Niall Mackenzie Column - June 10

Niall dons his heavily-badged Lewis leather jacket, slicks back his hair (just the one) into a remarkable quiff and heads for the Ace Cafe on his pre-unit wideline Triton. Or something...

I’m not big into conspiracy theories, except for that joke the Americans tried to play on us forty years ago claiming they’d put some men on the moon. I’ll happily stand on my soapbox explaining why this never happened, or you can read Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard DeGroot and decide for yourself. Wallace and Gromit might have made it to cheese land – but Neil Armstrong, who won’t even talk to anyone now – I don’t think so.

In the world of motorcycling conspiracies, however, I could never make my mind up on the Foggy Petronas operation. You may remember this was originally a MotoGP project with the Sauber Formula 1 team building a three-cylinder 990cc MotoGP engine housed in a Harris chassis. I was involved with initial testing and launch of this mad machine in October of 2001 at the Malaysian Grand Prix. Essentially it was a scaled down Ferrari Formula 1 engine and although it had serious horsepower it also had a tendency to vibrate, coupled with one or two reliability issues. Petronas spent millions on this project but in the following months their president announced they would be converting the MotoGP engine into a road unit and would switch to WSB racing.

While this didn’t really affect me, I felt bad for Japanese project leader Osama Goto (ex-Ferrari and Honda F1) and Peter Sauber as they were slightly bewildered when they heard the news. The following year I was contacted by UK R&D specialists Vepro to test the forthcoming road bike but after a while everything went quiet so I decided at that point the FP1 road bike would forever remain a mythical beast.  I did hear that Steve Whitelock, the World Superbike Technical inspector at the time, granted homologation for racing after seeing 75 chassis. However, most paddock cynics believed this inspection was most likely ?a full-on smoke and mirrors job.

But how wrong we all were, as a sneaky snapper recently revealed wall-to-wall, brand new FP1s in an underground bunker in the depths of Essex. And with a fresh chapter in this conspiracy come fresh rumours; some insiders believe these bikes have no engines and others reckon any that do will only be good for a few hundred miles. I even have a reliable source (initials J.W.) who claims Buzz Aldrin is trying to punt one on eBay.

At long last I finally made it to the Ace Cafe last month. I had hoped for a feeling of history, atmosphere, friendly people and good food, but my experience was ten times better. The man that brought this place back to life, Mark Wilsmore, was present in full rocker regalia, looking after his customers like long-lost mates. It was a freezing Friday but plenty showed up on all kinds of bikes with my favourite being a pristine white 1979 Suzuki X7.

The best thing was that underneath the owner’s helmet was a really young face that obviously loved his bike and everything it stood for. Good lad! Unfortunately I was dropping off a bike so I had to go in my van. But I can’t wait for the summer so I can ride down with my mates and spend some time soaking up the ambience of this iconic British biking landmark.

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