If you’ve read any of my earlier blog posts you’ll know that apart from leading tours on the roads, I ride on circuit trackdays. Over the years this has amounted to 39 days, on 11 circuits, in 4 different countries, and on 7 different bikes. You might think that with numbers like these I’m a bit keen, but for several years I had had a love hate relationship with trackdays, mostly centred around the fact my RC45 just wasn’t fast enough, but last year that all changed when I bought it’s replacement, a 2008 R1. With revitalised interest and shed loads more speed, planning for track days in 2013 was much anticipated, and as per usual, Andy was the guy pushing for decisions as to where we wanted to ride.
Andy has been to Motorland Aragon in Spain a couple of times before and raved about it, but it’s a VERY long drive down there, and despite reservations about the distance to get there, he refused to take no for an answer, and managed to badger both me and Mark C into agreeing to go with him, “persuading” us that we would be rewarded for our suffering with great weather, a great track, and the lure of being able to max out our R1’s on the kilometre long straight.
So it came to be that after months of planning and being cooped up indoors in the lousy cold and snow in the weeks running up to the off, we were more than ready to hit the track when the time finally came, but with a concern that the promised good weather and 18C forecast only the week before our trip, looked to now be changing to rain!
Time to introduce our cast of characters before the story begins.
Andy- a.k.a “Kreacher”
Has got the track bug, big style! Three years ago he came to the Haslam Race School in the UK with me, rode their CBR600 and Fireblades, took a California Superbike School, a few Jacques Cornu schools, bought himself a Fireblade for the track, and then went out and put everything he’d learnt to good use, honing his track and riding skills . A couple of coaching sessions with Simon Crafar and his MotoVudu courses followed, and soon, not only was he faster everywhere, he was also outriding the capabilities of the Fireblade. Having served his apprenticeship on this “lesser” machine, he quickly replaced it with a BMW S1000RR, and then rode the best part of 18 track days in 2012 alone! Suffice to say we now go to the same events and ride on the track at the same time, but I can’t keep up!
Mark C – a.k.a “Fast Bunny” rides motocross.
I mention this because it has instilled in him a mentality of opening the throttle wide and letting the bike do it’s thing. Two stroke engines have created a total lack of mechanical empathy, so its’ throttle wide open everywhere and enjoy the ride! He started riding on track last year with an R1 acquired at the same time as I bought mine, but track time has been limited to just one half day in the damp conditions of Dijon, and a day at Hockenheim. We have ridden on the roads together for years and many thousands of kms, but track days are different. We argued about whether my experience gives me the upper hand, but I’ve still only ridden a “really” fast bike 7 times on track, albeit compared to his two, BUT, I’m 12 years older than he is and have stronger self preservation instincts. The bikes are, to all intents and purposes identical, with the exception that Marks has Akra end cans, so which of us would prove to be quicker, read on and find out!
Motorland Aragon is a “mere” 750kms and an 8 hour drive from my home, for Andy and Mark, it was nearer 1000kms and 11 hours. We set off at 08.30 as planned but two hours later that sinking feeling you get when you realise what you’ve forgotten to pack hit me, I didn’t have the Carte grise for the R1! Calling Mark he recommended I turn back and fetch it, as I’d have a problem with customs if I had no paperwork, however, a call to Andy settled the nerves after he pointed out that there isn’t a manned border between France and Spain anymore, so I’d get through without issue.
After a long drive down Sue and I arrived at the camping and booked in, collecting the keys for the others before heading for the track 3kms away.
Andy was already there having arrived whilst we were checking in at the campsite, so we set to erecting his tent in the drizzle which soon turned into pouring rain. We were soaked through by the time Mark and Sev arrived. Impeccable timing by Mark, again!, who’d missed a turn off the motorway on the way down and had come via a slightly different route to Andy, which had turned out to be a great road, albeit not so great in a car towing a trailer and motorbike!
After putting the bikes under cover we went to the campsite, sunk a few beers, had a a surprisingly good meal in the on-site restaurant, and then turned in early ready for the next day.
Morning dawned wet and overcast, and it was clear there wasn’t going to be much riding. The paddock was strangely quiet, and the queue to check in and get the on bike transponders took next to no time as so few people were there.
The mandatory briefing looked to have only 30 people or so there, around a third of what you’d expect given the groups were all supposed to be full.
So the day developed miserably, with little change in the poor weather and only the odd few guys with wets venturing out. As they say in cricketing parlance, rain delayed play, and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we finally managed to get in a couple of dry sessions, enough to help find our way round the track and give us a taste of what was coming the following day.
And what a track it is! A massive 5.344 kms in length with 17 bends, lots of elevation changes, a corkscrew section not dissimilar to Laguna Secas, a massive one kilometre straight, and loads of safe run off areas.
Times are never much to write home about when you first try and learn a track, and after our two sessions finding our way around we couldn’t have been turning in times any better than the 2.38 mark, but we were itching to get out and ride the next day and better weather was forecast, yippee!
Our group of three became two today, as Andy was being coached by Simon Crafar, so Mark and I were left to our own devices.
With a full 7 sessions during the day we had plenty of time to explore the track, and it’s run off areas too! You can’t imagine how great it is to let a 1000cc bike run flat out through each gear down a kilometre long straight, and if you got a good enough entry onto it, you could just about hit 6th gear before dropping down and into the long left hander onto the start finish straight.
Here’s Andy being coached by Simon and turning in times of 2.16
Late afternoon entertainment was provided by the arrival of a lorry loaded with bikes from the UK which were being unloaded next to us in readiness for the next two days
The day was to prove frustrating with our transponder times. They never seemed to be working! We’d go and check at the end of a session, and either we were not getting any faster (unlikely) or our times weren’t registering. I think they were updated ONCE during the day despite our complaints, but when they did appear the times for Mark and I were separated literally by less than one second! I was however able to use the laptimer app I have on my IPhone to see what progress we were making, and this threw up a best time for the day of 2.29.50.
Today was also Marks birthday, and the previous night we had decided to go into the nearby city of Alcaniz to find a tapas bar to celebrate. This was an inspired choice, as not only is the old city of Alcaniz beautiful, the food was great, and only cost €85 for 5 of us, drinks and coffees included!
Andy was back with us in the morning, and after having had a hard day riding with Simon Crafar yesterday was quite happy to run around with us, giving us valuable comments on our riding afterwards, and showing us the right lines! I’d already managed to better my previous days time and got down to 2.28.21, but with Andy leading me and following Mark, we managed to drop a massive 3 seconds off our best times, getting down to a 2.25, but Andy eclipsed this later with a 2.14!
In the afternoon though, groups were changed around, and we missed going up to a faster group by around a second, leaving us in the slower group whilst Andy went up one.
Tonights evening meal was traditional paella, and we were joined at the campsite restaurant by Marc F and his group, plus Simon Crafar and several of the UK trackday guys.
The final day, and I started it with a dicky stomach, so much so that I decided to give the first session a miss, not a bad idea as it turned out because it was cold, and it gave me a chance to go and stand at the end of the pit straight and watch Mark. He was first out and headed the field for a few laps, but seemed to keep missing his turn in point,which was a bit of a mystery as he’d been fine the previous three days. Back in the paddock the reason became clear when he explained his visor was fogging and he couldn’t see out of the left hand side as he turned into the corner!
I went out for the second session, but despite wearing a balaclava and having a pinlock visor, I too had fogging problems, so much so I spent a lot of time opening and closing it just to try and see where I was going!
The transponders were now working properly, so after the second session we all went to check the times and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the screens, Marks time had fallen by 6 seconds to a 2.19.19, holy cow! How on earth had he managed to drop that much time? Initially deflated I tried to hide my disappointment he was so much faster than me, and sportingly offered him my congratulations before trudging back to the tent to slash my wrists in despair. Once Andy and Mark returned, all became clear. Mark had taken Andy’s transponder out and it was Andy’s time not his that was on the board. The girls were also in on the switch and they all took great pleasure in seeing the distress this had caused me, whilst I vowed to find some new friends. Apparently the look on my face when I’d seen the time appear had been a picture, but at least I’d had the good grace to congratulate him. Great prank, cheers guys, but revenge will be sweet!
The previous day Mark and I had ridden each others bikes to see if we could tell any difference between them, other than the fact I felt he had more grip and not liking the abrupt nature of his throttle, the differences were marginal, coming down to slight variances in smoothness of the gear shift and the fact his bike seemed to take off better at lower revs but mine gained at higher rpms. Over the course of a 5km track we couldn’t find any significant differences, he was better in some places and I was better in others, and time differences of 1.007 seconds at the end of the whole weekend showed how closely matched we both are. Andy got down to an amazing 2.13.6, so because he is so quick we’re going to have to put ballast somewhere on the bike to try and slow him down!
My last attempt to improve times came by trying Marks tyre pressure settings for the final two sessions of the afternoon, and although times didn’t change, I was amazed how much better the bike drove off the bends, shame then I waited 4 days to find that out!
As the afternoon progressed the weather started to close in, and after a few spots of rain in the second session we decided to call it a day and dismantled the tent and packed everything before the rain came. Stopping off at the site shop on the way out we bought the obligatory t shirt and cap to prove we’d been there, and headed back to the campsite for a final time and to make a decision whether to go back into Alcaniz again to eat tonight or stay on site. Tiredness and the opportunity to drink but not drive won out, and so we had our last meal in the campsite restaurant before turning in early before the next days early start home.
Up at around 6.40, we unlocked the trailers and were packed and away just before 08.00, with Andy having departed much earlier as he’d got the longest drive home. Mark and Sev were heading for Andorra just 3 hours away for some bike shopping, and we were heading for an 8 hour journey back home.
Overall the weekend was a great success. The track was fantastic and is now a joint favourite along with Donington Park, the bike ran well, only being beaten on the main straight by the plethora of BMW 1000RRs, we rode over 800kms and Mark and I posted times that were fractionally over a second apart after 4 days, with old age and experience winning the day on this occasion.