Niall Macken­zie’s Bri­tish GP pre­view

Sil­ver­stone – how to ride it, where to watch

BIKE (UK) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mat Ox­ley Pho­tog­ra­phy James Chea­dle


TIME IS A funny thing. It both shrinks and stretches his­tory. Thirty-four years ago three-times BSB cham­pion Niall Macken­zie made his Grand Prix de­but at Sil­ver­stone. Seems (al­most) like yes­ter­day. Thirty-four years be­fore that Sil­ver­stone was just com­ing to life as a race­track, the course marked out by hay­bales, the rem­nants of the wartime air­field still very much in ev­i­dence: dozens of Nissin huts, the con­trol tower and nu­mer­ous hangars (hence Han­gar straight) where Welling­ton bombers were pre­pared for train­ing runs with the RAF’S No. 17 Op­er­a­tional Train­ing Unit. Very much an­other age. On this oc­ca­sion Macken­zie is back at Sil­ver­stone, train­ing rid­ers with the Yamaha Mas­ter­class school. His co-in­struc­tor is younger son and 2016 BSB 600 cham­pion Tar­ran. They both work one-on-one with rid­ers, to help them im­prove their per­for­mance.

‘Mas­ter­class is geared specif­i­cally to you, so if you’re in your fifties I’ll look af­ter you and if you’re 20-years-old and re­ally, re­ally fast you’ll get Tar­ran look­ing af­ter you,’ grins Macken­zie, now 56-years-old. So I get to hang out with dad Mack, rid­ing the school’s YZF-R1MS around the Grand Prix cir­cuit, which is so fast that it melts your brain. Sil­ver­stone is the long­est cir­cuit in Motogp and very nearly the fastest, with rid­ers av­er­ag­ing 110mph around its 3.6 miles and hit­ting 205mph down Han­gar. It is what’s known in the trade as a big-balls cir­cuit, where rid­ers need as much old-fash­ioned brav­ery as new-fan­gled rid­ing technique. There aren’t many of th­ese hellishly quick old-school tracks left in Motogp; just Sil­ver­stone, Mugello, Phillip Is­land and Brno, so we need to en­joy them while we still can. Merely look­ing at the cir­cuit map and its mind-bog­gling mix of 18 cor­ners makes me feel a wee bit queasy. I’m not the only one. I have heard reign­ing Motogp king Marc Mar­quez ad­mit to be­ing scared just twice: af­ter he crashed at 209mph at Mugello and af­ter a prac­tice ses­sion at Sil­ver­stone, when the wind nearly swept him away at close to the dou­ble ton. Be­tween track out­ings, Niall and I inevitably slip into talk­ing about the old days. He still re­mem­bers the ex­cite­ment of August 1984 when he got his first Grand Prix start. ‘It was the era when you showed up and they put you on a wait­ing list, so if some of the for­eign rid­ers didn’t show up you got

a start,’ says the Scot, who was 23 at the time. ‘They fi­nally ac­cepted me, so I got out for Fri­day af­ter­noon prac­tice. Just get­ting a start was like win­ning a race, but then re­al­ity hit. I was at the back of ev­ery prac­tice ses­sion and I fin­ished the race in last place. At that time I was run­ning at the front of Bri­tish cham­pi­onship races, so it was a bit of a shock to the sys­tem. I was stunned by how fast the full-time GP guys were: very ex­pe­ri­enced, no fear and quick bikes.’ Sil­ver­stone wasn’t merely where Niall started his GP ca­reer – which later gave him rides with HB Honda, Lucky Strike Suzuki and Marl­boro Yamaha – the venue was the foun­da­tion of his GP ca­reer. And home for a while. ‘In 1984 my Arm­strong team was spon­sored by Sil­ver­stone and they helped get me the ride at that year’s Bri­tish GP. The team was also based at Sil­ver­stone – the cir­cuit gave us an in­dus­trial unit and I ba­si­cally lived out­side in my car­a­van.’ Two years later, Sil­ver­stone helped Niall make his 500cc de­but at the Bri­tish GP, which led di­rectly to his first fac­tory ride with Honda, in 1987. ‘Sil­ver­stone chucked in some money for my first 500 ride, be­cause they wanted to push Bri­tish rac­ing on. I fin­ished seventh there, then seventh at the next race and led prac­tice at Misano. Af­ter that all the fac­to­ries were in­ter­ested in me, but I went with Honda, so 100 per­cent Sil­ver­stone gave me my big­gest breaks.’ Sil­ver­stone to­day is quite dif­fer­ent to how it was in 1986. Back then the lay­out was un­changed from the orig­i­nal, which traced the route of the air­field perime­ter road, used by RAF ser­vice crews to re­fuel and rearm their Welling­tons. There were just eight cor­ners and the lap record nudged 120mph. Now there are 18 cor­ners, from mega-fast sweep­ers to dead-stop chi­canes. It’s a daunt­ing place to ride, es­pe­cially when you’re try­ing to stay with Niall and Tar­ran, even though they’re tak­ing it easy, so this old man can keep up. In our first ses­sion we’re out with the slow group, so it’s easy to feel fast. In our sec­ond ses­sion we’re out with the fast group and sud­denly I feel slow. Ex­pe­ri­enced track­day ad­dicts come ham­mer­ing past, leg-dan­gling into cor­ners and lay­ing rub­ber on the ex­its. And for ex­tra fun there’s a few Moto3 rid­ers, who come fly­ing past, open pipes blar­ing, and hardly brak­ing for the cor­ners. The big­gest chal­lenge at Sil­ver­stone is the huge vari­a­tions in speed – you’re on the gas through Chapel Curve, flat-out down Han­gar, sweep­ing through Stowe and then brak­ing al­most to a stand­still into the Vale chi­cane. It’s a lot to get your head around. ‘It’s a great lay­out, very chal­leng­ing,’ adds Niall.

‘It is known in the trade as a big-balls cir­cuit, where rid­ers need as much old-fash­ioned brav­ery as new­fan­gled rid­ing technique’

‘The big­gest thing is that it’s one of the few places where a Motogp bike can re­ally stretch its legs. There’s a few places that are cru­cial to a good lap: get­ting through Wood­cote fast and get­ting a re­ally good punch onto Han­gar are im­por­tant. Then there’s heavy brak­ing at the end of Han­gar and Welling­ton straights, which are cru­cial for pass­ing. The track is stupidly fast and the spec­ta­cle is good, be­cause it al­ways cre­ates re­ally close rac­ing. ‘Sil­ver­stone is an air­field so it’s very flat, but in re­cent years they’ve worked hard to build raised spec­tat­ing ar­eas. I think the whole event will be bet­ter this year, with more go­ing on, be­cause it’s now Sil­ver­stone’s race, so they’ve got their full weight be­hind it. The last few years it was run by the Cir­cuit of Wales, so no one re­ally knew what was go­ing on. And then there’s the Cal [Crutchlow] fac­tor. He’s al­ready won a race this year and he got sec­ond at Sil­ver­stone in 2016, when he beat [Valentino] Rossi and [Marc] Mar­quez. If his week­end goes well, there’s a good chance he’ll be in the fight for the win.’ Niall con­tested only three Bri­tish GPS at Sil­ver­stone, be­fore the event moved to Don­ing­ton Park for 23 years, but he’s since con­tested sev­eral more as a Grand Prix dad. In 2011, elder son Tay­lor scored points in the 125 race and last season Tar­ran made his Bri­tish GP de­but in the Moto2 class. Like his dad, Tar­ran got a par­tic­u­larly rude awak­en­ing when he grad­u­ated from the Bri­tish cham­pi­onship to the world cham­pi­onship. ‘I was told that Moto2 would be tough but I was think­ing, they’re all hu­mans, how hard can it pos­si­bly be?!’ says the 22-year-old. ‘Then I re­alised… It was a very big jump from Bri­tish Su­per­sport. I ac­tu­ally had one of my best week­ends at Sil­ver­stone last August, un­til I lost the front at Vil­lage.’ Rid­ing around Bri­tain’s most his­toric race­track with Niall and Tar­ran – them rolling the throt­tle, me hang­ing on for grim death – forces me to own up to the fact that what­ever race­track skills I once pos­sessed [Mat won a TT] are for­ever lost in the mists of time. I’m now just an ev­ery­day road rider, which only serves to am­plify their skills and re­in­force my (al­ready in­fi­nite) re­spect for the world’s great­est, like Mar­quez, Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo and the rest. And there’s only one place to watch th­ese men in ac­tion on Bri­tish as­phalt: at Sil­ver­stone on 26 August.

Miss­ing man: sadly Tay­lor Macken­zie was called away test­ing on the day Mat paid a visit. Next time…

Le to right: Tar­ran Macken­zie, Niall Macken­zie and Bike’s Mat Ox­ley

Mat and Niall: did some­one say, ‘those were the days’?

Tar­ran: clearly the ap­ple didn’t fall far from the tree

Niall: ‘It’s a great cir­cuit, very chal­leng­ing’

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