Here we go again! Round One. Silverstone.
Our seventh year on pit lane in the Bennetts British Superbike Championship. This time we’re running under the banner of our title sponsor Cheshire Mouldings www.cheshiremouldings.co.uk as we continue to operate Kawasaki’s official entry in the championship.
After a strong 2022 season which saw Lee Jackson and Rory Skinner run in third and fourth places for most of the year, it was a pity that both got injured in the final two rounds. Lee is back with us as a serious championship contender while 2022 Junior Superstock runaway champion Max Cook joins us to replace Rory, his friend and long-time rival. Good luck in Moto2 Rory.
Looks like the competition is going to be as strong as ever this season with a number of rider moves and new machines and teams joining the grid - all of which are bound to sharpen up performances.
Bike development and rider preparation have been our watch words over the winter. Both riders are enrolled on the Loughborough University elite athlete programme, which keeps them focused and honest. Kawasaki have been helpful again, organising access to certain parts for our ZX-10RR Ninjas that were previously only available to world superbike teams.
A big thing this time has been the post-pandemic return of the possibility to go down to Spain in search of good weather for testing. The Brexit related border controls on movement of goods makes things rather complicated and it’s very expensive to do. However, with Max joining us as a rookie and with new parts to test we committed to a full programme in Spain, plus the official UK tests before round one.
Two days at Monteblanco with No Limits gave us six long sessions to blow away the cobwebs. Three days open pitlane at Andalucia organised by Honda and finally a day at the new MSV owned circuit at Navarra. Max certainly benefitted from all the ‘seat time’ and getting used to the extra 100bhp, eye popping brake and massive grip of a superbike. Lee was able to test a new engine spec and upgrade suspension parts. Sadly, the KRT factory swing-arm we were expecting didn’t turn up in time and would have to wait until we got home.
Unfortunately, the four official test days in the UK were a wash out. Two days at Donington to run on the resurfaced track were spoiled by the cold and wet and it was the same again at Silverstone although we had to run in the wet just in case we had the same weather for the races a week later. Lee had a very slow speed slip off on the wet track but escaped unscathed although he did give a shoulder a nasty jolt.
After all that testing time, we hadn’t been able to test the new swing-arm and Max hadn’t been our with the full entry of riders to experience just how fast and competitive it is out on track.
All change! No end of season ‘Showdown’ this year so no podium credits and so on to carry forward to reset the standings for the final three rounds. This season, every one of the 11 rounds counts in the points standings. In the main season the points awarded are closely spaced with 18 for a win but with three rounds to go we revert to the traditional points allocations meaning 25 for a win. Then for the grand finale at Brands Hatch, double points will be awarded – 50 for each of the three races, 150 for a three-race winner. The idea is to prevent anyone running away at the top of the points standings and to keep up the drama to the very last of the season’s 33 races. Bring a calculator!
The 1.6 miles of tarmac carved from the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit to form the National layout with its three straights and six corners isn’t one of our favourites. Good for the fans though as they get to see the bikes go by every 53 seconds!
It was nice to have a forecast for three days of dry and warmish weather, with a bit of sunshine thrown in. It would be the first opportunity to try the fancy swing-arm in Lee’s bike and for Max to venture out on to a track with all the riders in a serious session.
Practice and qualifying
First free practice session and Lee wasn’t happy with the feel of his bike with the new swing-arm fitted. Max was wide eyed and feeling the beginnings of arm-pump as he was hanging on too tightly in the super-highspeed Woodcote and Copse corners. After adjustments and some physio for Max, things improved in FP2. Max 0.5 seconds a lap faster, 0.4 off Lee’s best a time of 53.9. Lee’s lap was the 15th fastest so he’d have to go in the first qualifying run. Only the 12 fastest go straight through to Q2, to be joined by the top six from Q1 in the fight for the final grid positions.
Saturday morning’s 20-minute FP3 session left Lee still concerned about the impact of the new swing-arm on the overall feel of the bike as it was the first really major chassis change for three years. Max was just content to get more laps ahead of his first superbike qualifying session.
Max qualified in P22 overall. For a time, he had been in the Q1 top six but was bettered as the session drew to a close ending up just 0.15 shy of getting through while recording his first lap in the 53 second bracket. Lee was comfortably through and running in Q2 with the fastest 18 recorded a 53.4 for P13 on the grid for race one, later that afternoon.
First race of the season, 22 laps. Small changes to Lee’s bike didn’t quite work as starting from mid-pack he suffered a race long struggle for grip and braking performance which prevented him moving forward in his usual manner. Finishing a disappointed P14, Lee continued to express reservations about how the new swing-arm was working. Things were bleaker for Max as his right arm was numb from arm-pump, the loss of feel severely compromising his ability to brake hard from mid-race distance. Earlier in the race he had made up places, battling with the other rookies, but finally came home P20, but only four seconds back from the first points paying position.
There was some serious over-night thinking about how best to run Lee’s bike on Sunday. The challenge for Max was to be able to finish the two Sunday races safely if his arm played up again. The challenge for Max being that the Sunday races would be over 30 laps, eight longer than on Saturday.
10-minutes ‘warm up’ in chilly air on a cool track surface. Using new tyres to check out the changes, Lee was fastest. Obviously, something had changed for the better! We now knew we could run competitively with the new swing-arm which from now on would be ‘the’ swing-arm. Max had a sensible 11 lap run and reported no issues with his arm-pump.
Lee made a decent enough start from P16 on the grid, the poor position being the result of a disappointing best lap time in race one – the basis on which subsequent race grid positions are based. Making up three places on lap one, Lee had a race long battle with Andrew Irwin and Ryan Vickers, finishing P10 when the race was red flagged with three laps to go after Danny Buchan’s super highspeed crash. Better news was that Lee had recorded seventh fastest lap and after Danny’s withdrawal from the final race would start from the second row in the final race.
Max battled his arm-pump handicap to complete the race. Again, he had a spirited dice with the other rookies as he completed the field in P22, just behind Dean Harrison.
Hopes were up that Lee would run competitively with the lead group. It didn’t quite work out when he slipped two places from the start and another two on lap two. P10 – and that’s exactly where he stayed until Andrew Irwin retired with three laps to run, promoting Lee to P9 at the line. The race was a highspeed stalemate as the lap times are so similar on the simple, flat track layout. Just four seconds behind the leader at the flag, Lee had been on the tail of race one winner Ryde. The only overtaking at the front was down to capitalising on small mistakes, some determined moves and the speed of the new Ducatis, ridden by Bridewell and Glenn Irwin.
Max repeated his race two heroics to bring home his Cheshire Mouldings ZX-10RR Kawasaki. Once again, Dean Harrison was just ahead but this time Stacey and Todd were behind him – P20.
Lee has 15 points under the new scoring system. P9, tied with Andrew Irwin but 33 back from early leader Brookes. Oulton Park will provide an opportunity to start building up his score.
There’s a Rookies Cup points table too. Max has 36 points for his efforts – P4, 19 behind Tim Neave. Once his arm is sorted out, we expect Max will be closing the gap and fighting for top rookie honours.
Two-day test at Oulton Park this week, but what did we learn over the weekend at Silverstone? First the circuit has a habit of throwing up random results which don’t necessarily translate into season long competitiveness. We’d have a better idea after round two at Oulton Park.
Before the event, we knew we’d have to treat it as something of a test as the lack of pre-season testing meant we had to jump straight in and run the new factory swing-arm on Lee’s bike. Despite the initial set up issue, by race three Lee was back with the leaders and we now have a clear direction for fine tuning the chassis and suspension. Oulton Park is one of Lee’s strongest circuits so a good venue to develop his bike. Hope the weather is on our side.
For Max, the big thing was getting through his first superbike event. Way more track time than he’s used to, lots of media duties plus general pressure and expectations from all directions. Max conducted himself professionally all weekend, working closely with Matt Llewellyn his crew chief. Pity we confirmed our suspicion that he might suffer arm-pump, but at least we know and can do something about it. Max consulted a surgeon before leaving the circuit and is waiting to hear if he can be operated on straight after this week’s test. We had to organise the same operation for Rory in his rookie year with us. It’s a relatively simple operation to open up the sheath over the forearm muscles to give more space to reduce pressure as the muscles swell as blood builds up due to the effort required to hang on to, stop and turn a superbike.
Let’s see how the test days go and that we’ll be in a good place when round two kicks off at Oulton Park over the May Bank Holiday weekend.
Finally, a grateful word to the teams at Cheshire Mouldings and Kawasaki UK, and all our trade supporters. We couldn’t do it without you. See all the names on our sponsor panel below.
See you at Oulton.
Nigel. Team Principal.