I spoke to former BSB champion Josh Brookes exclusively at Oulton Park about many things. From fear in racing to the mental approach, to the TT and preparation, this comprehensive interview gives a real insight into the mind of one of the fastest motorcycle racers on the planet.
How much are you looking forward to getting back onto the roads in 2017?
I probably wouldn’t have left the TT but I’m not really bothered about the other roads. If I hadn’t been steered away by the other teams then I would’ve carried on. I’m back now and happy to be back riding it. There will be no NW200 because the Norton bike isn’t homologated. They did pursue the NW but the insurance doesn’t cover it to be on track. The organisers were happy to have it but the insurance company wouldn’t allow it.
How do the roads compare to the short circuits?
The NW is a bit closer to circuit style racing because it’s in a bunch and it’s a grid start, whereas the TT is a time trial. There’s a lot of difference between the TT and NW200 compared to the circuit racing but even those two aren’t that similar. It’s another discipline really.
How do you adapt to the roads from the circuits?
I think that it is your experience that dictates how you ride. The first lap you take it steady and then you get comfortable with how you ride and the next lap you get quicker and quicker. It’s a bit like natural progression. If you compare it to water skiing for the first time, obviously you learn how to do it, but over time you become more accomplished and able to do it as you practice. It’s the exact same in our sport: you start where you feel comfortable and then you just build speed as the bike and your confidence will allow you. At the TT, you never really ride to the capabilities of the bike. Often there is far more in every corner that the bike is capable of but it isn’t healthy to ride to the capabilities of the bike because there is far more risk. You ride to what you feel comfortable with but you’re also trying to make that comfort point as fast as it can be.
Was there a fear aspect at the TT for your first time?
Yes. There’s always fear, even in BSB. It’s natural to have fear – it is a human emotion. If you have fear, you’re alive, if you don’t have fear then you won’t be alive for very long. It is a normal sensation to have fear. You’ve got to listen and engage in that feeling and ride appropriately. The fear is more or less the same on both the TT and BSB. Inside your helmet you have your own thoughts and you’re still recognising what you can do in that moment. With thoughts, you’re always on your own. The thought process is very similar for both disciplines but the surroundings are very different.
How do you prepare for the TT, is it different to the circuits?
No, not really. The TT is far more mentally tiring than BSB. You are constantly evaluating every aspect of racing in the TT. The TT has different physical demands, such as you remaining in one position for a long period of time. If you sat in a regular chair for a long period of time then it would get uncomfortable. It is similar to that, not that it is so tiring but it is the repetitive nature of being in the same position for a long period of time doing the same process. The short circuit preparation is enough to see you through.
What are your first thoughts of the Norton?
I’ve ridden it a couple of times now. It’s very good. The bike is fast, the engine is strong and the bike itself is quite stable which is one of the most important elements to being comfortable and confident on the roads, so to have that there already is a big plus. I made a few adjustments to riding position and things to try and get more comfortable. I made suspension changes so it goes over the bumps a bit better. They’re all very small setting changes really, they’re not welding new parts to the frame or anything like that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the bike. It’s all fairly normal BSB type stuff, adjusting springs and damping to find that comfortable setting.
How do you become confident riding the TT course?
I think it is all relative to the bike. If you have a bike capable of doing a 132mph lap, put it has been in storage for a year and then rode it around the TT again, the first few laps wouldn’t be at 132mph. Even though the bike is capable of that speed, it still takes time to get confidence and ride the bike to that speed, which is where those laps are important. If you’ve got a bike that’s only capable of 129mph, it doesn’t matter how many laps you get in at the start of the week, you are only going to do a 129mph lap. There are two vital areas. The bike has to be able to improve to the point where it can do the target time and if the bike is already there, it’s up to you to gain those laps and confidence. It’s like a see-saw. The bike improves and then you get better, you make the bike better and you move forward again. It is a step by step process. Another thing is cornering. If you take a corner at 80mph each lap, you get confident and gain familiarity with it and get comfortable with the exits. At 90mph, it’s like a new corner. You arrive faster, go through faster and exit faster, before arriving at the next corner even quicker because the momentum is there. As soon as you go a bit quicker, the whole course changes. So, as I said, its a bit like a see-saw. As you go quicker, you require more from the bike. You have to make changes to the bike to do that speed and if the bike can do that speed then it is up to you to perform at the level the bike is at. Early in the week is super important if you can get a dry track and lots of laps. However, for every lap that you do, your competition is doing the same, so everyone gets better at more or less the same rate.
Does having a rider in front (leaderboard or on track) help at the TT?
Yeah for sure. You would get motivated but I think at a short circuit race, you would take more risk to try and go quicker than them. Taking more risk and riding closer to the edge is the key to gaining speed. Whoever can ride at the maximum for the most amount of laps for the longest period of time is usually the winner. The short circuits are great for that mental process, whereas the TT, you don’t really follow that process. You shouldn’t really try to do – or match – what someone else is doing because that is dangerous. What their bike and riding style can achieve in the corner might be totally different to what you can do. If you go ‘he can make it so I can make it’, then that isn’t necessarily true. At short circuits, you have the room to make a mistake and run wide or whatever, whereas at the TT, you don’t want that situation. It is safer to try and improve your speed by focussing on what is stopping you from going quicker and look at improving yourself and not the others.
Having a rider further ahead though is a confidence gauge. When you get to the point you normally brake at and you’ve got someone just ahead of you doing what you’re doing, you can use them as a marker. Their movements indicate what is possible. It is sometimes an encouragement to have someone just their ahead of you but if you have caught them it is because you’re going faster anyway. Often, the reason you was able to catch them is because you was already faster. It is a double edged sword. You don’t want to catch anyone because if they’re similar speed then it is harder to overtake, whereas if you’re quicker then it is easier.
How does overtaking compare between the TT and circuit racing?
I can’t speak for other riders but I am more reserved at the TT. You don’t know where everyone brakes. One guy might be early on the breaks and be quick on the way out, whereas you may well be late on the brakes and lose a bit on the way out. It isn’t until you’ve gone through the corner that you realise you may have been able to make a pass there but then you might have to wait a whole lap to try again. It is quite difficult but with a fast bike, obviously it is a lot easier. As you are behind for a lot of the time, the drafting effect is really efficient. If you have a long period of time on a straight with a fast bike, you can use that draft to overtake quite quickly.
How did you learn the TT?
Just laps. I did watch the onboard laps but they were insignificant to me because they had no value. If you haven’t ridden the circuit at that speed, watching it at the speed doesn’t offer you much in terms of learning. However, laps and laps in the car and getting familiar with the ground do help. As a newcomer however, doing laps and laps on your own and then watching onboards is good, that is when they become relevant.
Was there any push from the Anvil Hire Team to put on the NW200 grid this year?
They were talking about doing the Superstock races but it was one of the those things where the conversation fizzled out. It was a proper talk though, it appeared very possible at one point.
How do you prepare for bike racing on a whole?
I just think bike skills. You need to ride as much as you can. I’ve said in other interviews that if you compare it to other sports, like skateboarding, where you’re a kid and you want to learn a trick, you have to do the trick over and over and over again to master it. It is just a repetitive process that makes you good at something; you’re not born with that ability, it is just practice that allows you to do that. That kid on the skateboard will only be doing that one thing too, he wont be playing basketball, computer games, BMX or squash and all he’s doing every day is practicing his skateboard tricks.
It is the same for a motorbike rider. Unfortunately, we can’t ride our Superbikes on a race track every week. It’s too expensive, it’s impractical, track days aren’t suitable because of the different skill levels, tyres are expensive, the bikes are expensive to build, the engine running costs are too expensive etc. But even if you did ride all the time, rules in the championship stipulate that you can only test for ‘x’ amount of days a year.
For me, preparation is finding an alternative method to riding a bike. Obviously trials aren’t like a Superbike, but I ride a Jetski, a BMX, a mountain bike, a motocross and a road bike. It is about always being active, there is no substitute for being on two wheels all the time. A lot of people cross from different sports, from say BMX to motocross racing and get to a high level. The skills they learn in BMX – the jumps, the way a bike reacts in the air, in a corner, when the front goes, what to do, when the back goes, what to do and how to recover – they’re things you learn and reactions without even thinking about it. It is second nature.
When you go to another sport, those same impulses are still there, you’ve grown up with them as a kid but now, you just use them in a different manner. When you lose the front on a road race bike, it is the same process to stop crashing as it is on a motocross bike. Yes, the speed is different, the grip is different, there are variants but ultimately the input on the human side and science is still the same. As you lose the front on either bike, you actually have to turn into the corner to make it slide more initially but then as the physics come into play – often along with bike set-up – you stand the bike up and may well be able to recover.
How many front/rear end moments do you have around the track?
Definitely more rear because you open the throttle and control the slide. A front slide is more difficult to recover from because you have no engine. It is literally from speed and too much lean angle. It is much easier to create and control a rear slide. We probably have them as a ratio of 9:1 in terms of slides. Almost every session you have a moment of some kind because you push so hard. Sometimes it is every lap. In qualifying, it can be up to four corners in succession that you have a moment because you are exposing yourself by pushing so hard. In a race, if you was to push like that, there is only going to be a handful of times before your number comes up. As fuel loads come down, tyre grid levels come down, body fatigue and mental fatigue are becoming more prominent, you would definitely crash if you rode on the limit in the race.
For one lap however, you can get away with it for a few times and if luck is on your side then you can make it to the finishing line. Often it depends on all the variants. If you have a bike set-up for your confidence then you can ride it to the level where you think you’re going to crash but you don’t. If you have a bike that isn’t set up to your confidence level then you will never have a slide because if you did, you would have crashed. Sometimes you have a bike that you have so much confidence in that you think you’re going to crash at every corner but you know you won’t.
How much change is there between qualifying and racing for the bike then?
I think there is elements in qualifying that are different than the race, such as a using less fuel with a new tyre. Every time you go out, you’re experimenting with the limit. When you are at the start of the race, when the tyre is at it’s best there are variants that mean that you won’t be, such as coming from lunch, pre-race nerves etc. As the tyre starts to decrease in performance, you’re in a rhythm, you are starting to get a feel for the track, whether it be track temperature or wind speed and direction. The environment is changing a lot during a race whereas in qualifying you try and create a controlled environment. The set up on the bike hardly changes between racing and qualifying, it is the other, outside elements that do.
If I was to offer a 2nd BSB title or a Isle of Man TT Superbike win, which would you take?
Err, a 2nd BSB title. Of course I’d like a TT win, but I’ve had a couple of years off and I’ve lost the connection with it. Hopefully, me riding this year will rekindle those memories. At the moment, I’d take the 2nd BSB title.
Kiko Giles @MotoGPKiko
Norton image courtesy of Gareth Davies of Full Factory Photography.