Wednesday 22 November 2017

Superb sounds and sights at Classic weekend in Spa

SPA Francorchamps is an iconic F1 Belgian race circuit where Moto GP racing last took place in 1990, the year when Wayne Rainey and John Kocinski took the honours.

Previous winners here include illustrious names like Mike Hailwood, John Surtees and Jim Redman, as well as Freddie Spencer who won two races in one day back in 1985.

This is also the circuit where the all-time fastest average race speed in any Grand Prix was achieved, an astounding 135mph by Barry Sheene. There are forgotten Irish winners too in Stanley Woods and Henry Tyrell Smith.

The Bikers Classics is an annual three-day motorcycle event for classics that gives participants three days of track time on the circuit with their bikes. The event attracts huge crowds who come to watch a star-studded selection of riders who, for one weekend, are reunited on the track with the fabulous machines that won them world championships.

This year, for the first time, Bikers Classics included two races for classics in the schedule, and a group of our regular classic men - Gerry O'Sullivan, Pat Murray, Sean Henry, Art O'Hare and Mark McCloskey - put in entries and headed to Belgium, where they were accompanied by Kevin Callan who provided technical assistance and cups of tea.

There was only one opportunity to qualify, a 20-minute session on the Saturday evening, but persistent rain had made the circuit slippery and unpredictable. Then on lap two of the qualifying, one rider's filler cap came adrift which left a long strip of oil right the way around the circuit. On the third lap the session was red-flagged as a result.

Within an hour of qualifying ending, another of the weekend's highlights took place, the four-hour Classic Endurance race that runs from 8pm until midnight. There were 70 teams entered in this race, which uses a Le Mans-type start, with all the bikes lined up at one side of the track and the first team member from each team lined up on the opposite side.

At the given signal the riders sprint across the track, leap onto their respective machines, fire them up and tear away.

Wicklow rider Cormac Conroy made up one third of the Sweatshop Phase One Endurance team, a UK-based team riding the 1978 P&M Kawasaki Z1000 together with Swedish rider Peter Linden, a former 250 and 500 GP rider and World Endurance Champion in 2000, as well as Hugh Brasher, the British Endurance Champion for 2012.

Most followers of motorsport who have heard of Spa Francorchamps will also have heard of Eau Rouge, the steep, ultra-fast downhill section which bottoms abruptly and then climbs just as steeply, with the road then disappearing into the blind, left-hand, uphill curve called Radillon.

Even on a fine day, Eau Rouge demands respect, and in the wet it is not for the faint-hearted. Add to this generous splashes of oil, and then try it at race speeds - in the dark for four hours! Competitors in this event are made of very different stuff indeed.

At midnight, after four gruelling hours punctuated by ultra-slick pit stops for fuel and changes of riders, Sweatshop Phase One came home third, and they set the fastest lap of the race at 145.470kph.

Next morning the organisers decided to re-run the previous night's wet qualifying in place of Race 1. As the 80 competitors assembled in the holding area the fabulous sounds from the eclectic mix of machinery shook the very ground. There were 7Rs, G50s, Manx Nortons, Gold Stars, Konigs, Seeleys, Triumphs, Jawas, Patons and 4cly Hondas - a truly wonderful spectacle.

The lads' one and only race would now go ahead at 4pm. By comparison with Irish racing, where one rarely sees as many as 40 bikes on a grid, and where races are started in waves of 10 or 12 riders, separated by intervals of 10 seconds per group, this was very different.

In Spa there are more than 70 bikes on the grid, and when the flag goes up all 70 charge off together, up to turn one, the tight hairpin known as La Source. Adrenalin, excitement and fear are indistinguishable at moments like this.

The entire grid made it around La Source without any major mishaps and tore off down Eau Rouge and on to complete the first of six laps of the 7.1km circuit.

All our classic riders finished the race. G50-mounted Pat Murray posted our best lap at 118kph and a very respectable 29th and Gerry O'Sullivan came home 38th, with Sean Henry, who received a trophy for coming third in the 350cc group 2, right behind him. Mark McCloskey finished in 45th place.

Fingal Independent

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