Nothing compares to a grandstand finish, a basketball game that ended with a shot at the buzzer, or a homer in the bottom of the ninth. Best of all, a motorcycle race that comes down to the last lap and the last corner.
Jason O’Halloran, Taran McKenzie and Bradley Rae did a great job of reminding us of this as they pulled off a stunning dogfight at the finish of the British Superbike Championship Race 2 at Thruxton riding a trio of Yamaha YZF-R1s.
Bike racing is better than car racing for more reasons than I have time to list, but one of my favorites is that bikes are narrow and maneuverable, easy to throw into the small space between your opponent and the checkered flag. In fact, the bikes are so narrow that more than two compete for the same piece of track and still stay on the racing line. More or less.
These three drivers test it, among other things, consecutively in the last five corners of this race. This 30-second clip is a brilliant snapshot of the many wonderful nuances of the three-bike battle, from individual skill to racing prowess to blind ambition. I’ve watched it dozens of times now, and the same marquees of great racing always stand out.
First, as the riders throw their bikes into the superfast Church Corner and O’Halloran dives under Brad Ray, both rear tires start to wander, smearing the slide as their knees touch down and they make their way through the corner. Losing your rear when entering a corner is a strange feeling and a dangerous place to be on a race track. That attitude alone would probably raise the eyebrows of the fastest rider you know, and yet these guys were already thinking one turn ahead.
Locked nose-to-tail, O’Halloran and Ray exit the corner dying to gain an advantage over the other rider, and one after the other, each of them plunges down the horrendous slide, leaving tire smoke and Pirelli engineers’ dreams in their wake. Then again, gliding along on a slick-shod superbike at triple-digit speeds is something most of us can only dream of. Doing it out of desperation makes it even more real and beautiful.
Side by side, fully inverted and wide open on the left sprint to the final chicane, it was probably a little sad for the two leaders to see number one Taran McKenzie’s plate stretch outside Brooklands. It’s often good to be the third driver in a three-way scrap because of the perspective it offers and the strategy that can come out of it. In addition to being a commentator for Jamie Whitham, McKenzie received a double project.
That draft, combined with a rush of adrenaline in the lead, seems to bite McKenzie as he shoots into the tricky entrance to the club chicane. He brakes the shad too late and can’t hold the line as tight as he wanted. There may have been a moment when he doubted whether the front tire would hold. Squeeze the lever harder to stay on the line and maybe put an end to it? Or hope that the current arc and trajectory will do the trick? These are sweaty, breathless calculations calculated in an instant.
Worst of all, his enemies now have him in their crosshairs. Mackenzie goes from predator to prey in about eight seconds. However, he has the advantage for the moment, being the first on both peaks of the right-left-right chicane and the master of his line, which immediately enters the final. Dipping into the lead should pay off, dammit, and he’ll win.
But, oh, what the noxious aroma of victory can do to a rider’s feelings when they see the checkered flag flying in the distance. He knew he could win. He knew the riders behind were struggling for grip. He knew that his opponents had nothing more than him. Again, being able to touch an object can make us reach faster, and McKenzie pulled the trigger too hard. Our old friend returned as his rear tire screamed, “No more.”
Champion team-mate Jason O’Halloran trailed in the final few corners. Outrun, outrun, outrun. However, as befits any good driver in this situation, he exits the final corner with the same belief that he can win. And that the bike next to him is the same as his. Same brand, same team, with the same burnt tires. Showing he’d learned his lesson from Church Corner 20 seconds earlier, O’Halloran puts his R1 on the center of the tire and tells the bike to wheelie rather than slide. When this happens, he almost saws off the nose of his garage mate’s car, but gets to the line first and wins the battle.
Poor old Bradley Ray was practically a passenger throughout the ordeal, leading for just five turns and merely a spectator of the wild lunges ahead. I enjoyed the noticeable relaxation in his body language after Mackenzie passed. Losing two positions in two turns wouldn’t have been part of the plan, but the good news was that he wouldn’t be missed again.
Third of the three, he could think about how he wanted to attack the last few seconds of the race and hope for a mistake or miscalculation from the other two drivers – another brilliant aspect of the three cars locked in contention. Unfortunately, O’Halloran had the same thought and executed it flawlessly, leaving no room for an attack from behind.
It’s an epic display of horsemanship. This willingness to play with the uneven capabilities of the bike on the track and to do so so close to other riders shows a mixture of confidence, trust and courage that we only see at the highest level of racing. Even then, we don’t see it often.
So, let this be a reminder that every sport has its downfall. Let the frenzied excitement of Steve Day and Jamie Whitham wash over you. Warm yourself up in it. Hello also to the British announcers, by the way, it’s good when it’s boring and great when it’s exciting. Most of all, there are buzzers, game-winning homers and last-lap skirmishes. Remember to appreciate the good ones when we see them.