Riding the World Superbike Championship 996 of Troy Bayliss
There probably isn’t a bookie alive who’d give low odds against staying onboard a world championship-winning bike with about 190bhp at the rear wheel in the pissing rain.
And the 50-1 against would quickly become 100-1 when he learns it’s a V-twin renowned for spinning up as soon as it gets damp, snow is forecast later that evening, and the track is one of the most notoriously slippery this side of the Hendon police training school’s skid pan.
Add to that the facts WSB frontrunner Ruben Xaus has already been caught out twice during the same test, 80 per cent of the corners are left-handers, and the first two journalists of the day have catapulted themselves headfirst into the gravel traps, and the chances of flying back home tomorrow without some vital bits in a sling are looking decidedly grim. Oh, and did I mention my leathers are brand new and I’ve forgotten to superstitiously roll around on the floor in them before swinging a leg over the bike?
Welcome to the start of the World Superbike testing season, at Valencia, Spain, Ducati-style.
The firm, famous for its open attitude and willingness to invite the press inside what would often be closed workshop doors, has asked me to try out Troy Bayliss’ bike – the exact same one he’s just wrapped up this year’s WSB series with.
The merest mention of the word Spain has seen me frantically pack shorts, sunscreen, a dodgy hat and a pair of dubious-looking open-toe sandals which, I’m assured, are all the rage.
The reality on landing is that the weather is better – it’s dryer and warmer – back in the UK. Out come the gym sweater and Levi’s jeans, packed " just in case " .
Just eight of the world’s best-known bike publications have been asked along. Seven of the riders are veterans of race bike testing, white-water rafting on two wheels and looking cool, calm and collected in the 30 minute countdown to their " go " . Then, there’s me.
I haven’t ridden that many track thoroughbreds, I don’t like cavorting in the rain and I’m feeling more than a little nervous. I’m also used to winding the throttle on hard in a less than sympathetic way on revvy four-potters and I weigh, er, 16 stone.
As I quietly wait my turn, an invasive Aussie voice chimes in my direction: " You’re a big bugger. What’s your name? ‘Gym?’ "
" Yeah. What’s yours? " I reply, much to his amusement.
Fact is, I’m now face-to-face with Troy Bayliss and I haven’t even recognised him. Poor show.
In a flash, he’s stolen the leathers I’m about to put on, and he’s using them to pull off a little stunt.
To highlight the physical differences between a world class racer and an international eating champion, he’s donning my new Daineses – over his own.
The joke brings hoots of laughter from the 30-strong staff team that follows any Ducati WSB bike event.
Now he’s prancing about in them like a silverback gorilla on prescription " uppers " . The bloke’s a loon.
We ease him out of his third skin slowly – it took him a lot less time to put them on – and I begin to chat, looking for a few grains of advice.
" It’s simple really, " he says. " You’ll either lose it on the brakes, or on the gas. Be smooth. Wet racing is all about being gentle in, gentle out and gentle slowing down. Brake a bit earlier than normal, straighten up a bit more before you wind the power on, and try not to think about not crashing. "
His words of wisdom are interrupted by the nearby shouts of the pit crew. Someone else has just gone down. Anxiety forces a shift in bowel status and I hoof it to the loo. While I’m there, I don my kit and think about what he’s said.
His statements might be glaringly obvious but they’re also the blueprint to staying onboard. And, anyway, I can already see the editor’s face as he’s presented with a bill for around £500,000.
With an engine life expressed in hours or days rather than months or years, and the likelihood of every spare factory race part being called up to repair the damage the journos are doing, the Ducati bosses have imposed a stringent lap ceiling. We each get four.
I already have a plan to get round this. I’ll pretend I thought I got a warm-up and cooling down lap, too.
And, being in such a high state of racing concentration, I won’t see the flag, the lap board with PITS written on it, or the men in brightly-coloured jackets waving their arms.
I’ll do six laps, that is, if I haven’t highsided myself into neighbouring Portugal first.
I try to blot out the last 10 minutes before it’s my turn, but it’s hard. A couple of racing veterans are gushing about what an unbelievable experience it’s just been, while a couple more remain remarkably quiet. They’re the ones who are still picking the gravel trap’s pebbles from between their teeth.
So I chat to Ducati Racing’s press and PR man, Julian Thomas, instead.
He reckons the V-twin configuration has a lot more life left in it yet and the bikes could gain as much as 10bhp in WSB next year. Nice to know I’m on an " underpowered " version then.
Finally, it’s my go and the superstitions kick in hard. Turn neck to the left, neck to the right, do up lid. Check. Don gloves, but undo and redo both straps twice. Check. Walk 360-degrees around bike, much to onlookers’ amusement. Check.
The remote starter is revved hard against the back wheel and the engine, with its dustbin-sized pistons, slowly rotates into life. The boom as the motor fires spent gases down the massive 60mm downpipes catches me unawares, even though I’ve been hearing it all day.
The exhaust note is unlike any other I’ve witnessed. Road-going 996s with race cans are truly stacked with bass, but this makes them sound like their subwoofers have been replaced by tweeters. It’s a melodic, harmonious growl, like a confident fighter’s thump on the table at pre-contest conference time.
As I climb on, vibration is gloriously absent. Instead, each blip of the short-action throttle sends every ounce of power directly into a perfectly-balanced drivetrain.
The gear indicator jumps to " 1 " as I ease the lever upwards through the race-shift gearbox. The dry clutch rattles. A small readout on the right side of the digital dash tells me the engine temperature is just 50-degrees – and that’s after the bike has already done 20 or so laps before me with a taped-up radiator. Just like my blue hands and red, dripping nose, it’s an indication of how cold it is.
The rain continues to belt down, creating small channels of slow-running water in a couple of spots around the track. The rest seeps into the surface.
The insistence by a mechanic that he pushes me away from the start, even though the bike is already running, shows what a massive strain the torque-filled motor puts on the racing clutch plates. Suddenly, I’m doing 50mph down pit lane and the rain is exploding in huge droplets across my visor. I pick up speed and lower my head, forcing the vacuum I leave in my wake to suck the rain away.
The first lap is used to remind myself which way the corners go. It’s also a chance to check out the table manners of my steed. It’s clear there’s so much power low down that more than two millimetres of carelessly-recruited throttle is simply too much. The engine note picks up by an octave or two as the rear wheel gently spins, reporting my heavyhandedness back to the pits courtesy of the track’s silent, deserted location and a slight wind.
I spend most of my time in second or third gear, easing the power on, slowing in plenty of time, and steadying the bike much more than I usually would with the rear brake. Though the full-wet tyres would allow knee-down riding, the oily film clinging to the track says " no " . You can’t see it, but it’s there, and it’s worse off the racing line.
A couple of brief climbs in the revs as I lean the booming Ducati gently into corners, coupled with the drifting sensation when traction flicks on and off, reinforces the need for feelers and tentacles in these conditions.
But the fear and apprehension has gone away. Troy’s words are emblazoned in my mind’s eye and the emphasis is very much on smooth.
I repeatedly shortshift from second to third and change gingerly back again as I pick my way through the minefield of grease around much of the track. Then, I’m on the long start/finish straight and I pick the bike up as quickly as I can, before firing it through the gears. I get as far as fifth, and it’s all gloriously wheelspin-free, before my senses convince my brain the feel-good endorphins need to stop and survival is back on the agenda.
The normally flat-out in third left-hander at the end of the straight is taken at medium revs after I brake gently opposite the pit board and downshift two. Ridden smoothly, the bike is beginning to reward me for my efforts. I trail the brakes gently as I peel into the next left-hander in second gear, using as much of the circuit as I can without clipping the unforgiving white lines. I concentrate on millimetre-perfect placement.
The pace is picking up and everything’s becoming a bit more user-friendly. The motor isn’t going to cough, the fuel injection isn’t packed with hiccups, the brakes won’t clamp on hard if I don’t want them to and the Michelin tyres aren’t going to turn to a non-gripping plastic compound. Riding this bike at a reasonable pace in a monsoon is actually quite easy.
As a result, I relax more. But it’s almost too much as a wave of complacency brushes gently over me and the back steps out violently. I’ve had enough near-bins in the dry to develop a specific survival instinct for this kind of caper. Snap the throttle shut and there’s a chance the bike’s energy will be transferred through the frame and into me. In that scenario, I’ll be highsided.
Wind the throttle on and I’m off anyway.
So, I just instinctively hold it constant, backing it off no more than a fraction until grip returns. It works.
The close call fires my senses back up to 100 per cent again, every toe, finger and bum cheek probing for information about the bike’s status.
And it’s all telling me one thing – the suspension’s a little harsh for wet riding. It needs the compression damping and preload backing off to reduce the whiplash effect the transmission is having. And if it feels like that at 220lb, goodness only knows what the 150-pounders who are also here for the test are making of it.
Too hard it might be, but that can’t mask its quality. The inverted Ohlins forks and massive monoshock ooze the kind of quality feel that money probably can’t buy. I envisage a crack team of Ohlins technicians working in a sealed, sterile bubble, machining each component to a tolerance of microns instead of 100ths of a millimetre.
Status is the currency to buy these – if you’re not a world level works team at the forefront of your championship, forget it. Their travel up and down their damping rods is seamless, and the closest thing to something out of this world. The frame is jigged to pinpoint accuracy and even the massive Brembo 4-pot calipers are radially-mounted – on one solid block – to eliminate flex.
Everything is precision weighed, cut and fitted and it’s an honour to share the racing champ’s seat, even if it is made from kangaroo skin. Vegans and Skippy lovers: note I’m joking.
The pace is picking up a little more, but my concentration remains high. I’m aware of the rougher patch in the revs – it’s between about 3000 and 4000rpm, but there’s nothing in it to catch you out. It’s more of a tingle than a glitch, thanks to near-perfect ignition mapping derived from 100s of dyno and track test hours.
I haven’t a clue if it’s repeated a lot higher up the scale as the track isn’t dry enough to get there. That makes the rev limiter like Angelina Jolie – out of my reach, but not for the want of wishing.
I’m on lap five and the man with the pitboard is politely getting my attention. At least, I think that’s what the hand gesture meant.
I’ve promised myself six trips round but don’t want to take the mickey. Despite the weather, the team has been a marvellous host, even turning a blind eye when I ate all the journalists’ pasta, thinking it was just a single portion for me (thank my 5000 calories a day habit for that). I also don’t want to deprive the remaining rider his go by binning the bike. Team bosses have already said one more off and that’s it..
So, I relax completely on my final, sneaky lap, forget about trying to coax the neutral-steerer through Valencia’s variable bends, and concentrate on gassing it from A to B in straight lines instead.
Never having won even a tenner on the lottery, I’m determined to clean up at 100-1 at the bookies. Only, even with a winning stake of five grand laid down, I still couldn’t get my hands on one of these little beauties. They remain one of the things that money just can’t buy.