Settling into the season now. Lee much happier with the new chassis set up of his Cheshire Mouldings Kawasaki ZX-10RR and the new construction Pirelli front tyre. Max really looking forward to his home round. He’s had a baptism of fire, suffering arm-pump first time out at Silverstone, an operation to cure it, and then straight on to the intimidating Oulton Park.
The big talking point for the weekend was the newly resurfaced track. No more bumps and massively grippy. Decent weather forecast too which made a change.
Despite the forecast, both free practice sessions were interrupted by drops of rain, just enough to make slick tyre running a risk. Lee completed 19 laps using two pairs of tyres and Max 15 but on one set. It was immediately clear that tyre wear was going to be an issue in the races. It was also clear that the new surface was working as the lap record was bettered - unofficially - in FP1! By the end of FP2 - Lee was P7, 0.5 of a second from the fastest time with Max 1.6 off the ultimate pace, back in P18 but feeling confident there was a lot more to come from him.
20 minutes FP3 on a warm and sunny Saturday morning and sure enough, Max bettered his lap time by nearly a second to get into the 1.28 bracket and record 11th fastest time, just behind Lee, and within a few tenths of the lap record. The big debate in the Cheshire Mouldings Kawasaki garage was whether to risk the softer SCX rear tyre for the 12 lap Sprint race or go onto the more durable SC0.
Instead of the usual Q1/Q2, the Superpole format was being used for the first of three occasions this season. Here’s how it works. 10 minutes free practice as a warm up followed by a 12 minute Q1 session for the 15 riders who hadn’t made it into the top 12 in Friday practice. The fastest three from Q1 then join the top 12 which is when the fun really starts. 15 individual qualifying runs: out lap - fast lap - in lap. Maximum pressure under the spotlight!
By now we had concluded that we should have tried the harder tyre in FP3 as we were pretty sure we’d have to use it in all three races. That meant the 10-minute pre-Superpole practice was our one chance to give Lee and Max a run on the SC0. Turned out to be the right thing to do.
Lee’s top 12 free practice time saw him straight through to Superpole. Now we had to see if Max could grab one of the three additional places from Q1. Max excelled himself! He made it through to Superpole with the third best time in Q1. Lapping in 1.28.2, just behind Iddon and Kennedy who bettered Max’s time by one thousandth of a second. As he was the last qualifier for Superpole, Max would go first to set a time all by himself. He later said he’d never been so nervous. He did a good job, not as fast as his best time but no embarrassment to set the opening time - 1.28.6, which held his position meaning he would start from P15.
Lee went eighth based on his FP2 time and set a 1.28.1 for third fastest at the time but was eventually P8 after all 15 had gone. We had stuck with the harder tyre for Superpole while others had used the soft SCX for maximum grip. All very exciting for the crowd but stressful for the riders and their teams.
Come the Saturday afternoon sprint race, teams’ tyre selection was a mix of the soft and harder tyres with a number of teams feeling they could make the SCX last for 12 laps. Off the line, Lee lost out to Iddon but on lap two Andrew Irwin and Iddon collided at the Melbourne Loop so Lee was up to P7 and chasing the lead group which had got away. There were already signs that some were struggling with tyres. O’Halloran dropped back and with three laps to go Lee was closing on Glenn Irwin who was also suffering tyre issues and he was on the harder tyre option. Lee passed Irwin into a comfortable P4 at the line.
Max held his P15 position before moving up chasing fellow Swindon boy and friendly rival Charlie Nesbitt. As the race wore on, they both caught and passed Buchan and O’Halloran who got nerfed off track by Hickman. Nesbit got past Hickman, but Max couldn’t quite manage it and finished P12, 0.2 from Hickman’s tail. Back in the garage and Max gained a place as Hickman was penalised two seconds for his clash with O’Halloran. So Max P11 - best result so far.
Sunday, lovely weather again. Into the usual 10-minute warm up using the Superpole tyres while others went out on new tyres meaning the times weren’t representative.
Longer 20 lap races and everyone had earned their lesson - all on the more durable Pirelli SC0. Grid positions based on race one lap times, Lee P9 and Max P18 with work to do. Lee made up a couple of places on the first lap which soon became three as Andrew Irwin crashed out at the Old Hairpin – P6. Passed Kent and swapping places with Vickers. Lap 12, safety car. Big crash at Redgate for race leader Ryde. Two laps behind the safety car brought the field back together and set up a seven-lap sprint to the line. Two laps later and Bridewell retired from the lead with a technical issue. The remaining five leaders really scrapped it out to the line. Vickers took advantage of a mix up ahead and got through to P2 and his first ever podium. Lee couldn’t quite follow through and had to settle for P5.
Further back, Max had another decent race and followed in 0.3 behind Stacey, P12 and more points. Most impressive was Max setting the tenth fastest lap time in the race – a 1.28.5.
Final race of the weekend. Max is heading the fourth row, courtesy of his race two lap time, really keen to make the best of it. Lee P7.
It had to happen! Max’s first crash. Lap one, poor start, down into the Melbourne Loop, under pressure from Hickman and not wanting to lose another place. Just squeezed the front brake a bit too hard and slid off. Hurt pride but not a mark on him. It was the most undamaged crashed bike we had ever seen! Bent foot peg and handlebar - not so much as a scratch on the bodywork. He bought his crew donuts to say sorry.
Meanwhile, Lee had race long battles, mostly with Iddon and O’Halloran. After swapping places a couple of times, Lee finally got the better of O’Halloran going onto the final lap. He hung on around the outside through Hollywood to claim the position as they went over Craner’s. He then closed on Iddon fast but ran out of time, crossing the line 0.1 behind. A few bike lengths after 20 laps. P6 for another decent points haul.
A good weekend for Lee adding 33 points to his tally and taking him to P7, 70 - tied with O’Halloran who claims P6 courtesy of his Donington race win. Max scored nine points over his two race finishes. With 11 points to his name, Max is classified 19th out of 28 entrants.
Bridewell, Irwin, Brookes, Haslam and Ryde covered by 10 points but 40-odd clear of Lee and O’Halloran. The new points system clearly keeping things tight.
Off to Scotland in three weeks’ time. We won’t have Rory Skinner with us this year to make us the centre of attention. Lee scored two podiums last year and Max is the Junior Superstock lap record holder so we’re looking forward to getting stuck in. With Max getting up to speed after his first three rounds on a superbike and Lee right back up to front runner speed, it should be a good one!
Sponsors and Supporters
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 sponsors panel below.
See you at Knockhill.
Nigel. Team Principal.