Thruxton is a one-off. Very fast, very bumpy and incredibly hard on tyres through the highspeed curves of the old airfield’s perimeter road. The forecast heatwave was going to place extra strain on tyres and as a result we were confined to using the slightly harder SC0 Pirelli rear slick as the SCX would probably only last five or six laps. 15 Laps for Saturday’s sprint race and 20 laps each for Sunday’s feature races was going to place a premium on tyre management.
An extra challenge for Rory would be coming back to his Cheshire Mouldings ZX-10RR superbike after his Moto2 wildcard ride at the British Grand Prix. He did well on the Moto2 bike but a superbike around Thruxton is a completely different matter, not helped by the fact that this would only be Rory’s third visit to the circuit – and last year we had to contend with cold, wet conditions!
Lee goes well at Thruxton but the level of competition is hotting up as the Showdown cut off is getting nearer and the Yamahas continue to dominate. With Lee P3 and Rory P4 in the championship standings, our main aim was to keep racking up the points and hopefully a few podium credits.
The first practice session was an opportunity to get up to speed and try out a suspension setting which the crew chiefs thought might make things a bit easier on the rear tyre and give the riders a bit more help over the bumps. A short run to get going and then a while in the garage to make the suspension adjustment, then back in after a few laps for a new rear to make sure we had back-to-back data on both new and worn tyres. Lee got 18 laps in and was P5 at the end of the session, less than 0.5 off the fastest time. The changes seemed to help but it was soon clear that the track temperature together with the nature of the surface were going to be major factors. Rory was finding it hard going to get into a rhythm and was having a bit of a struggle getting his head back into superbike mode. A second off Lee’s best time and probably trying a bit too hard to find time gave him some big moments coming out of the chicane, right in front of us on pit wall!
FP2 gave us a better Idea of where we were with overall bike settings. Rory was still still getting comfortable but already had lapped faster than the previous year. Both riders got in 21 laps as we continued to run the tyres long to monitor fall off. Basically, three or four laps of decent grip and after that it was a matter of modulating the throttle – by hand, on traction control, to make sure there was at least some grip left for the critical final race laps. Rory was getting back into the swing of things, within a second of the fastest time over the 2.35-mile, 1 minute 15 seconds lap. Lee 0.4 faster just over 0.5 off the best time again. The Yamahas of O’Halloran, Mackenzie and Ray looked a step ahead of the rest of the field.
The tyres were just about hanging on during our race simulations, but would they last under the heat of battle? There was some speculation that race distance could be shortened for Sunday’s longer races. The 15-lap sprint race would be an important test of what could be achieved without causing safety issues with blistering tyres.
Saturday morning’s 20-minute free practice session is really a warm up for qualifying. Even so, it is a final opportunity to try out engine maps and minor suspension settings.
The top 12 from combined FP1 and 2 are seeded through to the second qualifying session. For the first time for a while Rory just missed out. Despite the improvement in his times, his best lap put him P16, but we weren’t worried as a run in Q1 would give him a bit more track time and, hopefully, set him up for Q2. To go through, he needed to record one of the six fastest Q1 times. We knew that the best grip level only lasts for maybe three full on laps so it would be critical to post a time in the first few minutes of the first of the 12-minute qualifying sessions. As we hoped, Rory was comfortably through with the fourth fastest time and was ready to go straight back out in Q2 as one of the 18 fastest riders.
O’Halloran posted an untouchable 1.13.9, 0.3 clear of Hickman. As well as outright power and tyre management, getting a slipstream through Church and up the hill to the final chicane can give a 0.5 benefit. O’Halloran did his time running alone. Lee clocked a 1.14.6 for P7 with Rory P11 with a very credible 1.14.8, faster than the likes of Haslam and Sykes. Impressive times but everyone knew that qualifying lap times are no indication of race pace which would be in the 1.1.15 bracket for the Yamahas and probably low to mid one minute 16s for the rest. Despite the open, highspeed track layout, passing isn’t easy so track position off the line is important. Lee would be on the outside of the third row and Rory a bit further back in the pack. Both were in reasonable positions to get a run to the tight right/left/right, Campbell/Cobb/Seagrave complex at the start of the lap, always an ‘eyes shut’ sort out.
15 lap sprint race, would the tyres last? Lee got a decent start and made it up to P4 through the complex. A hard pass from Mackenzie at the final chicane put Lee offline, allowing Glenn Irwin to get a run at him an squeeze through on the run to turn one. Running P6 and looking after his rear tyre, Lee consolidated until Haslam passed at half distance. Haslam wasn’t looking after his tyre and fell back dramatically in the closing laps allowing Lee to repass him for P6, closing on Hickman. Rory also had a good run through the complex at the start and made up three places which he managed to hang on to – P8. Rory had a tussle with Haslam for most of the race – the three Kawasakis circulating in close company but clear of the group battling behind. Rory also benefitted from Haslam’s tyre issues and crossed the line P7, one second behind Lee. Good result bearing in mind Rory’s slow start to the weekend. The Yamahas were five seconds up the road but at least we bagged a good haul of championship points. The tyres weren’t quite as bad as people thought they might be so it looked as thought we would be running the full 20-lap distance in Sunday’s feature races.
10-minute warm up on Sunday morning – cool down would have been better as the heat in the garage and on track was really draining. We only had used tyres available so wouldn’t be troubling the timing screen much, just another opportunity to get a feel for worn tyre grip. There really wasn’t much we could do to change the bikes; it was now down to rider skill and patience. Lee’s good at that and Rory isn’t too shabby, but a lot of the others are not so careful when managing tyre life and will always chase positions, so there is no real chance to get into a decent rhythm without risking getting ‘dive-bombed’.
Grid positions based on race one lap times were the same as in qualifying: Lee P7, Rory P11.
Lee lost a couple of places in the first lap fairing banging and by mid-distance was back in P10, in the middle of a desperate mid-field pack. Gradually his tyre strategy paid off as he spent the next 10 laps picking off people whose tyres were giving up. This time Lee got the best of Irwin by a few tenths but was four seconds back of Hickman who did his best to hang on to the Yamahas. P5 was a good result and Rory was right there too, a further few tenths behind Irwin. Rory had another race long battle with Sykes and Haslam; another lap or two and he might have bettered Irwin. P7 at the line and both riders scoring strong points again. Unfortunately, the race confirmed that the podium wasn’t a realistic target as the Yamahas could run 0.5 faster lap after lap in a hard three-way battle, and still have some tyre life at the end.
Using race two lap times, Lee would start from P6, the outside of the second row. Although it is the called the outside slot, it is actually on the inside of the track, nearest the pit wall, as the grid is on a fast right curve – however, being on the outside of the track is often the best place to be! Rory had his best grid position of the weekend, P8, middle of row three. We were expecting a similar race, Yamahas disappear with Hickman chasing, Lee and Rory in a big fight for the lower places. We weren’t disappointed. Half distance and Lee was back in P10 again with Rory running close behind him. Both started to work up the order as the race unfolded aided by Hickman’s BMW expiring. Going on to the final lap, Lee was P6 with Rory close enough to have a look at a pass on the run to the complex. Lee held on and repassed Haslam for P5. However, Haslam had some tyre left this time and made a determined lunge at Lee at the chicane. Lee got the best of the run to the line and had a wheel ahead; the gap was 0.054 – returning the favour as Haslam had pipped Lee at the line a couple of times in earlier rounds. Glenn Irwin was a second up the road, another runner who had looked after his tyres.
Having gone on to the last lap just 0.075 behind Lee, both chasing Haslam, Rory got completely done at the final chicane as desperate last lap moves by Bridewell and Andrew Irwin pushed him in to all the wrong places as he tried to avoid an accident. Rory crossed the line 0.4 behind Lee, but two places further back, P9. Typical Thruxton blanket finish, but still in with the leaders as next man along, Sykes, was nearly five seconds behind.
Over the three races, we did as much as we could in the circumstances. Six strong results, no crashes and a step closer to Showdown qualification for Lee and Rory.
Lee and Rory are still sitting at P3 and P4 in the overall standings. Lee on 219 points and Rory on 199. Glenn Irwin is 7 points behind Rory with Ryde a further 19 back. Mackenzie is making up for his injury-affected slow start and is now on 170. The Showdown cut off is after P8 in the points. Hickman, currently in P9, is on 115 so Lee and Rory have a near 100-point buffer with six races to go.
Cadwell Park, another one-off with a huge crowd straining to see who gets the most ‘air’ over the Mountain. Not one for the faint hearted. We’re looking forward to it as Lee is a local boy and circuit specialist. He was lap record holder for several years and his time was only just bettered at last year’s event. We should have more of a chance to trouble the podium than at Thruxton. Rory will be relearning his superbike again as he’s got another Moto2 Grand Prix wild card this weekend, Red Bull Ring in Austria this time. (Good luck Rory). It is going to be helpful that we will have a bit more practice time than usual so Rory should be on the pace by the time we get to qualifying.
To add to the Show and accommodate circuit logistics – some teams based inside the track in the valley with others at the top on the mountain section – qualifying will be in the good old ‘Superpole’ format. Top 18 as usual but going out one at a time with just one flying lap to set a time. Good for the riders as there’s no traffic in the way but one small mistake can make the difference between pole position and P12 – and as usual, track position is everything at Cadwell.
It’s going to be an exciting weekend, Hope to see you there.
Regards, Nigel Team Principal.