And he's still got a bike left for Brands
Here I am at Cadwell Park to ride Tommy Hill’s Swan Yamaha Superbike. I’m well aware of the privilege… and the risks, believe me.
It’s a dealer’s track day on the full circuit and on this warm, sunny late-September day we’ve got the track to ourselves for forty minutes during the lunch break to do pictures and get a feel for the bike.
‘You excited, then?’
It was the voice of Ian Hutchinson asking me the question as I was putting the final touches to my last earplug. The five-times 2010 TT winner was full of excitement himself. After numerous operations to save his left lower leg after the disastrous accident at Silverstone last summer, Hutchy is at Cadwell to ride his right-shift R1 Superstocker for the very first time.
‘No. I’m not,’ I replied, at the risk of sounding like a cock.
The truth was I was more nervous, apprehensive and mindful of the pressure upon me not to feck the next twenty minutes up. Riding a priceless, hand-built Superbike is risk enough but when that bike is second in an as-yet un-concluded British Superbike Championship the risk ante is upped exponentially.
No pressure then…
Swan’s two trusted spanner men are Simon and Adam. They’re both a bit worried about the tracking photography (following a car with the snapper in the boot) as the speed will be low and they don’t want the bike to overheat. The Marelli digital dash is capable of showing just about anything but the options menu now gives me the temp display in rapidly changing (big) digits. I’m told to just leave the car and up the speed if the temp starts sailing about 90.
To be fair, that’s pretty much the only briefing I get, apart from engaging first gear before thumbing the starter. ‘The noise of the engaging dogs makes me shudder,’ says Adam pointing out why they never engage first gear at a standstill with the engine ticking over. You’ve done it yourself haven’t you? Hooking first gear at the traffic lights and hearing that god-almighty “CLONK’. Race engine demand more respect.
So away I go, visor down, through Cadwell’s paddock and onto the track. First gear (one up) is massively high and needs a bit of clutch slippage up to what seems like the normal point to change into second.
I’ve got a BMW X6 to follow with Keith the snapper in the boot. First impressions at crawling pace? Tommy Hill’s bike is as stiff as an iroko plank and the fuelling in first and second gears is glitch-free, soft, progressive and predictable. The flat-plane crank motor snarls and growls like Aprilia V4 and pops, bangs and snaps on the over-run like a bowl of over-amplified rice crispies.
I realise we’re in trouble when at 30mph the BMW’s tailgate snaps shut on the approach to Charlies, thus entombing said photographer - time for a lap to cool things down.
The run out of Charlies onto Park straight is a chance to nail it. It’s fast, really fast but the noise is massively deceptive. Even though the front wheel is pawing the air after every quick-shift assisted up-shift, the flat, guttural exhaust note makes you think otherwise. It sounds slower than it is, if that makes sense?
The rate that I arrive at the 90 degree Park Corner convinces me otherwise. It’s here, whilst enjoying the power of the lithium Brembos, where I also discover the auto-blip mechanism for downshifts. The mechanics forgot to tell me that I didn’t need to use the clutch-lever for downshifts but, regardless, the system still blips the throttle for you as your hook lower gears – an effect that becomes more pronounced as you select lower and lower gears. Clever. Considering the forces involved in modern braking, the auto blipper is a great invention, freeing up a rider’s hands and wrists to focus on dealing with 1.3g rather than the intricacies of control juggling.
On semi-warm, part-worn slicks I tip into Chris Curve gingerly and start turning up the wick a the corner opens out. I feel every bump and tarmac imperfection through the rear tyre.
It’s the same on the fast, curving right into the Gooseneck and it’s not until I flick left that I’m aware of the work Tommy has to do to change direction.
In race trim Tommy Hill’s Swan Yamaha is not the lightest bike on the grid. ‘It’ll finish a race around 170 kilos’ says Simon, substantiating that claim. I’ve only ridden a handful of BSB bikes before but getting the Swan Yamaha from upright to full lean or changing from one full bank angle to another takes noticeably more physical effort than most others. It’s not a criticism – I’m not going fast enough to criticise – just an observation. It feels heavier.
Weight could be saved. For instance, the team elect to run a starter motor. Yes, it adds weight but with this year’s one bike rule, it’s a sacrifice worth taking in the team’s opinion. But weight isn’t something the team have been chasing, it’s balance that matters.
‘This bike is fast from corner entry to apex in terms of its balance and speed’ says Simon. Cast your mind back to Tommy Hill’s audacious passes into the Cadwell Hairpin during round nine - a great example of this attiribute. So whilst it might take some muscle to get it into a turn (check out Eugene Laverty’s acrobatics on the Belgarda bike) it’s fast once it’s there.
There has been quite a lot of work on the chassis in terms of bracing between the spars and re-welding to increase the torsional rigidity. The bike does feel stiff, particularly when it’s near the edges of its rubber, but the communication from the tyres is extraordinary – even at snail’s pace. It must be a really nice bike to ride in the rain with its soft, progressive fuelling and telepathic levels of feedback. The engine management, the same used on most MotoGP bikes, must be a massive competitive advantage.
But just a few laps is enough for me. I’m glad when the photographer says he’s got enough, glad when I burble back into the pit garage and flick the kill switch off. The bike’s still in one piece, the motor still sweet as a nut. Tommy still has a bike left to take the fight to Hopper on his Crescent Suzuki who leads the championship by the narrowest of margins.
Bit of rain, that's what we need to make the last round even more exciting. Go Tommy.
Posted: 13/10/2011 at 00:05
Posted: 13/10/2011 at 09:55
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