MOTORING: THE TRACK OF MY FEARS

For the boy racer, there's little more thrilling than a Ducati experience - around Brands Hatch. James Christopher feels the exhilaration and its downside, the panic
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'VE ever fantasised about thrashing a racing bike round a top class racing circuit but never dreamt that you would have either the money or the opportunity, your time has come. Moto Cinelli, the importers of Ducati in the UK, have joined forces with Brands Hatch Leisure Group to provide the ultimate thrill for anyone with a motorcycle licence and a minimum of pounds 130 to burn.

Once you've been ferried from the main reception area at Brands Hatch to the pit lane, the awesome truth about motorcycle racing becomes all too apparent. Parts of this historic, famous racecourse, such as the Paddock Hill Bend and Druids Corner, look as though they've been built on a ski-slope. This is not the flat airport runway with nice banking curves that one might expect to find at a racetrack but rather a fiendishly bendy, narrow, slippery looking piece of tarmac that inspires as much fear as it does excitement.

Even Ewan McGregor, the swash-buckling star of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and the next Star Wars movie, looked a little tense before roaring off to join the posse of intrepid bike journalists on the track. In reality, he has an advantage as he is actually the proud owner of a spanking new Ducati 748, which is the type of bike that makes up the fleet of racing bikes on offer. But he, like most of us there, had never been on a racing circuit before.

With the same sort of geometry, styling and handling as the Ducati 916, the 748 is a purist's racing bike with more power and performance capability than all but the most experienced riders can handle. The rest of the kit, including helmets, boots and gloves, is available trackside. Having squashed myself into a very gaudy leather one-piece racing suit - complete with armour plating - it was time to gingerly mount my steed in the pit lane.

The pacing and guiding is done by a team of seasoned racing veterans who talk and drive with you around the track, communicating via a helmet radio link. Most of them are professional racers, one or two are in the superbike league. Each pro is assigned two novices. These are the gurus who will show you the racing line, where to brake, where to accelerate and where to start your turn.

From the moment that you roar out of the pits, the whole concept of motorcycle riding takes on an entirely new dimension. All the normal rules of the road evaporate on the dusty tarmac. The track doesn't just slide down steep hills, it tilts away from you forcing you to lean sickeningly over on your bike merely to stay on it.

I've skied some of the most feared downhill courses in the world including that slab of sheer ice in Kitzbuhl, Austria, but nothing quite compares with the dizzying rollercoaster bend that is Paddock Hill as it suddenly dips away to the right just after you hit top speed on the Brabham Straight. What, you wonder, would Ewan McGregor's insurance premiums be if his insurance company ever found out about this?

Reminders of your mortality are everywhere. Marshalls in luminous jackets keep watch over the most precarious spots. However the most unexpected feature is how quickly corners come rushing upon you. As soon as you get the bike up to 90mph-plus on the straight you're suddenly into the next corner and more often than not on the wrong side of the road to attempt to get around it. It's everyone's fantasy to hang cool off the side of a bike and put your knee down on the track as you whoosh through corners, but despite feeling as if I was going around some bends horizontally, I was somewhat disappointed to notice that my knees were never in danger of getting anywhere near scraping distance.

There is exhilaration but there is also total panic. Not knowing where to apply throttle in some turns I drifted dangerously off track on at least three occasions. What, you wonder as you hurtle towards a wall of tyres, possesses people like Carl Fogarty, Ducati's superbike representative and former world champion, to do this for a living? It's licensed insanity. And herein lies the key.

Two thirds of motorcycle racing is in the mind. It is your confidence that dictates how easily you can take corners and how smoothly you lap. The other third is an ability to clamber around your bike like a baboon in heat shifting your buttocks from one side to the other in order to find that utterly elusive racing line. Most of us, including Ewan, looked like stiff planks of wood on our first few laps but when you eventually find some sort of rhythm, you begin to see the sense of humping your body over the petrol tank.

It sounds slightly odd but you can go the entire distance around Brands Hatch on the Ducati 748 in third gear using only throttle with no major discrepancy in lap times. The bikes are set up so you don't need to pull your clutch when you gear up. Movements, even thoughts, cost time and crucially disturb your balance and rhythm. Once I'd lost my rhythm it took two laps to get it back. It wasn't helped by the fact that the extremely quick experienced riders on the track disconcertingly overtake where you thought there was absolutely no room to spare.

The wisdom of having a professional leading the way is all too apparent in terms of safety and learning. It's a great leveller. Having probably lapped the track a million times in their sleep they theoretically know the perfect line into every straight and corner. If you stick to their back wheel like glue, they will give you the confidence to move your buttocks and lean with your body rather than leaning on the brakes.

The most salutary lesson I took away from the Ducati Experience is how little I actually know about the art of motorcycle riding. Very rarely does one get the opportunity to really put a bike through its paces. This is an exhilarating chance to do something about both.

VITAL STATISTICS

The Ducati Experience is available to holders of motorbike licences on select dates at the following four venues: Brands Hatch, Fawkham, Longfield, Kent DA3 8NG; Cadwell Park, Old Manor House, Louth, Lincolnshire LN11 9SE; Oulton Park, Little Budworth, Tarporley, Cheshire CW6 9BW; and Donington Park, Castle Donington, Derby DE7 2RP. To reserve your place or for further information call the Brands Hatch Call Centre which is on 0990 125 250 .

INITIAL TRIAL: From pounds 130. After a detailed briefing you motor off for the first of two track sessions of about 15 to 20 minutes on a Ducati 748 before a detailed debriefing and a second track session. Tuition, boots, gloves, helmets and leathers are all provided.

SUPER TRIAL: From pounds 215. As Initial Trial, above with extended track time of about four 15 to 20 minute sessions, advanced instruction and the opportunity to develop advanced techniques on the Ducati 748.

THE 916 EXPERIENCE: From pounds 285. As above, including extended track time, but with one-to-one instruction on Ducati's legendary 916. Track time is anything up to two hours, depending on how good you are.

AND IF YOU DON'T RIDE MOTORBIKES ...

By arrangement with Brands Hatch you are also able to book a rally driving session with professional instruction on the rally track in the Lower Paddock next to the famous circuit. Taking a year's sabbatical from rally car racing, driver Mick Hands takes sadistic pleasure scaring unsuspecting passengers half to death in his customised car. This is a brutal, tyre ripping sport where skid turns are made 20 yards from the corner at seemingly impossible car-rolling speeds. Definitely not for the faint-hearted. Prices start from pounds 85 to pounds 265 and bookings must be made between six and eight weeks in advance. For details, again phone the Brands Hatch Call Centre on 0990 125 250.

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