Ducati North West 2007: Nine Turns

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img_1258Coming into turn 9 at Portland International Raceway, the host track for MotoCorsa’s 2007 Ducati North West, Adam Faussett (#240) on the Ducati 1098 runs onto the track exit lane, then tips-in.  From my perspective Adam’s trajectory arcs across a section of cement patchwork, cuts perilously close to the red and white candy-striped shoulder, eases onto the front straight inches from the cement wall and chain-link fence that protect the grandstands with a fluidity that belies the pace.  Mustering my courage, I follow…

Being shown PIR’s race lines seemed like a good idea at the time, but now that red and white is flashing beneath my outrigger knee I’m having second thoughts, despite having landed a good teacher.

Adam, Ducati North America’s Area Sales Manager for the Pacific Northwest, raced the 250cc AMA class back in 1993 and recently returned to competitive road racing after a 10-year hiatus.  That break ended when Adam became part of Ducati North America’s employee team in the MOTO ST, a Daytona 8-hour endurance race in which the team ran a Paul Smart 1000LE in the Grand Sport Twins division.  My skill level, by comparison, amounts to “road riding duffer with journalistic aspirations.

Expecting a hard scratching sort of ride, the shock of following in Adam’s wake is not the speed, but the smooth, thought out elegance and logic to the ride.  Which is not to say it’s relaxing.

Doing my best to emulate Adam, I’m rolling on the 1098S’s throttle as we arc towards the wall running parallel the front straight.  Every neuron not involved with riding is sounding off a survival instinct claxon of “CEMENT!”

What cemented Adam’s return to the track?  The same thing that sees me catapulted down the front straight on a thunderous wave of internal-combustion volcanism… the 2007 Ducati 1098.

“I saw the 1098,” says Adam, “and I had to get back into road course racing.  Because that is a cool bike.”  Adam pulled gracefully away in turn “9” and now is graciously loping the 1098 along in the low-hundred-mph range.

Normally a bit throttle shy, I’m laying into the loud handle.  In response the 1098S is rapaciously consuming the straight with a Termignoni throated bellow the handlebars gently dancing and the front tire skimming the ground, with each upshift.  The 1098S and I have crossed 150mph’s (241kph) threshold and it feels fantastic!

That’s self-restraint for you.  Yesterday (Friday August 10th, 2007) during the DNW2007’s track day proper, the 1098S and I kissed 173mph (278kph), unfortunately Adam and I never quite synchronized our riding schedules.  Today is DNW’s lead ride portion of the event, with groups of 5 riders of all levels heading out under the marshal of ride leaders.  The pace is considerably subdued and the policy is strict; passing is grounds for a black flag, a signal that politely translates to “get the [explicative] off our track”.

In the name of a story we’ve bent the rules a little.  All that is missing is the catch phrase, “Adam, I have a cunning plan…”

Instead it’s, “If you still want to show me the lines, we could go out with one of the groups.  You can show me the lines slow, then after a few laps take off and go until we’re black flagged.”

Surprisingly game Adam calls my bluff, “I like it.  Let me talk to the marshals.  We could go out right before one of the slower groups.  Maybe the ride leads will agree to let us by.”

By the time I see Adam’s left foot downshift at the cusp of Turn 1, I’ve been rolling off at the first set of braking markers.  It’s far too early, and I make a fleeting mental note to push closer into the edge of Turn 7 coming off the back straight.

During our debriefing I ask which braking markers Adam uses.

“I don’t, you can’t trust braking markers because they could change.  The marshals or corner workers could have just put them out in the morning depending on the track.  Here I use the transition between the pavement types at the far end [of the straight].  It’s permanent.”  It’s an Obi-Wan’ism worth noting; though “Don’t trust the brake markers”, it won’t displace “use the force” any time soon, but it points to how racers develop a specific awareness of the environment.

That Adam has carried his speed at least 100 metres further towards the corner, knowing the 1098’s limits and his skills better than I is a huge difference.  Regardless of our differences I mimic his shift, dropping downwards through the gears from 6th to 3rd before hanging off into turn 1.

The act begs the question of gearing.  “Heading into one, I drop downwards into third. I’ve shorter gearing on my [race] bike, but 3rd should be fine.  You want to watch turn three.  It’s the first left hander so that side of your tire isn’t warm on that side.”  Yesterday, a high-side demonstrated the danger amply, a rider went into the turn, only to have the cooler, less grippy, left side of his rear tire step out, catch, flipping the bike and launching the rider airborne.

Through turn 1A to 5 the demand on my attention is near absolute, even at today’s conservative pace.  In the first few laps learning the lines I’m being over attentive; watching the track, the other riders, looking for markers to tie to Adam’s interactions with the 1098 ahead; his lines, his brake points, his shift points and his tip-in points.

Without knowing it I’m making use of a lesson from our post ride debrief that falls out of a bad road form.

“What about rev-limiter shifting on the straight?”  I ask referring to the practice of pre-loading the shift lever with just a little upwards force, then letting the bike hit the rev-limiter, when the engine cuts out it effects an upshift.

Adam is incredulous.  I know I’ve committed a sacrilege the moment the words fall out of my mouth.

“Don’t!  It takes you out of the bike’s power.  You want to shift as soon as the first [of three] shift light comes on.  By the time you’re hitting the rev-limiter you’re into the over-rev and past the power.  Where the over-rev comes in is on tight corners where you need RPMs but don’t want to shift down or up for the next turn.”

Suddenly the no man’s land of power drop off past the redline comes into focus as a very real track tool. One that’s been passed down from purpose built race machines to the street, and that I’ve used to avoid shifting through the past turns despite a lack of founding knowledge.

Coming out of three I roll on the throttle early, the 1098S and I arrow for the second apex of 5 straightening 4 nearly out of the equation – gaining slightly on Adam.  Then it’s a pull on the Brembos, hang off, and on the throttle running the remainder of 5, 5A and 6 as a near straight.

There’s good news here.  My lines, deduced by watching yesterday’s ride marshals, observing where the most rubber has been left through the corners, and following Doug Polen’s “darkies”, aren’t astronomically off.  Where they are different it’s by a matter of subtle degrees that allow Adam to turn in earlier, add throttle sooner, exit quicker, and avoid abrupt actions smoothing the ride.  It’s a slight juggling of vectors that results the biggest difference between the rides.

On my own yesterday, my breath was rasping, my heart racing and I was over-working the bike.  The pace felt manic despite being only moderately faster though each turn, today that taxing excretion is missing with the effort expended being much more economical, you could jokingly call it the Zen of zoom.

The gentle curve of the back straight sees the turn 7’s braking markets come pull-focus at 125mph.  I’m waiting and watching, Adam brakes, puts a knee out and tips in.  Still I’m early on the binders by comparison as the front Meztler Sporttec bites the surface and the surface’s feel pulses though the grips.

We cut out onto the exit lane and then tip in.  The 1098S skirts the edge of a cement patch that following Adam I’ve learned to disregard.  Not so close to the red-and-white edging, knee out, I hear the plastic grate of puck on asphalt as I roll on the throttle and arc into the front straight close to the wall.  These laps have provided some solid lessons, and more important some insight.

In seeking to learn the track’s “race lines”, I’ve stumbled into the workings of a racer’s mind.  I’d expected it to be a manic stressful strenuous place, but it’s not about being fearless or applying brute power. Instead there is a graceful order here, which brash off track bench racing never quite reveals.

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