EVER WONDERED JUST WHAT A RIDER DOES OVER A RACE WEEKEND? 2020 WAS DIFFERENT TO ALMOST EVERY OTHER YEAR BUT 2021 IS SHOWING SIGNS OF NORMALITY WITH FANS RETURNING IN THEIR THOUSANDS
A typical race weekend begins on a Thursday when the majority of the paddock arrives at the circuit to set up camp. Whether caravan, camper or a big RV complete with slide-outs and all mod cons available, it's home for the weekend and a place of solitude and reflection when things don't quite go their way or somewhere more down to earth for those more family orientated, a place to put any issues or doubts to the back of the mind and focus on those who matter most.
Before the action begins on track, Thursday is the perfect opportunity to get the team together to discuss a plan of action for the days to come as well as to talk through any niggles or injuries the rider may have, what was learned from the last round and ultimately what can be improved on from both man and machine and, of course, because this is Great Britain, the all-important weather forecast.
Free Practice 1 on Friday afternoon is the first opportunity to get the bike and rider familiar with the circuit. Many teams will have data from previous visits to the track however a change in rider or manufacturer means a few steps back on the hunt for the perfect chassis set up. With it being only the first day the track will need time to get 'rubbered in', the more action the track sees, the more rubber is laid down on the asphalt which helps with tyre grip - a track without a lot of rubber down is referred to as 'green'.
Free Practice 2 is held on Saturday morning and by this time the track will have had multiple sessions on it and a good amount of rubber will be present to aid corner entry and exit and with it, faster lap times will come... in theory, at least. Changes will have been made between sessions after discussions between rider and crew chief. During a session, the rider will return to the garage and give his opinion on what he feels from the machine and its behaviour in certain parts of the track, then the Crew Chief looks at the data after the session and often tells the rider he is wrong and he just needs to change the way he's riding... Sometimes only subtle changes in suspension are all that is required to make the difference for a strong, consistent lap time however sometimes it takes metaphorically turning the bike upside down overnight to get the right feeling, and as any rider will tell you, feel is everything on a racing motorcycle.
Saturday afternoon is where things get serious; Free Practice 2 was the final opportunity to make those all-important changes to the machine to get the very best from it before qualifying gets underway around lunchtime. Every last ounce of data will be used to give the rider exactly what he wants; they're a unique bunch and every rider is different in their needs and riding style. Something worth noting is that in the event of Qualifying being cancelled due to climatic conditions, the combined times for Free Practice will form the grid for Race 1.
Those 25 minutes somewhere around Saturday lunchtime are some of the most intense minutes of the weekend, races can be won and lost in qualifying alone. Every ounce of strength is used to muscle a fire-breathing Superbike around a lap in the fastest possible time. Grid position is crucial for the opening race of the weekend with subsequent grip positions being decided on fastest race laps, almost as crucial as not crashing during the session as too much damage will end proceedings there and then.
The biggest difference this season will be the return of the fans; it was unusual for everyone to see the grass banks and paddock so empty compared to the usual massed ranks of spectators lining the circuit. No adulation for the riders on their slow down lap other than from the excellent Racesafe marshals; no pit lane walk, where signing endless posters and programmes for the starry-eyed young and old alike and a quick word here and there as someone's favourite rider is all part of the weekend on both sides of the fence.
Then, before they know it, the reason why they're all there, it's time to race. Rituals and superstitions are carried out up and down pit lane - left boot first, a kiss of the back protector, a lucky pair of underpants or a loving tap on the fuel tank of the bike (or all of those things!) all help prepare mentally for the challenge ahead. 20+ laps of cut and thrust, racecraft that's honed to fight for the best position possible while all the time managing a full fuel load and the Pirelli tyres squirming and protesting beneath them. The physical effort of racing a Superbike is something most mere mortals will never experience but one look at a rider removing his helmet after a race tells you all you need to know - it's brutal.
Once the race is over, a podium appearance and a trophy for their efforts if they're fast enough, a debrief with their crew chief and offering an endless list of reasons/excuses for not finishing higher than they did before trying to work out how to make tomorrow better when they have to do it all again.