The holding area at the Goodwood Festival of Speed is an extraordinary place. here’s five-time world champion Mick Doohan sitting astride one of his championship-winning honda nSr500s, shipped in specially from honda’s collection in Japan. There’s 23 times TT winner John Mcguinness on a Norton V4 and Ian Hutchinson on the 2010 honda Fireblade on which he won the Superbike and Senior TTs that year. oh, and there’s Jenny Tinmouth, Stuart Graham, Sammy Miller. 13-time GP winner Randy Mamola was here a moment ago too but has sauntered off to put on his riding kit. So I’m standing in bright red leathers, emblazoned with sponsor logos, beside a 2014 Ducati Desmosedici MotoGP bike, with a crew of mechanics in attendance, feeling slightly self-conscious.
Randy is about to chauffeur me up the famous hill climb. The pre-ride briefing was a polite variation on the traditional rider to pillion exchange; ‘sit still, hold tight, don’t scream’. I’m trying not to appear nervous or star struck when actually I’m both. Randy still hasn’t reappeared when the paddock marshal blows their whistle to send the bikes down the hill to the start line. The Ducati mechanics shrug. The Pr lady gets out her mobile phone.
The other bikes rattle and roar out of the paddock. Smoke and the smell of Castrol R fills the atmosphere. Spectators stuff their fingers in their ears and the better-prepared mechanics have got ear defenders. Everyone has got big grins, except me. I’m too nervous to enjoy the moment. The marshal encourages the mechanics to start the Ducati. They shrug some more. The PR lady punches her phone again. Still no sign of Randy. We’re the only bike left in the paddock. I’m feeling like I’ve been stood up. Now, with a finger pointing upwards and making a circular motion that means start your engines, the marshal motions to the cars. Starter motors shriek, V8s rumble into life, turbocharged F1 cars wail. A wall of spectators looks into the paddock from the outside.
And now we’re the only vehicle left in the holding bay, and I’m assuming we’ve missed our slot when Randy comes running across the paddock. The mechanics slot the starter into the side of the bike, my chauffeur jumps on board, the starter whines, the V4 barks, I climb on the back and grab the carbon fibre handle on the back of the tank, we’re dropped off the stand, revs rise and we’re out of the paddock and onto the course. And breathe.
I’m halfway through exhaling when Randy, conscious of the opportunity presented by an empty track and an audience, hoik up the front wheel and suddenly, instead of a view over his helmet, and down the narrow and suspiciously dusty track, I’m getting a close-up view of the stitching (it’s good stitching mind) on the back of his Alpinestars leathers. the rider, casually announces ‘Be careful, there’s oil on the track in the first two corners.’ Terrific.
Bikes launch from the start line with varying levels of noise and smoke. From Barrie Baxter’s gently chuffing ex-Brooklands 1910 Singer to the World Superbike winning ex-Fred Merkel Honda RC30, via Brough-Superiors and Honda RCVs to some kind of crazy turbine-powered contraption. Meanwhile, the knot in my stomach gets tighter. So far Randy and I have barely spoken beyond pleasantries, but he’s keen to put me at ease. ‘It’s pretty simple,’ he said ‘We’ll pull some wheelies past the stands, drop the wheel for that left-hander, I can’t remember what it’s called, do some more wheelies up the hill, then if there’s no traffic we can go really fast past the finish.’ I nod. He snaps his visor shut, then climbs aboard. I follow suit.
The mechanics slot the starter into place, the bike barks and then settles into a menacing high tempo tick over, we’re rolled off the paddock stand and ease forward towards the start line. The bike is a 2014 MotoGP bike, from the era when Valentino Rossi was riding for Ducati. There’s a special carbon fibre tank cover with those grab handles and a seat unit with pillion pad and pegs. The rest of it’s basically Grand Prix spec. It makes 260bhp at 16,200rpm, sounds like the apocalypse and the resonance from the intake, exhaust and engine vibration does weird things to your internal organs. Or maybe it’s just the nerves.
The start marshal waves us under the archway and there’s a sudden surge of arm-stretching acceleration and noise. I grip tighter, Randy hooks second gear and then, here we go, the front wheel’s in the air again. It returns to terra firma for the right-hander, then Randy short shifts into third, and I’m back to looking at his leathers again. ‘Any straight piece of the course warrants a wheelie’ At the Molecombe grandstand the turbine bike is doing a burnout, we pass through a cloud of smoke on the back wheel. Then two wheels on the ground for the corner.
Back onto one squad for 1980. He won his first GP in Belgium and finished second in the championship in his first full year. ‘Europe was a different place then. You had to book a telephone call to America through the operator, and I was still writing letters home to my parents; I’d see them every four months. You’d be travelling around with ten different currencies in your wallet. ‘I was 19 years old, so of course, it was exciting. And there wasn’t really any pressure on me. I was travelling around Europe in a Transit van and caravan between GP paddocks, it was like a travelling circus. It was huge. A great iconic era that was amazing to be part of.’
Better than now? ‘Look, racing is hard no matter what era. When I started Barry Sheene and Kenny were the guys to beat, and the two-strokes were awesome. We had to build up the engines and change bits to make them work at different circuits. Now the four- stroke MotoGP bikes have got so much power, and such amazing electronics they don’t have to do much with the engines. ‘But the smile I get when I ride a two-stroke today. Oh my god. It’s like you light a fuse and it just takes off. It’s super special, but really I feel the same about the MotoGP bike. They’re different, absolutely, but every era is special whether it’s two-strokes, or Hailwood on the Hondas, or now. What’s different now is that riders are under so much pressure. Yes, Marc is amazing. He’s a magical kid riding a strong bike. But every era has had that. Valentino, Casey Stoner, Doohan, Freddie. The thing with Marquez is that he can win on a tricycle.’
40 years on, Randy is delighted to still be involved in the GP paddock, doing PR work, commentary and promoting the Two Wheels for Life charity that provides bikes, training and support for African health projects. And there’s the two-seater. ‘I go where the two-seater goes, but this year I missed the French GP because I was at the Sultans of Sprint event riding an Indian Motorcycle. Those new style custom events were an eye opener for me. We have been doing the two-seater for 19 years, that’s something like 6000 passengers. When you see the person’s face afterwards it’s amazing. Goodwood is very different. You want to show off, but you don’t want to put it into the hay bales. At Silverstone you’re wheelieing in 4th and 5th at 165mph. There’s more room.’ The marshals are signalling that it’s time to start the bikes and return to the paddock. Randy pulls on his gloves, the mechanics prepare to fire up the Ducati. ‘We’ll do some stoppies on the way back down. OK?’ Er, righto.