Brands Hatch: A weekend of calamity

First race of the season doesn't go to plan. They never do.

From the moment we had to park on the slope in the outer paddock at Brands, I should have known the weekend would be an uphill struggle.

Let's cut straight to the chase: I got taken out at the first corner in Race 1. It's one of those things. Someone, I'm not sure who, swerved from the right, across the track to the left, taking my front wheel with them. There was little I could do. Series newcomer, but experienced racer Ben Broadway tipped off behind me. Hearing a bike go down is a nasty sound but seeing it coming after you is even worse!

Mr Broadway's 848 tried to mate with me in the gravel trap. Result? A white Arai plastered with half a Pirelli and a knackered neck.

So that's all the moaning out of the way. I want to talk about the positives.

Don't ever setup on the slope at Brands. That's probably the best lesson I learned last weekend.

The rest of what I've written below is merely inconsequential personal thoughts. Or drivel, as it's known in the trade.

Let's cut straight to the chase: I got taken out at the first corner in Race 1. It's one of those things. Someone - I'm not sure who - swerved from the right, across the track to the left, taking my front wheel with them. There was little I could do. Series newcomer, but experienced racer Ben Broadway tipped off behind me. Hearing a bike go down is a nasty sound but seeing it coming after you is even worse!

Mr Broadway's 848 tried to mate with me in the gravel trap. Result? A white Arai plastered with half a Pirelli and a knackered neck. Oh and I'm due to give birth to a litter of baby-848s in the coming few months.

So that's all the moaning out of the way. I want to talk about the positives because there were loads.

What I learned in my handful of races last year is that you're nothing without your team. Even if your team is just you, your girlfriend and a few helping hands, like mine was last year. You realise that in the support classes to BSB, almost everyone is in the same boat: there are very few 'factory' setups, just a load of enthusiastic hands keen to get behind a rider. So many of them look so good you'd think there was loads of money behind them, but that's rarely the case. Unless you're Darren Fry*

Racing is an amazing way of wasting an entire weekend doing trivial things, like hunting for the right kind of foam to push into your petrol tank or searching your toolbox for the right-sized lockwire. It's ridiculous, but all these trivial things need doing and without support, you'd find it hard to do the things that get you out on track.

This season, I've teamed up with the Ducati Manchester guys, which sounds quite factory but really DMC are rider Robbie Brown, his dad Jim, Ben Noon a Ducati Manchester mechanic and his wife Nicky, who adopts role as team co-ordinator, spare mechanic, tea maker, fixer. In reality, they're no more factory than my setup but they work really well as a team and know what they're doing which, around these parts, qualifies them for factory status. Robbie's a podium regular in the series. When you're going racing, it's not just talent, it's team that counts.

I'm also really lucky to have had the help of Mike Edwards' mates Harry and Steve, who've got a wealth of experience and never get flustered even when I've had enough of the job and want to bend a 10mm spanner 'round my knee in frustration! They've helped me at every round since I started last year, always without me asking, usually, probably, because they can't race seeing me round off another bolt with the wrong spanner.

Like most people in the paddock, they accept payment in both tea and biscuits.

My 848 hasn't had many big changes since last year, but it's been to JHP and was looked after by Rick Hackett and Nigel Jamieson who know 848 Challenge bikes inside out. I learned last year that throwing money at the bike is no good - it's all about the setup. The bike's now setup the way it should be - no more excuses.

In the first Free Practice I wasn't pushing and grabbed a 51.4 in greasy conditions, 22nd of 32. The bike felt great, I knew I could go quicker. I was really happy and confident for the weekend ahead.

That's a million miles from where I was last year, where I came in after every session, pissed off that the bike wasn't doing what I knew it could do. Every bad workman blames their tools but this time around, I've got no excuses and that feels like a massive weight off my shoulders. It's me and the bike now not me versus the bike.

Thanks to Gareth at Excel Signs for the Visordown logo stickers which make the bike look proper good I'm sure you'll agree.

Qualifying was a funny old do. Last year I used to go out in quali, ride around like a headless chicken until the chequered flag came out and hope I got a decent time. Sounds daft now, but I didn't know any better.

This year, I fitted a Starlane Stealth GPS laptimer so I could actually see what times I was doing.

How could I have not fitted one of these last year? I know. I surprise myself sometimes, I really do.

I went out and did 6 laps, I wanted to go faster than Free Practice but it had rained since, it was greasy and I was on dry tyres. I did a 52.5, a second slower - almost everyone was. I came in, checked out the live timing I was 25th. No good.

So I went out again for 6 laps, put in a faster lap, but it started drizzling so I came in. 51.9 and now 17th on the board. Result. No-one's going to go quicker now it's raining.

So I called it a decent job and rode back to my van; a thimble of hot tea beckons. Error. It wasn't really raining that bad and the track was actually drying. The session ended with loads of people setting their fastest laps in the last couple of minutes, bumping me to 26th.

Still, you live and learn. I chuckled at my over-confident and definitely faulty qualifying tactics. I knew I could go quicker, where as last year, whatever I did in quali was me at 100% which usually left me feeling bemused at the challenge ahead.

Despite the rubbish weather, this was shaping up to be one of the better weekend's racing. I felt like I had new limits to learn on the 848. I now know it's capable of doing what all the other bikes up the front are and it's just up to me to get it going in that direction.

On Sunday it pissed it down. Luckily I'd picked up my wets early and had them fitted to Robbie Brown's spare wheels. For morning warm-up we all wobbled 'round in the wet. I did a handful of laps, my first on wets, Pirelli SCR2s. No dramas.

Come the race, things didn't go to plan. Six of us were 'late' to the pits, meaning we had to line up from the back. One person being late is fairly usual, 6 is highly suspect. All of us thought they'd closed pitlane early. A couple of the guys were fuming - there's nothing you can do about it.

I felt so sorry for Sam Coventry who highsided on the warm-up lap. It was properly wet out there and greasy too. I know I'm good at starts and I'm too laid back for my own good, so I wasn't fuming about being relegated to the back. It just gave me a bit more work to do.

The lights went out and I got a decent start, I cleared two rows, taking me up to roughly where I qualified. Then from the right hand side a rider swerved to the left, taking my front wheel with him. Down. Couldn't believe it. I didn't even make it to the first corner, which - with its elbow bashing and fairing rubbing - is my favourite bit. You have to experience it once in your life: it's mental.

As I span gracefully into the gravel I heard another bike going down. Spinning around on my increasingly hot arse, it wasn't long until I was facing back up the track, staring at an 848 coming at me nose first. It felt like a scene out of Jaws. I knew it was going to hit me, I couldn't get out of the way, I braced for impact.

Fuck me an 848 in the back of the head hurts.

Race 1, like most of the races that weekend, was a crashfest. Two corners into lap one, Casey Wyatt tried to lunge up the inside of a few riders, lost the front and ended up skittling them all. He may have even shouted 'Strike!' as he did it, but that little nugget could well be a figment of my imagination. He blamed everyone he'd taken out for being too slow - that's not a figment of my imagination. I don't envy him at the next round.

As if the rain wasn't bad enough, one rider's bike was leaking oil, which spices things up like pinch of Polonium spices up a chicken jalfrezi.

Marty Nutt set the fastest lap then crashed badly at Paddock Hill, breaking bones in his neck and back. Many suspect it was the oil wot did it. No-one wants to see that and everyone feared for the worst but Marty's got away with this one and will no-doubt be back soon. He is Irish, afterall.

All in all 10 riders went down in the first race, which kind of takes away from the fact Mike Edwards won it. His first 848 Challenge win. About bloody time.

A good day for fairing suppliers not a good day for inter-848 relationships.

Thanks to Harry, Bob Collins, Ben Noon and my brother, my 848 was patched up and back through scrutineering in no time.

There's probably £1500 worth of damage, including my £600 swanky JHP rearsets, but it serves me right for putting together a pukka bike. I should have just left it hanging like it was last year, then I wouldn't have cared.

Crashing on your own is one thing, because you can blame yourself, but the way I crashed makes it really hard to stomach footing the bill for the damage, but that's racing.

Come Monday, getting ready for Race 2 and listening to the hollow drumming of rain on the roof of my van, I wasn't that excited about going out there. I was stretching my neck and upper body ready to go out for warm-up when my neck just locked. Not bothered about another outing I called it a day and declared myself out.

Out came the Haribo, Lucozade and all the other shit I'd be staying clear of in the week running up to the race. It was time for comfort food!

With the paddock fast running out of wets and some of the guys having to use whatever they could get their hands on, I gave my team mate Robbie his wheels with my 5-lap old wets on. He promptly stuck them in, pumped them up and went out and won.

Easy, probably. That's teamwork!

Thanks to everyone who helped me out, I learned this weekend that a team really makes a difference. I'm hoping to be back up to full fitness for our next round at Assen.

*joke

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