSB last year and he hasn’t ridden a bike in anger since the British GP.
This time he doesn’t have to think about qualifying times or the complexities of getting the bike set up. All he has to do is decide what bike to ride first from the three in front of him. As well as the MV Agusta, there’s a Suzuki GSX-R750 and a Kawasaki ZX-7R – which is the one he goes for.
He says: " It’s a long time since I’ve been on one of those, though I did two years on the Kawasaki superbike and finished runner-up both years. But in the past I’ve owned just about every model of ZX-R going, so I’ll give it a go. "
He fires it up and heads out on the track first. Thirty other riders here for a track day almost forget what they’re here for as 60 eyeballs swivel to follow the Stalker logo on his helmet disappearing towards Gerrards.
He’s on cold, brand new tyres that have never turned apart from when they were rolled out of the back of the van, but I don’t have a chance of keeping up on the warm-up lap as I follow him on the MV.
Walker is just having a laugh, though. You wouldn’t believe he hasn’t ridden on track for a couple of months as he leaves black lines with the rear tyre on the way into Gerrards. At 100mph.
I pull in for some suspension set-up and stand beside Sarah watching Walker going past. The pair met each other while she was working at the NEC Show for Suzuki last year. Since then she has watched him on the track taking on the likes of Valentino Rossi, Max Biaggi and Kenny Roberts.
This time his main rival is Tim from Northampton, so there’s no need for her to shield her eyes every time it looks as if he’s going to take a dive into the gravel. There’s no pressure on Mr Walker today, and that makes things a lot less nerve-racking for the people watching him, too.
After taking out the Kawasaki for a real thrash, he pulls back in. So what do you think, Chris? He says: " It’s been a bit too long since I had a go on one of these, but it’s still a damn good superbike. And they’re actually even better on the road than they are on the track. A big criticism is they’re really heavy now, but the brakes are still awesome. It stops good and steers good. It’s a really good package, but it’s just a little bit lacking in power now.
" However, whack a pipe and a dynojet kit on one and it makes a big difference. I still reckon it’s one of the best-looking bikes around, too. The best thing Kawasaki could do is make a lighter bike with more power, without changing the way it feels. It’s just so solid and doesn’t do anything untoward. "
In between autographs Walker is just hanging out. He looks relaxed and is happy just soaking up the atmosphere and helping people set their bikes up. If you tried to ask some GP riders for advice you’d get a screwdriver where you definitely don’t need it.
Apart from at Assen, the GP paddock has been a lonely place for Walker. It’s all a far cry from last year, when the crowd would go mental every time he left his garage and he’d be mobbed at every British Superbike meeting.
He says: " Apart from winning, probably the biggest thing I miss is the fans. I know they were behind me, but they were there for everyone. You travel the world and it’s not quite the same. "
Compared to Rossi’s army of fans it’s not surprising he feels a little dejected – but then most racers don’t ride an old BSA to pub meets either. He says: " The only road bike I’ve got at the moment is an old BSA Clubman Sport and though I haven’t been around much this year I suppose I’d better get it dusted down! When I’m back home I use it in the evenings and stuff just to pop to the pub and back. The police don’t bother you on that like they would on something modern, so you can stay out of bother but still have a good laugh – until you press the gear pedal instead of the back brake because they’re on the wrong side! "
But BSA or NSR, the racer is never far away. He says: " You can still give some of the FireBlade boys a bit of a fright if you catch them unawares! " So if you get buzzed by an old BSA with a rider wearing what looks like a Walker replica lid, you’ll know who it is.
It’s time for the next session and Walker goes for the Suzuki. If anyone thought he looked at home on the Kawasaki, their jaws must be hitting the floor as he powers the GSX-R750 on the front wheel into the hairpin and flies past people on the way into the Bus Stop.
When he comes back, he says: " It’s obviously very familiar. I’ve never raced this model – I raced the model before it, one of Chili’s old bikes – but I did a couple of tests for MCN on one last year and Suzuki really has taken the performance to a different level. Jump off the Kawasaki and on to that and it feels so fast. The fuel injection is instant and it has a really strong, revvy engine that just wants to keep going at the top end. It’s a lot lighter, too, though it doesn’t turn any quicker. It’s definitely the one I’d choose as my track day weapon. "
He’s obviously enjoyed himself, but Walker’s last ride on a Suzuki wasn’t such a happy one. It’s not hard to forget the joker of the paddock walking back in tears after his engine blew just a few laps from the end of the last BSB round at Donington Park. The championship looked like his, but with Walker out Hodgson was through for the title. It’s something that obviously still inspires painful memories for Walker.
He says: " I parked the bike up and started walking back up pit lane. Someone shouted to me: ‘We know who the real champion is, Chris’ and that’s when I started crying. It’s weird, I’ve got the footage of last year on DVD and video and I’ve never managed to watch the end. It’s something I really tried to blank out a bit. It did affect me a lot last winter and it probably had a big part in my decision to go and ride a Honda in GPs rather than stay with a Suzuki and go to World Superbikes.
" It was still the best year I’d ever had and it would be a bit sad to think all the doors were firmly shut forever when I took the decision to go GP racing. But I’ll never ever forget that walk back, though I didn’t actually go back to the pits. I took the first right back to my motorhome and went for a long walk, as I didn’t want to say the wrong thing to the wrong person.
" I’m not much of a helmet smasher because it isn’t anyone’s fault. We didn’t have the fastest bike all year, but we had a real raceable package. Like Hodgson I was riding on big confidence. We were both doing things on the bikes we shouldn’t have been getting away with.
" We remain friends despite court and track battles, and massive respect to Neil. If there’s anyone else who did deserve to win the championship it’s Neil. "
At that time in his career Walker was on the podium pretty much every weekend, that includes the odd World Superbike race, and he can’t help looking back and thinking he might have made the wrong decision.
He says: " I’m kicking myself now for leaving the team, but I was offered the dream ride and dreams aren’t always as nice in reality. If I’d turned it down I’d probably still be kicking myself for that. I’d gone from having no doors open to having too many. And it was someone as daft as me who had to make the right decision. Obviously, I made the wrong one. "
It’s time for us to head out again and this time I get to follow from behind on the Suzuki as Walker takes the MV, with MCN tester and race school instructor Dave Hill on the Kawasaki.
Lining up next to Walker knowing you’re about to head out on the same track as a British hero is enough to make anyone feel sick. But there’s no time for nerves. Walker gets the nod from the marshall and we’re out.
He’s obviously getting on with the bike. As we exit Gerrards the thing is on its side and on the way out he leaves a massive black line from fully-cranked until the bike’s upright.
The Suzuki has much more power than the MV so it can pull him in and sit on his tail through the Esses and on to the hairpin. At this point he’s going sideways and we can hear the rear tyre squealing as he backs it in. For most people sideways means a couple of inches, but for Walker on the MV it’s more like a foot and a half. When you’re following someone you shouldn’t be able to see the side of the bike, let alone every logo on the right-hand fairing.
As we hit the Bus Stop he’s gone. He then gets it squirrelly down the tricky off-camber Devil’s Elbow and waves his hand at someone to apologise as he passes a bit close.
MVs cost a fortune and have lines almost as good as his girlfriend’s, but what does the man reckon it’s like to ride? He says: " When I arrived this morning I was really excited about riding it. Then before it was set-up everyone had a go on it and no-one really liked it and I thought I’m not that bothered about riding it now.
" But once the suspension was tweaked it was really, really nice. It should probably be a bit faster, but the feel, looks and steering are spot-on. And as you might have noticed it was probably the one I had the most fun on. If you had the money it’s definitely the one you’d buy and I’d be joining the queue if they put a more powerful engine in it. "
Better get in line then, Chris, because we hear MV is planning to give the standard bike a 140bhp motor.
It’s lunchtime and we check out the fare in the Mallory café. It all brings back a few memories for Walker and we get talking about his past between mouthfuls of lasagne and chips.
He started off in motocross, getting his first bike at the age of four and making his race debut at 14. Later, he worked for a bike dealership and trained as a mechanic before moving into the showroom. At the age of 22, the shop that sponsored his motocross riding closed down and he made probably the best decision of his life – to buy a race-kitted Suzuki RGV250 and start road racing.
He says: " I’d done eight years of motocross and was never going to win the British championship. The tracks I used to ride best at were the smooth ones with no bumps! A mate had a TZ250 and took me to Mallory on a Wednesday afternoon and I came away revving. On the Saturday I did a Yamaha race school with Mick Corrigan as my instructor. I can’t remember what my score was, but it was pretty good. The day after was my first race and I had a second and two wins and that was it – I was hooked. "
That year, despite a few crashes because he was trying so hard on a fairly standard bike, he traded up to one of Corrigan’s FZR400s and won two championships in his first year. After taking the EMRA championship and the Shell Clubmans trophies, he started to get noticed and got some help from Padgetts, which helped him on his way to second in the British 250 championship behind Jamie Robinson.
In 1995 he got his big break. Hislop had won BSB and was meant to ride at an invitational race for a bit of fun, but decided not to after an injury. Walker was sharing a garage with them and got offered a go on the Devimead Ducati superbike instead of his 250.
He says: " The morning of qualifying the team manager came over and said do I fancy a go on his bike? Do I… So I sat on it, moved a few things round and that was my first ride on a superbike. Literally 20 minutes later I was out in qualifying on it. The mechanic who now spanners for Kenny Roberts’ Suzuki, Martin Bennett, is a top guy and quite serious and straight. Hizzy hadn’t fallen off all year and just before I went out he squeezed me on the shoulder, saying: ‘That fairing has been on this bike all year, so don’t feck it up.’ I had the thought in the back of my mind, be careful be careful, and I’d not crashed all year.
" Three laps later I’d totalled it at the old Hairpin! I was desperate not to go back to the garage. I started collecting bits of Ducati and I sat at the Armco and watched the rest of qualifying absolutely crapping myself.
" We put the bike in the truck and I hid behind it in the back. I didn’t know whether to put my helmet on or not when I got back to the garage. But they were all really happy. I couldn’t work out why, but I’d managed to qualify on the front row of the grid. "
The bike broke down in the first race the next day, but Walker fought his way up to third behind Simon Crafar and race winner Aaron Slight.
He then rode for Ducati for a while and got an unpaid ride as a rookie in 1995 with Cadbury’s Boost Yamaha. He finished second in BSB and says he owes much of that to Niall Mackenzie and the team who set the bikes up so well. Eager to stay with Yamaha, but also keen to get out from under the shadow of Mackenzie and learn to set his own bike up, he joined Kawasaki for two years, getting second and third.
Aside from the Mallory Park Race of the Year, where his was the smallest bike ever to win, the WSB race at Brands last year was his favourite.
He says: " Hodgson won the race and deserved to win it, but to beat Chili was amazing. For the last 15 laps, every time I went round a corner the crowd were going crazy as Neil and I were having a mega-dice. We were sticking with Chili and gradually pulling him in. And the race just got better and better.
" Twenty-seven laps is a long way on a superbike, but it felt like 10 minutes. It was that good. To stand up there with the national anthem playing because Neil had won was a dream. It would be nice to be back up there again one day. "
After mopping up the last piece of bolognese sauce, he’s keen to get back out as old rival Michael Rutter has arrived and fancies a play, so we give him the ZX-7R. After two sessions we pull them in as we have to pack up. The man just doesn’t want to stop riding.
So what’s next for the fans’ favourite? He says: " I’ll know a little bit more at the end of this month about what I’m doing. I’m desperate to get back on a bike, whether it’s a World Superbike or a four-stroke GP bike. But GPs are my first choice. Now I’ve made my bed in GPs I’d like to lie in it a bit longer. It does feel like a short night!
" But if not, superbikes are by no means second best. It’s superbikes that have made me what I am today and I would be daft to turn my back on a WSB ride. If nothing comes world-wise, I’ll be back in BSB. I’m not about to stop racing. " That’s good news for us, then.