After our epic (for us) weekend at Oulton Park – four podium finishes, including Lee’s first superbike win, you would have thought that was enough to be going on with. Not so! Away from the track, our big news is that we’ve been joined by Cheshire Mouldings as our team’s title sponsor.
Fresh engines in both bikes and Lee and Rory itching to get going at Donington Park. Running on the shorter National layout with a lap time of 65 seconds meant it was going to be very tight again between the front runners.
With the threat of rain later Friday afternoon, we attacked FP1 a bit harder than usual. With seeding to the second qualifying session based on the times achieved in the two Friday practice sessions, getting in a good time early was the plan, rather than using one set of tyres to get up to speed. There were a few spots of rain, but Lee was immediately fast, P2 less than a tenth slower than Ryde. Rory was 0.3 back in P4. It did rain a few laps into FP2, drying for the final few minutes. Some risked one final new tyre run but we took it steady on worn tyres and focussed on practice starts after the flag.
Saturday morning was dry but chilly for the short, 20 minute, FP3 session. With the Q1 and Q2 runs already determined, it’s a chance to focus on the races. Lee P2 – pipped by O’Halloran on new tyres run at the end – and Rory P6. All very positive and well set for Qualifying.
A warm afternoon with the track temperature more suited to the super soft Pirelli SCX rear slick tyres meant we could expect the times to be close and fast. The six fastest from Q1 joined Lee, Rory and the other ten riders whose practice times took them straight through to the 12-minute Q2 session. Lee shaved 0.1 from his best practice time with Rory improving by an impressive 0.5 as he followed Lee closely in the early laps. At the flag Rory’s fast lap was 0.004 faster than Lee’s and they would line up P4 and P5 on the grid for race one. Three Yamahas in front of them, well suited to the flowing nature of the track layout. The shorter Saturday race is over 20 laps, and we would find out who could keep the speeds up to the end as Lee and Rory are both good at managing tyre wear.
Perfect conditions. Storming start by Rory from the second row. As the three Yamahas got to the apex of turn one, Redgate, Rory swept around the outside and into the lead! Meanwhile, Lee slotted in behind the first four to watch how things developed.
O’Halloran repassed Rory going on to lap two and Ray was through a lap later. Rory seemed a bit slow off the corners – after the race we discovered he’d had no rear brake since lap two as sensor had failed. He did a fine job adapting to using less power out of the corners as the rear brake is essential for wheelie control. Lee and Ryde were past Rory by lap six. Rory fought on, losing a place to Irwin at half distance and a final place to Iddon with a handful of laps to go. P7 at the line was good effort in the circumstances and he certainly had the raw pace to run with the leaders.
Lee was in a tight battle with the three Yamahas. He passed O’Halloran for P3 on lap nine and on lap 10 the two of them battled side-by-side all the way down the hill through the Carner Curves. In the Old Hairpin, Lee was spooked by the shadow of O’Halloran’s bike and decided to run wide, just in case. Irwin got past both of them but within a lap they were both back past. However, Lee had lost a vital second and spent the rest of the race edging back up to the three leaders – it really is that close. Ryde and O’Halloran crossed the line together, Ryde just edging it, with Lee 1.3 behind Ray to finish P4. Lee had been slowed a touch by an overheating front tyre which gave him an uncomfortable feel on the limit – something to try to dial out for Sunday’s races.
10 minutes to settle in for the day. Rory was soon top of the time sheets and flying around. With just under three minutes to go, pictures on the TV of Rory walking through the Coppice Corner gravel trap – then a replay of the bike spinning towards the barriers. It was a big one…. Rory had just set the ‘purple’ fastest time in the previous sector so was pushing hard – a little bit too hard on this occasion. He told us the bike was perfect and he was just enjoying going fast!! Major rebuild job for his mechanics – including a new frame – but at least there was a reasonable amount of time before the pit lane opened for the first race of the day, three hours later.
Meanwhile, in his quiet way, Lee steadily built up and his final two laps were the fastest of the short session – 0.2 faster than Rory’s best time which was still good enough for P2. We had topped the timesheet with both bikes but had a hefty repair job on our hands.
Chris and Tom had done a great job building a new bike for Rory, but it’s never ideal to go to the grid on a rebuilt bike that you haven’t ridden in. It wasn’t just the bike to think about as Rory picked up a nasty knock on his elbow in the morning crash – throttle arm – which had needed some attention.
Based on the race one lap times, Lee lined up in the middle of the front row alongside O’Halloran on pole. Having struggled with his brake issues, Rory was a bit further back, heading off row three from P7. 26 laps to go. Sensible start from Lee again, slotting in behind the top four which included Glenn Irwin this time as Rory was back in the pack. Redgate lap two and Rory attempted a pass around the outside which wasn’t really on and certainly not when his target Hickman ran wide, causing them both to lose a handful of places. Rory fought his way back to a P4 battle with Haslam who he managed to pass on lap 20. Good recovery but the effect of his elbow injury and recurrence of arm-pump symptoms halted Rory’s progress and he slipped back through the group he’d been racing with, eventually crossing the line a bit disappointed in P8.
Lee’s race was more straight forward. Ryde slipped off out of P2 on lap six and a lap later Lee passed Irwin for P3. Ray, in the lead, had tried to make a break but a couple of small mistakes and O’Halloran’s closing pace, closely followed by Lee, brought them all together on lap 12. They were covered by just 0.3 across the line and pulling away from the rest of the field in their high-speed display. Five laps later and with a gap of seven seconds over Haslam, Lee realised he didn’t quite have the pace to fight to the end and wisely decided to consolidate his third place. Six seconds behind winner O’Halloran and six ahead of Hickman who made it through to P4. Good enough for Lee to be in second place in the points standings.
Heavy clouds rolling in but whatever it was, we missed it. Lee P4 on the grid and Rory P8 for our final race of the day, another demanding 26 laps.
Rory wasn’t quite his usual relaxed self on the grid. Disappointed he hadn’t got the results he’d hoped for after the technical issue in race one and that his arm – sore from the warm up crash and getting a bit pumped up – had cost him four places in the dying laps of race two. Concerned his arm meant he wouldn’t be able to fight for a race distance, we just reassured him there was no pressure from the team. In the event, Rory made a great start and fought like a tiger all the way to the finishing line!
Lee was strong off the line too and at the end of the opening lap – Lee P3, Rory P4. Rory then passed Ray into Redgate and slipped past Lee into the Roberts Chicane at the end of lap two – P2. We wondered if he was trying to make a point before his arm affected him. Lee was keeping a watching brief and looking after his tyres.
Massive crash for Haslam on lap five brought out the safety car for three laps. The top five held position at the restart but O’Halloran was making up for a slower start and battled past Rory a couple of laps later. Lee was still sitting on the back of the group in P5 when Ray and O’Halloran started to make a break. Lee passed Rory and closed on Ryde, passing him on lap 21 for the final podium spot and quickly opening up a gap, but a couple of seconds behind the front two. Two seconds doesn’t sound much but the speeds are so high and the lap times are so close that only the man in front making a mistake will close a gap like that in five laps.
Running P5, Rory had dropped nearly a second behind Ryde but was still at it. So much for his doubts on the line! So ‘on it’ that he closed the gap and started the final lap right on the back of Ryde. He didn’t quite manage a pass into the final chicane but got a perfect drive for the short drag to the line – side by side – we weren’t sure of the outcome until the screen flashed up that Rory had made it past – by 0.034 of a second. That is a tyres width. Good job.
With no dramas, Lee had continued to pull away and crossed the line for the second podium finish of the day on his Cheshire Mouldings Kawasaki. The way the boys rode marked the end of another very strong day for the team. Rory had his smile back and Lee was already plotting how we can continue to take the fight to the Yamahas. We have got a two-day test at Knockhill next week and a few things to try.
Ray still heads the standings. Lee is now third on 125 points, just behind O’Halloran. Rory has slipped back to P5, one behind Ryde and nine ahead of Glenn Irwin. We really are well in the fight but there is still a long way to go.
The Knockhill test next week precedes the BSB round there on 17 – 19 June. We’ve got a bit of a gap to rest up while the TT is centre stage. It’s Rory’s home circuit and scene of his first BSB podiums last year. We are quietly confident but certainly don’t want to get ahead of ourselves….
Should be an exciting weekend. Hope to see you there.
Regards, Nigel Team Principal.