Special Report By Greg Pullen
British Superbikes is allegedly the most competitive national production based race series in the world, attracting an international grid and teams spending up to £4 million ($6 million!) a year to land the crown. Unsurprisingly the grid of 30 plus bikes is rammed with wailing 1000cc fours running to pretty much World Superbike specification but, given Ducati fans’ obsession, just as predictably there’s a UK Ducati dealership in there with a quarter of the competitions’ budget trying to get Panigale’ s finest onto the podium.
Watching the season opener in glorious sunshine with Ducati legend Paul Smart made for a very special day in England’s heartland. This part of the country may not have the cachet of London and the south east, but it’s close to the home of Shakespeare and the one time home of the British motorcycle industry that Smarty raced for before spreading his wings to the Japanese and Ducati.
In Europe the Easter weekend gives us a four day holiday, and British Superbikes season kicks off with practice, qualifying and support races on the Saturday and Sunday. Monday is a race packed day. Warm ups start at 9am to already full grandstands, and racing runs pretty much non-stop to almost 6pm. The two Superbike races are the highlights, but in between everything from 125s to sidecars gets a run out.
As a VIP guest of Ducati UK access to the pits is a given. The calm and focussed Lloyds British Moto Rapido crew are running Jakub ‘Kuba’ Smrz for a second season aboard the increasingly competitive Ducati Panigale, and team are happy to chat despite a disastrous qualifying and practice. Ian, running around the garage is surprisingly upbeat. ‘We replaced all the Superbike electronics and it wouldn’t even start. In the end we replaced the engine to get it running. But the real problem in that the [Panigale chassis] is so stiff; that’s great for a road bike but put it on slicks and there’s no feedback to the rider. The Kawasakis’ swing arm can be adjusted for flex, but with a single sided swing arm that’s not an option.’
But Czech Smrz doesn’t look happy. In fairness the team spotted a split rear tyre on the grid – lack of practice means he’s right at the back of the grid – and have to pull him back for a tyre change and pit lane start. Not great for a racer’s mindset. The only times I see him smile all day is playing with his young daughter, and for another guest’s toddler. Pulling out of race one with arm pump – something he blames on a lack of practice – the team’s physio is immediately on hand with advice. His lack of eye contact with her is telling, as are his requests for changes to the bike. Not a happy Easter bunny.
Watching him in race two running plumb last must be heart breaking for such a hardworking and dedicated crew. But earlier in the day Moto Rapido had found their young star in South African James Eagan.
Paul Smart had been one of the first to congratulate James for an astonishing performance in the intensely competitive National Superstock 1000 category. James was clearly deliriously happy with his result and becoming part of the Ducati story; even as a youngster who’s not raced a Ducati before he knew exactly who Paul was and how he’s part of the Ducati legend.
‘It was special’ James admitted with a big grin. ‘with only this morning’s warm up’ – just four laps – ‘and starting from 33rd it was going to be difficult, so finishing 11th means a win this season has got to be possible. The Panigale is exactly the bridge I needed to break into the top ten. Last year on a Kawasaki I just didn’t seem to be able to get into the top 10. To go from 33rd to 11th means that if I could have started in 11th who knows what’s possible? There’s so much grip and potential to unlock and the bike is exactly what I’d hoped for’
And how special is this bike? Well, it probably would cost you less than the Öhlins’ forks on Smrz’ Superbike. Both bikes need weight moving backwards to prevent seesawing, and Smrz bike has a fuel tank that moves most of the fuel back under the seat – the filler cap is about as far forward as the fuel gets. Such mods are illegal on the Superstock bike, which is actually under the minimum weight in stock trim. This is basically a stock Panigale with an Akrapovič exhaust – from the Ducati Performance catalogue – and wave discs. By the time the road bike’s paraphernalia is removed the team actually have to add weight, mostly in the shape of a 2lbs lump of lead as far back as they can, right under the rider’s seat.
Ian again: ‘It’s a bike that could win the series. It’s a great start to the season, and a top five finish would be great
Team Owner Steve Moore – aka Wilf – gets the last word: ‘The team have done so well this weekend so a massive thanks to everyone. The total number of laps we completed over the whole weekend is what we’d normally expect to do on day one, so actually all things considered it’s not too bad. We had a bit of bad luck with a tyre that Pirelli has confirmed was faulty, and starting from pit lane always sets you back. That’s racing though; the key is we completed the second race. Kuba ran wide on lap one but we said let’s take the risk and push as hard as we can, and then use the rest of the race as a test session. We’ve got loads of data to go on to Brands Hatch, so onwards and upwards!’
For the full weekend photo gallery: http://photos.ducati.net/Ducati-Events/British-Superbike-Donington/48467481_Mjbsws#!i=3977627361&k=Xn9HpXn
For more of Greg Pullen’s stories and book info, visit http://teambenzina.blogspot.co.uk/