“Donington” was the answer I got when I asked Leon Haslam, tongue-in-cheek, which UK track is his favourite. Given his father’s racing school – the Ron Haslam Race School – uses Donington as its base you’d expect a bit of bias, but I actually believe it was genuine. Superbike was kindly invited by Carol Nash and the Ron Haslam Race School to sample a Premier experience day at Donington to find out what’s on offer.
If you’ve spent time on track at Donington, you’ll know exactly why it’s such a fantastic track – but if you haven’t, then I’ll do my best to explain.
I’m going to assume you’re a racing fan, so just for a minute I want you to think of the most exciting races you’ve ever watched in a series like WSBK or MotoGP. I’ll bet a virtual fiver that you didn’t think of a race from Indianapolis, Sepang or Losail, and I’ll bet another that you thought of somewhere like Phillip Island, Mugello or Laguna Seca. Why? Because the common theme between the best races is more often than not a track with relief. Relief makes for interesting corners, and interesting corners help make for interesting racing. Heck, look at the MotoGP race from Le Mans a couple of days ago – another track with its ups and downs – and it was a rollercoaster of a race to say the very least. Us mere mortals just cannot engineer fun like Mother Nature can, and the corners these tracks offer are legend compared to what an civil engineer at a government department tasked with with increasing tourism can think up.
Donington’s also a great length at 2.5 miles – not too short, not too long – and there’s fantastic visibility through all of the corners except Coppice which makes it an easy track to get to know. In any given session, you get plenty of laps and therefore ample opportunity to get the best out of each and every corner. Trust me, nothing’s worse than heading out for a 20 minute session (which are invariably closer to 15) knowing that once you’ve got heat into the tyres, you’re only going to see each corner thrice more before the chequered flag’s doing its thing yet again. The black stuff’s also a good width – it’s not a motorway and it’s not a supermoto track either, meaning it’s not hard to find the racing line, and overtaking slower riders can be done on the inside or outside.
So, a fantastically varied track which has lovely wide open corners and the perfect amount of tarmac. Is it any wonder why Ron Haslam bases his race school there? Rocket Ron, obviously, raced most successfully with Honda, so all the bikes at the school come with a set of wings on the tank. If you’re on the Premier experience as I was, you’ll be on a revvy CBR600RR, and if you’re on the Elite experience you’ll be swinging a leg over a brand spanking new 2017 CBR1000RR Fireblade.
The day starts with getting your kit on. I’d brought all of my own kit, but the school will dress you appropriately from head to toe at no extra charge if you don’t own track appropriate gear – that means one piece or zip-together two piece leathers, a full face helmet, gauntlet gloves and proper boots (not those ankle-height urban street things). You’re then given a lighthearted but thorough run-down of various track procedures, what certain flags mean, a quick tour of the track map so that you know where the chequered flag will be waved and, finally, where to find the pit lane.
Formalities duly digested and out of the way, it was time to head to the pits and meet my instructor. Given we were on a press day we were lucky enough to have 1:1 instruction. Usually you’ll get 1:2 on the Premier experience – two riders to each instructor, with 1:1 being reserved for the Elite experience on the Fireblades. My instructor, Darren, introduced himself and revealed he road races 125cc and 250cc bikes. While Darren was more than forthcoming about his background, I intentionally kept the fact I know Donington well and am well versed in track shenanigans. The instructors are no schmoes, they’re the real deal, and know exactly what they’re on about. And guess what, Darren’s favourite UK track? Donington. For all the reasons I just mentioned.
And from there on, things got interesting. The weather gods were not on our side that day, and to be bluntly honest, I had not enjoyed spending the preceding days watching the forecast getting worse and worse, turning from light showers to heavy rain, and finally to a full on flood warning. I’d even gone as far as to email ahead to ask whether it was worth schlepping up to Donington all the way from London if it was just going to be rained off. I was assured that unless the track did actually flood, we’d be riding. They weren’t kidding.
Half way round the first lap following Darren to learn the correct lines for the conditions, I realised this was an opportunity rather than a chore. Think about it – when else are you going to opt to ride on a soaked track and be able to push the limits while riding someone else’s bike? The answer is almost never. At that point my grimace turned into a grin and I got stuck in.
The first of our three sessions was all about acclimatising to the conditions, getting comfy with the bike, learning the lines and for Darren to get an idea of my (in)ability. I noticed Darren was slowly but surely upping the pace as the session went on and I could see him looking in his mirrors frequently to figure out what I was capable of. As a relative novice to wet track conditions, it was thoroughly reassuring to be pulled round by someone with far more skill and confidence than I, and I know I wouldn’t have been going as fast as I was if I was out on my own.
20 minutes of track time flew by and we returned to the pits for a breather. Two things immediately hit me as I hit the kill switch and found shelter from the rain. First, it’s immense fun in the wet. I was blown away by how much grip was available given the sheer amount of water on the track. I glanced at the tyres – Dunlop Road Smart IIIs. Yes, that’s a tyre with “touring” in its description. On a track. Seriously impressive stuff. They use these in the dry, too, by the way – these were not fitted for the track conditions. The second thing that struck me was, having never had instruction before, the lines I had previously ridden on my own were as near as damnit the lines Darren was riding. Go me; maybe I’m not such a muppet after all.
During the break Darren took the time to show proper body positioning on a static Fireblade. Incidentally, I’d asked Leon what the hardest thing for a race school to teach is, and his answer was body positioning. Darren also fed back that I could probably go a bit faster on the straights and brake a bit later than I was, so that was my MO for the next session.
Conditions had worsened as the rain persisted, so actually I think we slowed down a bit for the second session – but I made sure to brake later regardless, and again, the Dunlops obliged. Darren had also given me a couple of tips regarding holding body position between McLean’s and Coppice – as you come around McLeans, you can stay off the bike as the distance between the corners, if taken fast enough, is short enough to make moving back on the bike after McLeans and back off again for Coppice rather pointless. He was right, too. It shows you just how much the instructors can observe just from their mirrors, it’s far more than you might think.
Before the penultimate session, we had a sit-down Q’n’A where we could ask for advice on any bits of the track we were having difficulty with. Precious gems of Donington-wisdom were given away at will – keep the lean angle mostly the same through Coppice’s double-apexes, and don’t worry too much about what line you take into Goddards – as long as it’s a line which lets you pile on the coals early, it doesn’t matter too much. All of which we couldn’t really put into much practise for the last session because of the continued rain and even wetter conditions, but definitely things I’ll be using next time I’m at Donington in the dry.
Third session was much the same as the second, and felt even slower, but Darren fed back that my fastest lap was very likely in the last session as everything came together. The bikes (quite rightly) don’t have speedos because it’s hardly relevant information on a track, but according to Darren who was leading on his VFR800, we were sailing down Starkey’s at 140mph having found the right line through Coppice to get on the gas early enough. Awesome. And are a moment to think just how much water the tyres were dealing with at that pace!
I came away from the day richer in knowledge and experience. It’s a shame it was a wet day, but with that came a different set of lessons. I’ve definitely got much more of an idea of what tyres can really do in the wet – something which will help me on the road where I ride the vast majority of my miles. I was also very glad to know that the lines I’d worked out on my own previously were bang on the money, and I picked up some great tips for where to pick up speed, and guidance on what to, and what not to, worry about at Donington.
It’s super important to note also that these track school days are for riders of any ability whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on every track on the MotoGP calendar or have never even been in a pit paddock before, there’s always room for anyone to improve, grow and learn as a rider. Also – and I say this to anyone who tells me they’ve not been on track before – there is no better place to learn, and no place you can gain skills faster than on a track. It’ll probably make you care less about trying to be “fast” on the road, too, which is never a bad thing.
My advice? Go and book yourself a day at Rocket Ron’s school. You certainly won’t regret it, even if it’s wet.