Riding Oulton Park with a British Superbike champion

Senior Online Reporter Dan Sutherland samples Kawasaki’s first-ever Ultimate Ninja Experience with Leon Haslam

Leon Haslam offered instruction on the day. Credit: Glynne Lewis
Leon Haslam offered instruction on the day. Credit: Glynne Lewis

It’s 7am at a crisp, but dry Oulton Park. Although the sun has barely risen, the paddock is already a hive of activity, with swarms of bleary-eyed trackday goers unloading vans, exchanging banter and cooking breakfast ahead of a day of closely-contended circuit action.

Nestled in the deepest countryside of rural Cheshire, the undulating 2.69-mile International layout would play host to today’s No Limits action, alongside the first-ever Kawasaki Ultimate Ninja Experience. 

Billed as a unique opportunity for novice to intermediate riders to sample the 2019 Kawasaki ZX-6R 636 alongside an array of professional Kawasaki-backed racers, the day’s event was the first of eight experiences at a variety of tracks, also including Cadwell Park, Snetterton and Croft. 

Taking place between now and Thursday, 12 September, the £319 events are run within a trackday novice group and will be guided by either Leon Haslam, Glenn Irwin or Chris Walker, with the attending riders receiving a ‘ZX-6R voucher’ worth the value of the day to put towards their own machine.

Leon Haslam coaches MCN's Dan Sutherland

Our instructor for the day is 2018 British Superbike champion, Leon Haslam, who holds the current two-wheeled lap record at the track and has taken victory on multiple occasions. As instructors go, I can’t think of many better.

“Instructing is something I’ve done since joining Kawasaki and obviously with my dad running the [Ron Haslam] Race School, it’s something I’ve always been into,” the current Kawasaki World Superbike rider said.

“You’ve got to understand the areas that people can improve and the areas you can help them and mainly it’s just about building confidence. That theory is carried through right up to when I’m teaching other racers. I can take them out on circuit and teach them the same sort of fundamentals, it’s just at a faster speed.”

Snaking my way between a labyrinth of trucks, I locate Kawasaki’s garage. Accompanied by the gentle chatter of passing riders and the distant aroma of the occasional bacon sandwich, the line of pristine lime green supersport bikes sticks out alongside the often battle-scarred track bikes surrounding it.

Leon Haslam. Credit: Glynne Lewis

The usual tyre warmers and tool kits are nowhere to be seen and in their wake lies a row of Kawasaki chairs, a Kawasaki backdrop and individual mats for every ZX-6R.

Offering first-time trackday goers an unmatched premium feel reminiscent of a racer’s garage, the days are all manned by welcoming and friendly Kawasaki staff, determined to make your transition into trackdays as seamless as possible.

“I do a lot of various trackdays with different companies and to turn up with your pride and joy that you’ve saved up for, for years and then to get loose on track with 50 other people at a circuit you don’t know, that can be a really scary thing,” Haslam added.

“But there are more ways to do it at an entry level and you can come and do these experiences and use someone else’s bike and come and get some tuition.

Leon Haslam offers instruction on body position

“It’s the same thing with my Dad’s school, you can use our bikes, our leathers and the instruction is two to one and I think that’s what Kawasaki has tried to create with this.

“You’re not in a big group of 40 people with one instructor and left to your own devices and regardless of your level, that [closer] instruction is going to benefit you.” 

Taking place at MSV circuits alongside No Limits, once small talk has been exchanged, it’s time to sign-on, supplying either your full motorcycle road licence, or race licence in the process, before progressing to the briefing.

Looking around at a crowded room of leather-clad riders, often showing scuffed sliders and patches of road rash, it could be all too easy to feel intimidated by those around you as a novice; will they be faster than me? What if I’m too slow? How do I get my knee down like them?

This is recognised by No Limits, who offer the novices an additional briefing to calm your nerves and remind you that this is a track and not a road, meaning no lifesaver checks, or looking in mirrors and reiterating that it’s okay to use all of the tarmac.

Once cleared, there’s time to quickly take onboard fluids, before a 10 minute presentation from Leon about body position.

Showing you how to hang off the bike in order to lower your centre of gravity mid-corner, as well as where to position yourself on the gas and under braking, it’s a well-practiced display that easily outlines how you should be sat on the bike at all times when negotiating the technical snake-like ribbon of tarmac.

Session one

Being based in the novice group, the pace of the first session is sedate, with minimal overtaking to allow us to try and learn the circuit. As a regular trackday goer and occasional club racer, it’s quite frustrating, however as every corner unfolds, I become ever-more grateful for the approach.

Leon leads our four-strong procession of LED-illuminated 600s and shows us exactly where to be on the track, as well as exaggerating body position to show us how we should look when negotiating every inch of the asphalt.

It’s an eye-opening insight into a track I have never before ridden and as the session draws to a premature, red flag-induced close, I am ready to sample the Kawasaki at a higher speed.

MCN's Dan Sutherland cornering at Oulton Park. Credit Glynne Lewis

This is echoed by fellow pupil and Kawasaki ambassador, Zoe Turner, who was also experiencing Oulton for the first time. 

“The track has definitely been the biggest eye opener,” 29-year-old Turner said. “I like Donington and Cadwell Park and this track just seems like a mix of them both. Saying that, I do find it challenging and there’s no time to rest and you’ve got to concentrate all the time.

“[The] track position tuition has definitely been useful, too. If I’m on my own for the next session, I think I might get a bit lost. Sitting behind Leon and seeing his position is helping me to go faster.”

Take two

After another full rotation of groups, we are out again and this time Leon waves me through, so he can focus on another pupil. Despite my previous experience, I am instantly caught like a deer in the headlights and after half a lap I have completely forgotten the correct lines to take.

With the first stint red-flagged after around 10 minutes, I frustratingly mess up line after line, missing apexes and running dangerously close to the white lines. Behind Leon, it seemed so easy, however I was struggling to put it into practice on my own. 

The third stint

Again, this session ends with a red flag, however this time I am ready for it and going into the third stint, I ask to follow Leon once more. Smooth, progressive and consistent, he is incredibly easy to follow and it soon comes back to me.

Leon outlines the track layout

Firing out of Kinckerbrook and up Clay Hill, it’s immediately obvious that my own line was completely off. Tapping the tail of his own ZX-6R, I follow the Factory Kawasaki World Superbike rider all the way to Druids Corner and under Warwick Bridge ready for another lap. 

Using his lines, we are smoother and faster. There’s less unnecessary braking and I’m less fatigued after every lap. Unfortunately, after around five or six rotations, the red flag is again raised and the session is over. 

Cut short by red flags

Just starting to pick up the pace and get into a rhythm, I shake my fist in frustration, knowing full well that our go on track was cut noticeably short. This again proved to be a problem in the final session, with the red flag coming out early, giving us around 10 minutes to take in our final teachings from Leon.

Sat behind the 2018 champ, I begin to make mental notes of how he looks by comparison to those around him and model my own position accordingly. The contrast is astounding and truly highlights both where you should and how you should be sat on your motorcycle.

With the chequered flag waved, it’s a bitter-sweet ending. I’ve had a fabulous time and am beaming from ear to ear, however I yearn for longer on the bike, to improve further and use more of the Euro4 compliant ZX-6R.

Haslam provides feedback at the end of the day

That said, this – ultimately – is an experience less suited to someone like me and although I took buckets of useful information away, would be far more beneficial to a complete trackday newbie.

Here, the experience would be transformed and would allow you to make the transition to circuit riding far more swiftly than someone without instruction. This is because you are taught the correct lines and body position from the get go, as well as experiencing a brand-new ZX-6R before going on to purchase your own.

Looked after by friendly Kawasaki staff, the day also removes any self-deprecating pressure you might put upon yourself, as well as any jitters about your upcoming track time. For those interested in the new model, as well as taking their first steps onto a circuit, this could be the ideal starting point.

Further Ninja Experience dates:

  • Tuesday 14th May – Cadwell Park [Chris Walker]
  • Tuesday 28th May – Snetterton [Glenn Irwin]
  • Wednesday 12th June – Oulton Park [Glenn Irwin]
  • Sunday 30th June – Donington Park [Leon Haslam]
  • Tuesday 16th July – Brands Hatch GP [Chris Walker]
  • Tuesday 20th August – Donington Park [Chris Walker]
  • Thursday 12th September – Croft [Chris Walker]

More from MCN: