Classic Endurance Racing Building Speed in Europe

Some kind of heaven
By Jon Bentman
January/February 2011
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Riders get ready for evening qualifying runs the night before the Four Hours of Spa Classic Race at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium.
Photo by Jon Bentman
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In the 1970s, motorcycle endurance racing was huge in Europe, drawing crowds of 100,000 for classics like the Bol d’Or. So it should come as no surprise that Europeans don’t just remember classic endurance racing fondly, they’re actively reliving the races.

This must be heaven. Not everyone’s idea of heaven, granted, but based on the popular notion that heaven will resemble the place we were happiest, then this, for me, must be it. It’s all here. The serpentine race track that follows the contours of the hills through the woods, enshrouded in clouds. And a pit lane and track packed with the incredible machines that played such a memorable soundtrack to my learning years.

Sounds that were once so familiar then lost for decades come back to me. The flat bark that never echoes that can only be that of an unsilenced BMW, the shrill tremolo of a Laverda on full throttle, the all-out wail of Japanese fours and that tearing, most frenzied scream of a two-stroke. And it is a two-stroke, just the one.

We’re not in heaven though; we’re still very much earthbound. And it’s 2010, not 1975. It looks like 1975, smells like 1975 and sounds like 1975, but then the riders arrive in the pit lane and remove their helmets. These guys aren’t 25, they’re 55 — if a day. This is the Four Hours of Spa Classic race for what we call “post-classics” (bikes built roughly from 1970 to 1980) held at the famous Spa-Francorchamps race track in Belgium.

Much like endurance racing in its entirety, this is very much a European phenomenon. There have been eight Classic Bol d’Ors, this is the third such Spa event, and there’s another classic endurance held each year at Cartagena in Spain. These are only the three high profile ones — there are probably more.

The revival
The race is homage to the Coupe d’Endurance race series from the 1970s, which has become today’s World Endurance Championship. But the Seventies were its heyday, when BMWs raced alongside Kawasakis, Guzzis, Laverdas, Nortons, Hondas and Triumphs.

As the racers will tell you, even a four-hour race isn’t a four-hour race. The event starts almost 36 hours earlier with first practice. For the best part of two days the teams work on their set-ups and lap times, and between sessions on track the bikes are continually stripped and rebuilt.

The pits are unlike any modern pit. There’s none of the garage-door-down mentality of MotoGP here, no “corporate hostility” units. This pit is communal; everyone lives cheek by jowl, tumbled in on each other. Some bring old carpets, others pseudo woodblock floors to take the pressure off aging knees as they kneel to work on the bikes. At the back of the pit among the melee of spare chassis and engines you’ll find the trestles and benches and BBQs where the teams sit three times a day and share baguettes, cheese and whatever gets the charcoal treatment, all washed down with the odd bottle of Artois. Where the English teams reside — there are a few — you’ll also find the ubiquitous kettle and a 120-bag box of Tetley.

The bikes
What constitutes a classic endurance racer would appear as open to interpretation today as the entry was back in the day. The organizers appear to have taken one very exciting and praiseworthy standpoint — it’s about fun, first and foremost. The prize for the winners doesn’t even amount to a cup, but that hasn’t stopped a full entry of 80 teams coming to vie for 70 places on the Le Mans-style grid.

At the “entry level” are stock-looking street bikes from the 1970s. Lock wire and number boards seem to be the only prep here, yet when you scratch the surface there’s a deeper story. One is the No. 7 machine, a Suzuki GSX1100 owned and ridden by Phil Sharp, here with his Belgian cohort and co-rider Marc Detournay, entered curiously as Team Bimbo.

“We had a sponsor who kindly loaned us a Bimota — hence Bimbo — only at the 11th hour he pulled out. This was two years ago. So we were without a bike when a friend literally gave me this bike. It was GSX750 then, and not very nice,” Phil says. “We think it’s the lowest spec bike in the race and probably the cheapest — it’s cost us $2,500. Everything on it is second hand, much of it bought from eBay. We replaced the forks, swinging arm, engine (upped to an 1100), wheels. We’ve still got the original clocks, paintwork and frame, but that’s about it. There’s no bracing on the frame; it’s a sight to behold. Even in a straight line — it doesn’t need corners to upset it — it’s quite angry. So we call it Black Bastard.”

Across the pit sits a very tidy green and black bike. It’s a P&M (Peckett & McNab) and closer inspection reveals a Suzuki GS1000 engine. The P&M chassis owed much to the earlier Rob North Trident frame for its basic architecture, but with a Kawasaki Z1 engine one of these ridden by John Cowie beat the might of Honda Britain for the inaugural British Formula One championship in 1979. This one belongs to John Oldfield, a contemporary of the era.

“I was endurance racing back in the late 1970s with the works Honda and Suzuki teams,” John says. “Basically, I was a test pilot and runaround person who got involved with a professional entity. Then in the late 1980s I started a classic racing team, racing G50s, 7Rs and Aermacchis, and this is simply a matter of progression from there.”

There’s real nobility among the entry, like the very Yamaha TZ750 that Patrick Pons and Christian Sarron so very nearly stole victory with at the 1978 Bol d’Or. It looks exactly as it must have when it finished that race — only without a broken crank. Patrick Chavanne says he loves the old TZ, which belongs to a collector, and it gets ridden properly by Chavanne and former world endurance champion Richard Hubin.

“The bike is a lot better than people think,” Patrick says. “It’s very nice and torquey and so good in the rain. Last year (when the event was run as two, two-hour races) I crashed on the first lap in the first race but we won the second race on Sunday.”

Probably the most fancied bike at the event is last year’s number one plate Moto Guzzi of Moto Bel’. The bike looks the size of a TZ350, slim and neat, but it is its progress around the track that inspires. Riders Christophe Charles-Artigues and Laurent Sleur are veterans of modern and recent endurance races. They’re fast and smooth, and wearing matching leathers they look to ride in matching style too. The Guzzi, originally an 850cc Le Mans III taken out to 1,050cc, powers along with a precision that seems to leave the Japanese fours flustered.

Race time
The start is a classic Le Mans business and it takes place outside the historic old pits on the run down to the terrifying-looking Eau Rouge section. Despite being early summer, the 8 p.m. start time combined with heavy cloud cover means daylight is already fading as the runners start their sprint. Everyone gets away clean and the sight of the pack threading its way up toward the steep Raidillon Hill is fantastic, as is the pace of the leaders when they come around to complete their first lap. There’s the green-white Godier-Genoud colours of the Team Hampe Kawasaki swapping paint with the Moto Bel’ Guzzi, and close behind is the historic yellow-white of the D’Holda Honda just as back in the day. It might be an endurance race, but the pace is always hot.

On track the action is fascinating. The bikes and riders come in all shapes and sizes — and speeds. More than 30 seconds difference in lap time between the fastest and slowest riders means the passing can get a bit hectic. Braking performance, suspension, tires — all these things are so far removed from modern equivalents that you can see immediately that there’s a different technique in the riding. Anyone storming up the inside into a corner is set for a hopelessly wide line on the exit. There’s no backing it in, turning it on a dime and firing it out — long graceful arcs are the mark of a fast lap.

The journey to this point has been an ordeal in itself. British team TZeds GB are running a trick Suzuki GS1000 with a replica Suzuki XR69 race frame. The bike is clearly competitive, but with one blown engine and the second needing to be dropped out and rebuilt it would be fair to say they’ve been working every one of the 36 hours from first practice to the race start.

A safety car comes out following a collision, but after a couple more laps the car comes in and the race starts to pan out. Chavanne and Hubin’s TZ Yamaha has run into gearbox issues and is out. After an hour the first pit stops are due, and incredibly after 20 laps the lead bike and second — Moto Bel’ and Team Hampe — are still only separated by 0.243 seconds. Such is their pace; only 11 of the entry are on the same lap. Of the top 10 there are three Guzzis and one Ducati.

Night riding
“I’ve ridden the dark before at Cartagena,” says TZeds’ Steve Clark. “To be honest, here at Spa, at first I really struggled with it. I kept missing apexes and running wide, but I slowly got my head into gear, looking for the markers and the reflective strips at the side of the track. It’s light down the pit straight, then through La Source and down to Eau Rouge, but as you come out of Eau Rouge — and you’re doing one hell of a pace there — you hit the crest and ride into pitch darkness and you’re closing on Raidillon flat out, looking for the illuminated 200 meter board. There’s a marker I was using for braking there but elsewhere there’s nothing I could find; I swear you’d just wait until you looked God in the eyes then hit the brakes, hard!”

What makes for fast night fighters is a balance of machine setup, knowledge, skill and a dash of bravery, as Team Oldfield’s Graham Wade explains: “Our lighting consisted of making a slot on the mounting bracket and splaying the lighting to get as much spread as possible so you can see the curbs as you go through the corners. But at the same time you need light into the distance for the straights. So trying to get a cross-correlation on both spread and distance lighting is difficult — it’s a compromise.”

The end comes, but not without its dramas. Four hours suddenly seems short for an endurance race, but these are 30-year-old bikes, with a few riders maybe double that age. When the spot-lit checkered flag drops, only 37 bikes are finishers. Maybe it’s about right, then.

The win goes to Team Guzzi Motobox 1 on a 1980 Moto Guzzi LeMans. The Moto Bel’ Guzzi had left the stage at the start of the final hour with “unsolvable” problems. Team Oldfield was safely inside the top-10 when co-rider Eric Genin was forced to pit with just minutes to go. “Eric took over for the last stint and in the complete darkness he was the fastest man on the track. And then half a lap before the finish the lights went out and he limped back to the pit seeing by the lights of the other riders. When he stopped, the battery was completely dead — the charging fuse had blown, and so it wouldn’t restart in the short time we had to make the finish,” Graham says. Without lights and with a dead engine the team wasn’t allowed to leave the pit lane, despite the finish being just a short push away. On lap count they’d finished ninth, but as they weren’t technically running at the finish they were deemed DNF. “That’s racing,” Graham laments.

Yet even for those who break down there is no sense of disappointment. Team Oldfield might have been denied the top-10 finish that was on the cards up to the last seconds, but boss John still popped the cork on the champagne and the team was happy nonetheless. They’d been contenders. They’ll be back.

Team Bimbo finished fifth, surprising even themselves. The $2,500 basket case had triumphed over the genuine classics. The TZeds GB team was equally triumphant; coming in 11th, they were just 30 seconds short of a top-10 result. TZeds’ Steve Boam: “I love this event. Each year you come back and get a little bit more competitive, but each year you find the bar has been raised, lap times are getting quicker. The beauty of this event is that there are so many different approaches you can take. The Japanese route or the European route — you see those Guzzis and they’re such a well handling bike that have the speed and the agility.

“This is not just about one bike, one guy. This about the one bike, two riders, the mechanics, the lap scorers, the whole ethos of a team event. It’s just grassroots racing in a friendly atmosphere.” MC 

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