I still count myself as a very lucky man. Yes, I'm having to work for a living now that I've stopped racing, but occasionally the work is almost as good as the racing used to be (and without the nerves - I can stray more than 20 feet from a toilet on a Sunday morning now.) So how giddy was I to be sent off to Monza to have a go on 'Nitro Nori' Haga's World Superbike front-running R1?
I know what you're thinking. Fast circuit plus 210bhp R1 plus northern monkey equals carnage. A friend of mine said it would be like when the Russian scientists used to put chimps in rockets and fire them into space. Well, I'm pleased to say I proved you all wrong!
Haga's crew chief, Silvano Galbusera, who I worked with when I rode for this same team when it was called Belgarda Yamaha - it's now called Yamaha Motor Italy - explained that the bike was just as it finished the last race at Magny Cours, except for new Pirelli tyres and the final drive ratio changed (that's changing the sprockets to you and me) to suit the long Monza straights.
Although the team has a few more members now, the nucleus is the same bunch of people I raced with in Supersports during 2000, '01, and '02. It's a properly funded, well organised, experienced and professional team that is passionate about racing. And, incidentally, the team's workshop is only one door away from Yamaha's MotoGP team workshop.
From the head of Yamaha Motor Italy, Claudio Consonni, team manager (and my old team-mate) Massimo 'Maio' Meregalli and crew chief Silvano right down to the truck drivers, it's like a big family that I still count as my friends. Obviously there was a bit of a language barrier when I first joined them. I did the usual Brits abroad thing of still speaking to them in English, but a bit slower and a lot louder. It soon became apparent that they'd all have to learn English. Even now most of them do it with a Yorkshire dialect.
I asked Maio why they were caught with their pants down in results terms early in the '05 season. He explained that the bikes didn't arrive until December '04 and then Haga, because of the contract with his previous team, couldn't ride for them until January. So they were only able to get three days testing in before the first round of the championship in mid-February. The team knew it was always going to be a steep learning curve but, during the last half of the season, as the bike evolved and improved, the results from both riders were pretty solid. Maio thinks that once Haga got his first rostrum, at the Silverstone round, he started to believe in the bike and the team. And then he never looked back. Maio's belief is that with more pre-season testing, Haga could have battled for the championship. Now they've got a full winter testing programme planned. The main thrust of development will be focused on handling. They need to make the bike physically easier to ride and be less aggressive on the tyres.
Continue Whitham's ride of Haga's Yamaha R1 from 2005