That's racing - Take 2

August 30th, 2017

Yesterday was another day that, on the surface, should make one wonder why I bother with this game.

The Classic Superbike race was scheduled for Monday 28th Aug, but the day dawned very foggy, and before the fog lifted the rain arrived. The Clerk of the Course, Gary Thompson, is pretty good at judging the probabilities with the weather, and he cancelled the days racing before midday. So our race would be on the Tuesday. This presented its own problems, as we were booked on the ferry for Tuesday evening; I'd booked this for this very scenario, but still, racing in the afternoon and then stricking camp and loading the vans for a 7:45pm ferry would be a tall order. So I phoned the Steam Packet and managed to push our crossings to the next day (with a combination of freight and passenger ships). There was nothing to do for the rest of the day, so we busied ourselves doing just that.

Race day dawned dry and fog-free, but cold. Still, I knew I wouldn't be cold when racing the ZXR750. Roads closed later than usual, at 11:30, due, I'm told, to the requirements of the local crematoria. But the Junior Classic got away at midday, and then there was a parade lap and we were scheduled for 14:40; there was a slight delay, but the front guys started at 14:50. I'd only qualified 48th (out of 74), so with the bikes starting at 10 second intervals, I had a fair wait until it was my turn (8 minutes, to be precises). But I was soon paddling the bike to the line, the manx flag was waved and I was away down Bray Hill again.

I'm starting to feel quite relaxed riding the TT course, and I'm not sure whether that's a good or bad thing. Still, I hoped to pick up some pace on the 109mph lap I did in practice (which was already the fastest I'd been on this bike), and I also knew that Dave Madsen-Mygdal was starting just one place and 10 seconds behind me; Dave has the record for the most starts on the TT course, and I knew he'd be chasing me down. But I had someone to chase myself - Forest Dunn, #67, on a Suzuki had started in front of me, and as I braked for Quarterbridge I could see him rounding the corner in front, which is always a good sign. I chased him along the very fast early sections of the lap, making ground slowly but surely; this was a good sign itself, as there was no recurence of the fuelling problem we'd experienced at top speed during practice - the last fix we'd found had obviously made the difference. As we went through the twisty Glen Helen section he came noticeably closer, and as I headed up Creg Willys Hill I was on him, and passed easily enough along Cronk-y-Voddy. I got my head down, hitting my marks and references, and felt good. But I wasn't as fast as I thought I was, or I'd provided a tow for him, because as we braked into Parliament Square in Ramsey, some 10 miles later, he came alongside and went back ahead.

This was nothing to worry about, and I was still 8 or 9 seconds ahead of Forest on corrected time (as he'd started 10 seconds ahead of me). I chased him up the mountain, planning when to get back in front, but as we headed onto the Mountain Mile two other bikes came past me - Dave Madsen-Mygdal on his venerable Honda RC30 (5 years older than my 25 year-old Kawasaki) and Michael Russell on another ZXR like me. Michael had caught Dave too, and was quite forceful in getting past Forest at the Veranda. Dave made his way past too on the run to the 33rd, and this meant that if I wanted to learn anything from Dave (which I did), I needed to stay in touch. I got great drive through Kate's Cottage and outbraked Forest into the Creg. But it was to no avail - Dave was just plain faster than me, and crept away, corner by corner. Still, I now had my head down and a clear road in front of me. I flashed past the pits, giving my crew a thumbs up, intended to indicate that the fuelling problem was resolved (which they correctly interpreted) and headed out on lap two.

This lap was much lonelier - I didn't catch anyone, and no one caught me. But it was good all the same, and I managed to keep up my pace (more later). Some 20 minutes later I was back at the pits, this time for a fuel stop - we were halfway through the race. Simon and Alex performed flawlessly - fuel went in, I had a drink, Simon cleaned my visor, and around 30 seconds later I was heading back out again. While stopped, I saw that James Ford was stopped just in front of me, also getting fuel - he'd started 20 seconds in front of me, so I'd also definitely made time on him. I used my fancy pit-lane speed-limiter (which I'd tested in practice) and flicked it off as I crossed the pit lane exit, causing the bike to wheelie enthusiastically, and then we were heading down Bray Hill once more. I took a little care at Quarterbridge, mindful of the fresh tank full of fuel, and then fired the bike towards Union Mills. I've decided that riding the TZ250, which carries so much corner speed, has improved my riding on the big bike - I was changing down less, and carrying more speed everywhere, or so I thought. As I crested the start of the Cronk-y-Voddy straight, I saw a bike in front of me - it was James Ford, and I was winding him in. He was noticeably closer as we entered Kirkmichael, and I knew I'd be on him soon.

Or so I thought. On the exit of Kirkmichael, there was a noticeable vibration from the bike. At first I didn't know what it was, and was actually scared it was something on the cycle parts, which might cause a crash, but it quickly got worse and started to sap engine power - it was an engine problem. As I headed through Bishopscourt it was obvious that I was going to have to retire, and I just hoped to get to Ballaugh, a mile up the road (and which can be accessed from outside the circuit). I only just made it - as I changed down, the engine died, and I coasted in. Damn damn damn.

I contacted my crew, Alex came to get me, we recovered back to the pits after the race, and then headed to the beer tent to drown our sorrows. This might seem like a disaster - two starts and two DNFs ('did not finish'). But racing on the TT course is not like that - I primarily go there to ride the fantastic and challenging circuit, and I'd done plenty of laps in practice. And I'd found good speed too - the first two laps of the race on the 750 had both been at 111mph, which is the fastest I've been on that bike by some margin - last year my fastest lap was 108mph. And the TZ250 had been reliable, with none of the problems from last year, and I'd retired on that for a trivial and stupid reason. Most importantly, we'd had fun as a team, enjoying the camaraderie that comes from living and working together in the paddock. And lastly, it'd been safe - I had no 'moments', and in fact the whole race meeting had been relatively incident-free, with only a couple of people taking a tumble, and no serious injuries.

But I'm still cheesed off, generally, and will be back next year!

Have we found the problem?

August 28th, 2017

After the retirement in the race, and then the drinking and the hangovers, on Sunday morning our attention turned to addressing the ongoing problem with fuel starvation at peak speed and revs on the ZXR750.  By luck I'd met Robbie Sylvester in the beer tent the night before - he'd worked with Slick Bass many times over the years, and knows racing bikes inside out. He told me that the flat slide carbs on the ZXR have microfilters above the float bowls, and these can sometimes get blocked.  I didn't know this, so it gave us another avenue to investigate.  I got myself a good strong cup of tea and started.  Race bikes are usually great to work on, as everything is designed for access, and there's nothing unnecessary in the way. The carbs were soon off, and I cleared space on our bench, turned them upside down and removed the float bowls and floats with needle valves.  The needle valves sit in little brass seats, which located with o-rings in the carb body (Robbie advised that sometimes these o-rings perish and cause problems). I removed the first seat, which came out with its little microfilter sat on top, which is no bigger than your little finger nail. And there, sat on the filter, was a large-ish blob of something that should't be there - some flake of gasket goo or similar: 

So there was the smoking gun - again! We thought we'd found the problem with the loose connection to the fuel pump earlier in the week, so it just goes to show that fault-finding on complex mechanical systems is not straightforward.  We blew everything through with compressed air, swapped the fuel pump anyway, with one supplied by Manx friend Mark Bamford, and put it all back together, and went to the Jurby festival, which is always a good day out.  That evening I took the team to dinner in Ramsey, and then we stood outside in the warm evening air on the Ramsey quayside listening to live music.  Tomorrow (Monday 28th Aug) is our second race day, so let's see what fate brings.

LATE UPDATE: It's Monday morning, and the Island is covered in fog.  Racing is delayed until it lifts.  If it does lift; if not, I guess we'll be racing on Tuesday.

That's Racing

August 28th, 2017

The first race day of the Classic TT dawned bright and sunny. After being relatively relaxed all week, I definitely had race day nerves today, evidenced by multiple trips to the loo.

I didn't blog about the last practice on Friday, so here's a quick precis - I took the TZ round for a lap, with fresh slicks, a new chain, correctly adjusted gear linkage, etc, and it was all fine. I still wasn't on the pace I wanted, lapping at 101mph - I really want to be doing 105mph or faster. But the bike was all good. I then came in to take the 750 out for a quick lap to check that the fuelling problem had been fixed - but as I rode the bike to the start line, they closed the gate! The fog had come down on the mountain, and the practice was brought to a premature close. Curses. But there was a lap for Superbike practice on Saturday, before the Lightweight (250) race, so we had another chance.

Back to race day. We had two bikes to scrutineer, and then the pit crew had to fill the fuel filler in our alloted pit with 40 litres of premix (AvGas plus two-stroke oil) - 20 litres for the fuelling stop, and 20 to provide a head of pressure, as the refuelling rigs are gravity fed. The programme was delayed for a few reasons, so I spent a while standing in parc ferme in my leathers, but eventually got out on the 750, confident that we'd fixed the fuelling problem. But on the top speed run through Glen Vine and Crosby, it reared its head again - exactly the same. Curses. Instead of doing around 150mph down Sulby Straight, the timing system reported 125mph. But, taking a positive from a negative, as I always try and do, my lap time was only 6 seconds slower (which equates to about 0.5mph) and in some sections I was actually faster than my 'fast lap' on Thursday. Anyway, this was a problem for another day - next up was the Classic Lightweight race, on my Yamaha TZ250.

My start number was 36 i.e. I was the 36th fastest of the field (of around 60). Midfield is fine by me. Unlike in practice, where we start in pairs, for the races you start individually. Lining up on Glencrutchery Road is always an amazing sensation - so much history here. I'm lining up in the same place as some all-times greats of the sport - Hailwood, Agostini, Dunlop, Fogarty, McGuiness... yet another reason why I love racing here so much. But this sensation is also matched with the knowledge of what comes next - the plunge down Bray Hill, and four laps (which is 151 miles) of the TT course. But I was soon paddling forward with the line of starters, away at 10 second intervals, and then it was my turn, the Manx flag was waved and I was off.

It was nearly a very inauspicious start, as I'd put a new clutch in that morning (as advised by Billy Craine and Andy Broughton) and it bit a little more suddenly that I expected and I damn near stalled it. But I didn't and got away ok, and headed down Bray Hill. I caught a glimpse of two bikes that had started in front of me as I braked for Quarter Bridge, and was hopeful that I'd have someone to chase...I saw them again as they peeled into Braddan Bridge, but that was the last I saw of them! I then did a lap all by myself, catching no one, and being caught by no one. The bike was running well, and I was still learning how to ride it on the TT course. Every corner needs the right gear, and I was still putting together the mental map of the gear changes required.

I flashed past the pits to start lap two, giving my crew a 'thumbs up' as I went (though I later found they thought I'd been shaking my fist). Lap two was mostly much the same, until the end of Sulby Straight where another bike, #50 I think, out-braked me into Sulby Bridge. As I knew he'd made at least 10 seconds on me, there's no point getting race-y with him, but he provided a useful reference point for me to focus on. And it seemed he didn't like the bumpy section from Ginger Hall to Ramsey much, as I quickly closed up on him, and in the right left kink before Miln Town Cottage (does it have a name?) he slowed so much that I had no choice but to go back past him. I got my head down and tried to not hold him up (he had made 10 seconds on me, after all) and we flew through School House, into Parliament Square and up to Ramsey hairpin. I left plenty of space in the hairpin as I slipped the clutch on the way out, but he was still behind me as I accelerated up towards the Waterworks, grabbing gears until...oops, where's the gearlever? I looked down, and the gear linkage had broken. My race was done. Damn.

I pulled to the side and put the bike on the pavement, safely behind a bale, and walked down to the marshals point. They looked after me, as marshals always do with retirements, and when the race ended, I was able to paddle the bike down the hill to the slip road inside the hairpin and get access to the coast road. I'd already told the team what had happened, and Alex was there with the van already. We drove back round to the paddock, unloaded the van, and all had slightly glum faces. But, as the old saying goes - "That's Racing". Compared to what happened last year, when the bike seized and threw me up the road at over 120mph, a broken gear linkage was very little cause for misery. I'd put Loctite on the thread of the bolt that had come loose, and checked it for tightness that morning too!

Here's a photo of the failed linkage

TZ broken gearchange

I showered, and went to the beer tent with the team. We paused to eat, and went back to drinking, as is traditional after a race, whatever happens.

Gremlins fixed...we hope

August 25th, 2017

I'm writing this just before the last evening of practice.  

After the problems in yesterday's practice, we set to this morning.  The problem with the ZXR750 was found fairly quickly - one of the wires in the connector that powers the fuel pump had started to pull out.  So that was easily fixed.

The TZ gear change now had two slightly bent rose joints, down to my lead foot and misadjustment.  I replaced them, set it up nicely, tested it with the engine running and me sat on the bike with my boots on.  So that's good too.

Let's hope the weather holds...

Gremlins raise their head

August 24th, 2017

I'm a bit behind with this blog, so a couple of quick updates coming up.

After the great practice session on Tuesday night, when I got in two laps in each bike, something had to go wrong...and it did.  We'd had a brief electrical gremlin on the ZXR when I brought it in on Tuesday - Simon turned the kill switch off, and the starter motor ran!  I was out on the TZ when this happened, so only heard about it after the event, and the guys hadn't been able to replicate it.  But in parc ferme on Wednesday, with minutes to go before practice started, the problem re-0ccurred.  Fortunately, the TZ250 was sat next to it, tyre warmers on, so I went out on that, and the guys wheeled the ZXR back to the awning.

I did two good laps on the TZ, and was starting to learn the course again on it - it's quite different than on the ZXR!  You have to be in the right gear at the right time, all the time...but when you are, it's sublime.  The faster of the two laps was only 102mph, but at least we were going in the right direction.  However, I also had a few missed gears, which made me fear for the gearbox, so I rang Andy Broughton when I got back, and arranged to take it to him to look at the next day.

The next morning we were up and at it. I took the TZ across to Ramsey, and we spent about four hours on it.  Andy pulled the gearbox out, gave it a close inspection, and pronounced it absolutely fine.  So the finger of suspicion pointed to the gearchange linkage, and the bloke with the size 10 boots working it (me).  The gearchange is designed to work in 'race pattern', one up and five down (if you don't understand how motorcycle sequential gearboxes work, you can skip this bit).  I'm a road-rider at heart, and always use 'road pattern', which is one down and five up.  So I have the actuator on the gear shaft 180 degrees out from where it's meant to be, which is OK, but not optimal.  So I tweaked it a bit - more later.  Andy also pulled the heads off, and checked the exhaust ports - while doing this, he tested the plug caps, and found one was registering way too high a resitance.  So new plug caps were added to the shopping list.  We put the bike back together, and I headed back to the awning.

While I was TZ-ing, I got a message from Simon and the guys looking at the ZXR.  It was this picture, with the message "Found the culprit!":

ZXR starter culprit

I rushed back to the paddock with the TZ, with a list of jobs.  I wanted to put a new chain on, change the main jet in the front cylinder back to a 410 (based on Andy's advice), fit the wheels with new slicks that the guys had had fitted in the paddock - all in an hour or so.  Which, of course we did, but we did forget to check one thing...can you guess what it is yet?

Practice got away on time, and I went out on the ZXR first, as normal.  My starting partner was James Ford, number 60, on his Kawasaki ZXR750, which seems to be just as fast and no faster - we towed each other round, both passing two or three times, and finishing within a second of each other too.  I set the fastest lap I've ever done on the ZXR, at 109.5mph, which I'm very pleased with.  I pulled in, chatted with the boys for two mins, deciding whether to do another lap on the ZXR, or take the TZ out.  I elected to take the ZXR, and this time the gremlins appeared - along the flat out sections through Glen Vine and Crosby, it felt like it was being starved of fuel.  It was ok through the slower cornes of Glen Helen, but started playing up again along Cronk-y-voddy and through Barragarrow.  I stopped at Kirk Michael and rode back on the public roads (this is legal! Here I was, riding a full on race bike in the traffic!).  I got back to the paddock with a good 40 minutes of the second practice session remaining, and got on the TZ and headed out.  It instantly felt crisper and faster - replacing the dodgy plug cap had evidently made a big difference. I flew down to Quarter Bridge, and tried to change down...and I couldn't!  We hadn't checked the adjustments I'd made to the gearchange linkage with me sat on the bike, with boots on.  I could just about stamp down through the gears, but there was no way I could do another 36 miles like that, so I turned off at Quarter Bridge and rode back to the paddock again - this time only a mile or so.  I had planned to fix the linkage and get back out...but the session had been cancelled due to bad visibility with low cloud at the top of the mountain.  

Taking positives from a mixed evening - I'd done one very good lap (for me) on the ZXR, and the TZ felt much much better in the 1 and half miles I rode it.  Tomorrow we need to fix the fuel system on the ZXR, and treble check the gear linkage on the TZ.  And then get out in the evening for the last practice session.