Photos & Musings: Grands Prix

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Qualification and timed training

This snap was taken by my father Ron during Sunday timed training at Namur in 1986. David Thorpe was going for his second World Championship and I was on factory Kawasaki, having my best year, running in the top ten.

There was a lot of camaraderie between the Brits in those days. We regularly had ten British in the race - a quarter of the forty man field. Thorpe and Nicoll were automatic qualifiers and then we’d have eight others from timed qualifying. Riders like Willie Simpson, Mark Banks, (who would be my team mate in 1987), Jared Smith, Lawrence Spence, David Watson, Greg Hanson, Mervyn Anstie, Stuart Coyle, Brian Wheeler and so on.

All those British riders could score good points too. If it was muddy, like in Spain 1987 it could look like a British championship, with Brits, brought up on mud races, packing the top ten.

Although all practice and qualifying sessions were timed, there were two that were really important - Saturday qualification and Sunday morning timed training.

In total about a hundred riders would enter each GP, with each country putting forward up to as many as eight competitors. However, it wasn’t straightforward to get entries into GPs back then. Firstly you had to qualify for a place on your country’s ‘grading list’. This was a list of those riders who wanted to enter GPs in each class. In Britain, qualification for this came via the main British open championship. If you were in the top eight (of riders that wanted to contest 500GPs) then you were on the list. The same grading list scheme operated for 125 and 250 GPs too. In Britain, where there were lots of GP-speed riders, getting on those grading lists wasn’t easy and some riders only managed to get occasional GP entries when other riders were injured. Other countries, like for example Switzerland, or the US, had very few GP riders and so entries were easy to come by for those who wanted to have a go. Randy Rodriguez, from California springs to mind.

So, eight riders would be entered by each major country, and on top of that, any riders in the top eight of the championship would get automatic entry, meaning that GB had ten riders at each GP (Thorpe and Nicoll were automatics)

Saturday qualification was to trim that field of a hundred down to forty for Sunday, and that consisted of two forty-five minute timed sessions with the fastest sixteen lap times from each group joining the eight seeded riders for Sunday’s races. In my early GP days the two qualification groups were split randomly, which meant that one group was always harder than the other. This was changed, sensibly, to split the groups by championship position so that in theory each group had similar speed riders. Britain generally did well in 500GPs at that time, with often all ten riders making it through qualification.

Sunday morning’s timed session was for gate pick. An hour long, it was usually horrible out there because the track had always been watered and was much more slippery than Saturday.

Qualification and timed training was an art. One fast, flying lap, just like F1. We would do a slow, line-finding ‘out-lap’, then a flying lap, then a slow-down lap back to the pits. Most riders found that doing multiple laps just wasted time as their first lap was generally the fastest. In fact, you could always spot the rookies, trying to qualify for their first GP, as they would be hammering round and round, getting slower with each lap.

Some riders could really rip for one lap, but did nothing in the race. Some Italians were especially noted for this. Others, like myself, found ‘balls-out’ flying laps tricky, but could post good race lap times.

There was a lot of technique to qualifying. Firstly you needed to get a clear lap, and that meant no traffic. I would try and get first place in the pit box so I could get out first on the track with no roost or dust. This worked well for me although at Roggenburg in Switzerland one year I tore off on my first lap to find yellow flags being waved. ‘How can anyone have crashed? I’m first out’ I thought to myself, and then I saw a bulldozer still on the track!

After that first 3 lap session I would rest, check on my lap time and position, and then head out again. By this time there were fifty-something riders out there so the trick was to do the out-lap slowly, looking for a good gap in traffic, and hanging back from the guy in front while not being passed. This would give a good fifty metres clearance and enable a clear flying lap. Good etiquette was to respect other riders on a fast lap and get out of their way, and this generally was followed. Once your fast lap was done you’d move off line and cruise round the extremities of the track, looking and listening for riders ‘on a flyer’ so you didn’t mess up their lap.

After each three lap sprint I would see where I was, lap time-wise. If I was in a healthy position and the track was getting slower then there might not be a need to go out again. If I was borderline then the last ten minutes could be terrifying as everyone who was not in the top ten would be out there for one last ditch effort. I hated it when I was in that position! It may only be a tenth of a second you are looking for but that’s an eternity! In fact, I remember in my first ever 250GP at Newbury, where I failed to qualify, my manager at the time came up and said “You need to go three seconds faster”. Three seconds is like three hours. You can’t pull three seconds out of thin air!

The coolest thing in qualifying would be to go out, stick the fastest lap, then head back to the truck, not even bothering to do another session because you knew that no-one would beat you! I saw Jeff Leisk do that once. I think I was fastest in qualification perhaps once or twice but I was never brave enough to go get a shower after 5 minutes, just in case the track suddenly got faster!

Incidentally, 99% of the time tracks would always get slower throughout the session as they got rougher, particularly in sand. It was therefore very important to get a good time in early. Also, it could rain, meaning that any subsequent laps had no chance of beating a dry lap time. Occasionally though tracks would speed up, like for example a drying track, or perhaps a corner post may get knocked over and not replaced in the same position.

As far as bike set up goes, we would always use new tyres for qualification and as little fuel as possible to save weight. We’d also take spare wheels to the pit box as going back to the truck in the event of a flat would lose us too much time from the forty-five minute session.

Sometimes the timing line would be in a weird place, maybe close to the exit of the corner onto the start straight. In that case often riders would take obscure lines just prior to their flying lap in order to pass the start point at a faster speed than if they had taken the normal racing line. If the timing point was at the end of the start straight then at the conclusion of the flying lap we’d forget trying to make the corner and instead hold it wide-open past the timer, and into the ropes if need be!

The whole timing thing was open to errors. Back then it wasn’t electronic timing. It was a bunch of people with stop watches and sometimes they’d make mistakes. My Dad got himself one of the first laptops and had a piece of software written to enable him to time qualification himself. He’d hit the space bar when a rider passed, then enter the rider’s number afterwards. This worked really well, even if riders went past several at a time, and it was far more advanced than what the organisers were using! Initially he was swamped with riders and mechanics pushing and shoving to look over his shoulder to see where they lay. Back then there were no TV monitors to show anyone’s progress and Ron was getting crushed. So, he modified the software to blank out everyone’s name but the Brits! This cured the crush problem, and if anyone asked nicely he’d press a key to briefly display all the positions. Often, Ron’s data was called upon to verify a qualification result if there were any question marks as to the official results.

Qualification was also open to cheating by some of the slower and more desperate riders. How could people cheat? Easy when you know how, and when the people organising it weren’t very clever. One year in Luxembourg Saturday’s qualification was declared null and void because riders had been doing a ‘practice start’ and crossing the timing start point halfway along the start/finish straight. They would then pull off in the first turn and trickle slowly back to the start gate to do another start. They’d pass the timing point again during their second practice start and hence set a lap time without ever going around the track! How did they know when to do the second practice start? Easy - do the first start at the same time as a quick rival was commencing a fast lap and do the second one just before that same rider came round to complete it. They got busted because one rider didn’t time it right and posted a lap time five seconds faster than the world champ!

This also happened in other countries. Anywhere where a rider could pass the start line then cut the track making it look like a quick trip back to the pits.

Cheating didn't happen very often, because anyone caught would have been in big trouble, not just from the organisers, but also from his peers. Nowadays with transponders things are a bit more precise.

If I was struggling in practice or timed training I’d often ask David for a ‘tow’. Following a faster rider, even if only for a few turns, dragged you along, and, of course, showed you good lines. DT was always obliging. Sometimes, though, he’d be too quick and lose me. Leif Persson I found to be a good man to follow. He was fast enough to drag a couple of tenths out of me but not so fast that I’d lose him. Leif was a really nice guy too, and had a great, weight-forward style, like his mentor Carlqvist.

Incidentally, those Camel bibs became an icon of GP Motocross, in fact, featured as such fairly recently in Moto Magazine’s ‘Icon’ article. Camel sponsored certain rounds and put in extra prize money for those wearing the bibs. I know that the photo above must be timed training Sunday because we only had to wear the bibs in timed sessions, and David wouldn’t have been out there in Saturday qualification.

Riding numbers in those days were not kept for the season except for the top eight. All riders outside the top eight had different numbers each race, usually grouped together by riders’ nationalities.

David Thorpe and myself at Namur, 1986, resting during timed practice on Sunday morning. Enlarge image

Full speed back onto the Esplanade aboard the KX500SR Enlarge image