Back to Donington Park, the spiritual home of superbike racing. This time we would be on the full Grand Prix layout, incorporating the Melbourne loop section. The lap provides a real contrast for the riders as it starts with the sweeping up and down hill characteristic of the national circuit layout before leading in to the four heavy braking points on what some rather harshly call the ‘car park’ loop section. Anyway, most of the riders have grown up racing at Donington so it always provides close racing.
Our local round and another opportunity for Rory to show his paces at a circuit he knows while Lee was determined to make up for the disappointment of narrowly missing out on a couple of podium finishes last time out at Oulton Park.
Sunny and dry but rather chilly on Friday afternoon. Everyone had an eye on the weather. As well as indications for rain over the weekend, the key concern was the low temperature which would have a direct bearing on which of the rear slick tyres to use, the new supersoft Pirelli Diablo SCX or the more familiar and durable SC0 compound. The crossover point is a track temperature of 20 degrees in still air but higher if there’s a cold wind playing on the tyres.
Track temperature was around 14 degrees, so Lee tried both compounds in FP1 to make a judgement and ended up using the ‘zero’ all weekend, a tyre he likes the feel of in any case. It didn’t help that rain on Friday morning had left the track patchy as the first session of the afternoon began. By the end of the 40 minutes, the track was pretty much dry and Lee, running an ‘X’ for a few laps at the end was second fastest with Rory P14 having used just the one rear tyre for his 17 laps. Properly dry for FP2. Lee P6 and Rory P9, an encouraging 0.4 from the fastest time set by Mackenzie. Both riders through to Q2.
Saturday morning’s FP3 and it’s all change for the day’s timetable. Heavy rain forecast for the afternoon at the time originally set for race one, so everything was brought forward in the hope of getting the race done while the track was still dry. Going out for the 20-minute FP3 session on a very cold track, Lee said not to worry if he wasn’t high up the timing screen as he wasn’t going to push. Really? On his final lap of ten to the flag, his name popped up at the top of the timesheet! Rory was much more circumspect, just getting a feel for the conditions.
Still dry mid-morning as the FP1 runners took to the track but 15 minutes later the rain arrived, just ahead of Q2. A damp, cold track and getting wetter. Track temperature just 10 degrees. Soft compound wet weather tyres fitted. Lap times 15 seconds slower than in the dry. Not fun under the pressure of a 12-minute session which can have a big bearing on how things work out over the three races. Lee and Rory both kept things under control for P5 and P9 grid slots. Good efforts.
By the revised race one time of 12.30 the weather had closed in. Fully wet and still raining and with a very low track temperature, the 16-lap race got underway.
But there had already been drama. Waiting on the grid for the riders to come around, race director Stuart Higgs came over to report that Rory had crashed on his sighting lap. 15 minutes until the pit lane closed. Caught out by the conditions as he came through Starkey’s Bridge, Rory and the marshals managed to pick up his bike and restart it. No leaks so he was allowed to ride back to the garage. Not too bad – a handlebar and a footrest to replace, plus a lot of grass and mud to clean off. Our excellent crew got him back out with 15 seconds to spare, meaning Rory could get around for the start but would have to line up at the back as he hadn’t formed up on the grid.
What a race! The rain got harder, especially with about five laps to go, by which time nearly half the field had crashed. Donington Park is notorious as a low grip circuit, especially in the wet. Over-banding to cover over cracks in the surface and new areas of tarmac in some places were even slipperier than the old surface. Afterwards there were a lot of complaints from the riders leading the organisers to organise a questionnaire for all the riders to complete with a view to identifying where remedial work was essential.
Despite a knock to his confidence from the out-lap crash and having to start dead last, Rory got past seven riders in the first three laps. He survived what he regarded as the worst race conditions he had ever experienced. P10 at the flag and closing on Ray and Vickers, but almost a minute and a half behind the leaders. The leaders included Lee. Rea, a renowned wet weather specialist led from start to finish. By lap five Lee was up to P2, four or five seconds back from Rea, as several front runners had crashed out while he’d ridden to the conditions. Surely his first podium of the season was finally on the cards? As the race went on and the rain got heavier, Stacey passed Lee and then crashed leaving Iddon and Ryde closing in. On lap 11 – five to go – he was relegated to P3 and then P4 a lap later. Lee hung on and exited the final turn alongside Iddon whose bike twitched on the kerb causing Lee to cross the line on the grass – P4 again, by just 0.1. At least he survived the trip on the grass and further enhanced his reputation as a top wet weather racer. Next man along was O’Halloran – 44.7 seconds behind. Incredible!
Unpleasant conditions again for the 10-minute Sunday morning warm up session and it certainly wasn’t warm… Damp but not really wet most of the way around so intermediate tyres went on… Quite a few sat it out, but Lee needed to check his electronic gear shifter which had played up a few times in Saturday’s extreme conditions. Rory did a few laps too but there really wasn’t anything to be gained.
By race time the track was fully dry. 20 lap to go. Lee P7 and Rory P12 on the grid, based on the wet race lap times. Sadly, Rory’s race only lasted a lap as his engine expired exiting the Melbourne Loop. No exact answer yet as to why it failed but it’s likely to trace back to the sighting lap fall the day before. The bike had been on its side so the oil circulation may have been compromised when the engine was restarted. The very wet race and the iffy warm up wouldn’t have fully loaded the engine but going hard in the dry would have found any weakness. Whatever, new engine fitted for race three – top crew work again – but Rory put back two rows from his original grid position as he hadn’t posted a lap time – P18.
Lee didn’t have the best of the opening laps as there was a mix of ‘X’ and ‘0’ rear tyres in use as the track temperature was close to 20 degrees. We knew Lee’s tyre would last but might hold him back initially. That’s exactly what happened as he dropped back to P11 on lap six before one of his hallmark recovery rides. At the line he finished P5, just 3.6 seconds behind Mackenzie who had made a last-minute change to run an SCX in the race, just giving him the edge.
Second row start for Lee, P6, for the final race with Rory all the way back in that P18. However, the weather radar was showing a rash of heavy showers across the country and a very dark cloud was skirting the circuit. As the riders went to the grid, spots of rain started to fall. Race start delayed by 15 minutes to allow the mechanics to soften the front and rear suspension and fit wet weather tyres. There was a lot of nervousness after all the crashes in similar conditions in race one. Two warm up laps to get a feel for the track conditions but as the riders formed up on the grid, the heavens opened. Flooded track, start delayed, again.
Miraculously, the track was fit to race on three-quarters of an hour later, after the puddles were dealt with by the road sweeper and the streams across the track drained away. The race was planned to start at 4.15, it eventually got underway almost an hour later at 5.08. Race distance reduced to 15 laps. No more rain, but very wet.
Not so many crashes this time – once bitten, twice shy, perhaps. Rory regained his confidence for wet weather riding as he progressed to P12. A good dice with Glenn Irwin who’d started from pitlane and closing Storm Stacey in the closing laps kept his attention. Meanwhile, Lee was at it again! A leading group of four quickly became three as Mackenzie’s Yamaha failed. Rea, Iddon and Lee – no Ryde in the mix this time. Nailed on podium – all you have to do is race to the end, maybe even pick up a position if the others hit problems. Sounded easy – everything but. Not an exciting race, a nail biting one. Rea was demonstrating his wet weather prowess again, another flag-to-flag victory. Iddon and Lee closed in with the three covered by just 0.5 on lap five, however the gaps slowly opened. When it was clear the positions were set, both Iddon and Lee eased their pace, deciding that getting to the finish was the key. The three were covered by eight seconds at the flag- once again, well clear of the field. Bridewell P4, 32 seconds back. Another incredibly skilful display by the three podium finishers. YES! Lee finally claimed a podium finish and in such challenging circumstances. The whole team, people up and down the pitlane and on the spectator banks were delighted for him.
Lee has now got his nose ahead of Ray in the championship standings for P9. There’s an acknowledgement for the next man up after the eight Showdown contenders – the BSB Riders Cup. Rory is now P13 in the standings, just behind Rea and Vickers.
Max and James Cook
We have got another wet weather specialist in Max. P2 in his wet free practice, backed up by P8 in the dry. Max converted his speed to a front row race start from P3. A thrilling race-long dice involving five riders for the P2-6 positions with Max eventually ending up P5, just 0.7 back from P2. Still getting familiar with a heavy superstock bike, Max is now firmly in the top 10 in the championship standings. Remarkably, the youngsters on their converted 600cc sports bikes were lapping within five seconds of superbike times.
James had a quieter weekend. Not so confident in the very wet conditions on his little Honda Moto3 bike, James showed his speed with a P4 in dry practice before slipping back to P19 in qualifying. He raced hard to make up 12 places in his first race for P7 and setting the eighth fastest lap to secure a much higher grid slot for his second race. Sadly, his weekend ended with a technical retirement. James holds on to his sixth place in the championship.
Please can we have a warm, dry weekend for the final round of this year’s championship? The Brands Hatch grand prix circuit is a fantastic track in a wonderful setting. We’ve had a hard, compressed season and everyone is looking forward to an exciting final weekend. I think we deserve three dry days!
A chance for Rory to show what he can do on his second superbike visit to Brands. He certainly gave a good account of himself when were there in the summer. Lee will be aiming to keep his run of strong results going, and another podium or two would be nice as well as securing him the Riders Cup.
Hope to see you there.
Regards. Nigel. Team Principal.