CLASSIC HIGHS & LOWS
in a fourMCN’S Michael Neeves got the chance to race Suzuki’s hand-built Katana go wrong? hour classic endurance race with Parrish and Whitham. What could
At 3.59pm, Sunday, May 7. 2017 our Team Classic Suzuki Katana sits pretty in its sixth place Le Mans-style grid slot. There are 10 seconds to go. With the circuit cloaked in an eerie silence James Whitham stands on the other side of the track. Nine, eight, seven, six… his piecing blue eyes are locked on to the red start lights, body rocking back and forth, nervous energy coursing through the Huddersfield rider’s veins. Five, four, three, two, one… lights out. Then the deathly quiet explodes into the roar of 50 unsilenced race engi nes. Butterf lies go into overdrive as the realisation that I’m out for my first stint in 43 minutes sinks in. Craning over the pitwall with a neck strained long, like a mid-corner Whitham, I spot him among the sea of endurance machines rushing into Redgate. Third a l rea d y. We’re on Donington’s National layout, so just over a minute later the leaders flash thunderously by. But not James. Ten minutes later he walks disconsolately into the pits, helmet on, head bowed, scuffs on his new RST leathers. Another 15 minutes later the Kat finds its way back to our pit garage No.7, but it’s too damaged for us to continue. A sad end.
A proper factory ride
This is Suzuki GB’S first official racing entry since the Heron Suzuki days of Barry Sheene (and his 1977 team-mate Parrish) and they’re going all out to make a splash with official backing and one hell of a bike. Assembled at the NEC Show last year as a rolling exhibition, it wants for nothing and is beautifully put together. Built to fly the flag for Suzuki’s Vintage Parts Program, it was put together by Nathan Colombi of Team Classic Suzuki. He also builds Michael Dunlops’s Classic TT Suzuki XR69. Bored-out to 1170cc, the tuned motor makes around 145bhp and is housed in a beautiful tubular steel chassis with racier steering geometry. With its K-tech suspension, forged aluminium wheels, titanium Racefit exhaust, braced ally swingarm and billet aluminium yokes, fork lowers and rearsets, the Katana is a work of art. It weighs around 185kg.
There was no Friday practice, so riding time is limited. Whitham and I did a handful of shakedown laps at Rockingham a few weeks ago, but Parrish hasn’t ridden the Katana yet, so we use it for Steve to get used to the Suzuki. Unsurprisingly the session is a crash-fest. Donington’s slippery curves catch out those not used to how this surface cruelly changes from sandpaper to Teflon when the rain falls. Parrish isn’t holding back and roaring past the pitwall our No.7 Suzuki looks seriously fast, not to mention loud. Whitham jumps aboard for the dying minutes and goes second quickest. My session is red-flagged after two laps, so it’s back into the pits before I’ve even got going. Parked in front of the garage I spy a sea of blue and white Suzuki shirts out of the corner of my eye. It’s u nsettling and I try not to look. We all dream of being a rider in a professional team, but can you actually imagine the pressure of having to perform, everyone watching you, each time you swing a leg over your bike?
Shrieks in anger
Keihin CRS suck in noisy gulps of air on the throttle, the Racefit exhaust shrieks in anger and vibes from the big oilcooled motor buzz through your soul. There’s no mush in the chassis, like you find on a mass-production bike, so you feel the shape of every stone in Donington’s track surface through the suspension, up through your feet, hands and bum. Modern machines isolate you from all this violence and it’s disarming to have so much feedback. Skinny 18in wheels, a spindly tubular steel frame and twin shocks are a world away from current superbike trickery. Race day arrives with a Bsb-sized crowd, blue skies and warm sunshine. Donington is an ear-splitting, smoky cauldron of classic machines. Rotary Nortons, RC30S, RGV250S , Ducati 851s and everything in between head out on trackday sessions, old British singles race in the Landsdowne Classic and swarms of TZ350S battle in the International Classic Grand Prix. But now it’s almost 3pm. The big race is upon us. We’re up against serious European teams, like Phase One, against a gridful of deliciously angry, monsters including Harris-framed Suzuki XR69S, a Honda Magnum, BMW K100RS, P&M Suzukis and Kawasakis, GSX-R750S, FZ750S and F1 Ducatis. Donington has never seemed so alive, bright, colourful and loud. Donington goes quiet and red lights go on: Five, four, three, two, one...
A crowded grid as the Endurance Classic Legends race looms Steve Parrish gets ready to roll back the years on the Katana at Donington Whitham puts his ferret down to talk Neeves through some new lines The Team Classic Suzuki Katana was one mint machine