So after 11 years of not racing, comes this call from an old mate and ex-racing rival, now turned z-list journo celebrity; MCN road tester Michael Neeves. “alright mate, I’ve got an offer to go to Zolder to race an FZR600 in the No Budget Cup, I think I need a team mate – if I need someone, are you interested?”
“erm, let me think about that YES!”
See the thing is, Neevesy and I used to race FZR600’s against each other back in 1993 (see pic, yup, pink one is mine), so this little excursion made a lot of sense, journalistically as well as on a matey basis.
Neevesy, Toosmooth at Snetterton's Bombhole 1993
Now getting this ride wasn’t a done deal at this point, but I did mention to him that it might be worth telling them that it was me; reason being I was just at the cusp of a decision on whether or not Visorvision was going to sponsor them for their 2010 UK round! Good timing as it turned out. The deal was done inside 10 minutes the news broken to me by a text saying – “ok team mate, we’re in!”
Zolder – throwback to the 70’s!
Zolder – I’d heard talk of the track from Calvin Hogan a while back, Calvin raced World Endurance, and all I knew was it was in Belgium and used by endurance promoters.
Wikipedia – don’t you love it? Said this:
“Built in 1963, Zolder hosted the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix on 10 separate occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the 1980 Belgian motorcycle Grand Prix. The F1 circus moved to Zolder after Spa-Francorchamps was deemed too fast and too dangerous. It switched between Nivelles-Baulers for 4 years until Nivelles was considered boring by the F1 community. From 1975 to 1982, Zolder was the location of the Belgian Grand Prix. Unfortunately, Zolder is probably best remembered as the place Gilles Villeneuve lost his life during qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix, an event that signified the beginning of the end for the Flemish circuit as a Formula One venue”
Sounded promising. I like throwbacks to a different age, Zolder didn’t disappoint.
The circuit itself is a reasonable but not trifling 175 miles from Calais, and you have to endure chunks of Belgian Motorway overbanding and Brussels ring road traffic to get there, that said we left enough time and knocked the miles off comfortably.
When we got to the track we bumped into Jane and Renaud at the back of the huge pit building. First Impressions of the pits; old, high, really felt more like standing outside of a football stadium at the back of the garages. A walk through the garages revealed that they were low, moody, unrenovated and very dark. They opened out onto a broad pit lane with a glazed wall equipped with viewing slots to the track. The opposite side of pit straight was occupied by many layers of rising steps of Football style concrete terracing. Even higher than that stood a Hotel, and rising above that stood a full treeline.This gave the straight this wonderful feeling of being the totally enclosed and overlooked floor of a Colosseum…! Atmospheric? – you bet. Excellent!
The front of the pit buildings matched the character of the place by being painted a bright red, with CocaCola and other sponsorship adorned heavily around the place – it reeked of racing from another age, and in that, it was marvellous.
Zolder – the track
A decent highside short of 2.5 miles, the consensus seems to be that Zolder is a bit like the back of Brands Hatch GP circuit. What it does have a lot more than the Kent track though is braking zones, and most of the 5 braking zones are frankly, pretty heavy (more on that later….)
There’s a couple of elevation changes over blind corners, one quite severe which on a 1000 would have you thinking about managing it with a feathered throttle or an early gearshift, but on a 600 (of mid 90’s vintage at least) could be attacked wide open.
We didn’t get much practice before qualifying, but as with all NBC events, there is a trackday dovetailed with the racing for anyone to enjoy. You can’t buy extra practice in these sessions on your racebike (designed to keep costs down) so I took my R1 out, complete with Oxford Products tailpack base still bungeed in place! This was as much to remind me that I had to ride this bike home in 8 hours time, and maybe just a tad to flirt with other track users psyche that I’d ridden here, I’m riding home, and I’ve just ridden past you! (puerile, childish nonsense. As usual!)
2 sessions on a slippery but drying track completed, R1 still in one piece and a best time of a 1’55.4 was signalled from our 2 non riding crew members, Paul and Keith. This was favourable, being only a fairly gentle ride that was about 5 seconds off of a good time for a 600 under race conditions. Neevesy had borrowed a new XJ600 Yamaha for these sessions, which he made zing nicely around the corners as usual.
The Bike – Renaud’s 1994 FZR600
Renaud's gorgeous FZR600R - our ride for the No Budget Cup
This FZR was the later <anorak mode> 4JH or “foxeye” model, mimicing very much the size and shape of it’s contemporary brother the YZF750 (they do in fact share tanks, they are that similar) </anorak mode> Renaud had built this for the NBC some years before, and as such it was standard engined, with a BIG R1 Silencer, but it wore an almost new Stock shock, and R6 wheels and brakes from a 2005 model. It’s looks and comfort benefitted from an R7 tailpiece which was jacked up to increase the bum to peg distance, and the whole thing wore a very very snazzy Orange speedblock paintjob.
Qualifying – a time for self doubt; have I still got it? the mojo? the vibe? the balls?…!
Come qualifying Neevesy went out on the FZR first. Qualifying lasts an hour, and we had new tyres fitted which Neevesy had the job of scrubbing in. These tyres also had the entire 3 hour race ahead of them (qualifying and race – 1 set of tyres, NBC rules) We were in the under 600 class, and because of full grids they split the 1000/600 races in Belgium, so we only had other 600’s (and certain class compatible others) out on track with us. After a few gentle laps Neevesy pulled the pin and we flew up the timing screens to top spot! This settled down to 2nd, before I took over. He had posted laps somewhere in the 1’51’s
I hopped onto the 600 in the pitlane in a ‘hotswap’ with Neevesy. After riding my R1 half an hour before the 600 made me chuckle as soon as I pulled away – light, high perch, wide bars and really racy – as I went through the long pit exit lane corner to get out on track I was already mumbling to myself “oooh yes, you are beautiful” sounds corny, but it turned and railed just so easily and perfectly….!
Well, I clicked with it – it made almost no noise thanks to a silencer that was about half it’s whole weight (which is needed at Zolder as it’s a 95dB drive by at 2 constantly monitored points on the track) and it made almost no power, probably thanks to the same silencer! So it became clear it was going to be about handling and brakes, because sure as hell it didn’t really go that fast!
Second lap I got the signal I had done a 1’52.7 – I was mega-pleased with this, instantly shaven nearly 3 seconds off my R1 time in the first flying lap. 11 years off a racebike, no problem! cool!
I cracked on and ended up not going that much faster before handing back to Neevesy, for what should have been a 15 min session and then me getting another swap for another 15 – didn’t really work out like that, as a little timing, swap allowance miscalculation meant we’d eaten nearly all the time for my last session. Bummer, I had been thinking about the things I needed to do, stuck quietly at the back of the garage in the chair sipping water, but I only got the briefest time to have a crack.
Qualifying result = 8th out of 46 – not too shabby!