If you have ever ridden or been the pillion passenger on a motorcycle, you’ll know how exhilarating that is. If you’ve ever been on the back of a bike and didn’t entirely trust the rider, you know how terrifying that can be. What I’m about to recount is so exhilarating and terrifying at the same time, it’s utterly insane!
Some years ago, I went to watch a MotoGP™ race at Donington Park. During the lunch break, I watched ex-500cc hero, Randy Mamola, take Prince Harry and a few others for a ride around the circuit on a 2-seater Ducati. This was no ordinary Ducati. It was a MotoGP™-spec bike adapted to take a passenger with lots of power, not much weight and Grand Prix-level brakes. The last part is particularly important.
That looks fun, I thought.
Wind forward to 2021 and the resumption of crowds at race meetings around the UK and up pops an invitation to have a go on the ‘MotoX2’ (as it’s now called) for a suitable donation to charity.
A short detour.
Two Wheels for Life is the official charity partner of MotoGP™. They provide bikes that deliver medical supplies and other vital services to otherwise inaccessible places in Africa. It, like millions of charities world wide, has been hit badly by the pandemic and so too has its vital work. It was an easy decision to take the opportunity that had been bubbling in the back of my mind for over 10 years.
And so to Silverstone.
Getting into the paddock during a MotoGP™ race meeting is hard enough, but during a global pandemic a few more hoops were added. Armed with a clear PCR test (phew!) I joined a small band of fellow excitees in the queue for a blood pressure check . Sadly, one of our troop fell at this hurdle. A couple of others, yours truly included, had an extended test whilst we calmed a little. If it isn’t stressful enough going on a GP bike, fearing the failure of a medical doesn’t add to the sense of calm!
The next step was a briefing and trial (static) run. “You hold here, lean this way, lean that way. I change my riding style on how you feel” says ex-grand prix racer and my pilot, Franco Battaini. He and fellow racer, Fonsi Nietto, would share the piloting duties for our group.
It then took a while to be kitted out in the latest leathers, gloves, helmet, back protector, etc. Toilet visits were no longer an option.
And so to the grid.
The lunch break enables these ‘experiences’ to happen on a clear track and to entertain those many race fans who choose to stay in their seats.
I stood in line awaiting my turn.
The first ‘victim’ screams off into the distance, popping a wheelie at the end of the national pit straight and turns right out of sight. Silence.
Two minutes later, the bike screams back towards us and then wah, wah, wah as Fonsi clicks down a few gears, hurtles to a stop and pops a stoppie just for fun (that’s a front wheel wheelie). His passenger is helped off the bike and is clearly hyper-ventilating as she staggers past me towards help and and a drink of water. When she got her breath back, her smile came with it.
It’s soon my turn. I’m led out into the centre of the asphalt to await Franco. Final check that my helmet is securely fastened, visor down, gloves tight and then I’m being manhandled on to the bike. Feet properly in place, hands around the handles moulded into the tank, I see a tap on Franco’s shoulder and we’re off.
I’m ready for the acceleration, the rapid build up of noise and wind rush. I’m almost ready for the wheelie and then the lean right into Copse. I’m also now getting an idea of just how exciting this is.
I’m not ready for what happens next.
We flick left into Maggotts. I’m concentrating so hard on holding on that I’m still looking right. I’m trying to correct my position when we flick right into Becketts and then left again into Chapel. The violence of these movements that seem so fluid on the TV is breathtaking, literally.
We now hit the Hanger Straight. Franco ducks behind the screen as the bike climbs towards its top speed (for us) of 186mph. The force of the wind at that speed is wrenching my helmet up so much that I can barely see over the chin guard. That helmet was a tight fit and it was fastened on tightly, honest.
But nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
They told me that the braking is the most impressive part. OMG how so. Despite my best efforts to lock my arms, hold tight, very tight, and be ready I simply collapsed into a pile of jelly when Franco hit the brakes. I have been in fast cars with carbon ceramic brakes, I’ve ridden fast motorcycles, I’ve been in an aerobatics plane and done a wing walk. None of those compare to the unimaginable power of those brakes that can stop the bike quicker than it can accelerate. This is power to weight ratio in reverse in the most emphatic way.
We’re then hard right into Stowe Corner. Not only am I still half way up Franco’s back (or so it felt) and my gentlemen’s parts have done their best to stop my forward momentum on Franco’s rear seat hump (my arms needed all the help they could get), I’m now rubbing my toes along the asphalt and desperately trying to get my head and bum back into their correct position.
I’m also now a bit disorientated as we brake hard again and turn hard left into Vale. At least I now have some idea of what to expect, but not when to expect it. Not so. As we’re turning into Vale, Franco dabs the brakes. No! You can’t brake in mid-corner. Oh, yes you can on a MotoGP™ bike. My brain’s trying to rationalise this after all those years of ‘always brake in a straight line’.
There’s absolutely no way I could look far enough ahead to even guess when a braking or turning point might be. I’m just holding on and hoping I can remain holding on.
After a few more seconds (or was it hours?) of violent buffeting and my rag doll impression, I at last spot somewhere I recognise. We’re on the Wellington Straight. I know that the upcoming Brooklands is a hard left followed by the long right sweep of Luffield and then the finish line after Woodcote. But there were yet more surprises in store.
I’m ready. We brake hard as we approach Brooklands and I look over Franco’s left shoulder as we turn in. Maybe I’m starting to get it, even though I’m still simply hanging on with now tiring arms, wrists and fingers. Not so. We then lean over further. My toes are rubbing along. We’re about to fall off and slide into the gravel, me thinks. No so. We then lean over even further. My brain’s addled again.
After two minutes and five seconds, it’s all over. The stoppie was pretty spectacular, but at least it was in a straight line and at relatively low speed. A quick final demonstration of just how powerful those brakes are and how good are those tyres to match.
Whilst I wasn’t hyper-ventilating (at least I don’t recall that) my hands were shaking. Not from fear, but from the sheer effort required to hold on. I doubt I could have done so for another lap.
How would I describe the experience? Utterly insane!
Would I recommend it to anyone? You bet I would, but with a caveat. If you want to do it, do it. If you’re at all unsure, don’t!
Any after effects? There was some inevitable stiffness for arm muscles and across my shoulders. That’ll partly be down to using muscles I don’t usually use or at least not in that way.
Glad I did it? You bet. It’s one more thing ticked off the bucket list (although there are plenty more on there… one should never get to the bottom of one’s bucket list!). And of course, Two Wheels for Life benefits from my bravery/stupidity.
Thank you to everyone who helped to make this happen for me. Especially to Chris, Andrea, Donna, Chantal, Marc, Fonsi and, of course, Franco.
I have always had great respect for anyone who can race a motorcycle. You guys have given me many more reasons to give them even more respect.
P.S. The image at the top of this article has nothing to do with the event, but helps to show the ridiculous lean angles that grand prix bikes can reach.
P.P.S. Silverstone 2021 raised £123,000 for Two Wheels for Life! Please click on the link to get involved and/or to donate. Thank you.