Its a Saturday afternoon. Mid August, there is a sense of late summer heat battling through a distinctly gray and ominous sky. Heavy rain was a feature of the 5 hour drive up the country, but in motorway mode it makes little difference. Weary legs bow in delight at the prospect of a sitting height section of ditch. Solid, grassy and ideal height, this feels more like a front-row seat than a means to provide a barrier between road and field. Sitting upright, the first strains of an engine note floats in the breeze. Tension rises, phones are held outstretched and those of us enjoying the temporary relaxation stretch out horizontally. And then it happens. Four Motorbikes come into view, chased by an enthusiastic helicopter, throttles pinned open above and below. The approach speed is frightening, and then your vantage point becomes the apex. A cacophony of colour and noise blast past and my face is filled with grass once part of the very ditch I am extended over. Its exhilarating. This is proper road racing!!
While I had one of the most soul inspiring moments I’ve experienced following motorsport in quite some time, less than a couple of feet away battle raged at a frantic pace. What I was seeing up close was the Superbike race of the Ulster Grand Prix, already being regarded as one of the greatest motorcycle races of all time, happening in real time. Purpose built rockets, these big-bikes are fearsome pieces of kit designed to tackle the quickest and most fearsome circuits in the world. But that doesn’t cut the mustard for a certain cohort, a certain breed that see safety barriers, run-off area’s and compact lap distance and begin to chuckle. Around here, its being able to rule the roads that carries the most kudos.
Speed is something that I have quickly learned goes hand-in-hand with this world of road racing. The Ulster GP, more so than most, uses the experiences of riders on the edge as their main selling point. Everywhere you look, men, women and children sport t-shirts bearing an outline of the Dundrod circuit accompanied with the slogan “The World’s Fastest Road Race”. In a world of cutting political correctness and storms arising from what someone says on Twitter, its refreshing to see an event being so old-fashionedly open about it’s USP.
Where the title comes from is the lap record pace. While fellow events like the Isle of Man or the North West 200 may have longer circuits, its the average speed figures that are of most bragging come the end of race day. The honour and title of being known as the world’s quickest road-racer now lies with Dear Harrisson, the 28 year old rider from England. As a rider, Harrisson is almost from a different era. While the majority of his rivals can be seen competing most weekends on circuits as part of the British Superbike Championships, Harrisson is all about the roads. Short circuits, as regular tracks are known, do nothing for him, and so he and the Silicone Engineering team concentrate their efforts on events like the Ulster, IOM, Scarborough and other road races. Come lap four of the Superbike race, Harrisson crossed the line at an average speed of 134.6 MPH. Let that sink in for a second. As you blast up and down the motorway at 120 KPH, these guys are nearly doubling that on average, over fence lined b-roads. Oh and if you thought that’s unheard of, the ultimate motorbike GP average lap speed was set at the old Spa Francomschomp circuit by Barry Sheene…..in 1976….at 136 MPH!!
What made this particular race so spectacular is that while Harrisson was blitzing lap records, the battle for the lead was a four-way duel. Leading the pack was the hard charging Peter Hickman, fresh from success the previous week in the BSB, on the flying BMW. Add into the mix the ever dangerous and crowd favourite Michael Dunlop then you know its gonna be epic, but come the end of lap seven it was veteran Bruce Anstey riding the Padgetts Honda who took a well received victory. Later in the day, the big bikes were wheeled out again to do battle. Hickman and Anstey’s hopes were dashed with reliability issues, and although fellow Manx-men Connor Cummins (Padgetts Honda) and Dan Kneen (Tyco BMW) pushed each other to the absolute maximum, it would be the impressive Dean Harisson, thanks to a proper rubbing-is-racing overtake at the hairpin, that would claim victory.
How I know the intricate race details here is thanks to the fantastic coverage available on the day, keeping all of us on the ditches right at the thick of the action. I have spent days off at rallies only to come home and not know who has won the event, yet here big screens lined the circuits while commentary was available on loud speakers as well as broadcast live on the radio. Every piece of action was broadcast, and you could get a real sense of the race unfolding in real time.
While the big 1000cc Superbikes are the obvious bill toppers, some of the support racing was ferocious to watch. Something familiar to the more referent road racing fan is the Lightweight/Ultralight race for 2-stroke machinery. Although we saw very little of this race, by god did we smell it and smile. In the SuperTwins, it would come down to the final meters of track to find a winner as Ivan Linton sneaked it by 0.024 from Dan Cooper is a finish that seemed almost too dramatic for the excellent BBC television coverage.
Come the end of race day, it was Peter Hickman who would head off with three victories, twice in the 600’s and in the SuperStock, but with the disappointment of not grabbing a SuperBike victory. Personally speaking, I felt somewhat confused. While the NW200 had been spectacular, the Ulster brought better racing. Obviously the need to pay to watch the action is something Id never experienced at an open road event before, it was a clear indication of how I personally see things like rallying going in the future. On Rallying, I was left speechless the first time I saw a WRC Subaru properly at full chat down a tarmac rally stage. It was mind blowing speed it seemed, but on reflection it likely geared for about 120 MPH. After a few bike events, anything shy of 180 now seems slow!!