European Classic Endurance - Paul Ricard
Alf's Motorcycles 15th - 16th April 2016

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I rode a couple of times for Alf last year and enjoyed the bike, the team and the racing.

The opening round of the 2016 European Classic Endurance Championship was at Paul Ricard with two more rounds at Spa in July and Aragon in October.

It had been 20 years since I was last here so rolling up outside the venue was like going to a new track in effect with only distant memories of the layout etc. The circuit's used mainly for F1 testing and selected events so we felt special to be racing here again. Arriving at the back of the pits there was little I could remember as most of the infrastructure has been updated including the garages which used to be small poky thinks but now huge spacious and very well appointed with a viewing gallery, office and toilet shower/facility for every garage, very posh!

The actual circuit layout was relatively unchanged with the exceptions of the first ultra fast almost flat out chicane had been tightened up, there was a complex of chicanes halfway down the 1.5km back straight and a small chicane called "Piff Paff" had been removed just before the end of the lap. The biggest visible change was the use of painted kerbs and tarmac, blue, white red paint everywhere and a little confusing the first few times round until you got your eye dialled in.

Thankfully there were apex maker posts all round the circuit to help you find your way in to, round and out of the painted chicanes.

A lot of the competition had established themselves in their respective garages so we found ours to see who was about.

We were sharing with family Neate who made us welcome with a cup of tea. Very English!

We collected everything and made our way back to the hotel were by now Alf and the team had turned up, quick hugs and kisses all round then a mad dash back to the circuit to unload the van and set the garage up for the following day, then back to the hotel for dinner and bed. Friday was going to be uber busy with two free practice sessions, two timed sessions and night practice for three riders, then Saturday by comparison was very relaxed with our warm up just after lunch and the race starting at 19:00.

Johnny had 'scored pole position' when we signed on and had grabbed third man spot, this can be preferable if you want to get some quality time/space in practice as most of the team don't run a third man so the session is very quiet.

I wanted this session so I could try to get as many laps at pace as possible to help us grab pole.

The way qualifying works is they add up the riders times and divide them by the number of riders to give a mean time that's why I was hoping that I could go third man however in reality it doesn't make a hill of beans difference as you have to run across the track anyway and that was one race I was never going to win! The rider line up was me as first rider, Mick Godfrey second man and JB third up, and as we had not been there for a million years we had all the chance of the two free practice sessions before qualifying. For practice JB was first up so I watched on the timing screen as his times slowly fell through his session. As soon as he came in he was laughing "fantastic, just as I remembered NOT". There was time before I went out to debrief him before my session to get a heads up and some basic reference makers. Then it was my turn and I zoomed out of the pits towards the first chicane, now then when I was last here is was flat out through it from the pit lane exit and a light brake when on a flying lap.

Big mistake as now it was a second gear chicane not a fifth gear one, I braked very hard and bounced off both kerbs as I wobbled through it on cold tyres, "how long have I been doing this?" I thought "and still make a school boy error like that", I put it down to over excitement and settled down for the next corner which I once again clipped both kerbs and ran wide at the exit.

However, by the end of the session I had strung a reasonable lap together yet had some homework to do in the next session. Mick then went out for his session and reported "no problems" on his return.

JB then went out for his second session and was doing really well until he went missing from the timing screen, a message came up on the screen. Rider down at turn one, and it was Johnny.

It took a long time for him to get back, he was OK but the race bike was in a real mess, he had lost the front on the exit of the first chicane and the bike had tumbled a few times splitting the fuel tank.

Thankfully there was no fire damage but the frame, forks front wheel were bent along with the fairing, seat unit, screen, master cylinder etc, etc, etc. This unfortunate incident ruled the race bike out of action for the weekend so we moved over to the 'T' bike (Training bike) and warmed it up for my second session that went very well and by now I felt very comfortable with everything other than the brake lever and throttle action was very heavy/hard to operate making my arm pump up and something we knew we had to sort out for the race.

Mick's session went smoothly too but he too complained about the throttle so the team swapped the carbs, cables and twist grip assy off the race bike.

Alf does such a good job in preparation before the meeting there was little to adjust or fiddle with other than small changes that always crop up like gear lever up/down/up/down then put back where we started off.

Qualifying went smoothly and when the time sheets came out we were about were we expected we would be 5th, there was very little in it at the end of the day so we focused on our night session.

 

Riding in the night isn't as bad as you imagine sometime the twilight zone is worse, the sky is bright and the ground is dark so it can be difficult to see the finer details of the track. Where in the dark when its proper dark the lights pick out your reference points, braking and apexes and you don't see anything else, great if everything is going well but can be tricky if when off line or mixed up in traffic.

The sun was always going to be an issue as it hits the horizon, like a laser beam through the visor so working out where and which corners would be challenging are a must in these sessions.

 

Exiting the first chicane it was impossible to see the exit kerb and the run round the final few corners before the end of the lap where the areas we needed to be aware of.

I tried tape across the top of my visor so I could dip my head slightly and the tape would obscure the sun, great plan but although in principle but in reality it didn't work.

As we didn't need to be up early the next day it was a majority decision to down tools asap after the night session and eat in the back of the garage in the office/viewing area rather than dash back to the hotel and attempt to grab something there.

Good call really as the chef 'Steve' was totally on top of the job and presented us with a comprehensive buffet and we used it as a 'team bonding' exercise. here was a fair bit to discuss as we were down to one bike after Johnny's off plus the spares package was depleted too, at this point we still hadn't discussed who was going to start the race so during the dinner a plan was drawn up.

I was to start, then Mick then JB.

The following day it was a leisurely affair due to the late warm up time, so a healthy breakfast then out on the bike for the warm up session.

Alf had spent ages trying to sort the heavy action of the carbs and had switched them off the race bike to the T bike, on the stand they felt better but out on the circuit it was still hard work however the rest of the bike was working well.

 

The rest of the afternoon we had time to watch some racing, have a wander round the paddock meeting and seeing everyone and everything, not often during a race event do you get the time for this but due to the race start time being 19:00 we had loads of time in hand.

As the start drew closer you could feel the tension build and by the time the green light came on the end of the pit lane signalling our sighting lap the whole place was buzzing. We had a practice start, a warm up lap then aligned over the other side of the track ready for our little sprint to the bikes for the real start. My friend Jonny Towers was having his first endurance race and he was starting and was next to me, he was clearly nervous and gibbering on about where to look for the flag start marshal, I showed him the guy but said "just run when everyone else does and you’ll be fine".

 

Flag down, short sprint and we all leapt aboard our steeds, thankfully the bike fired up quickly and I was off.

On the run down to turn one and the chicane I was in fifth place, feeling confident I thought about out braking a few riders but the brakes weren't at working temperature so I did by default almost collecting the second place man lightly rubbing fairings as we turned in.

 

Then a short sprint down to the second chicane I bagged the lead and got my head down, leading across the line for the first lap is always a good feeling and obviously the best place to be so I pressed on. Steve Neate was hot on my heals with the rest of the pack strung out behind, we had a battle for a few laps and I soon realised I was struggling with arm pump.

The throttle was hard to pick up and the brake lever wasn't helping being un-adjustable and a big reach for my dainty hands, so with another 15 laps to go I knew I had to ease back or I would be unable to reach the end of my stint with any sort of pace. Steve came by and a few laps later Gergory Fastre came by. I hung on to him for a while but then some slower rider broke us up and I had to watch him slowly pull clear. I started to get my countdown board 5-4-3-2-box and when 4 came on the board I picked up my pace feeling I could do at least the rest of the stint that bit quicker. Unfortunately the signalling box had a mix up and had to leave the 4 board out for 3 laps making the 5 laps 8. I was very relieved to see the box sign and raced up the stop board outside the pit box.

Mick was ready and eager to get out, I mentioned the throttle was still heavy  but the bike was working well as he zoomed away for his session.

 

I then sat for a while had a drink and debriefed Alf about the bike, but only a short time later JB came off the pit wall with news Mick had gone missing, also there was a pace car out and Peter Linden from Phase one called in to the garage and said there was a black bike out on the circuit on fire!

 

After a while news came through that he had crashed, he was walking and looked OK but the fire was an indication of a badly damaged bike.

Eventually the bike was brought back to the garage and she was in a real mess. The tank was burnt and useless, the carbs were damaged and during the crash had popped off with extinguisher dust down the inlets, all the wiring under the tank was melted, the fairing was badly damaged, master cylinder, the headlights wouldn't work and so on.

It was a massive disappointment but the team dug in and started to rebuild it, starting with working out exactly what was needed. The biggest issue was both our fuel tanks were useless now but the team next door were running a P&M and had a spare tank.

 

Over a hour and a half later the bike was wheeled out for a couple of exploratory laps with Johnny on board, he returned with a list of quick fixes to do including pointing the lights in the right direction aligning the handle bars etc. A few minutes later he blasted off to start his session. There was only 45 minutes left so he was only going to do 25 minutes then let me take the bike to the finish, however fate had not finished with us just yet. Just as his 'in board' went out he went missing off the timing board and news came through that he had broken down on the back straight and after a few minutes more waiting he was pushing down the pit lane.

 He had lost all electrical power, it sounded like there had been a short circuit under the tank where the wires had melted, the boys soon found a blown fuse and some more bared wires so it was another few minutes frantic work and the bike was once more ready for the track.

To be honest we were so far behind it was just about getting the bike to the end but I for one wasn't going to just ride round, no I rode it like I'd stole it and put in some serious times totally enjoying the time I had on it. Eventually the flag was out and it was all over, Team Force Suzuki took the win with the Neate family second and Phase One in third.

Frustratingly this was the group we were running with so to finish where we did was tough but tha's racing as the saying goes.

 

Next round is Spa in July see you there?