Until last Tuesday my main experience piloting a motorcycle was renting a Honda C90, the weapon of choice for pizza delivery riders worldwide, and wobbling my way around the Thai island of Koh Samui for an afternoon.
I did also once ride pillion through late night Beirut on a Vespa - although that sounds more hazardous than it actually was. So when I found myself donning protective gear at Britain’s famous Silverstone circuit, you might say I wasn’t exactly prepared.
The MotoGP circus has arrived in the UK, as Silverstone plays host to the all-conquering world champion Marc Marquez – as well as several British racers, eager for success at their home race. Last week I joined three of these British riders for a special track day at the circuit.
First off, I was tutored on the basics of riding a low-powered scooter. I weaved my way around some traffic cones, practiced stopping, and had a little drag race up and down the car park. Then I was unleashed on the circuit itself - doing half a lap of Silverstone and reaching extraordinary speeds of up to 35mph. So far, so easy; but this was a mere hors d’oeuvre for the main course.
My basic body armor was replaced by a full leather race suit, my shoes substituted for armored boots, and I climbed warily on to the back of a specially adapted Yamaha R1 (about the closest thing you’ll find to a road-legal MotoGP bike), behind Tech 3 Yamaha rider Bradley Smith.
After some initial confusion over which foot-pegs to put my boots on, Smith hit the starter button and the 185mph bike snarled into life. “You ready?” asked the 23-year-old rider. I offered a slightly wavering “Yes.” “Okay, visor down, let’s go,” he said.
I glanced over and could see Gresini Honda’s Scott Redding, carrying another nervous looking pillion passenger, shoot Smith a wry grin. I was about to get a taste of what it’s like to be a MotoGP racer.
I knew a fair bit about the physical training riders put themselves through - daily gym sessions alongside punishing cycling and running regimes - and within seconds I fully understood why.
Accelerating out of the pit lane, Smith drew alongside Redding and gunned the bike’s 1000cc engine. The machine catapulted forward, hurtling to the first bend, before a grab of the brakes wrenched it down to cornering speed. The Yamaha had a small set of handlebars for me to hold, mounted on the fuel tank, and beneath my armoured gloves I’m sure my knuckles were glowing white at this point.
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Again the R1 lunged forwards, firing its way into the Wellington Straight. Squinting through my visor past Smith’s crash helmet the scenery around me blurred. Rounding the famous Brooklands Corner, on to the Luffield hairpin, Smith leaned the bike hard to the right, and I winced as the candy striped track kerb rushed up to greet my grimacing face.
When we blasted through the long, swift Woodcote Corner and back on to the Pits Straight I’m told we touched 150mph, before more gut-wrenching braking drew us back down to cornering velocity. Every muscle in my arms strained, and off we went again.
When we finally came to a stop in the pits, I eased myself out of the seat. “What did you think?” asked Smith. “Wow.” I said. “It’s not the acceleration, it’s the braking!” I exclaimed. “I know!” Smith answered, wide eyed, as if he’d just experienced it for the first time too.
MotoGP riders reach well over 200mph during a race, and this year’s Silverstone contest will take place over 20 laps - we’d had just a few circuits of half a lap.
Ducati’s Cal Crutchlow, also at the event, reminded us that he finished sixth in 2012 while riding with a broken ankle; an incredible, seemingly impossible achievement. I now know a little more about just how tough these two wheeled gladiators are.
CNN joined a track day organized by the UK’s MotoGP broadcaster BT Sport.
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