Spa-Francorchamps is one of those iconic motor racing venues, and I’ve wanted to ride a motorcycle there all my life. And last week, not only did I get the chance to ride there, I got the chance to race there! I couldn’t believe my luck. The phone call came about a week before the event, so I cleared my diary, dragged my old ZX-10R out and headed to Belgium. This is how I got on during my Spa Weekend …
First of all, let me tell you how this all came about. A couple of mates of mine, Platty and Dr. Watson of ADSS 97 Kawasaki, were down to race at the annual Six Hours of Spa Motorcycle Race. Now, ordinarily, the pair of them could have done it together, but Dr. Watson had a whopper of a crash (through no fault of his own, on this occasion) a few weeks before the event and rebroke his (already broken) foot. He also hurt his neck a little bit, too. And whilst he knew he’d be able to ride, he didn’t know for how long. So the decision was made to get a third rider to bolster the team up a little bit. That third rider was me.
Rather than proper endurance rules, where teams have to compete on a single bike, refuelling and changing tyres during pitstops, at Spa, each rider’s allowed to use their own bike. That’s why I took the old ‘Ten. I Say old, it’s a 2018 model, and the one I used at the 2019 Isle of Man TT. In fact other than a slack handful of club races in the same year, that’s all I’ve ever it for. It’s spent all of 2020 and the majority of 2021 gathering dust. So it was nice to drag the old girl out.
The trip down there took a full day. Then we had two days of testing before the main event on the Saturday. I actually only did one day of the test because it was really expensive, and I’ve got no money. But they were decent length sessions on the Friday, so I felt as though I knew my way round by the end of it. It might have been my first time at Spa, but I bet I’ve done 1,000 laps round there on the PlayStation in a Formula 1 car, so I knew where it went left and right.
If I’m being honest, I had a job to remember how to ride the bike. It’s been almost exactly a year since I last rode a 1,000cc race bike (Le Mans 24h last year), and two years since I’d ridden my Kawasaki, so I was a bit rusty at first, but it soon came back to me. It’s like riding a bike, isn’t it?
Practice out the way, it was time for qualifying which came in the shape of a two hour session on Saturday morning. I chucked a new set of Bridgestone V02 slicks in and let rip. There were a lot of riders on track, so it was difficult to get a clear lap, but I managed one where I only had one or two to deal with, and decided that was probably about as fast as I was going to go.
My 2.31.602 lap-time was averaged with Platty and Dr. Watson’s times (as is often the procedure for endurance race qualifying), which put us 13th on the grid.
None of us really wanted to start the race, but we decided that because I’d done the fastest time in qualifying, it’d be best if it was me. Hopefully, I’d be able to make the most of the clear track at the beginning of the race, put some decent times in and get us into a strong position.
These days, I don’t normally get too nervous before a race, but I did at Spa. I think when other people are relying on you to perform, it really ramps the pressure up. Anyway, I got myself all psyched up for the race, only for it to be delayed after some clown crashed on the warmup lap. Nightmare. We had to hang around on the grid for half an hour whilst they scooped him up, and then do another warm up lap. The second warmup lap was less dramatic.
The start procedure is as follows. The bikes are lined up on one side of the track (with a mechanic holding them), the riders the other. Liam of Scot Sus (or LL Cool J, as Team ADSS 97 have nicknamed him) was holding my bike. There is a little bloke stood on the pit-wall with a Belgian flag; when the flag drops, you run across the track, jump on your bike, fire it up and away you go.
Despite having gammy legs from years of crashing bikes, I got a decent start and was feeling strong. For the first lap I was sat on the back wheel of Jon Railton of the British Endurance Racing Team (who, coincidentally, was my teammate last year at Le Mans), and then things started going wrong. When I squeezed the brake lever at the end of the long straight on lap two, it came all the way back to the bar. That’s a big problem when you’re doing 180mph.
Luckily, Spa is predominantly a car racing track, so there are acres of runoff. As you can imagine. I needed every last bit. After eventually getting the bike slowed down and taking the ‘PlayStation line’ across the chicane, I got back on track, half a dozen places further back. But I still had a big problem; I didn’t have any brakes. I needed to come into the pits, but I knew the team wouldn’t be ready for me. Shit. What was I going to do?
Luckily, after wobbling round the next few corners without any brakes, flags started waving and the safety car was deployed. That meant nobody else could over take me, and it also meant I could cruise round for a few more laps at safety car pace, rather than race pace. You can’t do race pace without a front brake.
The safety car deployment was due to a Ducati soiling itself and depositing the innards of its engine all over two of the fastest sections of the track. It took about 10 laps to clear up, by which time my stint was about over, so the boys were ready to send Platty out when I came in.
As soon as I came in, I put the bike on it’s stands, spun the front wheel and instantly spotted the problem. My left front brake disc was as bent as a nine-bob-note. I didn’t have time to see how Platty, and then Dr. Watson, got on during their stint because I spent the whole time faffing about, changing brake discs. Luckily I had some spare standard ones with me so I chucked them on, and hoped for the best.
Before I could say ‘Spa-Francorchamps’ it was time for me to head back out again. The second stint was a lot better, but unfortunately, my braking issues weren’t over. As soon as I started pushing on, the front brakes would overheat and fade. It was really, really annoying. Fortunately I was able to keep them relatively cool and avoid any problems by knocking the pace back a little bit. And in reality, I was probably only loosing a couple of seconds a lap… but I wanted it sorting.
After my stint I gave the brakes a bit of a bleed and checked the discs and pads. Everything seemed fine, but the brakes were just the same in the next stint, annoyingly.
After three stints each, we were getting towards the end of the race, and trying to work out a strategy. We were running tenth and there were quite a few riders all on the same lap as us. Because we knew I wasn’t going to be able to push on my bike, we decided I’d take Dr. Watson’s bike out for my last stint. It was the right call. I could push a lot harder on his bike and so instantly went faster.
After that, I handed the reigns to Platty, and he got us over the line in a fairly respectable ninth place (even if I do say so myself).
We were all pretty chuffed with the result. None of us have been to Spa before, we’ve never done an endurance race together, I hadn’t raced that ZX-10R in two years and we had a ‘support crew’ of one; LL Cool J.
But it was a corker of a weekend, not just because of the race result. It’s reignited by love for my old ZX-10R, even if the brakes don’t work. I’ve ticked another box in my race circuit bucket list, and Spa did not disappoint. But one of the things I’m most excited about, is how good Bridgestone V02 slicks are. It’s the first time I’ve used them properly on a race bike, and I’m impressed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known they’re good, and I had considered using them at the IOM TT. But I’ll admit I was slightly dubious about it, for the simple reason that not many other people have used them there. Now I know how banging they are, I think I’ll be ordering a shipment of them to take to the 2022 TT… if it ever happens.
All that’s left for me to say is a massive thankyou to ADSS 97 Kawasaki for inviting me, and an even bigger thank you to LL Cool J (from me, Platty and Dr. Watson) for being our Suspension Technician, Crew Chief, Head Mechanic and Pit-board Operator. We’d have been absolutely fluffed without his expertise, and his hard work. Top bloke.
If there’s anyone else out there that wants me to come and ride bikes round in circles with them, you know where I am. I’ll be waiting by the phone. And I might even be able to persuade LL Cool J to come along too…
This was my first couple of wobbly-ish laps on the test day…