First Ride

First Ride: Harris WCM GP review

British MotoGP rookie Chris Burns rides a Grand Prix bike built around the bones of a Yamaha R1 in less than 14 weeks by a British team. Niall Mackenzie tests the impressive Harris WCM GP bike.

On the grid of the first MotoGP of 2003 season a Brit-built bike with Chris Burns, a British rider in the saddle  will line up alongside the rest of the world's biking heavyweights. In Suzuka on April 6 Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Ducati, Aprilia will be joined by Harris WCM from Hertford, Herts.

Let's be under no illusions here though, Chris Burns isn't going to storm through the field and win the first round like David Essex in Silver Dream Racer. But to be there at all is a hell of an achievement and a major plus for British racing. And considering the lack of development time involved, the Harris WCM machine is very impressive.

After a few laps the closest thing I can compare it to is a superbike, and a very well developed superbike at that. Also, considering when I rode it at the official IRTA GP test at Catalunya it was only the second time it had turned a wheel that's even more impressive. I've been doing a lot of development testing with the Crescent Suzuki BSB team this year and the WCM is as good as that, with even more power.

The bottom end and mid-range torque feels much stronger than the GSX-R, although this could be to do with the WCM machine weighing 12kg less than the BSB bike at a very bantam weight 150kgs.

Handling is hard to fault and hits the spot every time, which isn't surprising because the chassis is basically the same as a GP500. Harris ran a privateer 500cc GP bike in the nineties with their own chassis and the WCM bike has virtually the same geometry and adjustability built into it. Through the corners the WCM bike could match most of the other GP guys' speed but on the exit it loses out - once the GP bikes were upright and onto a part of the tyre that wouldn't spin they would clear off thanks to their extra horsepower.

Harris WCM reckons the bike has around 190bhp at the rear wheel, which isn't bad for a superbike, but the MotoGP big guns have over 220bhp at their disposal.  A bit more development should close this gap and it's still early days for the motor. Top rpm is just short of 13,000rpm but Harris is planning to up this to 13,500rpm in the next generation engine, with a wider spread of power. This will either be done using a Yamaha style five valve per-cylinder head or a more conventional four valve design. Harris, and it's engine development team of Dave Hagen, a very well respected British tuner, and AER, an engine research company who developed the MG Le Mans engine of 2002, are still experimenting with the two configurations.

The lack of power was most noticeable on the straights where the WCM bike recorded nearly 190mph. I thought I was going fast until Troy Bayliss or Alex Barros came past about 20mph faster. Which kind of lets you know that while the bike is good there's still a fair amount of work to do to compete with the GP guys.

Saying that; the handling was good and so was the front end feeling, although there was a slight understeer in some of the faster corners, and the carbon brakes weren't really getting up to temperature, although this is easily cured with brake shrouds or smaller discs. The handling glitches are just a case of fine-tuning the suspension and chassis and shouldn't cause bother for a team with as much experience in it's ranks as Harris WCM.

Generally I think things are very positive for the Harris WCM team. At the moment it's a top superbike, but not quite a top GP bike. They have 190bhp and are aiming to increase this to over 200bhp, which will help. But even so it's going to be a tough old haul against the top GP bikes with their millions of pounds of investment getting them onto the front row.

I think the WCM will get to a position where its handling and chassis are as good as everything else but the rates of development with the Japanese, Aprilia and Ducati are so great it's going to be difficult to keep up. It's much the same problem that Kenny Roberts and his Proton team ran into last year. Their triple was faster around the corners, but got left behind on the straights. Given a clear track Jeremy set pole at Phillip Island, but in the race he only managed 12th. There really is no substitute for big horsepower, or indeed big money spent on development.

Chris Burns will be the lone WCM rider at the first GP in Japan after test rider Ralph Waldmann decided not to compete in the 2003 season. After testing the bike a few times Waldmann, who has never ridden a four-stroke race bike before, decided that his 250cc two-stroke riding style wouldn't suit the bike.
He 'll be replaced by another rider on the second WCM bike after the first round, with Brit Jay Vincent the leading contender for the berth. Although at the time we went to press Spaniard Jose Luis Cardoso, Australian Kevin Curtain and even Kiwi Aaron Slight were all being linked with the ride.

It is understood that team boss Peter Clifford is looking for an experienced rider to complement rookie Burns.

For Suzuka the second WCM slot on the grid will be filled by Japanese rider Tamaki Serizawa riding a Honda V5 powered Moriwaki MD211VF prototype racer. Moriwaki will be running the V5 in the 2004 MotoGP season but the team hasn't got a slot on the grid for 2003.

The bike uses a Moriwaki built trellis frame, similar to the Ducati GP bike, with a privateer specification Honda RCV engine slotted in. The bike has set promising lap times in pre-season testing in Japan.
So good luck to the boys, they've had the balls to give it a go when many wouldn't - and it's a British bike, with a British team and a British rider.  Which means everyone will have a go at them if things are tough and then call them lucky if things start to go their way.  Come the first race they may not be on the front row, but at least they're there and giving it their all. So go get 'em lads.

BUT ISN'T THIS JUST SOME COBBLED TOGETHER SPECIAL?

No way. The engine is 'based' around an R1 motor because Harris needed something to design the chassis around while the motor was being developed. Everything about the motor is totally new including the crankcases. It runs either four or five valves per cylinder depending what WCM decide to stick with, the cassette gearbox is purpose built, so is the fuel injection.

The chassis is based around a Harris 500GP frame, wheels  are carbon fibre from South African specialist firm Black Stone. Suspension is top quality …hlins supplied (as in leased) only to MotoGP teams. The slipper clutch is by AP and brakes too are AP carbon items with radially-mounted calipers. Tyres are factory Dunlops, exactly the same as supplied to the factory Kawasaki team.

And the cost of getting the bike this far and budgeting for a year's racing for two riders will run into the usual millions. These guys are serious and are not there to engage in some exotic Grand Prix adventure. WCM and Harris have already been there and done that.

WHO OR WHAT EXACTLY IS WCM?

World Championship Motorsports (WCM) was formed by American racing enthusiast Bob MacLean and British-born engineer and journalist Peter Clifford in 1992 when Yamaha allowed independent teams to buy its V-four two-stroke engine. The WCM team ran in GPs with a host of riders; Peter Goddard, Neil Hodgson and somebody called Mackenzie.

In 1997 they became a factory Yamaha team with riders Luca Cadalora and Troy Corser,  and the backing of Red Bull. In 1998 the Red Bull Yamaha WCM team had it's first GP win at Donington when New Zealand rider Simon Crafar beat Mick Doohan by six seconds. In 1999 Crafar was replaced by Aussie Garry McCoy , joined by Frenchman Regis Laconi.

McCoy's speedway racing style instantly made him a hit with GP fans and in 2000 he won three races and finished fifth in the championship. In 2001 Japanese star Noriyuki Haga joined the team alongside McCoy although he failed to adapt successfully to the two-stroke riding style and finished the season in 14th position. For 2002 McCoy was partnered by American teenager John Hopkins, who finished the season in 15th place overall.

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