The glitz and glamour of being a support race at World Superbikes? Yeah, something like that. A rumbling horde of 899s rolled into to Donington Park for a Bank Holiday weekend of Ducati TriOptions Cup action, although the action started long before circuit activity. With organisers keen to clamp down on ECU tampering, there were a few exclusions/disqualifications and warning shots fired towards the rest of the grid, as frontrunners Rob Guiver and Sean Neary were found guilty of being naughty boys with naughty ECUs.
Having the postponed Oulton Park race on the schedule, it was going to be a busy weekend for the 899s. After a torrid start to the season, my P&H/Carl Cox Motorsport team wheeled in some supplementary support with the help of Borja Gutierrez; a little known Spanish genius who attended the Monlau Competition technical school and has worked in the MotoGP paddock. He’s currently working for a BSB team but was allowed to moonlight on this occasion.
We didn’t change a thing on the bike from Oulton and ended free practice in 17th, which wasn’t great but also wasn’t a million miles from top-ten pace. And seeing as we didn’t join the recent tests at Donington, there was still a huge amount to come. Last year, I ended FP in 11th with a 1.40.1. This year I was 17th with a 1.39.0, so this gives you some idea of the class’ progression.
Having someone like Borja – who certainly knows his arse from his elbow, and his geometry from his geology – assist with set-up definitely helped as we headed into qualifying. We talked through a lap, detailing what the bike was/wasn’t doing, and Borja dialled in some settings – and not necessarily the direction I would have taken. It felt proper factory, as did my bike, going 1.5 seconds quicker and qualifying 14th, half a second from 7th.
But the real fun started on Friday evening as we celebrated team manager, Mitch’s birthday with a scantily-clad lady who turned up in the awning. It was supposed to be a private even, though half the paddock peered in to see Mitch picking marshmallows out of ‘Jamie-Lee’s’ bumhole with his teeth. He didn’t eat them.
Back to business, Saturday was a day of two races and two very different grid positions. The lowly performance at Oulton meant I needed the postcode for East Midlands airport from where I was starting the first outing in 25th. As well as a rise in talent, the 899 grid is a far more frenzied affair in the opening laps and this race was no different – it’s like being back at primary school playing football, with every kid chasing the ball, or same patch of Tarmac in this instance. Five abreast on the entrance to Foggy Esses was never going to work and I was shafted into the gravel, re-joining dead last. Clawing back a few places, I finished 21st, which was about as tasty as one of those marshmallows. Robbie Brown took the win from my team-mate Leon Morris, while Dennis Hobbs took a tumble into the kitty litter.
The second race was a better chance to prove my pace, starting closer to the sharp end in 14th. We went softer on the fork spring rate to help the bike steer in the faster sections (most of Donny) but lost too much on the brakes (most of Donny). This, coupled with me riding like a complete ballet dancer, meant I dropped back to 19th and lapped a second off qualy pace, but the race was filled with fun and frolics – a proper fairing bashing job. Robbie Brown again topped the podium from Rob ‘ECU-3PO’ Guiver and Leon Morris.
Racing at this level is all about marginal gains or, in my current situation, massive bloody desperate gains. I bumped into an old mate of mine, Brad Howell, who used to race at a decent level himself and now runs a nutritional firm that feeds the fastest racers in the UK – Physique Design. After clutching at straws with set-up and discussing (minor) arm-pump issues, Brad handed over what can only be described as a big bag of amphet-looking substance and told me to drop it in some water just before Sunday’s race. He warned, “don’t blame me if you shit yourself.” Brilliant. As it bubbled away aggressively, for a brief moment I had flashbacks to science lessons, Bunsen burners and all.
But it worked, whatever it was. I’ve always been a bit dubious of supplements and racing additives, especially when it could lead to an arrest if the feds pulled me over, but it bloody worked. Having to use an old tyre (allocation dictated), I still managed to match my qualifying lap times and wobble round for 19th in another ‘busy’ race. In reality, the results so far are an utter joke but we’re making painfully slow progress.
My issues don’t involve the bike. It’s seeing the guys who I was constantly beating last season running in and around the top-five in 2015, and with no feasible explanation, which consequently screws your head. My P&H/Carl Cox Motorsport 899 Panigale has improved for this year and I haven’t mysteriously forgotten how to ride. We just need to keep chipping away. As always, a massive thanks to the best team in the paddock and all my loyal (and patient) sponsors.