Thirty-four years after his GP debut at Silverstone, Niall Mackenzie and son Tarran ride the Northamptonshire track and talk about the old days and the upcoming 2018 British GP.
Time is a funny thing. It both shrinks and stretches history. Thirty-four years ago three-times BSB champion Niall Mackenzie made his Grand Prix debut at Silverstone. Seems (almost) like yesterday. Thirty-four years before that Silverstone was just coming to life as a racetrack, the course marked out by haybales, the remnants of the wartime airfield still very much in evidence: dozens of Nissin huts, the control tower and numerous hangars (hence Hangar straight) where Wellington bombers were prepared for training runs with the RAF’s No. 17 Operational Training Unit. Very much another age. On this occasion Mackenzie is back at Silverstone, training riders with the Yamaha Masterclass school. His co-instructor is younger son and 2016 BSB 600 champion Tarran. They both work one-on-one with riders, to help them improve their performance.
‘Masterclass is geared specifically to you, so if you’re in your fifties I’ll look after you and if you’re 20-years-old and really, really fast you’ll get Tarran looking after you,’ grins Mackenzie, now 56-years-old.
So I get to hang out with dad Mack, riding the school’s YZF-R1Ms around the Grand Prix circuit, which is so fast that it melts your brain. Silverstone is the longest circuit in MotoGP and very nearly the fastest, with riders averaging 110mph around its 3.6 miles and hitting 205mph down Hangar.
It is what’s known in the trade as a big-balls circuit, where riders need as much old-fashioned bravery as new-fangled riding technique. There aren’t many of these hellishly quick old-school tracks left in MotoGP; just Silverstone, Mugello, Phillip Island and Brno, so we need to enjoy them while we still can. Merely looking at the circuit map and its mind-boggling mix of 18 corners makes me feel a wee bit queasy. I’m not the only one. I have heard reigning MotoGP king Marc Marquez admit to being scared just twice: after he crashed at 209mph at Mugello and after a practice session at Silverstone, when the wind nearly swept him away at close to the double ton.
Between track outings, Niall and I inevitably slip into talking about the old days. He still remembers the excitement of August 1984 when he got his first Grand Prix start.
‘It was the era when you showed up and they put you on a waiting list, so if some of the foreign riders didn’t show up you got a start,’ says the Scot, who was 23 at the time. ‘They finally accepted me, so I got out for Friday afternoon practice. Just getting a start was like winning a race, but then reality hit. I was at the
back of every practice session and I finished the race in last place.
At that time I was running at the front of British championship races, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. I was stunned by how fast the full-time GP guys were: very experienced, no fear and quick bikes.’
Silverstone wasn’t merely where Niall started his GP career – which later gave him rides with HB Honda, Lucky Strike Suzuki and Marlboro Yamaha – the venue was the foundation of his GP career. And home for a while.
‘In 1984 my Armstrong team was sponsored by Silverstone and they helped get me the ride at that year’s British GP. The team was also based at Silverstone – the circuit gave us an industrial unit and I basically lived outside in my caravan.’
Two years later, Silverstone helped Niall make his 500cc debut at the British GP, which led directly to his first factory ride with Honda, in 1987. ‘Silverstone chucked in some money for my first 500 ride, because they wanted to push British racing on. I finished seventh there, then seventh at the next race and led practice at Misano. After that all the factories were interested in me, but I went with Honda, so 100 percent Silverstone gave me my biggest breaks.’
Silverstone today is quite different to how it was in 1986. Back then the layout was unchanged from the original, which traced the route of the airfield perimeter road, used by RAF service crews to refuel and rearm their Wellingtons. There were just eight corners and the lap record nudged 120mph. Now there are 18 corners, from mega-fast sweepers to dead-stop chicanes. It’s a daunting place to ride, especially when you’re trying to stay with Niall and Tarran, even though they’re taking it easy, so this old man can keep up.
In our first session we’re out with the slow group, so it’s easy to feel fast. In our second session we’re out with the fast group and suddenly I feel slow. Experienced trackday addicts come hammering past, leg-dangling into corners and laying rubber on the exits. And for extra fun there’s a few Moto3 riders, who come flying past, open pipes blaring, and hardly braking for the corners. The biggest challenge at Silverstone is the huge variations in speed – you’re on the gas through Chapel Curve, flat-out down Hangar, sweeping through Stowe and then braking almost to a standstill into the Vale chicane. It’s a lot to get your head around.
‘It’s a great layout, very challenging,’ adds Niall.
‘The biggest thing is that it’s one of the few places where a MotoGP bike can really stretch its legs. There’s a few places that are crucial to a good lap: getting through Woodcote fast and getting a really good punch onto Hangar are important. Then there’s heavy braking at the end of Hangar and Wellington straights, which are crucial for passing. The track is stupidly fast and the spectacle is good, because it always creates really close racing.
‘Silverstone is an airfield so it’s very flat, but in recent years they’ve worked hard to build raised spectating areas. I think the whole event will be better this year, with more going on, because it’s now Silverstone’s race, so they’ve got their full weight behind it. The last few years it was run by the Circuit of Wales, so no one really knew what was going on. And then there’s the Cal [Crutchlow] factor.
He’s already won a race this year and he got second at Silverstone in 2016, when he beat [Valentino] Rossi and [Marc] Marquez. If his weekend goes well, there’s a good chance he’ll be in the fight for the win.’
Niall contested only three British GPs at Silverstone, before the event moved to Donington Park for 23 years, but he’s since contested several more as a Grand Prix dad. In 2011, elder son Taylor scored points in the 125 race and last season Tarran made his British GP debut in the Moto2 class.
Like his dad, Tarran got a particularly rude awakening when he graduated from the British championship to the world championship. ‘I was told that Moto2 would be tough but I was thinking, they’re all humans, how hard can it possibly be?!’ says the 22-year-old. ‘Then I realised… It was a very big jump from British Supersport. I actually had one of my best weekends at Silverstone last August, until I lost the front at Village.’
Riding around Britain’s most historic racetrack with Niall and Tarran – them rolling the throttle, me hanging on for grim death – forces me to own up to the fact that whatever racetrack skills I once possessed [Mat won a TT] are forever lost in the mists of time.
I’m now just an everyday road rider, which only serves to amplify their skills and reinforce my (already infinite) respect for the world’s greatest, like Marquez, Crutchlow, Jorge Lorenzo and the rest. And there’s only one place to watch these men in action on British asphalt: at Silverstone.