Beautiful spot when the sun shines. Surrounded by rolling hills and in the distance, Edinburgh and the bridges over the Firth of Forth.
We missed the pre-event test days as the crew were taking some well-earned time off during the Isle of Man TT break. Even so, we arrived with high hopes. Last year, Lee scored two podium finishes and Max set the Junior Superstock lap record after his dominant win. The previous round at Donington Park had been positive as Lee clicked with his his new chassis set up, centred on the factory swing-arm. Max went well too at his home circuit as his confidence continues to grow on his Cheshire Mouldings Kawasaki ZX-10RR superbike.
Hot, sunny conditions on Friday afternoon for FP1 and Lee was immediately on the pace, running in the top six and feeling good on the bike. Although the Knockhill lap is only 1.26 miles long it’s a real challenge with blind corner entries and high-speed crests. The thought of taking a superbike round certainly got Max’s attention and he also had the extra demands of running with the factory swing-arm set up for the first time. By the end of the 40-minute session and 34 laps on a single set of tyres, Max was around 1.5 off the ultimate pace but starting to get an idea of how to tackle the tricky chicanes where the factory swing-arm helped allowing faster changes of direction. Lee confirmed that the trick is to relax and get into a rhythm that lets the bike flow.
It was even warmer for FP2, track temperature 47 degrees! Two sets of tyres each and an opportunity to benefit from set up ‘tweaks’ to dial into the conditions. After 28 laps Lee was P3 just 0.2 off Ryde’s best time and P4 in the combined FP1/2 standings. Comfortably in the top 12, Lee would be straight through to the second part of qualifying. Max chipped away and gradually improved his times. A couple of laps behind Brookes certainly helped as Max discovered some new lines which gained him valuable tenths of a second. Max also got in 28 laps and on his second set of tyres he improved his FP1 lap time by 0.7 for P16 with a 48.3 lap, only 0.7 off the fastest time and 0.5 behind Lee. Good effort and more to come after sleeping on it.
Saturday morning was a bit cooler with high cloud, ideal conditions for the short, 20-minute, FP3. The track temperature was just over 20 degrees – compared with Friday’s 47 – so we expected more grip. For Lee, a small gearing change and minor suspension adjustments were made in anticipation. Lee went slightly faster than in FP2 – P7 0.2 off Irwin’s best time with a 47.5. Top 15 covered by 0.4. Max went a tenth faster recording a 48.2 for P18. Max was a bit frustrated the times weren’t coming but trying harder rarely works and his crew reassured him that relaxing and getting into a fast rhythm was the key.
Max immediately made an impact in Q1 and when a red flag came out with five minutes of the 12-minute session remaining he was second fastest. The restart was tense as the more experienced riders went faster, but at the flag Max was P5 and through to Q2. Running with the top 18 in Q2, Max was disappointed not to make up places but his P18 was achieved with a time just a quarter of a second slower than Kennedy in P11. He was pleased, however, to have got into the 47 second bracket with a 47.8 best. Lee upped his pace again, but he too was disappointed as his 47.4 was only good enough for P9, 0.3 off Glenn Irwin’s pole time. All 18 were covered by just 0.7 – so close around the short, challenging lap. Clearly overtaking would be an issue with the riders and bikes so evenly matched.
20 lap sprint race. From his row three starting position, Lee lost a couple of places in the early laps and got stuck behind Brookes for seven laps while the leading group broke away. When Lee finally got through to P9 on lap 14, he was running in the P5 group but unable to run at his ultimate pace. Got past Stacey with two laps to go but annoyingly lost two places when Stacey fought back at the hairpin and allowed Brookes to get past too – P10, just one second back from P5. An average first lap from Max who ended up stuck behind Hickman and Kent, unable to nail a pass. Only managed P18 and 48.2 best lap.
Big debrief on both sides of the garage. For Max, the message was simple, ‘don’t be overawed by who you’re following, you’re faster so race them’. Let’s see some overtakes!! More complicated with Lee. Fast all weekend but now frustrated he was finding passing difficult, he was wondering about the factory swing-arm again. So, we put the old Suter item back in to try and settle the matter, once and for all.
10-minute warm-up on Sunday morning in hotter conditions again. Both bikes on scrubbed tyres from Q2. Max was just feeling out a couple of small changes and practicing some overtakes….. Lee was getting the feel for the old swingarm – okay but some changes needed to dial into the 2023 specification tyres which don’t work in quite the same way as they did last year. Lee matched his free practice time and his feedback was some positives and some negatives.
30 lap races on Sunday. The good news was Lee put in a lap time good enough for a second row P6 starting position, perfect to test the difference between the swing-arms in a race. Good start passing Brookes and slotting into P5 but lost two places to Brookes coming back and Iddon who cleared off after the leaders. Bridewell came through leaving Lee stuck behind Brookes again, P8. Through on lap 11 but with a big gap to Bridewell and Iddon. Lonely race with big gaps ahead and behind but P7 became P6 with four laps to go when race leader Irwin slipped off at the hairpin. Good result but in slightly slower track conditions, no faster or slower than on the factory swing-arm. This time Lee was concerned about the feel of the new construction front tyre and it was agreed to make a couple of other changes for the final race to try and exactly replicate the 2022 settings.
Max had an exciting three-quarters of a lap. Starting from P18 Max would be able to try out his new determination to race harder. He looked much more forceful in sector one and made three passes before arriving at the hairpin 10mph faster than previously and lining up his next pass. Unfortunately, trail braking to the apex, the front tyre couldn’t cope and he slid gracefully to the ground. Reminiscent of his Donington hairpin slip off, again minimal damage. However, Max and the crew were actually quite pleased because he’d had a real go and built up his confidence to get stuck in. He’d have another chance to get his elbows out in race three.
Courtesy of not setting a lap time in race two, Max would have to start dead last from P22. Lee didn’t get a decent lap time in race two and would be back on row four – P10.
Max had a full on 30 laps. This time he made up four places and didn’t crash on lap one! He came through P18 hard on the heels of Hickman. O’Halloran crashed out of the lead and Max passed Hickman – P16. Off after the other TT hero, Max passed Harrison on lap 7 and with Buchan retiring he was running P14 right behind Kennedy and Mossey. Stacey retires – P13. Racing hard in a tight pack, the more experienced riders put hard passes on Max to return the compliment. Hickman and Harrison moved back in front and Max crossed the line behind Kennedy – just 2.5 behind Harrison in P10. Proper race and a big confidence builder.
Lee held position over the opening laps and gradually made progress to P7 by half distance. Haslam was over three seconds ahead. Further up, Iddon ran wide as Lee chipped away at the gap to Haslam which was closing lap by lap. With four to go Lee was right there and made his move with two to go – P5, and held on to cross the line two seconds behind Ryde. Good result. Irwin and Bridewell had cleared off on their PBM Ducatis, three seconds clear of the field.
Good points haul for Lee over the weekend. Still P7 overall on 97, just one point behind O’Halloran and 12 ahead of Vickers. Max collected a couple more points for his race three efforts and now has 13 on the board. More important, Max now leads the standings in the Rookies Cup!
Lots to think about before Snetterton with its flat sweeping turns and high-speed nature. The jury is still out on which swing-arm works best. The older Suter model is softer and gives an easier ride, the factory item has higher potential but gives less feedback close to the limit which hasn’t been reached yet. Max is just looking forward to getting into his next race.
See you at Snetterton.
Nigel. Team Principal.