A few months back, our man Tim bagged the chance to swing his leg over a superbike for the very first time, only this was no dress rehearsal or vanity project. He was making his debut in the British Superbike Championship.
Since I first started road racing back in 2014, I’d always dreamed of lining up on the BSB superbike grid but didn’t have the foggiest of ideas when it might happen or how I’d get there. You could say I’ve taken my time, but the level of the racing in the UK right now is at an all-time high, in my opinion. In the Superstock 1000 class there are probably eight riders who can win a race, and the same goes for the Superbike class, possibly even more so, and with both classes absolutely stacked and the ‘good’ superbike team seats already occupied by race winners, getting that break into the premier class really isn’t easy. The opportunities are few and far between.
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My first race meeting back following a shoulder injury at round three was at Donington Park, and it went pretty well. Unfortunately for my team-mate in the superbike class, Danny Kent, it wasn’t such a good weekend and he ended up smashing his hip pretty badly, which put him out for the remaining races of the 2021 season. I had an underlying feeling that there might be an opportunity for me to jump on his bike since my championship had been sabotaged with a string of DNFs, and superbike sponsorship often requires both seats to be filled, but I hadn’t heard a word from the team boss, Steve, in the week leading up to Cadwell, so I expected nothing.
I arrived at the circuit on the Thursday morning and headed down to the pitlane to meet the team as usual. Steve pulled me aside and casually asked if I’d be up for riding the superbike over the weekend… a very small part of me wanted to race the stocker and fight for the win around my home circuit, but when else do you get an opportunity to jump on a SBK? It was a no-brainer and a chance I’d never miss out on. There was zero expectation from the team – just enjoy it, learn, and try and bring the bike home in one piece… easy, right?
Thankfully, for the Cadwell Park round, they run an extra three-hour open pitlane practice on the Thursday evening exclusively for the superbike class, so if ever the was a good time to jump on an SBK having never ridden one before, this was the time! It chucked it down an hour before the session started – brilliant, 225bhp and no traction control… what can possibly go wrong? But honestly, it was a blessing in disguise. Neil, my electronics guru for the weekend, softened the power and Steve gave me a super-soft wet suspension setting for maximum feel, and it meant the bike was silky smooth – in fact, it didn’t feel too dissimilar to my stocker, just sharper and better. The only thing that felt the same were the Pirelli wet tyres as the stock class uses the same rubber, so I was happy straight away with those.
As the session went on, the track continued to dry and the pace gradually increased, it sort-of broke me in gently to the superbike. I love the patchy drying conditions, especially when the bike is on wet tyres, so I was able to build my confidence, although the team did keep reminding me I was still very much on a reduced power map and I was still very much riding in my comfort zone.
The last hour of the practice was mostly dry, and then it was finally time to go on slicks. I’d never ridden on slicks before so I really didn’t know what to expect, especially with a few damp patches around the track thrown in for good measure. The change to dry conditions instantly shifted the dynamics, atmosphere and the body language of the riders, and rolling out of pitlane among my competitors made me feel like a small fish in a big pond, I’m not gonna lie. It’s always the same in racing when you move up a class, owing to the unfamiliarity of the bike and the riders you are sharing the track with. It was at this point my eyes were really opened to the level in this class. Suddenly, the bike felt like it had double the horsepower and the sheer amount of grip from the tyres was like nothing I’d experienced before… everything was happening at 180mph, literally.
I struggled to get my head around how fast I was approaching the corners, how fast the SBK brakes pulled me up, and how much I could push the front tyre before standing the bike up and whacking the throttle open. The bike was on absolute rails and it felt like I couldn’t make the thing slide, which sounds all well and good, but when the rear steps out and slides, it gives you feel and you can start to play with finding the limit.
Thankfully, after a few laps I remembered how to open a throttle properly and the whopping torque from the motor actually made it pretty easy to spin up. If all of that wasn’t enough to deal with, having the front lads stick it up the inside of you with millimetres to spare exaggerated everything… oh, and probably the fact that Cadwell is also the narrowest and one of the most technical circuits in the UK, it was brain overload for a little while. I slept well that night, probably because non-stop riding for three hours on a completely new animal really took it out of me physically, but also because my brain needed to rest and reset after taking on so much information in such a short and frantic space of time.
Heading into free practice one the next morning, I had half an idea of what to expect. from a fully dry, all-out BSB session… well, at least I thought did. It was my first session on a brand new set of slicks and within six laps I had matched my previous personal best lap time of 1.29.6, which really isn’t anything to get excited by, but having not ridden Cadwell Park in anger since 2019, that was where I was at. I didn’t make any progression in the following 12 laps of the session as I struggled to push into new territory with the tyres and braking zones; I felt frustrated and stuck. Sitting at the lower end of the timesheet in 23rd, I really did question what I was doing in this class. Should I have stayed in the stock class, in my comfort zone, and saved the embarrassment? It was such a mixed bag of emotions; it was the moment I’d always waited for but I felt so unprepared.
I told myself that it could have been a hell of a lot worse – I could have launched the bike to the moon… but if I was expecting an arm around the shoulders and a little comfort talk, I was in the wrong place. After the session, Steve (Hicken) shared the brutal reality of the superbike class with me: “This is business. No one is messing about in this class and if you want it, you have to go and get it. You’re not out for a Sunday ride in superstock now – make every lap count!” It was like a slap to the face, but it resonated and really pricked my conscience.
My approach had been to let it come to me and take my time, but it doesn’t work like that in superbike, especially not if you’re trying to make any kind of impression. These boys are professionals who are pushing the limits in every corner. Having been on track with them for only a couple of sessions, it had really opened my eyes to their commitment on track. British Superbikes doesn’t have the reputation for being the best domestic championship in the world for no reason – no one’s out there to make the numbers up, but neither was I! I’ve been riding 1000cc machines since 2019, so it’s as close a step up as you can get.
It wasn’t like I was going up into superbike from a 600cc machine, but it was a step nevertheless. The stand-out differences were the tyres and brakes. On my superstock bike, I have a good idea where the limit is with braking; I know how hard I need to pull the lever to get the thing stopped in time for the corner. I can feel the front tyre bending and squirming under heavy braking, and I know when to release the brake when trailing it at lean angle to not tuck the front. But with the new slicks and SBK Brembos, it was almost like starting from scratch again. I could brake harder with one finger on the superbike than I ever could with four fingers on the stocker; the stopping power is vastly different.
And then there’s the slicks – you can trail more brake at greater lean angles and still get away with it, and where I’d normally have tucked the front and ended up on my arse, the tyre was still gripping. There are obviously many other differences between the superstock machine and the superbike, but the others were much less noticeable. The chassis felt firmer, which I imagine came from the stiffer Suter swingarm, and the bike would turn in much quicker due to the reduced steering head angle. When you’re scratching for tenths of seconds, these small changes make a world of difference.
After a quick nap, a good refueling and having had a quiet world with myself, I headed back down for the second free practice of the day with a fresh mindset. I really tried to work on my weaknesses from the first practice and focused of the points that Neil and Steve had discussed with me, having looked at the data. We built throughout the session, improved in every aspect, and ended the session in 16th place with a lap time of 1.27.7 – a huge step forward and a new personal best by nearly two seconds, I was absolutely buzzing. It’s crazy how quickly your emotions can change. After the first session I was full of doubt but we turned things around and I exceeded my goals.
I slept even better that night but woke to rain on the roof of the motorhome the next morning. I’d had a great feeling with the bike in the wet on the Thursday evening, so it wasn’t a problem and we had a great third practice session. For qualifying later that day, I had to go through Q2; the top 12 from the combined FP1 and FP2 times go directly into Q1, and the rest must battle it out, with the top six getting a second chance to qualify in Q1. I posted 1.27.9 and made it through into Q1 for another attempt. With a new set of tyres fitted, I had another crack and improved my lap time to 1.27.5, which I was very happy with, but it was 1.4 seconds off the pole position lap time and therefore only good enough for 17th on the grid – another brutal reminder of just how fiercely competitive this class is.
The amount of track time in superbike compared to the other classes over a weekend is crazy, and the added fact that at Cadwell you have to cross over the track 20 minutes before each session to get onto the pitlane in time for the session is such a pain in the arse, it felt as though I was alwaysagainst the clock when it came to eating and resting up before the next session. It really heightened the intensity of the weekend.
Race one on the Saturday afternoon was a 14 lapper and is classed as the sprint race – it’s actually the same distance as a full-length Superstock 1000 race, so I had a rough idea of how it would feel going for that length of time.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the awkward feeling I’d soon experience, sitting on my bike, on the grid with my helmet off and not a lot happening for the best part of 15 minutes. In my usual class you’ve got just enough time to get out on the track and have a quick drink – then you’re pretty much away for the warm-up lap. Time seemed to drag and I didn’t know what to think or where to look. I just tried to stay focused on the job at hand, ignoring the commentary and the hum of the generators as best I could.
The warm-up lap could not come soon enough. By the time the lights came on for the start of the race, I was as calm as ever and thinking of nothing other than my launch up into Coppice. From that point onwards, everything became a blur. I made a few places, lost a few places, and before I knew it the chequered flag was out and I’d scored my first BSB point, with a 15th place finish. On the one hand it was a decent debut, but as a racer I wanted more. I knew right then that the challenge would be closing the gap to the front and trying to match my qualifying lap time during the next two races on the Sunday.
Sunday morning warm-up was another wash-out, but I posted my fastest ever wet lap around Cadwell, which I was really pleased about. I even managed to pip my teammate, Gino Rea – a small victory in itself. The Suzuki really does work great in the wet and the throttle map is so smooth it almost felt like it had traction control… it was time to go racing again.
With the Superbike class being the feature of the BSB weekend and the main attraction to the paying customers, you get two big races on the Sunday. The first race starts at 1.30pm and the second at 4.30pm, which sounds spot-on, but the reality is that by the time you’ve finished the race, had the debrief with the team, and got out of your leathers and cooled down, there really isn’t much time to rest and refuel before you need to be sitting on the grid 15 minutes before the next one starts.
The first race on Sunday was brilliant. I started from 16th on the grid and crossed the line in 11th position after 18 laps – which was an amazing feeling, especially having beaten the likes of Dan Linfoot and Xavi Fores in the process. It was a solid performance, with a best lap time of 1.27.7 and a massively reduced gap to the front, which was my biggest target for the race… but God, it was hard work. Riding a superbike comes at price – I’ve never been so physically and mentally drained after a race.
I put 100% effort into every lap, and by heck I knew about it. From about lap 10, I was sweating so badly in my helmet that I was really beginning to struggle to see. I was blinking literally every five seconds to try and clear my eyes and stop them from burning… even jumping over the Mountain I was having to blink. It was a bit sketchy, to be honest, and the stinging was almost unbearable. I was so pleased to see the chequered flag on the 18th lap but wondered how on earth I was going to repeat that performance again in only a couple of hours; I’d only ever had one race in a day before.
After a quick nap and a feed, I was sitting on the grid for race two in what felt like the blink of an eye. I was determined to make a stronger and more aggressive start to the race and did exactly that. I posted a 1.27.5 lap time, matching my qualifying run, and was able to hang in with the pack for much longer.
I opened a big gap behind me, and on the final few laps of the race, I thought it would be a wise decision to bring the bike home in one piece – especially after having a big moment over the Mountain. I pride myself on my fitness but don’t pretend that I wasn’t running on empty towards the end of that third race.
The weekend was largely drama-free but with just a few laps left in my final outing, I took a slightly wide line and asked for a bit too much throttle as I launched the Suzuki up into the air. The landing wasn’t all that pretty from my point of view, but it probably gave the spectators a good show. I was so happy to take the flag on the last of 18 laps, bagging another point with a 15th place finish, with a mixed sense of relief and achievement.
Nothing can prepare you for your superbike debut but I’d got stuck in and made the most of opportunity, learning and improving with every lap clocked. For me, the intensity of the weekend was immense, and I take my hat off the boys who have been doing it week-in, week out for many years. But in the same breath I know it was my lack of superbike experience that made it so challenging. With a few weekends of riding the superbike, it would soon become the new norm.
I owe a big thanks to the Buildbase Suzuki team for giving me a shot and a brilliant opportunity, and I think with three points scoring finishes, no crashes, and progression in every session, the team and I did a damn good job.
The problem is this – I’ve now had a taste of life in the superbike class. It’s tough and it’s draining, but it’s also where I want to be. Now I’ve gained that experience, I can work hard on improving my technique, fitness and approach to racing. If anything, it’s strengthened my drive to work harder and perform better on my stocker, with the hope of a more permanent shift up into the superbike class if Hawk just happen to have a spare GSX-R1000 SBK knocking around the workshop. There’s no harm in dreaming.Enjoy more Fast Bikes reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.