Thursday, 8 March 2012

Track Day Blues

Terror! Blind terror. That is the abiding memory I have from my first track day, undertaken at Kyalami under the guidance of SA Biking Academy.

But before it is thought that it was my own riding that was the cause of such strong emotion, let me qualify the above statement by telling you that it was the three laps riding pillion to Clinton Pienaar on his race Fireblade that imposed the involuntary ‘jelly-leg’ syndrome.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The day came about when we had Clinton as a guest on the zabike.co.za podcast. We spoke of the absolute necessity of rider training to a higher level than required to simply pass the test.

This led to an invitation from the SA Biking Academy to join them for a track day to assess how it could improve my riding. When I mention that I have been riding for 25 years, you might assume that such training was unnecessary, but by the end of the day I was made aware not of how much I knew, but how much I didn’t know.

The first thing was to source a suitable bike. Being a motorcycling journalist this was easily done, but the question was, which one? The temptation to go for a ZX10R or R1 was quickly and easily squashed; I am simply not rider enough to do justice to them. That goes for any kind of superbike, really, especially in their natural habitat on the track.

No, the idea was to go for something that had a bit of power but wouldn’t frighten the Bejeezus out of me. Suzuki were approached and very kindly agreed to lend me a GSR600 (see separate story for riding impressions of the bike). This was a machine that wasn’t radical in any department and would probably be as scared as I was on track!

The day commenced with a classroom session in which the basic principles of riding were explained; the correct lines, counter-steering, keeping the arms relaxed and gripping with the thighs, where to look when entering and travelling through the corner and so on. A video of how it should be done was shown and put the willies up everyone and we left to get out onto the track for the first time feeling less confident than when we entered!

The one great thing to remember is that no-one cares how slow you are; it’s not a race but rather an opportunity to practice good riding techniques. Get those right and the speed will come naturally. What was stressed to us was to ignore the instruments and tape over or remove the mirrors; how fast you are going is irrelevant – your lap time will tell you that – and what is behind you is of no importance whatsoever – it is what is in front of you that matters.

Lest you think you are let loose on a track with budding Valentino Rossis zooming all around you going about a million km/h, the day is carefully divided into groups of differing ability, A-class being the fastest boys and D being for the beginners. A session lasts 20 minutes and typically you will get 8 sessions into a day.  20 minutes might not sound a lot but, believe me, after 5 sessions you are absolutely buggered! Your legs hurt from gripping so hard onto the bike and you will find that you have never concentrated so hard before in your life.
On track with you are the instructors who will either follow you to see where you need help (everywhere!!) and then will pull in front of you to show you the right lines and where you should be looking.

At the end of the session they will come over to you and talk you through any problems you might be having and this is where the real revelation comes. No matter how low you might be feeling about your performance – or lack of it – there is no question that the instructors will be anything other than helpful; not a hint of derision or poking fun. After all, everyone had a first time at some point or another
So, how was it? If I said I was amazing right from the get go, you would be forgiven for calling me a complete and utter arse! The fact is that I was unbelievably slow and, to make matters worse, got slower through the day. It was almost as if the more I knew was out there, the more it scared me silly. My confidence level in the grip available was pathetic. The fact I was on a loan bike that I would have to pay for didn’t help the gung-ho attitude; no chance of throwing it in the back of the garage until I had saved up enough to fix it, although I do question whether I would have been any more carefree if it had been my own pride and joy.

I had no problems with the right lines but my pace was glacial through them! I just couldn’t believe that the bike could do what it obviously was capable of. Rather, I wasn’t capable of doing what the bike could do. I have no problem admitting this because it is a fool who thinks he is better than he is.

How slow I was, was brought home to me when Clinton took me on pillion for three laps. Bear in mind that this was after I had done 4 or 5 sessions so I knew where I was terrible and which bits of the track scared me silly. And Clinton then proceeded to demonstrate why I will never be a racer. His speed into and out of corners was unbelievable and seemed to defy the laws of physics; the angles of lean likewise, and bear in mind that he wasn’t climbing off the bike at all in the corners. It was utterly mind-blowing and terrifying at the same time.

I find it easy to have confidence in people whom I know to be expert at what they are doing on a bike or in a car; after all they are still alive aren’t they? But I had to really convince myself that we weren’t going to go flying up the road in a shower of sparks, leather and skin. It was all I could do to not close my eyes at some points of the circuit; the only thing stopping me doing so was that I would not know when to brace myself and thus put undue strain on the pilot.

But don’t think I came away from the day with nothing other than a bruised ego. My everyday road riding has improved a thousand per cent. Any fool can go fast in a straight line but cornering well is the essence and spice of riding a bike and getting the most enjoyment out of it. Simple things like knowing where to look and counter steering make you so much smoother, safer and, yes, faster and taking that from the day was justification enough for taking part.

 Some guys do track days to get the speed bug out of their system, which is cool. Others do track days to practice techniques that they will carry through to their road riding. The point here is that it doesn’t matter why you do it; it is important to just do it to make you a safer rider.

My thanks go to Clinton Pienaar and SA Biking Academy for a very instructive and essential day. You can reach them on 011 793 4225 or visit the website at www.sabiking.co.za

To watch a video of my pathetic attempt to be a circuit racer, go to

1970 Belgian Grand Prix - Amon's Luck Still as Bad

Chris Amon has to go down as one of the unluckiest Grand Prix drivers. He never won a GP in 96 starts, despite coming close on many occasions, through nothing but sheer bad luck.

For very nearly the whole of the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix, Amon followed in the wheel tracks of Pedro Rodriguez, confident that the BRM V12 would follow its usual pattern of blowing up and leave him with a commanding lead.

‘You know, I had some pretty frustrating days in motor racing, but that race at Spa must rank as one of the worst!’ Amon was to say years later. ‘Pedro hadn’t been particularly quick in practice and Jackie [Stewart], Jochen [Rindt] and I were quite a bit ahead of him. Then comes race day and he blows past us with no bother at all. The BRM V12 had us on acceleration out of the corners and was also way quicker at the top end. After three or four laps it was a straight fight between the two of us and I struggled to stay in the BRM’s slipstream, just knowing that sooner or later it had to blow up. But that day, of course, it didn’t….’

By 1970, Spa was an anachronism on the GP calendar. Fast and dangerous, Jackie Stewart had long campaigned for its removal from the calendar. He was eventually successful but in 1970, there were two drivers who were prepared to forget the dangers and revel in the exhilaration of driving round it as fast as they knew. And thank goodness they did for Formula 1 was never to return to the full Spa circuit.

1970 saw the first appearance of the March car. Amon was drafted in as team leader, but a car had also been supplied to reigning champion Stewart, to be run by Ken Tyrrell. Running the Cosworth V8, it wasn’t a particularly good car but its drivers made it perform way above its natural level.

By the end of the first lap, Amon led from Stewart and Rindt although Rodriguez was up to fourth, having started in sixth; a second-and-a-half off the pole time. By lap five Rodriguez was in the lead and Stewart and Rindt were falling back with engine problems leaving Amon as the only challenger.

‘…It was clear the BRM had a lot more power than my Cosworth…It was a real scratch to keep up. There was a lot of oil coming from the BRM and I was sure it had to blow up. I drove right at the limit, including making myself take the Masta kink flat!’
The BRM of Pedro Rodriguez

The race wore on but the pace never dropped. The two leaders were never more than 3 seconds apart and simply left the rest behind. Amon took his March to a new lap record – an average of over 245km/h (152mph) – but it still wasn’t enough. At the finish, Pedro was just over one second ahead.

The Amon luck had struck again. The BRM was not to feature in a race again in 1970 and at the one circuit which puts the most strain on a car and engine, it had held together to yet again deny Chris of his maiden GP victory. He would never again come so close.

But it wasn’t all despair.

Fabulous Michael Turner painting of the 1970 Belgian
Grand Prix
‘I flew back to England soon after the race and that night a bunch of us went out to a bistro in London. I remember sitting there and thinking how unreal it all was. Had it really been that afternoon I had run Spa at the absolute limit? That was the thing about Spa….if you were satisfied with your driving there, it gave you a high for days. No other track did that.’

Thanks to Jackie Stewart, the old Spa was erased from the calendar, perhaps rightly. But it would return, in modified form, to once again become the drivers’ favourite.