The first bike I got to ride was the Kawasaki ZX6-R. While it wasn't raining anymore, and there were dry patches forming here and there, it sure was wet as hell everywhere else. I really didn't want to bin the first bike I went out on, but when you saddle up on a manufacturers bike with their guys right there setting you up, you kind of feel like you've got a responsibility to do your best for them. By turn three I had that bike sideways in the wet (not on purpose). With each lap we got going a little better, a little smoother. That ZX6-R is a great bike. It felt narrow, but long for a 600. The chassis was very balanced and the motor had good power once you got into it's zone. But let me tell you, if you weren't up in the revs you weren't going anywhere soon.. After fumbling for a decent bunch of laps we came in to switch horses. I complimented the Kawasaki crew on a job well done in setting that bike up, then looked up from their pit to see none other than Michael Lock (CEO of Ducati North America) pulling up in his Porsche. "Oh great" I thought, "Nothing like a little pressure.."
While it's not the case any more today, back in March Michael was basically my boss. I was already getting the look from the other reps - they figured after the rental car adventure that I was the key to their bike ending up with the ever important "fastest lap" of the test. So Michael? I could only imagine what his look was going to feel like.. And wouldn't you know it, I was chosen to ride the Ducati 1098 next!
I know they're called Ducks, and real ducks like water, but when it comes right down to it Ducatis are not always easy to ride fast in the wet (at lest for me they're not). Sure, Bayliss does it. But he's Bayliss.. I've won a lot of races in the rain, in fact once I lapped the entire field up to second place at Loudon - in an eight lap race (on a Suzuki). But when I rip around the track on a Ducati in the wet I always end up fighting off high-sides not unlike Pedrosa's last one at Motegi. I think it's the engine's torque on deceleration. It always brings the rear around just after you think you've got everything set just right and start heading for the apex. Believe me I had this fact firmly planted in my mind as I headed out on the earth shaking 1098.
Thankfully by now there were more dry spots out there than wet spots, but still the track was far from ready to rip on. We did about five laps, then came back to Nash (as instructed). The front end was way too soft for my liking. Going up the Cyclone the forks would crumble under braking force, then as we shot over the crest they'd top out instantly. It's tough to ride a bike fast when those two extremes happen just fourteen feet from each other. Nash immediately went to work after hearing me make a few key notes - "Bottomed out" "All over the road" "The last guy who rode this thing was on crack."
We went through this same process about four times. I'd go out, turn incrementally faster laps, Nash would re-adjust, then I'd go out again and start the process all over again. Through Thunderhill's fastest sweeper, which is bumpy as all get-out, I saw 122mph on the speedo with my knee grazing the grass as I aimed the 1098 through a maze of wet patches. That was exciting as all hell for me, but I got the feeling it was a little nerve racking for the boss. And believe me, Michael watched every move we made, timed every lap we ran, and kept a watchful eye (stopwatch) on anyone riding any machine other than a Ducati.
After about forty minutes of this we got down to 1:58 flat (about four seconds off a race winning pace in Open Twins). I looked up at Michael and he quietly motioned that the 1098 was now ten seconds faster than any bike out there. Not bad for a streetbike with stock springs, headlights, and a license plate - on a track that was far from ready.
After a break Aaron called a meeting about the upcoming afternoon. The proposed plan would see us all do a few setup laps on each machine after lunch. Then, once each bike had new soft rubber mounted, we would all run our quickest laps on each machine in a quest to see which bike would be crowned "King" of the fastest lap.