Le Mans - The opening round of the IBHR2018 (Disabled World Championship)
What an experience! Racing at the historic Bugatti Circuit of Le Mans during the MotoGP weekend, truly what childhood dreams are made of.
Last Wednesday, myself/Darren/Hayley loaded up the kit and headed over to Le Mans. I was to compete in the opening round of the International Bridgestone Handy Race (which is the world championships for disabled motorcycle racers). The event was programmed as a support race to the Le Mans MotoGP, with Free Practice and Qualifying on Friday, with the actual race on Saturday. The journey was long and tedious, but finally we made it to the IBHR paddock, out by the karting centre rather than inside the circuit. An area had been saved by the Finnish team for us, so we were one happy Fin/GB family.
Thursday was for briefings, official photographs, bike scrutineering and general exploring. The bike passed with no problems and we were all set for getting out on the circuit for real. Having been to the circuit last year, I knew the layout of the track, but with only limited practice (15minutes only) I was going to have to get out there straight away to maximise learning opportunities.
Practice on Friday was dry and hot. A lot of riders in the three MotoGP classes had crashed due to the temperature making the track a little slippery. With new tyres on, I was going to take it steady and build. The bike developed a bit of a fault after just a few laps, in that it would not rev over 14000 rpm without cutting out. The redline for the bike is 15400 rpm, and the maximum power of the bike only happens in the final 1000rpm before the redline. Looking at the dyno trace, I was only getting 105bhp-110bhp from the bike due to the lack of top end. This meant that I was the third slowest through the speed trap at 211kmh (I had managed 216kmh the previous year). Qualifying was ten minutes after Practice, so it meant me having to try and ride around the problem. With the tyres scrubbed in I tried to push as hard as possible in the corners and under brakes, knowing I was slow on the straights. I managed 14th overall and 5th 600cc. Despite the slow top speed I was 0.5seconds faster than my previous best lap last year. The riders above me were between 10 and 40kmh faster than me in a straight line, so I knew I had my work cut out for the race.
The race began with a single lap behind the pace car, as with 12 paraplegic racers, it was way too many to attempt a static start. I managed to get the power on but quickly fell behind the leaders on the blast to the first corner. Hoping that my tyres were warm enough I left the braking to the very last minute and scooted around the outside of many that were being cautious. This got me back up a number of places and into the main leading group. The following turns meant we stretched out a bit and everyone got through the opening section without issue. The faster 1000cc and 600cc bikes pulled ahead on the back straight and I then became involved in a race long battle with Enrico and Kevin. The riders were on far more powerful bikes - a Yamaha R1 and Ducati 1098 respectively, so on every straight they pulled ahead. I used the agility of my lighter bike to brake as late as possible and carry higher corner speed. For the first half of the race I simply tried to hang on and not let them pull too far ahead. The quick shifter stopped working on the second lap, so that was another thing I had to ride around, and I hoped that nothing else would break. Then, as the second half began I was able to close the gap and begin to work out a strategy to get past and then stay ahead. No matter where I overtook, the power of the larger bikes meant they always got back in front on the three longest straight sections. My only hope was to wait until the final three turns. At the beginning of the final lap Enrico got ahead of a back marker and gapped both Kevin and myself, so I was left with just Kevin to really get past. We passed each other four times, as I was attempting to make him think my attacks were just the first section of the circuit. I then tucked in behind and waited for the final three turns. On the seconds last another back marker held us up. Kevin dived up the inside and I tried for the outside. When the racer saw Kevin go inside he sat his bike up and ran wide pushing me onto the kerbs, so I lost drive and was unable to be close enough for a lunge up into the final corner. I crossed the line just behind Kevin, but happy with the fact that I had enjoyed a proper race at Le Mans.
Waving at the marshals and crowd on the ‘in lap’ was extremely emotional as there were still thousands of spectators watching the race. I hoped they had enjoyed the race and watching our battles on track. Coming into pit lane and my crew, I was told I was 9th overall, a gain of 5 places from the start. Not know who else was in front, I assumed I must have been 4th or 5th 600cc. We headed back to the paddock, got out of leathers, had dinner and began to relax. It was only when Martin (a Czech racer) popped in and showed us a screenshot of the final positions did I notice the there only appeared to be one other 600cc racer ahead of me. Double checking the entry list it became apparent I was actually 2nd. We rushed to get dressed in team kit and made our way through the paddock to find everyone had already left. Dashing to the pit lane I made it just in time to head up to the podium. Seems they had forgotten to tell the Brit that he was in 2nd! Going out onto the podium and seeing about thousands of fans still packed into the stands was amazing. The support we received was fabulous and I felt incredibly proud of what we had all achieved.
My thanks go out to everyone who has been a part of the team, to those of you who have helped with parts/knowledge/funds, to Darren and Hayley for their support at the actual race meet, and to the group who helped too organise the IBHR2018 championship. The next round is Mugello in August, as a support race to the Italian Superbikes. Looking forward to my first visit to the Italian track.