Sunday, 10 March 2013

Mick Doohan; The Unstoppable Aussie

As a general rule of thumb, any rider or driver who dominates the championship for a number of years is not held in the highest of affection. There is respect for the scope of his achievements but that is about as far as it goes. I'm sure that many people don’t care who wins any race or championship, as long as we see good racing. But the fact of the matter is that, when there is such domination it is rare to see any kind of racing at all.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it. I mean, we all love to hate Michael Schumacher for whatever reason and I can see the love for Sebastian Vettel waning if he wins the championship for the fourth time in a row next year. But what about Agostini who won seven consecutive Championships; what about Rossi with his five consecutive championships? Surely they are two of the most loved riders in the history of the sport (is it coincidence this paragraph is neatly divided into car and bike riders?)

And then there is Mick Doohan. He’s a bit more difficult to pigeonhole. Not always the most popular of people when he was racing – journalists of the time refer constantly to his prickly nature when dealing with the press – he nevertheless won the 500cc championship five times in a row in the 1990’s with a display of absolute crushing domination. Consider the statistics; 141 GP’s contested, 54 wins, 39 additional podiums, five whole seasons where he never finished a race outside the top three (with only seven DNF’s). Pretty strong stuff.

Doohan started racing in the late 1980’s in the Australian Superbike series. When the World Superbikes visited Oran Park in Australia in 1988, Doohan entered the race and won both heats! This certainly brought him to the attention of the outside world and, sure enough, he was signed to Honda to ride their NSR500 in the 500cc Grand Prix Championship the following year.

Bearing in mind that this was the era of 500cc two-stroke machinery which couldn’t have been further from the big four-stroke bikes running in the World Supers and it is easy to see how it could have been a baptism by fire. But Doohan took it all in his stride and scored his first podium 6 races in.

With Daryl Beattie at the French GP,
The next year saw him win his first race; score 4 more podiums and 6 fourth places on his way to third in the championship. He was starting to make his mark but the next year – 1991 - really put him on the map. This was the first of the five years in which he never finished off the podium and had only one DNF. Three more race wins contributed to his finishing second in the championship to Wayne Rainey on the Yamaha, who had just won his second championship in a row.

1992 was a pivotal year in the making of the Doohan legend. He kicked off the year with four wins on the trot, followed by two second places and a fifth win to lead the championship by 57 points. Then, during practice for the Dutch TT he crashed and suffered a dreadfully broken right leg. Initial treatment was botched and amputation was on the cards.

This was thankfully avoided by the use of radical surgery, sewing both his legs together and transplanting muscles from his torso to his calves to help the dying muscles become oxygenated by the living tissue.
Seven weeks after the crash and with two races left of the season, Doohan returned to race at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil. Up to that point in the year he had been virtually unbeatable but here he was far too weak to ride; his leg withered and useless. ‘I’d lost 6 kilos and had been pretty lean to begin with. I was run down, beat up and on some pretty strong pills,’ he said.

But he got on the bike and raced in order to try and save the season and the championship. He eventually finished 12th, out of the points; all that effort had been for nothing. Pictures taken at the time show him in obvious appalling pain; “That was my toughest race ever, but I was happy that I had finished,” he says. “I got back to the pits and Costa [his surgeon] and another doctor were crying. It was all pretty emotional.”

Despite finishing 6th at the last race in South Africa, he lost the championship to Rainey by just four points.
1993 was to be an equally tough season as it was all Mick could do, by his own admission, to keep his ride at Honda as he battled to ride at the top level and regain his fitness. He did, however, gain five podiums and a win, which just goes to show the grit of the man.

One unfortunate side-effect of his accident was the absolute uselessness of his right foot and, hence, his back brake. To counter this he had a thumb lever fitted to the right handlebar, much as you would find on a quad or jetski for the throttle. This activated the rear brake and neatly sidestepped the handicap of his inoperative right foot.

Honda’s loyalty to their man was justified the very next season. In fourteen rounds he scored nine wins, three second places and two thirds and simply destroyed the opposition. And, if his fellow racers thought they might get the measure of him in the coming seasons, they were sadly misguided. For the next four seasons, Doohan was in a class of his own, He won 35 of the 57 Grands Prix, failed to finish in six and was off the podium in only four races!

And this is where the reputation of the man takes a bit of a beating. No-one can blame a rider for winning in the most certain way possible but Doohan’s superiority was such that he rode off into the distance at the start of the race and then, when the gap to second was sufficient, would cruise home to win. Hardly what you would call thrilling. But whose fault was it? Often with up to eight rivals on the same bike, surely it was their fault for not being able to take the fight to Doohan. With so many victories in that period, it wasn't what you might call a vintage era for close racing.

The story of so many
races; build a lead, protect
it to the end
Another factor that cannot be ignored as the presence of Jerry Burgess as chief race engineer. His skill at setting up the suspension and geometry of a race bike perfectly matched Doohan’s skill in the saddle. Also, one has to remember that between 1994 and 1998 Doohan and Burgess resisted the pressure from Honda technicians to try new technology on the bike; they knew what worked and stuck to it - much to the frustration of Honda - and this undoubtedly helped them.

 At the beginning of 1999, Doohan crashed in wet practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, once again breaking his leg badly. He announced his immediate retirement shortly after.

So that’s Doohan the rider. What of Doohan the man? He was always a down to earth Australian who told it like it was and didn't mind who knew it; ‘I guess I could be a little intimidating for journalists at times, but everything just kept snowballing, the demands on your private time increase, and in the end the pressure of trying to give everyone what they wants gets just too much. And although you don’t mean it, you end up ignoring or bypassing some people you should spend more time with. The truth is that the longer you do it the harder it is to be polite to everyone!’

Writing the Top Ten in Motocourse, the annual bible of the racing season, the editor drew attention to Doohan’s position; ‘If he looked around him, he saw only a clear track; if he looked behind he saw a generation gap. Either way, he was alone, and it wasn't comfortable.’ He went on to say that Doohan was ‘more prone to snap than smile.’

The fact of the matter was that Doohan was a reluctant hero who wanted more than anything else for someone to come along and challenge him. Rainey and Schwantz were gone and Doohan was left on a pedestal on his own. ‘At the moment, racing is as boring as sh*t,’ he commented in an interview in 1995. He wasn’t having fun and neither were the spectators. Naturally he got the blame (‘What do you expect me to do? Slow down?’) but wondered about the low standard of other works riders and revealed how his own enjoyment of racing was suffering as a result.

After his retirement, Doohan continued to work for Honda in an advisory role until 2005. Now he spends his time in capital investment, leasing corporate helicopters and jets and property. It feels like he has dealt with the return to normality after the frenzy of being the world’s top racer with ease and this normality has allowed the real Mick Doohan come back into the light and it seems he is smiling once more.

Friday, 1 March 2013

John Britten; The Man who Couldn't Say No

Where most of us just moan about something not being right, John Britten actually did something about it 

Readers of this blog should be no strangers to John Britten and the bike he created, the Britten V1000. Thing is, however, it is a story that you just can’t ever get tired of and it only seems all the more amazing with the re-telling.

From his backyard in Christchurch, John Britten - design genius, engineer, artist, thinker, entrepreneur, inventor, architect, builder, glider pilot and sculptor - combined design and engineering to stand the world of motorcycle racing on its head. His motorcycle has been variously described as state-of-the-art, novel, avant-garde, revolutionary, exotic, innovative, unique and an organic thing of beauty. The fact that it was the work of one man and a few friends is just the icing on the cake.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1950, he immediately displayed a passion for mechanical things. Together with a friend, he built go-karts out of disused packing cases and by the age of 12 he had fitted a petrol motor to one, after stripping and rebuilding it to see how it worked.

The first incarnation of the Britten
By the time he was thirteen, he and his friend had unearthed and restored an Indian Scout. By the age of 26 and with a mechanical engineering qualification under his belt, along with jobs in New Zealand and the UK, he packed it all in, built himself a couple of glass kilns and went into business as a fine artist, designing and hand-making glass lighting.

At the same time he restored an old stable block into a home for him and his wife using material reclaimed from old buildings. Not being able to find light fittings or door handles that satisfied him, he designed and made his own.

His passion for motorcycling never left him and, in 1986, he started to modify his Ducati bevel-drive race bike by creating his own bodywork. But the rest of the bike was hopelessly unreliable. He then set to work and made his own frame into which he slotted a New Zealand made Denco engine. Yet again the engine was not up to the job so there was really only one option open to a man like Britten.

He would build a bike from scratch; not just the frame; not just the bodywork, but the whole thing; engine, chassis, wheels, the lot, buying in components such as brakes and suspension units.  And, typical to his philosophy, it would all be done on a shoestring budget, making it up as he went along.

Being an individual without any constraints whatsoever, he could begin from first principles. Shaun Craill, writing in Pro-Design magazine, said; ‘He didn’t understand he was being unconventional because he hadn’t been taught what conventional design was…’

As Britten stated in a 1993 interview: “I guess I'm simply free of any constraints. I can take a fresh look at things, unlike a designer working for, say, the Jaguar company, who is obliged to continue the Jaguar look.”
Britten and his small band of helpers conceived, designed and built a 60-degree V-twin engine, casting and machining every component themselves. There was no frame as such, the engine acting as a stressed member with a backbone unit across the top to hold the suspension at the front and the seat at the back. The front suspension was an update of the old girder forks and the rear Ohlins suspension unit sat vertically at the front of the engine. Forks, backbone, wheels and bodywork were constructed from carbon fibre in their workshop. The shape of the bodywork was arrived at by using No.8 fencing wire and a glue gun to create a male mould.

‘It’s the world’s most advanced motorcycle, and it’s not from Japan, Germany, Italy or America,’ shouted the cover of American magazine Cycle World. And it was developed into a winner too.

At the 1990 Battle of the Twins at Daytona in the USA, the bike finished third. The next year they went one better and stood on the second step of the podium.

By 1992, Britten realised the bike needed a complete redesign and at that year’s Battle of the Twins race New Zealand rider Andrew Stroud burst to the front at the start and toyed with rival Pascal Picotte on a Ducati for the whole race, clearly having the legs of the Italian. Heartbreakingly, an electrical fault put the bike out on the penultimate lap (Britten later said; ‘serves me right for using a Ducati part’), but the ride had garnered the attention of the motorcycling world.

In 1993, the Britten V1000 won the New Zealand Formula One title. In 1994 it won the British, European and American (BEARS) race at Bathurst in Australia and set four FIM World Speed Records in the 1000cc and under category; the flying mile (302.705 km/h), the standing mile (134.617 km/h), the standing start mile (213.512 km/h), and the standing start kilometre (186.245 km/h), proving itself as the fastest thing on two wheels in its class.

In 1995 the Britten bike, ridden by Andrew Stroud, stormed the international circuit, taking 1st place in the BEARS World Championship (an Italian owned Britten taking 2nd) and devastating the field at the Daytona World Twins, finishing 43 seconds ahead of the two Harley super-bikes and the latest model Bimota and Ducati V-twins. Earlier the Britten team had claimed the New Zealand Superbike Championship and the New Zealand Grand Prix as well as the New Zealand Battle of the Streets.

When the Guggenheim Museum staged an exhibition called The Art of the Motorcycle, the Britten V1000 was one of the exhibits, curator Ultan Guilfoyle saying; “All this engineering wizardry might have ended up looking like a techno-geek's nightmare, but Britten's genius was […] about turning his dream into an organic thing of beauty, as compact and powerful as a coiled spring…”

Patrick Bodden, describing Britten's designs as the “privateer's last stand” in an age of generic factory-born superbikes, wrote in The Interactive Motorcycle:

“It takes someone like John Britten to remind us that individual thought and passion can still challenge and on occasion, beat the very best teams of engineers and the orthodoxy in which they have embedded current motorcycle design. Evolution alone won't sustain such an effort—nothing short of revolution will do! In designing and building the motorcycle that bears his name, John pushed his reference materials to the edges of his work area and began with a blank sheet, an open mind, and a fertile imagination. His stunningly beautiful and effective creation affirmed for the entire motorcycling community the intrinsic value of working to build a better bike and the potential of an individual to make it happen.”

Britten was much more modest about his achievements, describing himself as a ‘former racer who was never much good; a bit like a violinist who's no maestro but makes his own Stradivarius.”

John’s death from cancer at the age of 45 robbed the world of an engineer who could have changed the motorcycle for ever. As it was, he came close.

The Genius himself and his creation

Burt Munro and the World's Fastest Indian

Dogged persistence or bloody-minded obsession

I suppose we all love speed in one way or another. Some of us are content with the speed that our standard machines provide whereas others will bolt on aftermarket parts to increase that maximum, even though they will probably never reach that maximum on road or track.

And then there was Burt Munro. Not only did he buy, in 1920, a very standard Indian Scout of 1919 vintage (top speed around 50mph), but he spent the next 46 years modifying the bike to go faster and faster. And, don’t forget, there was no popping down to his local performance parts shop and buying what he needed; he had to make everything himself. Then, at the age of 69, he took the bike to Bonneville Salt Flats and clocked 190mph. But it is between these bookends that the real story lies.

Munro was born in 1899 near Invercargill at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island to a farming family. From an early age he displayed an obsession with speed, riding the farm’s fastest horse, much to his father’s disapproval. The arrival of cars, motorcycles and trains to New Zealand stoke Burt’s interest further and he longed to escape the farm and see the outside world.

The start of the First World War gave Munro the chance to escape and see the world, but it ended before he had the chance to enlist. At 15, he bought his first motorcycle. At the age of 18, he bought a new Clyno with sidecar. He removed the sidecar and raced the solo machine, setting a few local speed records. He began entering speedway races and turned professional, only to give it all up and return to the family farm when the great depression arrived.

He then got a job as a motorcycle salesman and mechanic and rose to the top of the New Zealand motorcycle racing scene. The Indian was purchased, probably for mere transportation reasons, in 1920 and remained stock for the first six years of ownership. It was a 600cc V-twin with a three-speed, hand-change gearbox and foot clutch.

Due to lack of finances, rather than selling the Indian and buying something more powerful and, therefore, more suitable for record-breaking work, Burt simply had no choice but to set to and modify the Indian himself. At this point he was still working as a salesman and would often work on the bike through the night, heading out for work next morning without having had a wink of sleep.

In 1926, the first major modifications were made. At first, this was mainly removing surplus items to lighten the bike and altering the riding position. But, as the years rolled by, major re-engineering work took place; in the 1940’s and 50’s, for example, Munro designed and manufactured double-overhead-cam cylinder heads and converted the engine to overhead-valve actuation in place of the sidevalve/pushrod original set-up. Over the years, he would make his own barrels, pistons, flywheels, cams and followers and his own lubrication system.

But what is more impressive is that he had no fully-equipped workshop; he did everything on a shoestring budget and used unorthodox methods. When Wayne Alexander of Britten Motorcycles was commissioned to build two replicas for the movie about Burt’s life – The World’s Fastest Indian – he was amazed at the time and effort Munro put into the project; ‘Burt would spend 40 hours hand filing a piece that could have been done on a mill in 30 minutes.’ Munro himself acknowledged the amount of time he spent pursuing his dream; ‘It’s almost impossible for me to give a true picture of the time I’ve spent on my motorcycles,’ he said in 1970. ‘The last 22 years have been full time. For one stretch of ten years I put in 16 hours every day, but on Christmas day took the afternoon off.’

He was the master of improvisation. He scrounged old pieces of cast iron gas pipe that had been buried under the streets for years to make cylinder barrels, reasoning that, after spending so long underground, the iron would be ‘well-seasoned’. He hand carved con-rods from an old tractor axle and carved the tread off tyres to make slicks. One apocryphal story even had him casting pistons in holes dug on the local beach. Not true, however, says his son.

In 1945, he and his wife of 20 years divorced and Burt set himself up in a workshop (built by himself, of course) where he worked on the bikes, lived and slept. Inside the shed was written, on one of the walls, ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’ and underneath was a pile of hundreds of broken engine components. Over a 50-year period, he estimated that he suffered 250 engine blow-ups. His motto summed up his character, however; ‘If it’s broken, fix it and try again.’ After breaking 50 standard con-rods, he spent five months making his own out of an old Ford truck axle. Obsession?

By 1948 he had stopped working to devote his life to his one passion; speed. By 1962, Bonneville Salt Flats were beckoning and Burt shipped the bike to the US where he bought an old station wagon for $90 to act as ‘Team HQ’ and took on the fastest streamliner motorcycles in the world. On a 42-year old motorbike, a 63-year old New Zealander established a new World Record of 178.97mph. Onlookers were astounded.

In a letter to fellow American V-twin enthusiast John Andrews in England, Burt wrote: "I had some of the worst out-of-control rides on record. The worst was in 1962. In an effort to stop wheelspin at 160mph I bolted a 60lb lead brick in front of the rear wheel. By the time I got to the three-mile marker, the top of the shell was swerving five feet and the wheel marks were five inches wide and snaking 30 inches every 200 yards. I wound it all-on for another one and a half miles and when I found out it would go on that way forever I rolled it back and got it stopped. When the gang found me laughing and asked the joke, I said I was happy to still be alive."

There was something indefatigable about Munro; nothing, it seemed, would put him off. "At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb," he later recalled of one high-speed tumble. "Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. I sat up, the wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head - I couldn't see a thing. We were so far off the black line [the marked line which riders at Bonneville are supposed to follow] that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down - a few scratches all round but nothing much else." At the time Munro, then 68, was travelling at close to 200mph.

It was in 1967 that Munro set the speed that made his Indian officially the World’s fastest. To qualify to take part in the annual Bonneville Speed Week, riders had to set a one-way timed run at a pre-determined speed. By this time, the engine displaced 950cc and he managed a 190.07mph (305.89kmh) one way run and a 183.586mph (295.453kmh) average over two runs, which made it the World’s Fastest Indian; a record that stands to this day.

By 1975, aged 76, Munro had lost his competition licence and his speed attempts ceased. The bike was sold and is on display in a hardware shop in Invercargill. By the time he stopped, the engine, which originally produced 18bhp, was producing around 100bhp and Burt reckoned he had added 3.5mph each year to the bike over the 50 years he campaigned it.

Long a sufferer of angina, Burt succumbed to the heart condition in 1978. He once said ‘you live more in five minutes flat-out on a bike like this than most people do in a lifetime.’ On that basis, Burt Munro must have fitted dozens of lifetimes into his own.

Triumph Tiger Explorer; Tigger Gets Serious

Triumph Have the Germans in their Sights

The English, by nature of the weather and a drink called tea, do tend to sit around a lot and talk. This is commonly known as a Good Thing. Look what came out of it; the invention of the jet engine; the Jaguar XK; the Raleigh Chopper bicycle. And the Triumph Triple engine.

While the one from the 1960’s may have given the modern incarnation of Triumph an historical peg on which to hang its designs, it was released prematurely and, as a result, not as good as it could have been, despite making the most delicious noise and doing rather well in production racing and at the Isle Of Man. Then the Honda-four came along, kicked the British motorcycle industry up the backside and showed it the door.
The newly reborn Triumph concern in the 1990’s drew heavily on its historical links and re-introduced the triple and it has rightly become one of the great motorcycle engines, powering everything from full sports bikes to tourers and multi-purpose adventure bikes.

And now Triumph have upped the ante on BMW and released the 1215cc, 3-cylinder, shaft drive Tiger Explorer and first impressions are that they have got their sums exactly right and that BMW should be very afraid.

The engine, whilst aping its forebears, is completely new and is a stonker of a motor. It produces way more power than the rivals (think GS, Super Tenere, etc) and it just has so much character in comparison with those same rivals. With the Arrow pipe fitted, it absolutely howls and you can’t help knocking it down a gear or two and opening the throttle at any opportunity just to hear it sing! It is an inspired piece of design, combining the qualities of both an in-line four and a twin.

Now, these bikes are classed as Adventure, dual-purpose bikes but the reality is that 99% of them will spend 100% of their time going no further off-road than up the kerb in Sandton. To that end they are completely focussed on on-road performance and handling. This bike is no different, although journalists who were on the official launch reported how good it was on sand or gravel roads.

But as a road bike it excels; all the usual benefits of tall adventure styling but dynamics of a sports bike with excellent chassis components making for beautifully fluid handling. I had the chance to take it round Red Star raceway and it just felt so stable and smooth, inspiring confidence. But it can be trickled around town in the gentlest of manners without a hint of protest from engine or transmission; it fulfils both sides of a rider’s personality – hooligan and need-for-transport.

The styling does seem a little schizophrenic, as if lots of different designers all worked on one little bit without knowing what the other was doing and then they made them all fit together somehow. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but actually there is coherence in the madness that means there is something new to notice every time you look at it for any length of time and. It is certainly a striking look and one that seems to emphasize its capabilities.

If it’s electronic gadgets you like, then the Triumph has them all; switchable ABS and Traction Control, Tyre pressure monitor, heated seats and grips, spotlights, frost warning, range to empty, cruise control. OK, so many of these are optional extras but the trend in this market sector seems to point towards owners loading up their bikes with all the bells and whistles.

Overall, it gives the impression of bringing a bit of fun – a bit like a hyperactive kid – to a party thrown by staid and serious rivals, such as the BMW. There may be a bit of sniffy looking down the noses but, secretly, there’s a lot of envy at the devil-may-care attitude. Not to say that the BMW is a bad bike all of a sudden, but now at least here is a dangerous rival to Teutonic efficiency.

Maybe not the Triumph's natural habitat but no worse
around the track for all that
British against the Germans? Now, where have I heard that before…?