DIARY OF BEN BILLARD: VIRGIN MEDIA R6 CUP RACER

BRITISH GRAND PRIX, DONINGTON PARK, 22-24 JUNE 2007

As the MotoGP elite thrilled a record 85,000 spectators at Donington at this weekend’s British Grand Prix, Ben Billard, a nineteen year old personal trainer from Chesterfield, was enjoying his first taste of life in the Grand Prix paddock.

The opportunity for Ben to race at the British Grand Prix arose because at the beginning of the year he was selected into the highly competitive Virgin Media R6 Cup, a breeding ground for future Grand Prix stars. The Virgin Media Cup is a cauldron of competition where aspiring young racers go head to head on identical motorcycles. It is more competitive than ever this year with the age limit of riders having been increased to 25. Ben has risen to the challenge exceptionally well, as one of only a handful of riders to have scored points in each of the first five rounds.

Ben now shares his experiences of the Grand Prix through a personal diary brought exclusively to you through the Biker Cafe.

Thursday 21 June

My parents and I arrive at Donington Park in the motor home on Thursday lunchtime, the day before we are out on track. I always like to arrive at the circuits in good time. My racing is a family affair with one or both of my parents usually traveling with me.

 

We are greeted at the gate by a wall of security guards, but our passes are swiftly scanned and we are ushered in. The Grand Prix motorcycles are worth a fortune, so security is understandably hot. Last year I was competing in the New Era club championships and the ACU stars junior superstock, so this is all a huge contrast for me. In terms of general infrastructure such as motor homes and garages, the overall appearance of the paddock is second to none. The British Superbike rounds where we normally race are not that far behind, confirming that the domestic national championships are the best in the World.

The Virgin Media race transporters have already arrived and 26 gleaming Yamaha R6 race bikes are neatly lined up within the giant Virgin Media Cup awning. I find my mechanic Matt and we discuss preload settings for the first practice session on Friday. It is very reassuring to have the expertise of professional Yamaha mechanics and I have developed a good relationship with the mechanic assigned to me. Other than my race number, 69, the only other distinguishing feature on my bike is the seat, which is suede. A small matter of personal preference but I find it offers more grip when the back end slides out. In terms of bike preparation, everything is taken care of, which is one of the advantages of racing in the Virgin Media Cup. But the series itself is no easy ride, with everyone out to impress on identical specification bikes – with the prize of a professional contract with Yamaha’s British Superbike or Supersport team dangling before us. I love this series because it comes down to rider ability. Realistically, I have to approach 07 as a learning year and aim to win it in 08.

We have a pasta dinner in the motor home. I have not ridden at the GP circuit before so I study a map of the Melbourne loop section of the track and then get an early night.

Friday 22 June

It is time for our first timed practice session and we have two challenges, first we are running Pirelli Diablo Corsa 3 road tyres as opposed to full wets and second the tyres are brand new offering little traction until scrubbed in. Brake cleaner is hastily applied to take the shine off the tyres and it is time to go. As I go out on track I am mindful of how Nicky Hayden was quickest in earlier MotoGP practice by staying smooth. My Pirellis offer good grip in the conditions, but I still find myself sliding around a lot. We have an excellent free practice session and finish seventh fastest, just half a second behind the second quickest time.

 

 

I am pleased to find that the conditions for the qualifying session later in the day are better, with a dry line appearing. I am optimistic that I can improve on 7th quickest time. For most of the twenty minute session the screens in pit lane show that I am running anywhere between fifth and twelfth, with positions chopping and changing every lap. Qualifying is always very exciting and very close in the Virgin Media Cup with the only variable being the rider. With three minutes remaining of the session I come in, only to see my position drop from eighth to nineteenth on the screens. I quickly go back out on track but I have not left enough time to complete a timed lap. I had mistimed when I came in for a breather on a drying track and it had cost me.

At the end of the day I had learnt a valuable lesson and the fact that I had finished the first session seventh quickest reflected what I was capable of.

Saturday 23 June

With our first race of the weekend not until 5.20PM, I had plenty of time to think about how I could make amends for an average qualifying position. In the race I had a good start and was making my way through the field when I was shunted from behind by another rider whilst entering the Old Hairpin and with such force that it smashed the tail unit of my bike. This series is not for the faint hearted! I managed to stay on but had to take to the gravel trap and by the time I rejoined the track I was in last position over 16 seconds behind the rider in front. I set to work catching up and making my way back through the field, making up eight places to finish nineteenth, which was where I had qualified. On the plus side, I had been putting in times that would have allowed me to finish well in the top eight had I not been taken out earlier on.

Obviously I was disappointed not to have finished higher, but in the circumstances I had to be reasonably satisfied.

There was a real treat in store later that evening as I had a chance to tour Yamaha’s MotoGP garages and to meet Colin Edwards, who was in buoyant mood having just recorded his second career MotoGP pole! We discussed personal fitness and it was a huge privilege to meet the two times World Superbike Champion and another perk of competing in the Virgin Media Cup.

I went to bed early reflecting on how I could improve for Sunday’s race.

Sunday 24 June

Watching the MotoGP immediately before my race was fantastic. Casey Stoner rode brilliantly and Colin Edwards also had a storming race finishing second, which as a Yamaha racer was obviously great to see.

 

 

In my race I got away from the grid well and was running in ninth early on when I hit a false neutral at Redgate corner and with insufficient engine braking had to run wide. That cost me a lot of places but I worked my way back up to eventually finish fifteenth and in another points scoring position. As in race one there were some spectacular crashes. I was really pleased to have stayed upright and to have gone three quarters of a second quicker in the second race which was a good sign in terms of personal progress.

On the whole I was happy with my lap times, if not my race results. It had been another good learning weekend which was the objective of the weekend and indeed the objective of my first year racing in the Virgin Media Cup. This racing weekend is not part of the series but what a fantastic opportunity to be able to ride at the British MotoGP round with the brilliant atmosphere as well, an opportunity only available by being in the Virgin Media R6 Cup. Bring on next year’s GP!! There is little time to catch our breath as on Wednesday we are off to Knockhill for the next round and back to our normal venue of the British Superbike paddock.

Ben Billard 69

 

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