‘MY MUM TOLD ME BARRY SHEENE WAS ON THE PHONE. I DIDN’T BELIEVE HER’
Burnett talks TT heroics, his desire for an MT-10, and that phone call from Bazza
How did you get into bikes?
My grandmother lived opposite a man who raced bikes. It was 1972, I was 10, and this man had a Yamaha TD2. His name was Chris Mayhew, the now-famous engine tuner. I used to spend every evening helping him in his garage. He took me to watch races at Cadwell and eventually built me a trials bike out of parts he had lying around so I started doing a bit of quarry riding when I was 12.
What was your first road bike?
When I left school at 16 I went to work for Derek Chatterton as an apprentice mechanic and got myself a Puch Maxi moped. As soon as I turned 17 I sat my bike test and my car test on the same day Ð and with the same examiner! I failed my car test in the morning, but passed my bike test in the afternoon. I used to ride loads of bikes from the shop because I was servicing them.
How did you start racing?
I was helping a racer called Kevin Stowe who I worked with. Unfortunately he had a really bad accident at the North West 200 in 1979 and never raced again. So I went to mechanic for Roger Marshal who was starting to do really well. When Roger moved to Moriwaki Kawasaki I didnõt know what to do, so I decided to try racing.
How did you get your big break?
I rang Mal Carter (famous racing sponsor) and asked if I could ride his Yamaha TZ350. He laughed, but said if I could lap Cadwell Park in under 1m 05s I could take the bike home. I did, so I took the bike home. That was in 1982 and two years later I was riding Barry Sheeneõs Suzuki RG500 at Brands Hatch. I was at home watching Coronation Street when my mum told me Barry was on the phone. I didnõt believe her but took the call and Barry asked me to ride his bike at Brands. I set the lap record and finished second.
Were your folks OK with you racing?
No. When I first talked about going racing my dad said that, if I did, IÕD have to move out. I said Òwhat about when IÕM 21?,Ó and he told me I could do what I liked when I was 21. So I started racing at 21.
Did you still ride road bikes?
Yes, when I was riding for Honda I had a VFR750. It was so versatile and Iõve always enjoyed versatile bikes. My current bike is a Yamaha MT-09 which is another good example. As you get older, you get drawn towards more exotic custom-style machinery. I love the look of the Ducati Scrambler though Iõve not ridden one. IÕM waiting for the new R1-engined MT-10.
What would you consider to be your greatest racing achievement?
I won the Senior TT in 1986 but IÕM far more proud of the ride I had at the TT in 1988. I got a puncture in the rear tyre at Ballacraine on the first lap but still lapped at 108mph (at a time when the record was around 119mph). I was about 28th and had to do an extra pit stop to change the rear wheel. I was seventh at the start of the last lap but had such a good lap I ended up third.
Did you always want to race the TT?
If you didnõt do the TT, you didnõt get a factory ride. I didnõt really want to do it but if I hadnõt done it then IÕD have missed out on the most exhilarating, thrilling thing you can ever do on a motorcycle. IÕM not taking anything away from Motogp, WSB or BSB riders but, in terms of what they experience compared to what you experience riding at the TT Ð they donõt know what theyõre missing. I loved the thrill and the danger just added to the thrill.
What was the best bike you rode?
My factory World Endurance Honda RVF750 from 1989. I was the first British rider to win the Bol dõor, Le Mans and Spa in the same year and I did it on that bike Ð the bike that the RC30 was based on. It was just so easy to ride and had a really tractable engine. The linkage from the throttle to the rear tyre was perfect and you could feel the tyre moving, you could feel the rpm going up Ð everything you needed, and it felt like it was happening in slow motion so you had time to deal with everything. A beautiful bike.
Like so many Italian motorcycle manufacturers, Benelli’s 105-year history contains more peaks and troughs than a stormy ocean. From its sporting heyday in the 1940s and 1950s to its decision to focus on scooters in the 1980s and finally its ill-fated WSB expedition in the 1990s, the last century has certainly been a wild ride. However, since the firm was taken over by the Qianjiang group in 2005, life has become considerably simpler. If life can ever be described as simple for a historic Italian motorcycle brand.
You may not have heard of the Qianjiang group, but the numbers speak for themselves. Based in Wenling, China, it employs over 14,000 people and produces more than 1.4 million vehicles alongside 2 million engines a year. Alongside Benelli motorcycles, of which it makes 50,000 a year, Qianjiang builds quads, electric bicycles, lawnmowers, golf carts, generators and various other motorised equipment. So where does that leave Benelli? Considering Qianjiang currently only exports around 5000 Benellis a year to Europe, the simple answer is a company with lots of expansion.
At the moment, Benelli’s range consists of the parallel-twin 302 models, the inline-four 600 bikes and the 1130 Tre via special order. In the pipeline is a new parallel-twin 500, which will be seen in the TRK 502 and the retro Leoncico (these bikes will be built in Italy, not China) and also a 125cc version of the naked TNT. So the single-cylinder BN251 does fill a hole in Benelli’s expanding model range. And with a price tag of around £2500, it sits nicely between the budget options and the more premium machines in the A2-legal commuter market. Benelli are pitching it at a younger audience than its 302, which is why it comes in brash colours and the marketing involves skate parks. Is this enough to sell it?
The BN251 isn’t a bad looking machine, it doesn’t scream ‘cheap’ and I like that it has quality Metzeler tyres and a dash with a fuel gauge and gear indicator. The fact it hasn’t got ABS is an elephant in the room, but this will be rectified by the end of the year. According to Benelli, the BN251 has been designed to be very easy to use, as the current smartphone generation is barely capable of any activity that can’t be achieved with minimal movements of their thumbs. With this in mind, I
The tubular steel frame uses the engine as a stressed member and has 41mm inverted forks and a single shock. The forks aren’t adjustable but the rear shock’s spring preload can be altered. It all performs reasonably well for a budget bike. move my thumb slightly and the BN251 bursts into life.
Considering it is only a little 250, the BN sounds good as the single thumps away with a pleasingly visceral note. Pulling in the clutch I’m happy to feel a light action, and the gearbox is far from clunky. The BN251 doesn’t have that impression of cheapness you often get on some Chinese bikes. And this sensation continues once I get going.
Budget suspension is so often the downfall of price-targeted machines, but this isn’t the case on the Benelli. The 41mm forks may be lacking adjustment, but they feel surprisingly well damped and lack that horrible bouncy sensation you so often experience. The shock, which can have its spring preload cranked up, is equally adept and while they aren’t going to find their way onto a Motogp bike anytime soon, on a 143kg machine like this they are more than adequate. And the same can be said for the brakes.
Personally, I’d have liked a bit more bite in the front caliper and less lever travel in the rear, but that’s personal taste. On a bike without ABS, a bit of a spongy lever feel isn’t a bad thing as it is panic grabs that cause spills and this helps reduce the chances of it happening. Is the 25bhp motor likely to get The 249.2cc single cylinder has a four-valve DOHC design and is liquid- cooled with a fuel-injected system. It has a single balancer shaft to keep the vibrations down and makes a reasonable 24bhp, a claimed 67mpg and has a 248-mile range. riders into trouble? It’s not as slow as you may expect.
The single-cylinder engine is fairly peppy and I saw over 80mph on the BN251’S clocks. It has a nice flat torque curve and linear power, which makes it easy to use in town and fun outside when you can let it rev, and it has virtually no irritating vibrations. The chassis makes the most of the bike’s minimal weight and the BN251 is a nimble machine at most speeds. And it’s fun, which is exactly what Benelli were promising it would be.
Overall I enjoyed the BN251 as it feels a classier product than its price tag suggests. It has a few annoyances, on some bikes the small screen vibrated noisily and the foot pegs lack a return spring, but those aren’t the end of the world. It’s a good-looking, fun, machine for newer riders. However the
Metzeler Sportec M5 tyres come as standard. The front and
rear discs are both a wave pattern with the front gripped by a fourpiston caliper and the rear a twopiston unit. ABS will be available by the end of the year so that the bike will meet Euro4 guidelines. issue Benelli is always going to suffer from is its lack of dealer network when compared to its Japanese rivals. Are would-be buyers going to search out a Benelli dealer when the easier option awaits them just down the road?
Yamaha MT-03 £4499
The MT-03 uses the same 321cc parallel twin as the YZF-R3, but houses it in a funky-looking naked bike. It is more expensive than the singles, but the extra cylinder and increased capacity gives it more practicality.
‘The BN sounds good as the single thumps away with a pleasingly visceral note’