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

Motorcycle News (UK) - - Retro Special 2017 -

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.

Se­ri­ously fast

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

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