This was it then, after leading the Championship all year it was all down to final round at Donington.
It was hard to believe I was here at the beginning of the year for testing in February and now I was here again for the final – and it was just as cold and damp.
The bike was all set and my knee was beginning to feel much better after my crash at Oulton Park. Practice started on Friday morning on a wet and windy circuit. Any other place the wet doesn’t normally bother me, but this place is a slippery one; you can be feeling good one minute and the next you can be sliding along the tarmac on your backside.
So, the first session was just about getting a feel for the new Dunlop wets I bought from Mark at Holbeach tyres. The second and third time out in the morning it was still wet so I pushed a bit more and managed to get a good feeling from the bike and tyres. I was happy with this set-up, because rain was forecast at some point over the weekend, but I was desperate for some dry time. After lunch, the track was dry and I was eager to get out on slicks, so off I went. ‘Let’s start getting to grips with this place now’ I thought, but by the time me and the other riders got to the Old Hairpin it was spitting with rain. All we could do was come in, grip was non-existent. Those who had spare bikes with Inters or Wets standing at the ready were able to continue. I had to sit it out. It made us think though, because the Suzuki SRAD was sitting there with nothing to do. I decided we should start thinking of it as a second machine instead of just a back-up. With the weather conditions constantly changing it might get me out of jail if I need a bike in a hurry in damp or mixed conditions. I had some fairly good, scrubbed in, Pirelli wets that are good for drying tracks that are a bit sketchy – maybe not quite as good as Dunlop’s in the very wet, but they’ll last better when it’s not.
Well, I got the Kawasaki out at last for a good run in the next session, but the track was very cold and I couldn’t really get going. I was coming in and out of the pit-lane making suspension changes on the go, not ideal, but I was running out of time.
Anyway, for the last session I decided to put the flat-slide carbs on to see if they make difference on the straights. Wow! don’t they just; but the twist-grip wasn’t working properly and my modification for a quick-twist throttle had broken and that was the end of that.
So, I ended up putting the standard carbs back on again. It was right old day, on with this, off with that, oil changes, wheel changes, seat and tank on and off more times than I can remember. We were exhausted and it was all down Mum’s pasta and a good night’s kip to revive us. I was so knackered I slept through the low flying airplanes, landing and taking off, at East Midlands Airport, unfortunately Mum and Dad did not!!
Saturday, qualifying and race day. I can’t deny it, I was nervous. It had been raining all night, the circuit was wet and we were out just before 10 o’clock. No rain was forecast but the track wasn’t drying quickly enough for dry tyres; not wet enough for wets either – I turned my attention to the Suzuki SRAD and told Dad to warm her up.
Two bikes helps to win a championship and Drew’s Suzuki SRAD proved to be very competitive when called upon.
It stuck me on the front row here before so why not now I thought. It did it again this time round too, and I qualified P2 with the returning Richard Steadman on P1 for SBK. Ryan was on row 4. If ever there was an opportunity for me to break away this was it.
I’d been having trouble with my quick-shifter on the last practice session the day before and I found out in the scrutineering bay that the clamp bolt was lose on the operating arm. I assumed that was the trouble, so I just tightened it up and thought nothing more of it. I was wrong.
I didn’t get a particularly good start, but Ryan must have got a blinder, because he was right next to me at Redgate. We all lined up nicely through Craner Curves with Steadman close by and a new comer – and unknown to me – Darren North on a nice looking Suzuki. We charged towards the Old Hairpin and the quick-shifter started cutting in when it shouldn’t – changing gear was almost impossible. I went backwards and then the quick shifter snapped leaving me without a gear lever and stuck in 5th. The lads in front cleared off and I thought I was going get blitzed from behind. Funny enough though, being unable to change gear was better than it cutting in and out all the time and I managed to keep Jordan Watling off my back until he got cramp and had to ease off. I rode it to 4th place keeping my times on a par with the front runners by using every bit of the tarmac – even the ripple strips at times. It was bitter blow and I lost 7 points in one hit. The difference now was down to 11. Not what I wanted at all.
Off with the broken quick-shifter rod and back to the old ways of gear changing again.
Race 2 was shit or bust really. It was still dry thankfully and I just had to go for it; if I was to go down, then I’d go down trying. This was no place for playing it safe anymore. When the lights went out I got a better start and shot straight to the front on the first lap and steadily pulled a lead over Richard Steadman on a smashing looking Yamaha FZR 750. At the flag, he was just behind me with Ryan on his SP2 finishing third, about 3 seconds adrift. It was a race I had to win and it put me 20 points ahead going into Sunday’s races. The bike was losing power towards the end though, backfiring on the overrun; it’s never done that before and it sounded as noisy as hell when I came in. Camchain tensioner alert! With Dad helping, I took it out and checked it was moving freely and put it all back. I started the engine and not a murmur. Job done, time for dinner.
I was much happier going out for a meal that night, and my appetite was beginning to return, not just for food, but the Championship as a whole. I felt that the next race was crucial. It was the weather once again that had me waiting to the last minute to make a decision.
We’d had rain again in the night so the warm up was wet. I had to go out and check the bike was running OK, but it wouldn’t warm up. It was so cold, I had to pull in and put Gaffa Tape over the radiator. It worked a treat and the bike felt good.
Winding on the power. A lot better when you can shift up and down.
The first race was another important one, because I knew if I could win, I would be 25 points in the clear and my hands would be closer to the trophy.
The weather was changing all the time, it was windy all morning and before our race it kept spitting on-and-off with rain. It was definitely not wet enough for wets and even too dry to take the Suzuki with the Pirellis. Last minute, I decided to go with slicks hoping it wouldn’t rain again. It was to be the right choice.
Dad can’t resist getting out the marker pens when I cross the line.
I don’t know why, but my instincts told me to run slicks – a bit risky at Donington – when everyone else was considering inters or wets. I just thought the track was too dry for that. It was gamble that paid off, although the first few laps were a bit dodgy – Richard Steadman nearly went down in front of me at the Old Hairpin with a massive slide – so I settled in behind the front runners for a lap or two. I could see the bikes in front coming towards me and I soon caught Ryan about half way through the race. I could see he was having trouble with his tyres and when he ran wide at Starkeys I overtook him on the fast left-hander – I don’t think he expected it. I knew at that moment that if the rain didn’t return the race was mine for the taking. At the flag, I won by over 16 seconds. It was a massive win for me and the ZX-7R and I knew at that point, even if I didn’t finish the last race, with a 25 point lead I would still win the title on achieving more race wins than Ryan and the SP2.
Standing by, on the start line for the last race of the year.
It was good feeling to go out in the last race, my Dad’s last words before I went out were, “Just stay out of trouble”. He didn’t have to tell me really, all I had to do was finish and it would be all over. As we were all queuing up to go out, Ryan tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s just go out and have a good race eh?” It was good to hear.
The last race of the season started well, I tucked in behind Ryan, Steadman and North. I was happy just to sit there because there was a lot shenanigans going on between Steadman and North. It was very close at times. I thought to myself, “It’s a good job Ryan can’t see what’s going on behind him”. Anyway, towards the end Darren North made an error and I was able slip through safely to take third place and another podium to finish my season.
A yellow T-shirt came out of the blue.
I was really chuffed in Parc Ferme as my Mum produced a special Championship T-Shirt that I didn’t expect. Ryan was really sporting and gracious at the end. It must have been gut-wrenching – I know it would have been for me – for him after quite a tense weekend, but he came over and congratulated all of us, shaking hands and chatting about the race.
Me and Ryan after the final race. He must’ve been disappointed, he rode well all weekend.
Winning a Championship is never easy, it wouldn’t feel like a big achievement if it was. We all feel like we’ve been through the mill though. I’ve had mechanical failures, injuries, and crashes, late nights in the garage (more times than I can remember), but our small team always says, “Never give up”. When there’s a strong will to win, there’ll always be a way.
The support from all the scrutineers and riders in the paddock has been much appreciated at times and I’d like to thank them all. I feel I’ve made some good friends in Thundersport, not just in my class, but in others too.
Our small team, champions at last.
Big thanks to my Dad and my Mum for being at every round and to Drew Plaskitt who has supported me from day one with his Suzuki SRAD as a second bike. Also, to all my sponsors, Kais Suspension, R&G Racing, OPIE Oils, CP Carrillo, TA-Creative, Nova Racing Transmissions and Mark at Holbeach Tyres, who’ve all had faith in me. Having said all that, special mentions have to go to the Wiseco Piston Inc in the US; their European distributors, Race Winning Brands and Cradley Kawasaki, because without them we couldn’t have built a race-winning and Championship winning engine.
That empty feeling when the season is over. We’ll be back in here February 2018.
Hope to see you all again next year.