I was lucky enough to spend some time with Ron Haslam at the launch of Honda's Fireblade SP in Qatar.
If you're new to riding, you might have not heard about Ron Haslam. He's a former GP rider, TT and Macau winner. If it's got two wheels, the chances are Ron's raced it and raced it well. He's a huge slice of Britain's motorcycle racing history and he now runs his own track instruction school at Donington Park: www.haslamraceschool.com
Aged just 57 and a half, it doesn't look to me like Ron has slowed down at all; he was a match for his son Leon and John McGuinness out on the Fireblade SP. When I asked Leon, John and James Haydon what Ron could do if he raced a Superbike at Donington in BSB, they all agreed: 'Top 15, easy'.
That's some going for a grandad.
I got talking to Ron about trail braking. I've always felt it's the weakest part of my riding. When it came to racing, I knew I could do it and brake all the way into the apex, but I still didn't feel I could do it as well as the guys I was racing against.
My preferred braking technique is to brake late, get the lever all the way back to the bar then release it a touch as I tip it in and then come off it completely before I get past, say 30 degrees of lean. When I watch better riders on road bikes (Troy Corser on the HP4 launch, for example) they tend to brake earlier than me, but carry the brake in all the way up to the apex, then pick up the throttle and fire out.
I never had the confidence to do that and rather than carry the brake all the way in, slightly concerned I might need to use a bit more of it and cause the front tyre to wash out, I'd float in for the last 10 metres, off the throttle.
Ron gave me some tips and told me to take advantage of the C-ABS system fitted to the Fireblade SP, not to mention the super-grippy Pirelli Supercorsa SC2 tyres. Ron's pep talk consisted of telling me I could carry the brakes all the way into the apex, get my knee on the deck, then give the brake lever another good squeeze - there's that much grip to be had. Wide-eyed and slightly apprehensive, Ron said he does it all the time at Donington on one of the school's CBR600RRs fitted with less grippy Bridgestone sports-touring tyres and if he could do it there, I could do it here.
One last piece of advice: Don't letthe brake lever flick back off, ease it off gently so the forks don't spring up and cause me to tuck the front.
I was game for giving it a go. If I wasn't going to try now, I never would.
In hindsight, perhaps Turn 1 wasn't the best place to give it my first go as you scrub off speed from around 170mph to 50mph, so there's plenty going on. Flat out in 5th, I took my normal braking marker and anchored on. Bum already off the seat and knee poking out, I'd already decided to set my body position so I could concentrate on the braking.
As the apex approached, I'd backed off the brakes a touch to let the bike drop in but I was still fairly hard on the brakes, with around three-quarters pressure. My brain was in a state of panic and even though I wanted to let off the brake lever, I won the battle and kept it on. Then my knee touched down and it reminded me of the very first time I'd got my knee down. My first thought was 'Shit, I'm crashing!'' then, just like when I lost my knee down virginity, I realised I wasn't actually crashing just doing the thing I'd set out to do.
With my knee planted, I could focus on the brakes. Feeling brave I increased the pressure and the bike stayed planted. I felt like I'd got away with it, so backed off, got on the power and got it back upright.
I couldn't wait for the next corner but I had to pick my way through a few before I came to a corner that wasn't monstrously fast. Turn 7 was the next time I tried it and again, I braked all the way into the apex and then, in what seemed like a completely suicidal move, I gave the brakes a firm squeeze and brought the lever all the way back. It was an odd sensation as the bike responded to my request and felt like it had stopped. At 45-degrees. Despite deciding to give the brakes a good handful, I hadn't had the foresight or spare brain capacity to work out what I needed to do next. Luckily, I did the right thing, backed off and opened the throttle before physics stepped in and made the next move for me.
Conditions were perfect. A wide, empty, grippy track, super sticky SC2 tyres and C-ABS. I don't think I'd have had the courage to try this on the Supercorsa SP tyres we'd ridden on earlier in the day, let alone on a bike with no get out clause, like the C-ABS offers and certainly not on a surface that wasn't billiard table smooth like Losail.
After I'd done it a few times, it was like I'd been doing it all my life and I kicked myself for not learning it or at least trying it with any sort of conviction earlier. When I did it racing, I always felt like I was using up one of my nine lives. It never felt like the right thing to be doing.
Having explored what happens when you carry the brake in, hold it on and then squeeze it some more, I've found a new area to explore and loads more confidence too. I know I'll take that confidence with me on any bike I ride on track. However, I don't think I'll take as many liberties as I did on the Fireblade SP. In many ways, squeezing the brake lever mid corner is about as un