This is one of those things that seemed like a good idea a month or two before it had to happen. But, the closer it got, the more it seemed like a bad idea as the potential for humiliation and/or injury seemed to grow. The idea was to send an overweight old journo, who hasn’t ridden a motorcycle on the road for years, out with a young Superbike gun fresh from his Suzuka 8 Hours debut. Ok then, you only live once…
The young gun is 21-year-old Bradley Ray from Kent, the lad who shocked the British Superbike Championship (BSB) paddock by winning the first two races of the year and has since made his World Championship debut as a wild card and ridden for the Suzuki factory at Suzuka. Fortunately, he is a nice bloke. Even more fortunately he hasn’t completed his road licence yet so we were confined to 125s. Yes, those are L-plates on Brad’s GSX-R125. To save my ageing joints I’m on the GSX-S with its more dignified riding position. When did 125s get ABS?!
And so we come to be riding through some pleasant countryside heading to the Super Sausage café not far from Silverstone and I’m wracking my brains for anything critical I may have said about Bradley on air. Racers never remember the good things.
For a bloke who was hammering around Cadwell Park the previous day, Bradley is impressively controlled. The glances over the shoulder and punctilious use of indicators you expect from a new rider are present and correct. Only when we pull up at a
junction does the boredom occasionally surface. The GSX-R’s back tyre is positioned in some roadside gravel to try and generate some wheelspin: ‘This ABS is ****!’ says Bradley. Fortunately wheelies are also problematical: ‘This thing hasn’t got ANY power!’ he continues. None of which stops Brad from magicking up some improbable bursts of relative speed when I’m not expecting it.
For a young racer worrying about a slight slump in his BSB form while getting over a remarkable ride at the most important race in the world (Suzuka) and wondering what his next career move should be, Bradley is remarkably composed. He ignores the Super Sausage’s terminally tempting menu of artery blockers and orders an omelette, admirably without the chips. Me? Sausage sandwich. Both are reassuringly oversized. The Super Sausage’s bike park is as interesting as ever – there’s a squad of police bikes, obviously on a training run of some sort, and an Australian-registered Norvin ridden by a tall, spare bloke in a pudding basin and very, very well worn black leather jacket topped by a denim cut-off with various Vincent patches. Man, machine and kit have obviously all done some serious mileage. One of the coppers asks if that’s really Bradley Ray then solicits a selfie. We all watch the extra from Mad Max go though a complex routine before firing the V-twin up with the first kick. It sounds superb. We are all suitably impressed. It’s what happens at the Super Sausage.
Except Brad, he is too young to understand. He is still buzzing over his first experiences of Japan. Bradley’s default look is a broad smile, but when he talks about his 8 Hour it changes to a massive grin. If you didn’t follow the race, you need to know that he rode a factory Suzuki to tenth place after a fight back from a first-hour crash by team mate Sylvain Guintoli that put the team back to 64th. Bradley rode long stints as well as the last hour in the dark, something he hadn’t been scheduled to do, because both his team mates were carrying injuries.
When he went to Japan for the first test it was assumed that he’d be riding a satellite bike, but he achieved his target lap time, 2min 9sec, in the first session. Management sent him out with factory MotoGP tester Takuya Tsuda for his final run. He did a 2min 7.
When he went back for the second test, Brad was mildly surprised to find he was pencilled in to ride the full factory bike. This, remember, is a young rider who has won just two national races and a factory is putting him on their works bike for the single most important event in their calendar alongside an-ex world Superbike Champion and their official tester. It is impossible to overstate just how much Bradley must have impressed the factory, and that was before the race in which he rode like a man with several decades of experience of the event. How much does the 8 Hours matter? At one point Bradley was struggling with his kneesliders as he prepared for a session and was shocked to find the man helping him with the Velcro was Sahara-san, boss of Suzuki’s MotoGP team. ‘He said I was doing a good job,’ says Bradley. An ex-HRC boss once said that the 8 Hour is an examination you must pass if you wish to become a works rider. Bradley passed that test with distinction. And he enjoyed it. First there was shock at the size of his crew at the test. ‘There were nine of them! And there was new stuff on the bike every time I went back,’ says Bradley, with an even bigger grin than usual. Then there were the Japanese fans, who quite obviously loved him: ‘They are so enthusiastic,’ says Bradley. ‘And so polite.’
Now it’s back to the day job, BSB. After the best possible start there have been problems but Bradley knows what needs to be done. ‘The focus is on the Showdown then press reset,’ he says. The Showdown effectively puts the top six from the first ten rounds of the championship into their own play-off for the championship over the final three rounds, so unless you’ve left the Silverstone triple-header in the top six it’s game over. Today Brad is fifth and under threat from Danny Buchan and Peter Hickman, so damage limitation is the name of the game until pulling the pin again at Oulton in mid-September. There have been problems, specifically what sounds like an electronics glitch that seems impervious to the usual treatment, but a patch from Japan should sort this one out. Now it’s up to Bradley to rediscover his early season form.
Bradley’s perma-grin only leaves his face once, when we talk about his future. He was in the MotoGP paddock for three years with the Red Bull Rookies and like every racer he’d like to get back there. The question is how and by what route? Would, I wonder, he consider a Moto2 ride now that the class is upgrading to proper electronics alongside the new-for-2019 Triumph motors? He’s not keen. Too easy to make a mistake and join the wrong team, something that could stall a career. To his credit, and happily as he does a lot of his own management, Bradley is well aware that you could spend six-figures to get a ride and never see where your money went. That paddock has more than its fair share of sharks.
There is also the matter of Suzuki’s interest in him. Clearly, the factory at the highest level regard Bradley as a serious prospect. Suzuki GB people tell me there are constant demands for more info on Bradley for their web and social media. I can assure you that it is out of the ordinary for a Japanese factory to act like this, but now they have to work out how to keep him. Suzuki have no presence in Moto2, for obvious reasons, and no World Superbike team. In any case, would World Superbike be regarded as a better career path than the British Championship nowadays? Not by enough for Suzuki to start a factory team to protect their investment. How do they hang on to a 21-year-old so clearly destined for big things? And by big things I mean a shot at a MotoGP ride. The good news is Bradley would be happy to be in BSB again next season with his Buildbase Suzuki team. It is a racing certainty that there would be a World Superbike wild card, assuming there is a UK round, and a seat on the factory bike at the 8 Hours. Throw in a test on the MotoGP bike and you can see why he’d stay. I can see all of this happening, but Bradley is too diplomatic to speculate. Also remember Suzuki’s MotoGP policy is to employ young riders who will learn with the team. They did it with Vinales, they’re doing it with Alex Rins, and they will be doing it with Joan Mir.
Bradley is again kind enough to wait for me as we head back. If I’ve done anything really stupid he’s nice enough not to mention it. Actually, I’m thoroughly enjoying being back on two wheels by the end of the day and even manage to notice a modern 125 is a very nicely put together motorbike. I’d swap the ABS for self-cancelling indicators though. There’s a long downhill on the way back, on which I equal the national speed limit. I report this to Bradley at the next stop. There’s a large grin under the helmet and we agree you can’t beat messing about on motorcycles. Bradley is a young man, hopefully with a stellar future in front of him. I am not. But we are able to agree on one thing – we are both very scared of having to get a real job. You really can’t beat messing about on motorcycles.