Donington GP 6 March 2015

daytona-rearDonington Park Circuit is a two and a half hour drive from London which means a 5am departure in order to arrive at the track to get a garage space and for sign on at 7:30am. This was to be my first track day of 2015 after nearly four months off the Daytona and I was really looking forward to it. Because I haven’t ridden the Donington circuit for 18 months and didn’t particularly enjoy it last time I rode there I booked myself into the novice group, figuring that the event wouldn’t be that busy and that I could always move up into the inters if necessary. Wrong! The paddock was stuffed with race teams and their vans which meant that the event was completely full – there would be no chance of moving up even if I wanted to.

This track day was organised by No Limits, cost £119 (US$ 190) and was blessed with near perfect track conditions with a dry day, many bright spells and temperatures around 12C (54F). Although the paddock was busy I didn’t have any problem finding some space in a garage with a mix of fast, inters and novice riders. Opposite me were three Ducatis (two 1199S and one 899) plus two BMW S1000RRs. Our side of the garage had the usual collection of Suzuki and Yamaha track bikes. Sign on was pretty straight forward with the briefing at 8:30. The novice group briefing was held separately from the combined inters and fast group briefing and unlike some other track day briefings which can go on for ever, this was one quick and efficient.

The first session comprised three sighting laps after which the remainder of the session would run normally and as there was no need to return to the pits after the three sighting laps that meant less wasted time. The day comprised seven 20 minute sessions, with the inters group going out first, followed by the advanced group and finally the novice group. That ordering meant that I would have to skip the final session in order to get the van back to its depot on time.

Over the winter, I have upgraded the front and rear suspension on the Daytona and this day was primarily about trying out the new set up, and trying to tackle my lazy braking which I feel is really holding back my track riding. As before I was running a set of Pirelli Rosso Corsa tyres with tyre warmers although I knew that they would be pretty cold by the end of the three sighting laps so reminded myself to take it easy that first session. The pace in the group was OK. As expected there were many slower riders than me, and faster ones too including one who looked to be a fast group rider as he just flew past everybody all the time.

That first session was a good one and the layout of the track quickly became familiar. However after it, I wanted some help understanding the lines and where I could push more on the track, so I located one of the No Limits instructors, a chap called Del, who offered to lead me for a couple of laps to show me the racing line in the second session. He explained that he would ride at a slower pace and that he wanted to follow me right on his tail at all times to replicate his lines as best I could. To be honest, I didn’t like the sound of pootling round the track when all I really wanted to do was try going faster than I could do on my own by following a faster rider at or slightly beyond my current ability. Anyway I kept quiet and agreed to meet him at the start of the next session as arranged.

Donington_Race_Track

After the first lap, Del started to up the pace while spending quite a lot of the lap with only one hand on the bars and his head twisted round towards me to see what I was doing! He was quite insistent about my following really close behind and over the course of the session it became quite easy to see that lines he wanted me to take. It soon dawned on me the turn 1 (Redgate) which runs into Hollywood and then into the Craner curves can be treated as one long and fast sweeping right hander. Similarly the left hander the Old Hairpin to McLeans can be also be treated as another long continuous fast corner. And although the double apex right hander after the blind rise at Coppice requires a leap of faith, you are rewarded with the most rewarding feeling as the bike carves its way through a set of double apexes onto the back straight towards the Foggy Esses. That session was brilliant fun and Del spent virtually the entire session working with me to give me the confidence to ride the track faster than I could on my own. Last time I rode here, my fastest lap was a 2:13, but by following Del I managed a 2:06. You can see most of the session here and it’s worth watching if you want to learn the lines for the circuit.

Another area that I wanted to work on was my braking because in an analysis of a previous track day at Silverstone, I could see that I was spending too much time coasting in the transition between being on the throttle and on the brakes. For the next session, I determined to try and keep the same lines while braking later and harder for the corners. I decided to focus primarily on the tight right handed hairpin at the Melbourne Loop and the approach to the left/right chicane at the Foggy Esses. I was rewarded that session with a fastest lap of 2:08 and so determined to try “lengthening” the straights even more in the next session.

In that next session, I began to notice how ragged my riding was becoming. Instead of flowing through the tighter sections, my progress round the track felt a lot more disjointed. This was confirmed when I returned to the pits to find that my fastest lap time that session had dropped to 2:13. In braking harder, I also noticed that the front end of the bike felt more “squirrely” on the brakes, and when I returned to the pits I saw that the cable tie on the fork leg used to record the maximum suspension travel was close to the bottom of the fork. I rang and spoke with the suspension specialist who overhauled my forks and he suggested adding another click of compression to fix the problem.

Over lunch I caught up with Del and explained how trying to delay and reduce my braking zones seemed to be counter productive. He advised two things. Firstly to focus on the lines he showed and to use all of the available track while doing so. The second point he made was that he felt I was braking too much for the corners when I could carry more speed through them instead of having to work so hard to regain the speed again after the corner. He reminded me that I was riding a 600 where momentum and corner speed were more important compared to bigger bikes which can use their horsepower advantage by squaring off the corners. With those thoughts in my head, I determined to try a different approach and work on maintaining speed and momentum and worry less about the brakes.

The first session after lunch things seemed to improve because with the exception of getting held up by traffic for a few of the laps, the session flowed better and I felt a lot more comfortable on the bike. I managed to make a 4 second improvement using this new approach and posted a 2:09. Del had been out on track for that session with us and he caught up with me in the garage afterwards to confirm that I was riding better again and using more of the track especially on the exits of the corners.

The next session was to be my last and so I determined to continue working on maintaining speed through the faster sections. The focus was on keeping my speed up from the start of turn 1 (Redgate) right through the Craner Curves down to the Old Hairpin and to try not to knock off too much speed at that right hander. I also tried to maintain speed on the approach to McLeans and to lose as little as possible through its righthander.

In trying to maintain momentum, what’s quite interesting is my braking focus switched from when to apply the brakes to trying to release the brakes earlier at the turn in point. It really took a determined conscious effort to force myself to let go of the brake lever and work the bike through the corner at a slightly higher speed than I felt immediately comfortable with. The result was that the session felt amazing because it seemed to flow so well in those laps when I wasn’t getting held up by traffic. I returned to the garage at the end of the session to find that I had posted a 2:04 – my fastest lap of the day and close to my 2 minute goal for the day.

Often I would encounter a pack of three or four bikes and passing them would take time and with only 7 laps available per session, it did mean that I wasn’t able to practice at my pace as much as I wanted to. For this reason alone, I will definitely book into the Inters group next time as it will mean being held up less often and it will allow me to try and tail faster riders to pick up some tips from them.

Here are my laps times for the day:

Session Laps Fastest Comments Video
1 ? - 3 sighting laps
2 7 2:06.68 Following No Limits instructor youtube
3 7 2:08.66 youtube
4 3 2:13.89 Red flagged
5 5 2:09.93
6 6 2:04.04

Although I wasn’t particularly looking forward to an early March trackday at a track that I didn’t particularly like based on my previous time here, this trackday turned out to be brilliant. The day was really well organised despite the fact that the inters and fast groups seemed to have a red flag virtually every session along with quite a few heavily damaged bikes; including one that had tumbled after coming off at the Craner Curves. While it looked totally destroyed, the rider had thankfully managed to get away with no significant injuries… other than some serious damage to his bank balance.

Help from instructors at trackdays can be a bit hit or miss but in Del I found an instructor who was brilliant to ride with. He was really engaged and seemed to really want to help me improve. His effort turned an OK trackday into a really brilliant one and I caught up with him just before departing to thank him for all his help. He obviously had a good day too as his grin was almost as wide as mine as we shook hands to say “good bye”.

I didn’t realise just how much I would enjoy riding at Donington – this could be my new favourite track! I will definitely try and get back again some time this summer.

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