Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fast* track

Photo credit: Pradeep Warrier
“If you wanna go any faster, take it to the track.”

Dubai Autodrome advertises both car and bike track days where, we are told, there are no speed limits, no speed cameras, no manhole covers, no sand spits, no donkeys on the road, and no crazy Afghan truck drivers on the wrong side of the road. In addition, the only other motorists out there are consenting adults, all doing more-or-less the same thing in the same direction. And there are marshals, and first-aid facilities in case of a spill.

In truth, taking my bike to a track session would probably be overall a lot safer than a Friday trip to Kalba. But that had until recently, not got me on to the track. For ever and a day, my excuse was not having any full leathers, and they’re mandatory for bikers. Then last December happened, and I resorted to my back-up excuse: cowardice.

Anyway, a lot of the Autodrome track sessions were for experienced riders only, and I satisfied myself with taking photos.

And then an alert of a ‘Newbies’ evening session dropped into my inbox. I hummed and hawed, and then with a couple of days to go I booked and paid online. No excuses now; I’d be at the Autodrome on Thursday evening.

The advertised itinerary was three groups, and three 20-minute sessions for each group. Because Thursday is a work day, and also it’s summer and consequently ridiculously hot, not many bikers turned up. Most arrived in shorts and flip-flops with their racing bikes on trailers. Muggins rolled up with a small selection of tools in his panniers and fully dressed for action.

I prepped my bike by removing the panniers and clicking the rear suspension up by one notch, and then went to register. They gave out customer loyalty cards. “Do six track sessions, and the seventh one is free.” The summer sessions are on the short, Club circuit because that’s the only one with floodlights, and are consequently cheaper than winter track days on the full GP circuit. “Do six summer sessions,” we were advised, “And save the free one for the full circuit!”

It also turned out that only about four of us were in the Group C “Newbies” and Autodrome management decided to combine Groups A and B. Net result: three 25-minute sessions rather than 20 minutes. Bonus! While we were being briefed in air-conditioned comfort, the bikes were scrutineered, and when I got back to the pit garage my bike had an approval sticker on it. Good to go.

It was with no little trepidation that I queued up on the pit lane for two familiarisation laps, following the leader at relatively low speed to learn the official racing lines where the track was most grippy. The first Group C session followed immediately. As there were only four of us, I felt as though I had the track to myself until a Frenchman on a BMW S1100RR went steaming past me on the start/finish straight and I had someone to race follow. Newbies aren’t allowed to overtake except on the start/finish straight, and he had 193BHP as opposed to my mere 135BHP. I overtook him a couple of laps later and, I’m told, he spent the rest of the session right behind me. I say, “I’m told,” because we all had to fold in our mirrors in accordance with the First Rule of Italian Driving: “Whats-a behind me is not important.”

I got progressively quicker throughout the session, and 25 minutes later I was quite relieved to see the chequered flag so I could come into the pits and have some cold water and a sandwich.

The sun was setting when the second session started, not that this made any material difference to the temperature. By now I was becoming a little more consistent with my braking and gear-changing points. I’d chatted with a couple of the experienced guys and learned a couple of markers on the asphalt. Notably, “Squeeze between the kerb and the pothole on the hard right into the uphill chicane or you’ll be all over the place through the chicane and very, very slow.”

Full-throttle acceleration to the red line isn’t something my bike experiences very often, but it got plenty of that past the grandstand. And I could feel the ABS and slipper clutch doing its work on the hard braking into corners. In over five years and 50,000km I’ve not decked a footrest. Now I was doing so regularly, and the bike remained rock-steady while cranked over. Perceived wisdom for track riding is that at this point one should slide one’s arse off the seat and stick one’s knee out. I’ve never been comfortable with that. My new seat, with its broad cheeks to support my, erm, broad cheeks, rather discourages that sort of behaviour. A bike seat that is comfortable and supportive on long touring trips isn’t the best one for flinging a 300kg 1400cc machine around a track that’s designed for 600cc supersport crotch-rockets. I had to content myself with leaning my upper body and easing off the throttle a little so that nothing other than the folding footpegs actually hit the deck.

I was, on average, one second per lap quicker on the second session, and a further second quicker on the third, despite darkness having fallen. I may have been the only punter on the track by the end of the third session. One guy had gone home because he’d rather foolishly turned up with a tinted visor and wasn’t allowed to participate in the dark.

I’ve learned a lot from my first track session. Firstly it’s a lot of fun, even when not riding as fast as you dare. Second, I now know that my bike handles in a predictable and steady manner, even when cranked over as far as I dare. Previous bikes have squirmed and protested under those conditions and threatened to pitch me off. And I think that’s pretty good for a heavyweight, shaft-drive tourer. I now know that in my road riding, I’m well within the bike’s performance envelope. My normal sport/touring tyres I ran to their edges. There is evidently no need for me to consider softer, sportier rubber than Pirelli Angel ST or equivalent.

In fact, the single problem came on the way home. I got stuck at two sets of traffic lights and spent about eight minutes having my bike pour boiling hot air all over my legs, and by the time I got indoors I was bordering on heat exhaustion. A litre of oral rehydration salts and a cool shower sorted that out.

* In the grand scheme of things I'm not very quick. My best lap was 1'25" which is distinctly unimpressive when compared to UAE Sportsbike Championship times of around 1'06".



Martín said...

beautiful, beautiful and, may I say? beautiful.
BTW, my Top Sellerie seat came on monday and it's seen 400 km of happy arse already =) So... thanks for the inspiration!

Grumpy Goat said...

Would it be true to say, Martín, that you thank me from the heart of your bottom?



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