For the last five years, I’ve been desperate to compete in the International North West 200. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it’s never happened… until this year, when I finally made it over to ‘The Triangle’. And I loved every second of it; well nearly every second.
The NW200 is traditionally run just a few weeks before the Isle of Man TT which has, in the past, put me off entering slightly; when you’re competing as a privateer, there’s always the risk of something going wrong and scuppering your TT plans, when you’ve only got a few weeks between events. It might be a crash and a written off bike, or a broken leg, or it might just be a catastrophic engine failure. When it’s just you, your old man and a couple of mates, and you don’t have a massive budget, overcoming ‘challenges’ like that can be almost impossible.
But at the same time, because of the fact that the TT is so soon after the NW200, it means the NW200 is a fantastic shake-down/warm-up, for the TT. So I decided to make it happen.
As a newcomer, you can only start three races in a day, and there’d be three ‘big bike’ races on the Saturday, so I decided to leave the Triumph at home and just take the Kawasaki ZX-10R. I could enter the Kawasaki in the Superbike and Superstock races… so I did.
Practice was to start on the Tuesday but we sailed over on the Sunday before, as there was quite a bit of admin to do on the Monday, including signing on, a newcomers briefing and then a more technical briefing for the rest of the team.
New kids on the block
The first session on track, on the Tuesday, was the dedicated ‘Newcomers’ Laps’. The idea was for us newcomers (of which there were at least 30-odd) to split up into groups of five-or-so and follow an experienced lead rider round for a handful of laps. That would help us learn the racing lines whilst making sure nobody got carried away; the last thing the organisers want is newcomers running before they can walk.
Our lead rider was Ryan Farquhar, who definitely knows his way round the North West 200 course. Unfortunately, Ryan’s bike broke down half way round the first lap so we were left to our own devices. I don’t actually think that was such a bad thing because it meant I was able to ride at a pace that was a bit more natural… but it was far from fast, because there were quite a few nasty looking damp patches here and there.
After the Newcomers’ Laps, there were a couple more practice/qualifying sessions; one for the Superbike class and one for the Superstock class. Between the sessions there was quite a bit of faffing around with tyres and wheels, thanks to irritating weather conditions, but both sessions ended up being mostly dry on Tuesday. For me, all Tuesday was about was learning my way round nice and safely, I couldn’t even tell you what laptimes I was doing, or where I ended up in the standings, because I wasn’t really interested at that point.
Despite everyone telling me I ought to head down to The Anchor Bar (a pub in Port Stewart, a half an hour walk from the paddock) after my first ever North West 200 laps, I didn’t. I had a bit of dinner, a glass of wine and an early night, because I was absolutely goosed. I’d been using every last brain cell to remember where the track went, and every last muscle to make sure I was pointing the ZX-10 in the right direction, at 180mph; I needed sleep!
Wednesday was a ‘day off’ (nothing on track) so we spent it cleaning the bike and prepping it for the two qualifying sessions and the Superstock race on Thursday. When Thursday came, there was more changeable weather; one minute it would be pissing it down, the next it’d be bright sunshine. Again, conditions were mostly dry for the qualifying sessions, so I was able to start upping the pace a little bit, but by the time the Superstock race was due to go out, the heavens had well and truly opened.
I was a little bit apprehensive about riding flat-out at nearly 200mph, in the pissing rain, and I wasn’t the only one. After the warm-up lap, there were a few people that decided to park their bikes up and watch instead. But we all had wet tyres, and we’ve all raced in the wet before, so I thought fuck it, I’d have a go. I’ve learnt from experience that when conditions are like that, all you have to do is roll round and get to the end, and you’ll quite often get a decent result.
Man with a plan
So that was my plan. I didn’t take any risks, concentrated on being smooth and hitting all my marks, and made sure I got to the end of the race. I almost didn’t, as it happens. We’d been told that the race would be five laps, so we fuelled the bike accordingly. It was actually six laps, so on the final lap I started running out of fuel. Luckily, I managed to limp round, but it was very nearly a DNF.
I had no idea where I’d finished the race, but when the lads told me that I’d finished ninth, I thought they must have made a mistake. They hadn’t made one, and I really had finished my first ever North West 200 race in ninth. I was well happy!
Whilst getting a good result (well, good for me) is very nice, it’s not really what I was there for. I was there to learn my way round, and to get myself up to speed for the TT, so I didn’t celebrate the top-ten finish with too much gusto. But I did celebrate it a bit.
After a lie in, and two strong cups of coffee on Friday morning, we gave the bike another much-needed wash. It was a right state. We also did some sums and worked out that with the standard, 17 litre fuel tank, there would be no way that the ZX-10 would make it to the end of the seven-lap Superbike race on Saturday, even if we were to fill the tank back up after the warm-up lap. Luckily, we had the bigger, 24l TT fuel tank with us, so we got cracking swapping them over.
The weathermen and women had told us that it’d be dry all day on Saturday, and they were right. The first of my three races on Saturday was the first Superbike race. I got a fairly average start, and then spend the first half-lap fighting my way past as many people as I could. That was until my gear-shifter snapped. There was still a bit of the shifter left, so I could still ride the bike, but it wasn’t easy (I was having to use the back of my heal to downshift) and my pace suffered dramatically. I soldiered on though, and managed to see the chequered flag.
The second race on Saturday, Superstock race 2, went a bit better, despite being punted onto the escape road by an out of control competitor on lap one. Luckily I didn’t lose too much time, and the places I lost, I was able to claw back over the duration of the six lap race and finish 15th. That was as well as going a little bit quicker and feeling a little bit more comfortable each lap.
The big race
The main event on Saturday was the seven lap Superbike race. Conditions were good, I had 24 litres of fuel to burn through, and I was ready to give it the berries. There were a few non-starters in the Superbike race, thanks to an issue with some tyres, so the grid was squashed up a bit which suited me fine. I got a good start and was at the front of the second wave by the end of lap two, and ninth overall… and then my chain snapped.
Whilst it was a bit of a bastard, I wasn’t about to start crying about it, because before it happened, I was in a really good place on the bike. I felt comfortable enough with the bike and the North West 200 course, that I was ready to start pushing myself that bit harder, and upping the pace a bit. As it happened, my first lap in the Superbike race was the fastest lap I’d done all week (4:38.254), and that was from a standing start.
I might have had a bit of bad luck in the races on Saturday, but realistically, the North West 200 went as well as I could have hoped. I’ve had a couple of half decent results, I’m feeling a lot stronger on the bike now than I did before the event, and my head is almost in 200mph mode. I’d be lying if I said my head was in 200mph mode, because the old ZX-10 isn’t quite capable of 200mph, or certainly wasn’t at the NW200 anyway; the best we saw in the speed trap was 186mph, which is a good 20mph down on the top bikes, but it still seems fairly fast to me!
The fact that the bike is a little bit down on power should be less of an issue at the Isle of Man TT, because of the fact that the TT course is more flowing, and if you can maintain a decent level of corner-speed, you don’t have to rely so heavily on the grunt of your engine. So I’m not going to worry about the speed-trap figures too much.
As I write this, we’ve got five days until we head over to the Isle of Man for the 2022 TT, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be keeping everyone up to date as much as I can on 44teeth.com, but for live coverage of all the qualifying and racing, the TT+ Live Pass is where it’s at.
The IOM TT is going to be fairly special for me this year, because I’m taking a bunch of you with me, and I can’t wait. Thank you to everyone that’s contributed £44 to come and ride on my helmet at the TT, without your help there is absolutely no way we would have been able to make this happen. I hope I can do you all proud.