After a another 4:30am start to get to Doninton circuit by 7:30am, I wasn’t too pleased to be driving up the M1 from London in the pouring rain. Although this was tempered by the fact that the previous day’s weather forecast predicted some dry weather around midday for the afternoon.
This trackday on the GP circuit, organised by MSV (who own many circuits but not Donington) cost £149 (US$ 240) and was run out of the exhibition centre because the paddock and pits were reserved for race teams setting up for the weekend’s racing. This event featured 3 groups with less than 40 riders per group but would be subject to a 98dB “drive by” noise limit.
On arrival at the circuit, the bikes and vans were directed into the exhibition centre itself. I wondered if all our trucks and vans would actually fit in, but there seemed to be enough room for everyone and for the bikes and riders to ride through the building to the holding area just after the Esses to go out on track. Being parked up inside the building was actually a blessing because it meant that we were totally sheltered from the cold and rain outside.
The 98dB noise restriction had stopped many riders from booking so I was surprised to see just how many track bikes had turned up – road bikes were definitely in the minority. The restriction meant that I refitted the baffle to my Arrow can in order to ensure that I didn’t fail the ride by noise limit. Donington operate a 2 strikes and you’re out policy regarding noise. The first time you get black flagged, you are given an opportunity to rectify the issue (by fitting a quieter baffle for example). If however you get black flagged again then you are excluded from the rest of the day and no refund is given.
I thought that this was a pretty fair way to organise this as the circuit has to be careful on “quiet” track days (such as this one) because the noise detectors are also monitored by the local council while the event is on. The irony to all this of course is that the circuit sits at the end of East Midlands airport runway and noisy planes are taking off overhead all day long!
As a result of being held up in the novice group the previous time here, I opted to join the inters group. However I began to reconsider that decision as I saw everyone fitting wets to their bikes while I would be stuck with my Pirelli Rosso Corsas; a tyre not noted for its cold or wet weather performance! I figured that I would try the first couple of sessions and see what the pace was like and move down to the novice group if I was holding other riders up.
The inters group was to be the second group out and the first session would comprise three sighting laps before regrouping just after the Esses after which everyone would be allowed to continue for the rest of the session again. The pace for the sighting laps was fine and despite my nervousness about the tyres, I seemed to be able to get around the circuit without too many problems with the exception of the two hairpins, and especially the right hander at the Melbourne Loop. I find the Melbourne Loop tricky in the dry, and so was not entirely surprised at how much more difficult it seemed to be to get right in the wet.
With the sighting laps out of the way, riders ran at the own pace and I was quickly overtaken by quite a few riders. By that time, my tyres were cold again, and with no heat in them, I just didn’t trust them in the corners as they twitched constantly as I tried to follow the racing line. They really felt like they were about to let go at any moment. I suspect that I held up a few riders behind me but that they did not want to risk skidding off the circuit just to get past; after all that was just the first session of the day and there would be another six to follow.
The light rain had been constant during the session and there was quite a lot of standing water around the track. This made riding quite difficult as the spray from other riders quickly started to obscure my vision. Thankfully I had the foresight to apply some Rain-X to my visor beforehand which allowed the rain to clear my visor in the faster sections of the cicuit just by turning my head sideways slightly.
On returning to the pits, I had a chat with Colin at 100% Suspension. I had already reduced the front and rear shock compression by three clicks prior to the first session but was still not happy. As a result of my feedback, he suggested taking off another two (or even three) clicks and seeing if that made any difference for the second session. He reminded me that even if I wound off all the compression, there would still be some compression as the adjusters only changed the setting within a defined range.
I also realised that I needed to try and retain as much heat in the tyres as I could. As I was using tyre warmers, I headed out on track towards the back of the group in the second session in order to retain as much heat as possible for as long as possible. Things felt a lot better. While the track was still wet everywhere, the rain had a least stopped and I could feel that I wanted to push on as the hotter(?) tyres and suspension changes gave a lot more confidence compared to the first session. I still struggled with the two tight hairpins but felt a lot more comfortable through the fast sections of Craners and round to McLeans. Grip was still a problem as the back tyre spun up whenever I opened the throttle too quickly but thankfully that only seemed to happen when the bike was mostly upright. I finished that session feeling much happier and hopeful that the track would eventually begin to dry.
One of the high points of the day was catching up with people that I hadn’t seen in a while between sessions. It was really good to see some familiar faces and to hear about their racing adventures for this year. They were using this track day to get some practice in. Perfect practice for the rain, I’d say! I also ended talking with a few other riders including a few riding Daytona 675s. I was trying to get some feedback on riding with wet tyres. Some had used wets for years while others were trying them for the first time. Comments ranged from “feels like riding in the dry”, “got my knee down” to “slightly better than road tyres”. I suspect that riding in the wet is a confidence thing and that it’s quite possible to take two different riders, with the same bike and wet tyres and have completely different opposing views on track.
A couple of riders cautioned that while wets gave more grip and confidence in the wet, you still had to be circumspect about your riding style. This is the result of a high side on wets just after the Craner Curves. Luckily the ground was so water logged that most of what looks like damage is in fact mud stuck to the bike.
For the third and fourth sessions, the rain has started again and with a lowering cloudbase I didn’t hold out much hope of any improvement for the rest of the day. The rain and standing water seemed to suck the heat out of the tyres so quickly that I felt like I was riding on ice. While the Rosso Corsas were good on the brakes and even under moderate acceleration, they were really terrible through the corners. I even made a point of trying to hang off the bike more in order to stay on the part of the tyre that had some tread to try and cut through the water, but to be honest it felt like I was fighting a losing battle as the bike continued to twitch and feel like it was about fly off the circuit at any minute. With the rain and spray, visibility was also becoming a problem again and I figured that I should stop before I joined the other riders who had already slipped off the track.
My personal view is that while the Pirelli Rosso Corsas are brilliant in the dry they don’t give much confidence when cold and wet. As a result, I think that I will try and invest in a spare set of wheels with wet tyres just so that I can ride with more confidence in the wet. Wet weather riding is a confidence issue and I’d like to stack the deck in my favour.
I came to Donington to try and improve my lap time further but with such bad weather conditions that was never going to happen. I didn’t even bother fitting cameras to the bike as all they would have captured is spray! The bottom line is that UK track days are always a bit of a lottery with the British weather and you just have to accept that some will be dry and others not.
I look forward to my next visit to Donington in brilliant sunshine!