OUR INTREPID BLOG-WRITER (BLOGS ARE STILL A THING, RIGHT?) AND MOTORSPORT EDITOR, DAVE NEAL, CONTINUES HIS QUEST TO BRING INFORMATION AND ENTERTAINMENT ON HIS TRAVELS AROUND THE UK, ALL IN THE NAME OF RICH ENERGY. AND YES, HE'S STILL TRYING...
Oulton Park in leafy Cheshire, that spectacular undulating, rollercoaster of a circuit that's loved by spectators and respected by riders was the scene for the third official British Superbike test this week. Sunshine and spectators, the two most important factors at any circuit, made a welcome return as the massed ranks of the Bennetts British Superbike Championship and its support classes put their machines through their paces in front of a sun-kissed audience who were delighted to be back trackside after 577 days starved of live action.
Now I don't know about you, but I fully believe testing is a bit of a mystery sometimes. Is the fastest man, really THE man? It's all a bit smoke and mirrors. Who ran what tyre? Just how much fuel was in the tank for that fast lap? And the biggest question of all, can they do it more than once?! Headline hunters or sandbaggers... And that's why I enjoy testing. Looking at the timesheets across all classes, raising an eyebrow or two as to who is where and knowing that, in the grand scheme of things, the first round back at Oulton Park at the end of June, those timesheets will probably be quite different - in true Eric Morecambe style, it'll be the same riders just not necessarily in the same order (take it away, Mr. Preview! Meh, they don't make comedy like that anymore)!
Oulton Park is an unforgiving circuit that demands the highest respect from the riders. It's arguably the most technical circuit on the calendar and nigh-on impossible to find the perfect set-up as the tarmac rises and dips through fast flowing corners, tight hairpins, along with two chicanes and the almost 90-degree last corner of Lodge that require the best of stability under braking to make progress through the field and ultimately that last lap lunge that will mean gravel or glory! Speaking with a handful of half-decent riders at the test (ok, they are really decent riders but let's not let them get above themselves...) and to a man, they all believe that NOT chasing a lap time around there is the fastest way to ride it.
Now, maybe I got lucky in that the three (not the RICH Energy OMG boys, who were quite on-hand if I'd actually wanted to ask them but chose to scout elsewhere just this once) all felt the same but I know for sure just by watching out on circuit that some riders really do fight for the lap time! Every rider is different, that's a given, but when you observe from the grass bank you can see the body language as they wrestle their machines into some form of basic compliance, and there is no better place to witness it other than Oulton Park.
Speaking of our own RICH Energy OMG Racing team, it was a successful, but ultimately painful outing for the BSB pair of Kyle Ryde and Brad Ray, the latter making his first appearance of the test season after a small pre-season procedure on his wrist making excellent headway on the times after his podium there last year, proof that the Kent man will be in the mix come June. For the former it was a day of ups and downs in more than the metaphorical sense. After heading the time sheets and sitting barely out of the top three, Kyle crashed at the super-fast Island bend late in the day but thankfully no serious damage done other than a quite sore foot and some fairly wide eyes! It was a difficult day for National Superstock contender Billy McConnell, the likeable Aussie just not finding the comfort zone to make the jump into the middle of the fastest guys of the day - but he will.
Jason O'Halloran topped the time sheets for the Bennetts British Superbike class and as one of the smoothest riders in the series, he looked almost effortless on track. There are a million variables (ish) that can separate a good lap time from one not so good but to see the difference in styles is fascinating. Confidence probably plays a big part, too... and after the start to testing the MCAMS Yamaha man has had, he's certainly not short on that - contrast that with his slightly smaller in stature teammate Tarran Mackenzie, who is like a flea on greyhound's back, as he does his best to tame a well-north of 200bhp Yamaha R1!
It's not the widest circuit on the calendar (that's Silverstone, obvs) and there isn't a rider out there that doesn't have an Oulton Park near-miss (or near-hit) story. I suspect Cadwell Park is similar but I'll look at that when we finally return there in late August (wahoooooo!), but the Cheshire Emerald (green, leafy, geddit?!) is one place, especially for riders who are used to, let's say, erm, a more 'sterile' degree of race circuit, Oulton really makes them sit up and take notice. Sylvain Guintoli, Davide Giuliano, Hector Barbera, and even former BSB Champion Scott Redding (despite being British, he'd never actually raced there) all had a difficult time there and this season it's the Honda duo of Mizuno and Takahashi that are the circuit new boys and, as the times show, they need a little more time to get accustomed to the Cheshire way.
I can't wait to be back at my joint-favorite circuit (being born and bred in Lincolnshire, Cadwell Park is ALWAYS my number one, regardless) in late June for Round 1 to hopefully catch more sunshine and see even more of you much-missed spectators to grace the banks of that most joyous of circuits.