Round Eleven. Kent Again. Nearly All Done.
Almost before it had started, our Covid affected championship was drawing to a conclusion. Eleven rounds over 15 weekends. That’s hard work for everyone involved, from the newest volunteer marshal to the most experienced race team.
Before heading off to Brands Hatch, there was some paperwork to deal with. We were delighted to announce on Wednesday that both Lee and Rory would be with us again next season. Rory joined us on a two-year contract, so we just had to tidy up some details following his excellent first season on a superbike. It was an easy decision to go again with Lee who has been with us for four years now and is always competitive. Only some bad luck over the season kept him out of a Showdown place.
The updated Kawasaki ZX-10RR has performed well and we are looking forward to a bit more technical help from Kawasaki over the winter. We just need that final few percent of extra performance to put us up with the Ducatis and Yamahas.
We hadn’t forgotten that Lee was still in contention for the Riders’ Cup - awarded to highest points scorer not to make it through to the Showdown. It would be between him and Bradley Ray.
The Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit was looking at its very best and everything was set for a great weekend for the crowd. Four riders in contention to be declared champion – Tarran Mackenzie with a 21-point lead, but with another 75 up for grabs.
We had the decent autumn weather we had been hoping for on the Friday afternoon. Lee and Rory both got in 20 laps and were happy with the initial feel from their bikes – always an encouraging sign. Tyre wear is always an issue, so it was good to see Lee record his best time on his last lap placing him P9, despite others running on a new rear tyre towards the end of the session. Rory was comfortable too, lapping only 0.3 slower than Lee.
Things hotted up in the second session as the two-part qualifying format is determined by FP1 and 2 times – fastest 12 go straight through to Q2. O’Halloran fastest on a 1.25.2, 0.4 off the lap record, Lee fourth fastest on a 25.4, his best ever at Brands and Rory a standout lap in 25.6. Rory came in with a big smile on his face only to look quite shocked when he realised he was only thirteenth fastest – 14 riders covered by half a second! That really is tight.
The short FP3 session on Saturday morning is really a warm up for qualifying, usually running on a scrubbed tyre used at the end of FP2. Time to try a small change or two to the suspension settings or engine maps. But there was a bit of drizzle in the air. A band of rain affecting the very south-east corner of the country decided to pass over the circuit. Yet again we would have a difficult tyre choice to contend with. This time it would be even more complicated as Pirelli had introduced a new super soft rear wet weather tyre – as used in world superbikes and destined to be the standard option in 2022.
Despite Rory’s disappointment at coming thirteenth in free practice, it gave him the advantage of going in Q1 and getting an extra run in the tricky conditions – provided he was one of the six fastest riders who progress to Q2. Running the super soft new rear, Rory was fourth fastest at a time 14 seconds slower than dry pace. Not sure why race control defined the conditions as drizzle/dry. Rory’s tyre looked fine, and it was decided to use it for the Q2 run as the it was fully up to temperature and nicely scrubbed in. Lee would have brand new tyres, heated in the garage. Rory capitalised on his experience of the conditions to qualify an excellent P6. Lee on the other hand had a bit of a nightmare. His times were off the pace and five laps in to the 12-minute session he came in to pitlane concerned there was something wrong. The tyre looked awful but there was no time to do anything so out he went only to qualify a disappointing P15 after showing such good pace in the dry. With the times so tight, starting from the fifth row in race one would be a real handicap.
What went wrong? The left side of Lee’s tyre was like new while the righthand side looked as if it had done a race distance. Could it have been a duff tyre – not so as it turned out. It didn’t make sense as some of the slower runners had been lapping two or three seconds faster. Buchan and Bridewell had come in too and we wondered if they were going to intermediates. Turned out they had the same issue as Lee – wheel spin everywhere and a very odd sensation going into the corner. With the track damp rather than properly wet, early aggressive use had destroyed the tread in a matter of two of three laps. It turned out that the runners who were at the front had opted to run the old spec soft tyre or even the harder version, rather than risk a new version they hadn’t used before. Rory got away with it as he’d started Q1 more gently as the track was wetter. So now we know that the new tyre has to be managed very carefully and probably only used when a track is really wet. The hard version offers less grip but is designed to last for a race distance, even on a drying track.
The track had dried by race time, just a few damp patches offline. Rory made a great start picking up three places and settling into P3. Lee held position off the line and was P14 at the end of the first lap. On lap four, a big crash at the back of the field involving two bikes brought out the safety car which was back in at the start of lap seven, half distance in the shorter Saturday race. Bridewell had come through so Rory had dropped to fourth, battling with Andrew Irwin and keeping O’Halloran at bay when it all went wrong…. Exiting the tight left hander at Stirlings, on the run back to the end of the lap, Rory ran a bit wide and got on to the still wet kerb. The bike ‘kicked’ as it lost grip and although Rory hung on until well out of the corner he ended up on to the grass and down he went. Such a pity, but it was good to see him running at the front.
While all that was going on, Lee was fighting his way through the field. P12 after the safety car and up to P7 on lap seven, just behind Hickman who soon got past Andrew Irwin for P5. Lee got stuck behind Andrew who can be a bit erratic with his lines and defending, making him hard to pass. Lee was hard on Irwin’s tail lap after lap and being held up had allowed Brookes, who he had passed earlier, to close back in on him. Unfortunately, giving himself a bit of room to build up for a big attempt into Paddock Hill Bend had the unintended consequence of letting Brookes back past with two laps to go. The three crossed the line covered by 0.1, Lee P8 – on another day Lee would have been battling Hickman for P5. Still, he set fourth fastest lap time, perfect for the race two grid. Rory got a decent lap in before his crash and would start P8.
Ten-minute warm up session Sunday morning. Overnight rain. Damp, greasy track surface. Half the field didn’t venture out. Rory did four steady laps but Lee, running on Intermediates, did a six-lap run and posted fastest time, still 10 seconds off the pace.
Lee made an average start from the second row and got pushed back to P7, Rory found a gap and made up two places to sit right behind Lee who again was caught behind Andrew Irwin. Lee had taken a couple of looks going into Paddock and going on to lap seven he was just 0.03 behind at the line and made his move, cleanly past Irwin with Rory very close behind, just over 0.1 at the line. Irwin tried the usual Paddock to Druid switchback and attempted to repass Lee into the hairpin. Too tight on the inside kerb and not able to stop, Irwin ran into Lee and they both ran wide. Rory held the racing line thinking ‘thank you very much’ as he had been gifted two positions. Recovering from mid-track, Irwin cut back to the second apex and ran straight into Rory, taking both of them down. Worse still, Lee was recovering from his wide line and couldn’t avoid the crashed bikes. One corner, three collisions, both bikes out. Thankfully, Rory and Lee were fine but very frustrated by what had happened as it all could have been avoided.
As always, the crew did their usual fast and professional job to repair the bikes and have them ready for race three. More frustration though as the crashes early in the race while caught behind Irwin meant that the lap times were slower than true pace so the final grid would be Lee P9 and Rory P11.
32 down, one to go. That’s a lot of racing!
After getting taken out in race two, Lee was only one point ahead of Ray in the Riders’ Cup standings. Ray was starting back in P14, so we just needed to keep him behind and it was good that Rory was there to watch Lee’s back. Average starts and first laps and the boys came around P10 and P11, but Ray P16. Lap seven and Lee was behind Andrew Irwin again - what could possibly go wrong? Nothing as it turned out and Lee was cleanly through, Rory following a lap later. P8 and P9. As the race went on, Ray worked up to P10, behind Rory but with a bit of a gap. With a couple of laps to go it was clear that Ray didn’t have the late race pace to pass Rory, things were looking good. Last lap drama. Buchan still had some tyre left and had made it up to and was making passes in the leading group. Into Paddock for the final time, Iddon’s race long P3 podium spot was in front of him and Danny probably wanted to finish off his season with a good result. Unfortunately, the pass didn’t come off and they both crashed. Sad for them but two places each for Lee and Rory, helping to make up for the race two DNFs. Lee had slowed as his tyre went off and Rory crossed the line just 1.3 behind Lee and more importantly, 1.4 ahead of Ray.
Good result for Rory to take into the winter and after a number of disappointments, Lee got onto the podium to receive his Riders’ Cup trophy. It may be a consolation prize for what might have been, but he will have enjoyed the big crowd cheering for him. The whole team was chuffed too as it’s a true group effort.
Through all the ups and downs, Rory scored 178 points and Lee 248, eighth overall in the full season points standings, just five fewer than his old teammate Danny Buchan who finished seventh.
Good effort team all around and more to come next year.
Max and James Cook.
James’s British Talent Cup campaign was concluded at Donington Park so just Max racing this time.
Max spent the weekend in and around the junior superstock top ten on his Kawasaki Ninja 636. Steadily improving his times right up to setting the fastest lap in race two, a 1.30.0 which is a very good time lap time in anyone’s book. P10 in both free practice sessions, Max got caught out by the conditions in qualifying and ended up all the way back in P25. An inspired comeback ride in the first race saw Max all the way up to P12 but 12 seconds back of the leader. His best lap placed him P10 on the grid for his final race. Corderoy cleared off in the lead, but Max was in the chasing pack of ten riders for the 12-lap race distance. P8 at the line, with that fastest lap, and only 1.3 behind P2.
Ninth overall in the championship does not properly reflect how well Max has adapted to a completely different type of bike. Six DNFs for various reasons out of 16 starts didn’t help but well done in such a competitive field. Hopefully, his performances will have attracted the attention of a team which specialises in the class. Max’s mate Jack Nixon won the championship.
British Superbike Championship.
Congratulations to Tarran Mackenzie who held his nerve to emerge as the champion. Great race winning performances, including two fantastic race long duels with Tommy Bridewell who finished runner up. Commiserations to Jason O’Halloran, third overall, who just couldn’t keep his early season dominance going all the way to the end.
Huge thanks to everyone in race control, the office, the medical crew, all the scrutineers and marshals – everyone who makes it possible and then looks after us. Finally, a fond farewell to Jane Haffenden and Gareth Woods who have organised circuit logistics and pitlane procedures for 22 years. We will all miss you.
After such a crowded summer, we won’t see you again until official testing begins - Snetterton 25-27 March 2022. Five months way but, as always, there is lots to do behind the scenes in the meanwhile.
Have a good winter and stay safe.
Regards. Nigel. Team Principal.