Motorbike race.

Boy's Own Stuff

The story of SAC Mark Harper’s assault on the 2006 BEMSEE Minitwins Championship.

I could see the sky quite clearly though my visor and all around me was the sound of motorcycles. Aside from that, it was strangely peaceful for what seemed like an eternity. Much like when you stub your toe though, you know that eventually the pain will travel back from your brain and it will hurt. It’s just a matter of time. Then I landed and it all went dark. My bike, post high side, was down and out. My leathers were somewhat tatty. And I was buried deep in the tyre wall, relatively unharmed but ready for an early bath. Season over.

Motorbike race. Whilst there are those in the RAF who partake in sports such as football or rugby, I chose motorcycle racing. Like many people I had taken part in track days and was thus no stranger to race circuits. I started racing in 2003 but could only afford one or two races and 2004 didn’t happen at all from a racing perspective. In 2005 I raced in only one meeting as again the class I was in proved way too expensive. That’s when I found out about the BEMSEE Minitwins championship. Restricted to 72bhp with no engine tuning allowed, it sounded just right as it appeared to be within my budget at £3K-5K for a full season – the cost of the bike of course was in addition to this.  Having sourced a bike over the winter of 05/06, I started to fettle it to full race spec.  Professional suspension tuning, upgrading brakes and Dyno time to perfect the fueling were just some of the pre-season requirements – the actual list was endless. Finally, the bike was ready and I had a season of 7 races lined-up for which I would travel to circuits across the UK. Race day is much the same at all circuits, although there are times when it feels as if the actual racing is the easy bit. Up at 0645 to prep the bike and check the weather, making sure that the wet set-up and necessary kit is ready if required. Grab a quick cup of tea and take the bike, leathers and helmet down to scrutineering for a safety check. And then off to ‘sign on’. Pick up the race programme and practice pass, pick up the transponder (this identifies the bike and thus automatically communicates lap times and track position to race control), and finally return to the caravan to get mentally prepared. Check tyre pressures, put the tyre warmers on and check the fuel. Before you know it practice comes around - 10 minutes or so to test any last minute adjustments or, if you’re like me on a limited budget, actually practise. Practice ends and its time for the obligatory toilet stop before the first race. Before long it’s time to go to the grid with almost 40 other riders, sometimes near the back with the front row out of sight. The red light comes on and there is a deafening sound. The field of eager riders all rev up preparing for the start. The lights go out, the ground shakes. We’re racing.

Snetterton – Round One

This was the first time I had ridden the bike in anger and what a difference the bodywork and all the modifications had made. In race one I got a great start, head down going as hard as I could towards the first corner. Surrounded by 36 other bikes I couldn’t see the braking markers and everyone in front of me seemed to be slowing down a fair bit quicker than I was. I had over-run my braking marker and had to grab a handful of brakes in a desperate attempt not to cause the first crash of the season. Sideways on, rear wheel squealing, I somehow avoided collecting anyone. Clearly I didn’t yet have full confidence in the bike. How late could I brake? How far could I lean? And in the back of my head was, “it’s your first race, just don’t crash”. And I didn’t, although inevitably as the season went on, I would. Eight laps into the season then and I had finished my first race in 25th place. In race 2 the racing was as close as ever, at times too close for comfort. I managed 21st place. The following day I had a further 2 races. In race 3 I was 20th, but race 4 was total carnage. As the field filtered into the first corner there was a domino effect of riders cannoning into each other. Somehow I survived unscathed, but the race was red-flagged so that injured riders could be removed to the medical area. After the restart, I finished in 15th place – my first points of the season. There were a lot of very quick and talented riders in this championship. It was going to be a tough year.

Lydden Hill – Round 2

April at Lydden, and after finishing work on Friday it was a mad rush to get the caravan packed with all the kit, get the bike on the trailer and meet up with the rest of my team.
We arrived at midnight with only limited space remaining in the paddock. A muddy field was our only option and by 2am the awning was finally up and everything was unloaded ready for race day. We got little sleep. Lydden is a small stop/start track with many tight corners. Having missed the practice, the right set-up was hard to come by. Both races on the Saturday felt good but I could only manage two 18th places. Sunday went a little better and I came in 15th and 14th bringing yet more points.

Mallory Park – Round 3

Motorbike race. I knew for the next round I needed to get more practice, so I booked what proved to be a worthwhile test day. Now full of confidence, my season was about to really kick off. Mallory has a number of tricky chicanes which make the track extremely demanding – as I would shortly find out. From 21st on the grid, a position based on my previous results, I had a fantastic race one, crossing the finish line in 9th place. Race 2 was even better. Following a great start, I managed to keep the lead group in sight. The bike felt perfect and my practice day was really paying off. I finished the race in an unbelievable 5th place. I was happy but, buoyed by my success, I felt I could go even quicker; something this weekend had clicked into place and I was enjoying having full confidence in the bike, tyres and, more importantly, myself. My sponsor was down for the weekend too so after a little celebration we got our heads down. Tomorrow would be the first time that I had started on the second row. Tomorrow became race day and it was wet. On wet tyres the bike had excellent balance and was a joy to ride quickly. Rain on! It did, albeit on and off which turned the whole affair into a complete lottery. In these conditions the decision to go with wets or dry tyres is always an almost impossible one to make. I chose wets and prayed for more rain. On the warm-up lap the track felt pretty dry, which was not good as wet tyres on a dry track are oh-so-slow and can leave the tyres fit only for rope swings. As we came to the grid it felt good to be on the 2nd row though. And then the heavens opened and it started hailing. Manna, and, unbelievably, on the 1st of May. At the green light I slipped into 2nd place. After 2 laps I lost 2nd but kept pressing. On lap 5, exiting the Devil’s Elbow hard, I was passed and pushed back to 4th place. I pressed even harder, desperate to regain 3rd place back. Coming through the chicane leading onto the Esses, I got on the power far too early. First I was sideways, then I was upright but perpendicular to the track, and then, inevitably, I was on the grass. Third place was gone, but I regained my composure and managed to hang on to 4th – my best so far. In the last race of the day, on the wrong tyres, I messed up my first-ever front row start and on the last lap was involved in a collision which resulted in my bike briefly catching fire. Despite this though, I left Mallory Park with my head high in the clouds. I knew I was where I needed to be.

Snetterton – Round 5

Round 4 was held in France but due to lack of funds I was unable to attend. Thus it was back to Snetterton for round 5 and scorching British weather. In races one and two I managed 9th and 6th respectively. Race 3 the following day was even better, a 4th place putting me on the front row for race 4. From the start I was immediately on the pace but, leading onto the long back straight, I was out dragged by 2 other riders; I hung on in behind them, barely an inch from the rear wheel of the 2nd placed man. Suddenly, I was hit hard from the rear by the rider in 4th place who had completely miss-timed his braking point. Rejoining in 9th place, red mist thickening, I charged as hard as I could, taking every passing opportunity that arose. I clawed my way back up to 3rd before frustratingly dropping a place at the last corner. This meeting had been a real turning point and I came away from Snetterton with plenty of points. Yet more significantly, I had taken 6 seconds off my previous best lap time from the March round.

Progress.

Cadwell Park – Round 6

Cadwell Park was the next venue, and it turned out to be another superb weekend. Having placed 4th from a starting position of 12th in race one, I had earned myself a front row start for race 2. From the lights I led the race for around 2 or 3 laps until I was out-dragged down the back straight. At the last lap flag I pushed hard for the 3rd podium place. One chance too many though and I was on the grass, judiciously applying the throttle in a bid to regain the track but stay upright. Grass is never too grippy but wet grass is sans friction! Down I went and, with me, 13 certain points. For race 3 then I was 28th on the grid and only an aggressive start and hard ride would get me back at the business end of the field. At the start I went for the hole shot down the outside of a tightly bunched mid-pack. I found myself on the outside of the 1st corner, a long, fast, left-hander. On the very edge of adhesion and riding the long way round, I squeezed the throttle on gently. At the exit I had held it all together and at least half of the field were now behind me. Despite gaining on the front 7 riders I ran out of laps and had to settle for 8th. In race 4 I managed a 5th place finish.

Brands Hatch (Indy Circuit) – Round 7

More fine weather, only this time at Brands in the heart of the Kent countryside. For race 1 my No 13 bike was placed 13th on the grid – a good omen surely! I finished a superb 4th, the first 4 being separated by less than one second. Race 2, and I was straight up to 2nd place. No sooner was I there though than the bike lost power, forcing me back down the field and very quickly outside the top ten – this was not in the script. The engine cleared though as quickly as it had lost power and I pushed on to an eventual 7th place finish. My post race investigation revealed that the carburetor wasn’t keen on the hot conditions – once it had cooled a little though it came back on form. Day two, race 3 and I managed to equal my best 4th place finish. Race 4 though was special. I capitalized on a great start, pushing through to 3rd and lapping quick and consistently in order to open a gap of 3 seconds over the 4th-place man. More significantly, I was right on the tail of my nemesis, Ian Gilder, whom I had swapped paint with on many occasions already this season. As I came out of the right-hander onto the start-finish straight, I was in his slip stream and ready to make my move. I avoided the inside line as, due to his tight line exit, it would place me on the wrong side of the track for the rollercoaster first corner that is Paddock Hill bend. So I opted for the outside. Neck and neck at over 100mph, our arms touched as he nudged me closer to the outside of the track and the thin grass strip. Suddenly, his arm was touching my front brake and my rear wheel started to leave the ground in a high speed endo. I was on the brink of a scary ‘get off’ when Gilder suddenly reached his turn-in point. As he peeled in to the blindingly quick downhill right-hander, my front brake was released and my rear wheel returned to ground. I followed suit and quickly tore after him down into Paddock. In all the mayhem though Gilder had gained ½ a second on me, an advantage that was just too large to redress with one lap remaining. Despite this though, I finished in a fantastic 3rd position, on the podium at last, and after the race I went to claim my trophy.

Brands Hatch (GP Circuit) – Round 9

Round 8 was missed due to the ‘minor matter’ of a wedding to attend. My own! But it was back to Brands for the last meeting of the season and this time on the sublime Grand Prix circuit, arguably the best race track in the UK. This was the first time I had been around the whole track and it felt monstrous. As usual, the race would be run over 8 laps, albeit on the full circuit and thus longer than any race we had done so far. In the first 2 races I managed 4th in each, having had tooth and nail scraps with my on-track arch rival Ian Gilder in each. More importantly, I finished in front of him on both occasions. My confidence was sky high for day two and races 3 and 4. I got a flyer in race 3 and was a close 2nd looking for a way into the lead. I planned my pass for the lead on the preceding lap and when the time came things were all set up for the perfect pass. I had noted the leader’s tendency to run wide on one of the left-handers; sure enough the gap appeared as predicted and I duly filled it. For the next left though, I needed to keep a tight line and protect my place. I was hard over, turning as sharp as I could but keen to get on the power at the earliest possible moment for the run onto the ludicrously-fast back straight. Knee hard on the ground, I wound on the power. In an instant the rear let go and then gripped again as I gently released the throttle. I high-sided spectacularly, landing flat on my back and head at over 70mph and burying myself deep in the tyre wall. Disappointed but relatively unscathed, I watched the closing laps of the race from track side. My bike, however, was not so fortunate, nor for that matter were my leathers. Nursing a hole in my arm, I was forced to finish my season one race early and would sit out the last race as a spectator.

After a hugely enjoyable and successful season, I had finished a magnificent 11th in the championship, sufficient to earn a much-coveted trophy. Not only this, but I came away feeling that I was worthy of the competition and definitely one of the ‘fast boys’. Yet for all that, I could not have done it alone. My thanks go to the Royal Air Force, the Force Protection Centre where I work and my team, Redrocket Racing. Thanks also to: DJG Photography for capturing this great year; BEMSEE for a great season of racing; and to my fellow competitors in the Minitwins Championship who are a great bunch and, to a man, fiercely competitive. Good luck for next year to them. Finally, and most importantly, thanks to my wife, friends and family for supporting me from day one and making it all possible.
More information on the BEMSEE Minitwins Championship can be found at www.bemsee.net

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