To be honest, it was one of the easiest and quickest decisions I’d ever had to make – when the call came that offered me a ride at the British GP in the KTM support race there was only one possible answer, yes.
The offer was to get out and angry on a KTM in the 990 Super Duke Battle as part of the packed-out event. Racing a tweaked KTM. At Donington. On GP race day. Things don’t get much better. It’s fair to say that I nearly bit Ian at Bracken KTM’s hand off when he offered me the ride.
There were a few hurdles to overcome before I could get my bum on the bike though, first-off I needed to get my licence upgraded to ACU Clubman licence from novice – I upped my race programme to rattle off the amount of outings needed to get up the licence ladder in time.
The licence was quickly sorted out and before I knew it I was ready for the big race weekend. In a schedule that aped the GP superstars our practice was on Friday, qualifying Saturday with the big race on Sunday.
Now don’t go thinking that the KTM series is an easy one to bag a win in, it has attracted some big names including former BSB riders Dave Heal, Dave Wood and Francis Williamson and a host of current and former Superstock riders, along with some very quick international riders, so I was pretty much up against it from the start.
The bikes are about as close to being identical as a one make series can be and I’d sneakily spent a day at the Ron Haslam race school a few weeks previous to get some much needed practice around Donington’s sweeping lines. While I was out there following Ron around the full-length, MotoGP track I managed a 1:45 on the Honda Fireblade, which according to the sideburned-maestro isn’t half bad.
But all the confidence about knowing which way round the track went soon started to ebb away once we got to the race weekend proper. As first practice approached I stated to feel nervous, it would be my first time out on the bike and it looked like we’d have to get out for that initial go on wets. I’ve ridden on wets before but never raced, so to say I figured that this was going to be an ‘interesting’ few laps is a massive understatement.
First lap out and I passed a few riders, much to my surprise I actually set my fastest lap on the first damp lap a - 2:03, but within two laps the track started to dry out pretty quickly, meaning that the wets were shagged soon after.
I battled on with the bike getting more and more sideways out of every turn as the rubber moved on the carcass and turned into a fresh batch of blancmange – I did manage another 2:03 but on lap four the brakes failed. The lever came back to the bar. Nothing bit down on the front disc. I quickly pumped them back into action but still they kept failing so I had to back off. I wanted to pull in but because I’d not had much practice on the bike (and the session was only 20 minutes long) I stayed out, sideways everywhere with very little brakes. The biggest problem was that the rear tyre became so shagged that big chunks of it started smashing into the hugger…
By the end of the session I’d still managed to be 18th fastest out of 24. At one stage I was in the top ten but that was just as the track held on to the last bit of water, just before it started drying out. To be honest I was pretty chuffed with the result, as were quite a few of the KTM staff – and we ended up ‘celebrating’ until 2am.
Qualifying on Saturday wasn’t until late on in the day, so like everyone else I joined a few mates trackside and settled down to watch the GP boys do their thing around Coppice. It amazes me how quick they are – it was just breathtaking to see them pushing their bikes that hard. But then, it was only when battling through the massive crowds to get back to the pits that the enormity of tomorrow’s race dawned on me; this huge crowd that is only continuing to get bigger by the hour, would soon be watching me try to qualify.
My technician John had changed the brakes, after spotting a split seal, and the track was dry. I was hoping for a top 20 but it wasn’t to be. I stayed out for the full 20 minutes trying to put in a good lap but I didn’t feel comfortable, I just couldn’t ‘click’ with the bike. There were no major faults with it, things just didn’t feel right. I didn’t have the confidence to push as hard as I needed to and ended up 23 out of 24. Yeah, I was properly disappointed, but it’s hard to stay gloomy when you’re in the GP paddock.
That night I made my way down to the campsites, hooked up with some friends and had a few beers. I was determined not to drink too much and be in bed for 12. However, we ended meeting up with race organiser Ian and some lads from the Hollyoaks show off Channel 4 and the beers started to flow again. Still, at least I managed to be in bed before 1, just.
Race day dawned with the noise of everyone coming into the track proper early to get their prime spectating spot. Shower, breakfast and I was ready for the day. Despite the rain and poor grid position I was in a good mood. That was until I saw the full grandstands, then I turned into a nervous wreck.
I couldn’t stop shaking, simple tasks seemed difficult and I was snapping at everyone. My girlfriend, and now brolly girl, Amanda and I watched the MotoGP race from the Melbourne Loop. For those 27 laps I felt relaxed, but as soon as the race finished the nerves started again.
From there on in I felt like I was sitting in some sort of massive, motorcycle-themed dentist’s waiting room, I just wanted the race to start and get it over and done with. Despite all the rationalising (the ‘I’ve nothing to prove, I’ve only just upgraded to a clubman licence’ mantra was on constant playback), I still wanted to get out there and do well.
Riding out onto the grid was an unforgettable experience. Sure the crowd may have depleted slightly but there was still the big part of 85,000 sitting around the Donington track. It was just amazing.
On the warm up lap, going down Craner Curves for the first time with such a massive crowd was one of those things I will never, ever forget. For many years I’ve sat and watched from the Old Hairpin but now it was my turn to be out on track providing the entertainment.
I’d waited so long for that moment (like every GP fan does – I reckon) and I don’t mind admitting that I felt really emotional on that first time down the hill. On the grid, bike up on the paddock stand, proud girlfriend stood next to me with my brolly, my brother checking everything, the stuff of dreams. For the first time in my life I felt like a real racer.
Two warm up laps later we were ready for the race, and I was determined to make a good start – unfortunately a little bit too determined. I got off the line pretty well and managed to stuff it up the inside of a few other people into the Redgate first turn. A near highsided on the way out ribbed me of a little bit of that position I’d just made up but I’d still held position and picked up one or two places and the bike felt good.
By the start of the second lap I was feeling confident, the bike and tyres were talking to me - giving me feedback and by now it was clear that the change in gearing we had made earlier had made a huge difference.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The earlier problem I’d had with the brakes surfaced again, only this time into the Melbourne Loop. To be brutally honest I was pretty lucky not to crash or take anyone out.
Because the lever was all the way back to the bars again, I was forced to retire and that was it – race over. To say I was gutted doesn’t even come close.
Walking through the GP paddock back to the caravan I felt a real mix of emotions, from such a high to such a low in nothing more than three quarters of a lap.
It may not have been losing a world championship on the last corner of a race, but I can now say that I have at least a small amount of sympathy for the emotional roller coaster that racers go through and some of the pressures they face during a race weekend.
On refection I had an amazing time. It didn’t matter where I was – either in the paddock, in the bar, by the track of even on a sliding bike with no brakes during wet practice. The guys at KTM really helped me out during one of the best weekends of my life. Ian was a star as always and for two laps I was what I would class as a ‘real racer’.
It was great to be at the GP and I have to say a massive thanks to everyone who helped out, Dek, Mark my brother and Amanda for being my brolly girl and everyone else who supported me.
The big problem now is that they’ve opened my eyes to a new world of racing and now I want another hit, I need that rush all over again.