An exciting weekend was in store. However, more disappointment for our fans as the Scottish government’s Covid security regulations would permit only 1,000 spectators on the banks around the picturesque and remote Knockhill circuit. We should have gone to Wembley! One consequence of the restrictions was the organiser’s decision to run the event over two days, rather than the usual three, and only four classes would be in attendance. At least all the action was televised live and free to air on Quest TV.
More important, we were at Rory’s home circuit, the place where he grew up riding motorbikes. A much better opportunity for him fully to display his talents than his first experience of superbike racing at Oulton Park. No unrealistic expectations or pressure on Rory but the feeling was he would be able to to run comfortably in the top ten. Lee had not ridden our superbike competitively at Knockhill due to last year’s cancellation and he would freely admit that it’s not a circuit he particularly clicks with. His objective would be to continue building up his points tally.
Both Lee and Rory were well prepared for the weekend having had a successful two-day test at the venue a few weeks earlier. The team’s main challenge for the weekend was to get both bikes set up to run the new super soft SCX rear tyre. Having run the slightly harder SC0 compound rear so far this year, as it seems to suit the Kawasaki better, we could see we were losing out by a few fractions of a second a lap by not using the extra grip on offer. It also made sense as Knockhill is not especially hard on tyres, so the risk of losing grip towards the end of the race was reduced. We would find out soon enough if it made a difference.
Nice and dry, thankfully. We would be on the weather Apps all weekend but despite dark clouds circling from time to time, the weather turned out to be pretty near perfect for the whole weekend.
As a result of the two-day format, Saturday was a busy day. Two free practice sessions, qualifying and a race later in the afternoon. Steady start running back-to-back with the SC0 and SCX tyres. Good news was that both riders reported the same sensations from each tyre, and both preferred the ‘X’. So that was it decided for the weekend. In total, 36 laps for Rory in P8 and 25 for Lee in P12. Both just managing to better their times from the test so a positive start to proceedings.
FP3 saw the lap times dropping as the field was getting up to speed and anticipating the top 12 cut off to go straight through to Q2. Lee knocked off 0.4 from his morning lap time, dropping in to the 47 second bracket after a 33-lap run which placed him eighth fastest. Rory was now up to speed too on a circuit he has lapped thousands of times. 30 laps and a similar speed improvement to Lee’s but as it’s so close, his time, just 0.2 faster, elevated to him to P3. Both riders comfortably getting their ZX-10RRs through to Q2 where the fastest 12 would be joined by the riders with the six fastest times from the Q1 knockout.
Just 12 minutes, time for no more than 15 laps of the short, one and a quarter mile circuit. Only one rear tyre allowed and certainly no room for errors.
Lee likes to take a few laps to get up to speed so he had to pull out all the stops and go for it. With 18 very fast riders out on such a short track, getting a clear lap was all that mattered. Both put in good ‘banker’ laps early on but with a few riders running two or three seconds off the pace, promising lap times evaporated as evasive action was required when the field bunched up. Lee and Rory did manage to find space and post faster times towards the end of the short session. The result was a mid-47 and P6 on the grid for Lee. Rory’s best lap was 0.026 slower so he would be starting race one from the middle of row three, P8.
Not a bad outcome, all things considered.
Still dry and the sheep grazing happily halfway up the hill! We have it on good authority from one of the crew who was born locally that the sheep know when the rain is about to arrive, so they come off the hill to find shelter. Now we know then!
The planned 22 lap race distance was reduced to 20 after a delay caused by the starting lights having a moment. That would help Rory in particular as we still had his arm pump concerns in the back of our minds. Off the line it was very crowded through the dips and rises of sector one. Both FS-3 riders lost a place or two in the jostling as they found themselves running close together. As the race settled in Rory was able to use his local knowledge to make progress and by lap four was P6, where he stayed for most of the race, closely following the leading group. Much to his frustration, Lee got caught up in the following group where lap times were very similar but racing lines were all over the place, making it difficult to make progress. A couple of determined braking moves in to the infamous Knockhill hairpin didn’t work and the resulting wide line opened the door for his pursuers to slip through, dropping Lee to as far back as P12 on one lap. He fought back and crossed the line P9, two seconds behind Bridewell and ahead of champion Brookes.
Both Rory and Lee benefitted from a last lap drama for Hickman who missed turn one and had a fairground ride through the gravel traps that protect Duffus Dip - remarkable he stayed on board. So that was Lee’s P9 and Rory home in P5 hard on the heels of Ray who he felt he could have passed if the arm pump hadn’t started. Still, a great result for Rory in only his fourth superbike race.
Race two grid positions are determined by race one lap times. Rory would be going off the front row – P3. Lee suffered from battling in the pack and was pushed back to P12, just 0.2 faster and he would have been P5. All so very close.
A few damp patches from overnight rain but the track was okay for slicks as the riders rolled out for their 10-minute warm up run. Not that it counts for anything, but Rory was P1 until O’Halloran pipped him in the dying seconds. Lee concentrated on having a steady run to make sure everything was working as it should be.
Rory off the front row and Lee with work to do. Strong start from Rory who dropped a position but slotted into what would be a race long battle with Buchan, Iddon, Hickman and Mackenzie. Past Danny on lap six for P3 where he stayed for five laps before the group got into a bit of a tangle and he lost the spot to Mackenzie as Hickman was pushed back. Rory fought back past Mackenzie and then Iddon with a tight but fair move at the hairpin. P2 with 10 laps to go, Rory set off after Buchan, closing the gap to 0.6 before he started to lose feeling in the fingers of his throttle and front brake hand. Easing up, he kept the others at bay and crossed the line just one second behind Danny who is a renowned Knockhill specialist.
Lee had another race long top ten battle but got stuck behind Ray for 13 laps. By the time he got past, Hickman was four seconds up the road, so he had to settle for P8, but more points in the bag. It’s a long season and collecting points in every race is key to a strong showing in the final standings.
Again, 0.2 was the difference between Lee’s P11 grid slot for race three and a front row start. Running with the leaders, when Rory got through and set off after Buchan, he set fastest lap of the race the 21st time round, just before his arm started to seize up. That meant that Rory would start his sixth ever superbike race from pole position. Quite an achievement.
Lee set off for another race long battle in the second, P7 group, and crossed the line just four seconds behind the winner but still what was for him a disappointing P10. Again, so close, as Lee’s fastest lap was only 0.1 off the fastest of the race. That just demonstrates how hard it is to pass and the premium placed on grid position in the front two rows.
Rory launched off of pole position, briefly headed by Mackenzie, but through in P1 at the end of the first lap. That’s exactly where he stayed for the next 24 laps out of 30. At times pulling out a gap of over a second over the usual suspects who were racing tooth and nail behind him, tripping up each other and making small mistakes. Rory on the other hand was attracting the plaudits of the TV and circuit commentary teams as he completed lap after lap in the mid-47s in metronomic fashion, without making the smallest of mistakes. His arm pump was the worry, still a bit tight after his race two exertions, over the line completing lap 20 he shook his head, the sign to pit wall that he was suffering. Four laps later, Buchan who had finally cleared the other pursuers, was able to close on Rory quickly and make a pass. Iddon and Mackenzie where hard on his heels too. Then Glenn Irwin crashed and blocked the track – red flag. Two-thirds distance completed so that would be a result. Rory P2, just 0.2 behind Buchan and 0.3 ahead of Mackenzie.
If the race had ended a lap earlier Rory would have won his sixth ever superbike race, but if it had gone full distance then the effect of the arm pump could have dropped him to P4 or 5. So let’s not be greedy. Even though he was in the second group, Lee brought home another decent points haul so for the team it was a decent race all round.
Inevitably, it was a Rory weekend. As you can imagine, there was huge media interest around Rory and on top of his results he won something very important as he was voted Rider-of-the-Day by the audience.
All credit to the crew too. They may be behind the scenes but Rory and Lee couldn’t do it without the help and support of their crew chiefs. Former BSB race winner Matt Llewellyn on Rory’s bike and ex-world superbike crew chief Ian Prestwood on Lee’s bike. They’re clever people, ably assisted by the mechanics and the tyre preparation specialists at the back of the garage.
We are all on the bikes when Lee and Rory are in the race!
Championship standings. Both are now in the top eight, the important positions for end of season championship contention. Rory’s results have elevated him to fifth place, but it’s still early days for him and Lee – 27 races to go….
Max and James Cook.
Max wasn’t at Knockhill because of the revised format but he was at Donington Park a week earlier as the national junior superstock field provided one of the support races for the World Superbike championship round. Great start to the weekend for Max as he scored his first podium finishing P2 in the first of three races. Unfortunately, a technical issue meant he missed the second race and then had to start from way down the grid in P28 for the third.
Nasty conditions again but Max made his way through the field until the point where the gap was too big and he finished P14. The podium finish has given Max an important boost. A strong weekend at Brands Hatch should see his season getting in to full swing.
James was at Knockhill, still slightly sore from the after-effects of his big crash at Oulton Park in the previous round. That didn’t stop him from racing at the front all weekend scoring P5 and P4 finishes in his two races. As a result of his difficulties at Oulton Park James is now only in eighth place in the points standings despite the real speed he showed in pre-season testing. We’re sure he’ll put that natural speed to good effect and will soon be climbing up the standings.
One of everyone’s favourite circuits next – the Grand Prix layout at Brands Hatch.
We are really looking forward to the event now that the season is getting into full swing. Lee goes well at Brands and is more than keen to get stuck in. By the time you read this, Rory will have had an arm pump operation to relieve the build-up of pressure in the carpal tunnels of his right hand. Hopefully he’ll be healing well and his performance won’t suffer as a sore arm is better than not being able to feel your fingers. Max and James will be there too, so you’ll have plenty of FS-3 interest to cheer on.
In the meantime, thanks as always to all our sponsors and trade supporters. We Couldn’t do it without you.