I’d been debating whether to ride at Jerez with TrackSense in mid November when I got an email from Focused Events offering a four day track day at the Monteblanco circuit near Seville. TrackSense were charging £729 (US$ 1160) for three days with four groups, while Focused Events wanted only £459 (US$ 730) for four days on track with only three groups. The decision was a no-brainer because although I wanted to ride at Jerez, it was going to be too expensive. Where Focused Events did try to claw back money was in charging an additional £ 50 (US$ 80) for a room on my own per night! I therefore decided to book my own hotel nearby theirs for 5 nights at just £ 30 per night. With the saving I was making compared to TrackSense’s Jerez event, I also booked one day in the rider clinic with Steve Plater, a former British Supersport and TT winner.
I was flying out the day before the track day started and leaving London’s gray rainy weather behind was no hardship because on landing the weather in Seville was 28C and sunny. Registration with Focused Events took place in the evening at the Abades Hotel in Benacazon; some 20 minutes from Seville and also 20 minutes from the Monteblanco race track. We were advised to be at the track next day between 8 and 9 to set up and attend the morning’s briefing. Track time would start at 10am.
Day 1 – 30 October 2014
The drive to the track was simple. Exit the hotel, join the A49 motorway and get off at the 48km mark. Although I had directions and some decent sign posts for the circuit, I still managed to end up down a dirt track instead of at the circuit. A quick U-turn and I soon got my bearings and arrived at the track.
Built in 2006 as a manufacturer test circuit, Monteblanco has obviously had some money spent on it. The facilities are top notch with plenty of parking and nice garages. Even the approach road to the circuit looks good being edged in a lovely sand coloured stone and surrounded by orange trees. The circuit is able to operate in many different configurations and we were scheduled to use two; one for for the first two days and another for the last two. Although there are plenty of garages, we only had about half of them available to us and so it was a bit cramped but perfectly OK.
Unusually, there was a large contingent of Belgium and Dutch which added a nice international feel to the first morning’s briefing; probably because Focused Events now operates in these countries as well as the UK. The two instructors on hand were Niall Mackenzie and Steve Plater; both excellent riders with a reputation for being great teachers on track. As there were no other Focused instructors riding with us, Barry (the Ops Manager) made a point of stressing that the onus was on us riders to look out for each other with an emphasis on avoiding dangerous overtaking maneouvres; especially standing riders up on the apex of the turns. Like most Focused Event track days, this was a Chrono event and we were each given transponders in order to sort the groups out by speed on day two.
When you look at a circuit plan, it looks as though there are lots of straights but in fact when on track, it feels like a track without many straights as you seem to be constantly coming out of one corner and setting up for the next. The surface of the track is super abrasive (much like Cartagena, Spain) and is generally in really good condition. Although the circuit seems flat, it actually has a few elevation changes on its back section which helps to create a wonderful and scary blind right hand rise before you end one final complex ahead of the start-finish straight (in the first configuration we used).
After riding Silverstone’s GP circuit a month ago, I was slightly shocked by how hard I was having to think and wrestle the bike around the track. Make no mistake, this is a circuit that demands 100% concentration and which only give you some respite in two high speed sections. Everywhere else, you’re constantly working to move the bike left and right while trying to keep your speed up.
As a result of the Inters group being too full, I got bumped down to the Novice group. This actually suited me fine because I was quite happy being in that group while I learnt the circuit. I’d always have the option of moving back up a group if I managed to make a decent improvement over the four days. The riding started at 10am, and we got three sessions in before lunch and another four after lunch as the track didn’t close until 6pm with a temperature of 28C at the end of the last session – not bad for the end of October!
We must have had 9 bikes in our garage comprising three Belgian riders, two Dutch riders and four Brits. The Dutch riders kept a little to themselves as they were part of a large group next door but everyone was really friendly and the first day was good fun. Lucikly none of use had any excursions off track, although there were a few red flags that first day including one totalled Suzuki and another poor chap who ended up damaging two of his fingers in a low side crash coming back onto the start-finish straight. His beautiful Aprillia RSV4 was also a non runner after that, although he did manage to get back on track using a hire bike the next day. Unlike Cartagena where the marshalls seem half asleep, the marshalls at Monteblanco are really on the ball. In fact I’ve never seen so many marshall posts around any circuit before all staffed by people who always gave good and clear signals including a green flag after passing an incident when it was safe to speed up again.
If I’m being honest, I struggled quite a bit with the track on the first day but began to get to grips with it towards the end of the day. In terms of pace, I was probably running in the bottom half of the group as I seemed to be overtaken more than I was overtaking other riders and expected to remain in group one the next day when the new groups were announced based on everyone’s (Chrono) lap times. Why do the riders all seem faster on foreign track days?
Day 2: 31 October 2014
I was looking forward to the second day as I’d booked some tuition with Steve Plater. After the morning briefing and the first session, myself and two others set off after Steve in the second session. The idea was to follow him and then for him to observe us. When we next caught up with him, he moved one of us up a group so that he would be looking after two riders in group 1 and two in group 2; this was better for us as we were effectively getting a student to instructor ratio of two to one now. Steve is a really friendly guy but has a no-nonsense attitude as we all saw the day before when he chewed someone up for repeatedly talking during the briefing.
During the debrief, the first point he made was that cornering is about weighting the inside peg. Contrary to what the California Superbike School advocates, he feels that counter steering should be a bi-product of correct positioning on the bike and not be emphasised as the primary means of turning the bike. He suggested riding the bike like a jockey with our bums off the seat and especially in the corners.
Check out Steve riding a lap with one hand behind his back, and my struggle to still keep up with him!
Historically, I really struggle with right hand turns as I tend to tense up and the bike invariably runs wide on the exit. Trying Steve’s suggestion of weighting the inside peg yielded the single biggest improvement in my riding for a long time. Corners that had been tricky and where I’d not been able to match Steve’s turn radius suddenly became less difficult. I was “sold” on the concept as it really works!
In the next debrief, Steve focused on the three aspects of a turn. These don’t include the braking point as he felt that correctly identifying the turn in, apex and exit points and hitting them consistently was the key to making substantial gains. He gave us each of these three points for each corner from memory with instructions like “the apex for turn 1 is the fourth red square of the inside rumble strip”, for example. Obviously we couldn’t remember most of them so he showed us each in turn in the next session. One interesting aspect of that debrief is the time he spent on where we should be looking, into, within and exiting the turns – the level of detail about what to focus on was extraordinary.
During the lunch break, Steve borrowed a car and we all piled in for a detailed breakdown of each corner as he drove slowly around the track. With the slow and detailed turn descriptions given, he then proceeded to hammer the car around the track for two laps talking through each corner as he drove. This was an amazingly useful exercise, although I’m glad it wasn’t my hire car that he was throwing around the circuit as it felt like he was going to rip its wheels off!
The session after lunch followed the same patten with Steve leading and then following either of us to see how we were doing. His other pupil, Terry was a faster and better rider than me and I did find it a struggle to keep up at times which meant that I would often screw up a corner as I barrelled into it trying to make up lost ground. After I got back to the pits, Steve collared me and explained that I was locking up my inside arm which would be making cornering much more difficult than it ought to be. With that in mind, I suggested that I ride the next session on my own and focus on my inside arm, and weighting the pegs. While carrying weight on the inside peg is relatively simple, sorting out my arm proved to be much harder. Both arms tend to be locked to help deal with the braking forces on the corner arrival and I really had to think to force myself to relax my upper body and arms; especially the inside one.
Another key point that Steve made during the day was use of the throttle especially coming out of the last turn onto the long start-finish straight. He advised using just enough throttle to settle the bike through the turn and then to wait… wait and wait until you could pin the throttle completely. Opening the throttle increasingly gradually coming out of the turn actually is slower because it causes you to run wider earlier and stops you getting on the throttle hard. This was a mistake that I made a lot and is an area that I’m really going to have to keep working on, because it makes a massive difference to your lap times.
In the penultimate session, we rode three in line with Steve leading. I often messed up a corner as a result of watching where Steve was going which put my eyes in the wrong place at the wrong time instead of where they should have been looking. As the pace got closer to my limit, I really needed to be looking through Steve to where I wanted the bike to go. As a result of my repeated mistakes, Terry overtook me and then he and Steve gradually pulled away from me. In trying to catch them I again made more silly mistakes and so found that session pretty frustrating.
By the time of the final session, many of the riders had already packed up and gone home, so the three of us pretty much had the track to ourselves. After a while, Steve and Terry pulled away (again!), but this time rather than chase after them I tried to focus on finding my own rhythm and putting all Steve’s advice into words. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, Steve had lapped and caught up with me again and followed me for most of the final lap of the session. I had been feeling that the lap had flowed really nicely and was really pleased with my progress, which was confirmed as Steve passed me in pit lane clapping his hands! I did check with him later and he confirmed that I had made a pretty decent improvement and that he wasn’t just “blowing smoke up my backside”.
I didn’t actually ride any faster on day 2 compared to day 1 however Steve’s advice had helped me to understand what I needed to do to break some bad habits and to learn some new techniques and skills to improve my riding. With luck those wise words will start to pay off as I continue to ride on future trackdays. Would I pay for another day of the same format again? Yes, because although you’re sharing the instructor with three other pupils, there is actually only so much that you can absorb in a day and you need time to put what you’ve been told into practice. I have no idea how Steve managed to work with four pupils in back to back sessions while remaining oblivious to the heat that was causing me to flake out after just one session. He really works hard for his money, he’s a fantastic rider and top bloke, and if you are ever offered to chance to ride with him, take it!
Day 3: 1 November 2014
At the end of day 2, Barry and his crew had selected track a second configuration for the final two days of the event. So armed with a new circuit guide, I decided to walk the track. It’s amazing that how much detail you can pick out on foot when you have plenty of time to look at possible turn in, apex and exit points. What’s also amazing is that what takes less then two minutes to get around on a bike, takes nearly 30 minutes to walk!
As we had the previous two days, the day started with three sighting laps behind Barry in a hire car. The new configuration kept the same start-finish straight and the corners leading onto it, and the sharp hairpin at its end. The back section of the track was different with a (very) bumpy left hand rise and fall after turn 1. It then joined the same chicane that we had used the previous two days before entering a double set of difficult hairpins. Compared to track configuration 2, this one was shorter and flowed much better I felt. Interestingly opion was divided as to which was better although I personally preferred the new configuration.
After the sighting laps, in the second session, I set my fastest lap time as I tried to put some of Steve’s advise into practice. With the exception of the hairpins, I absolutely loved the new track layout. The suspension on the Daytona just soaked up the bumps on the fast lefthander (after turn 1) beautifully while that same section had other (faster) bikes tied up in knots. I tried to make a conscious effort to relax my upper body and weight the inside peg through the turns and it paid divends when I remembered to do it. The same corners that had been really difficult (and scary) on day 1, I now took in my stride and rode through with a lot more confidence.
Over the course of the three days, I got to know the three Brits opposite me in the garage; two of them were riding in the fast group, but the third, Cliff, was riding in mine. Over the course of the next two days we compared notes and I got quite a few helpful tips and feedback from him. Although Cliff was faster than me, he was kind enough to follow me for one or two laps at the start of a few sessions to give me some feedback after each session in the garage again. His main comment was that I still needed to drive much harder and earlier out of corners and between the corners as this is where I could make up more time he felt. He was riding a R6 so in terms of bike performance we were quite evenly matched although I could never catch him once he overtook me!
Also opposite us were a couple of Belgians; one of whom, Igor on a GSXR-600 had been riding in group 1 with us on the first day but was then bumped up to group 3. I can’t say I’m surprised, because he was so fast around the circuit, always outbraking everyone into turn 1 and taking such a tight turn through that corner. I never got to watch him much as he was always gone in a flash! Unfortunately for him, he lost the front end on day 3 on the tight right hand hairpin. Luckily both he and the bike were relatively unscathed – he figured a new front tyre would fix the cause of his spill.
The only other eventful moment of the day was when I nearly dropped my bike putting it on the rear stand. As it started to topple, I grabbed it under the tailpiece and started to feel a searing pain as the hot exhaust pipe burned my hand. Thankfully one of the Belgians came to my rescue and grabbed the front of the bike to help me right it again. Everyone (half) jokingly advised me to keep my gloves on until I’d got the bike on it stands in the future!
Day 4: 2 November 2014
On the final day, the first session comprised two laps following Barry in his car again, before we returned to the pits and resumed the rest of the session. As this was the last day and I’d already spent a day on this circuit configuration, I decided to be more aggressive than the previous day. Cliff followed me for a while filming with his Drift camera before overtaking and disappearing into the distance again. On returning to the pits, he discovered that his camera had switched off mid session (again!). So I lent him one of my spare SanDisk cards to try instead. That did the trick as the camera filmed the rest of the sessions that day without too many problems. Morale of the story? Buy a GoPro for track use – I’ve never had any problem with mine in two years.
The previous days we were riding seven 20 minute sessions from 10am to 6pm with an hour lunch break. On the final day however the sessions would run from 10am to 4pm with only a half hour lunch break. As the day progressed, there were increasingly fewer bikes on track through a combination of tiredness and riders having to pack up early in order to catch flights. In fact, I often found myself coming in early at the end of each session through sheer tiredness.
During the day in one of the later sessions, Cliff was following me again until Lucky13 overtook us both on her colourful Daytona 675. That was a red rag to Cliff who immediately gave chase. Fiona rode really well carving beautifully smooth and fast turns around the track despite the fact that she was suffering from a severe hangover. I’m not sure Cliff managed to pass her although he was trying hard!
Throughout the day I found myself overtaking more riders including some that I couldn’t catch on the previous days which was gratifying as it showed that I had actually made some progress or maybe they were tired?). While I felt much more confident generally, I still need to improve my technique on right handed corners; especially the faster ones. Both Terry and Cliff commented that my riding had improved compared to the start of the event which was nice feedback.
The second to last session was cut short with red flag just two laps in. As we pulled into the pits, I could see a lot of activity around a rescue vehicle on the fast start-finish. My first thoughts were that someone must have come off on the straight as hard as that seemed possible, however the truth was even stranger. A Kawasaki had snapped its chain (at over 130mph or 200kph) which then wrapped itself around the wheel between the sprocket and spokes leaving about 9 inches (20cm) of chain to flail about as the wheel turned. This proceeded to destroy the swing arm and the electronics in the lower part of the subframe. Amazingly, the rider managed not to lose control of the bike and brought it to a stop without any injury to themselves – that was one lucky rider! The rear of the bike wasn’t so lucky as it was pretty substantially destroyed.
Just as I thought about packing up, I was told that we had one more session available if we wanted. Normally I skip the final session of the last day (not wanting to tempt fate too much) but this time I threw caution to the wind and decided to ride it along with Cliff who was determined to get his money’s worth from the event! There was only a few bikes now out on track and we both had a blast in that last session, both coming back into the pits with huge grins on our faces. That was the end of an epic four days where I reckon each day had been even better than the one before.
It took about an hour to gather up all our possessions and pack our kit away. Having seen the scratches that Alan’s CBR1000 had collected on the trip over, I decided to focus my bubble wrap on the tank and tailpiece and ignore the fairing for the bike’s return journey. The two lorries would be leaving that evening and within an hour of the last session being over, the car park was full of bikes and gear that was either being or waiting to be loaded onto them.
Over the four days Cliff and Piers had shared a spare phone of mine with RaceChrono installed on it. Because Cliff had also borrowed an SD card of mine, we arranged to meet in their hotel, the Abades in Benacazon, to swap video footage and to help Piers install RaceChrono on his phone. Afterwards we all had supper in their restaurant which served an amazing buffet – much better choice than I’d eaten anywhere else. If I’d known how good and extensive it was going to be, I’d have eaten there every evening! We were joined by Steve Plater and he and Alan reminisced about their formative years riding grass tracks and speedway. It’s a slightly unreal feeling to have watched Steve commentating on the TT on TV and then be sitting down to dinner with him talking about all things bike and besides. The others tried to prise information out of him about how difficult I’d been to instruct, but he just gave a wry smile!
Having seen how the bikes would be loaded on the lorry, I’d been worried about the state my bike and gear would arrive in, but everything was absolutely fine. I do think that it is worth adding some protective covering to the tank, fairings and tailpiece especially if you have a paintjob that you don’t want damaged. The bikes are strapped on their stands over the seat unit, so it’s also worth making sure that these are robust enough to withstand it.
Barry, Michael and the two instructors, Niall and Steve were brilliant. This was one of the most relaxed and friendly events that I have been on and I would have no hesitation on doing another trackday in Spain with Focused Events. Another major plus point was that the boss, Kevin Healey remained in the UK – that fact was much appreciated by most of the riders that I spoke to.
The marshalling at Monteblanco was first rate however the bar/canteen could do with a food upgrade as it wasn’t the best grub that I’ve had in Spain and there really isn’t an outside area you can eat at. Notwithstanding that, I thought that the circuit was great and really liked the fact that we were able to ride two different track layouts over the four days. Steve Plater grumbled slightly about a few poor patches of tarmac in a couple of places, but to my mind the surface was fine and much the same as you’d encounter elsewhere like Cartagena.
My Pirelli Rosso Corsas lasted the four days without any problem and they performed brilliantly on track. Cliff who had been running supersport tyres for the first two days then switched to slicks for the final two days – he reckoned the increased grip and confidence that they gave could have been worth 3-4 seconds a lap. I’ll probably stick with the Pirellis or perhaps the Supercorsa until I can get myself up to somewhere near the top of the Inters group consistently in terms of speed and riding ability; should it ever happen.
In terms of costs (and excluding tyres), you’re looking at the following for a similar trip:
|Alternate hotel (£ 30 per night) x 5||150||240|
|Fuel (on track)||100||160|
|Food/water/bar (£ 25 per day)||125||200|
I had to laugh when Barry announced that we could have our Chrono times emailed after the trip… provided we paid 10 Euros for the privilege! Since I have all my times from my data logger, Focused Events can stick those times where the sun doesn’t shine as far as I am concerned. In a similar vein, a photo CD cost 45 Euros… plus an extra 10 Euros if you wanted kerb camera photos too even though the photographer took everyone’s anyway. It’s that petty money grabbing attitude which takes a little of the shine off the event and it’s a bit of a shame really – I know it’s a business but why not just charge 50 Euros for all the photos and be done with it. Anyway those small things couldn’t really detract from a brilliant, relaxed and friendly event.
Although the cost of the trip looks high when totalled up, there is a lot to be said for riding in a solid four day block compared to dicing with the UK weather. If you’re going with other friends then the cost comes down because you don’t need to pay the room supplement and you can share the car hire costs. The trip doubles as a mini break, and it’s great to feel the heat and bask in the warmth of 28C and sunshine in November, so I think it’s money well spent.
I had so much fun this trip that I’m already planning my next one… just don’t tell my missus!
There are more photos to see in this gallery of the event.