When James Hewing from The National Motorcycle Museum calls, it doesn’t matter what else I’m doing, I’m going to answer. He’s always got something interesting to say, or as was the case on this occasion, offer.
“Do you fancy riding the Robert Dunlop JPS Rotary at Goodwood this year?” he says.
Ah, the 26th edition of the Goodwood Festival of Speed where historic motorcycles meet modern day F1 cars, chinos meet leathers and Champagne meets hot dogs. Everything and anything goes so long as there’s a degree of decadence or a realm of refinement. As each year passes, more and more vehicles seem to climb the famous 1.16-mile hill outside Goodwood House, in front of more and more fans. Hundreds of thousands cram into the Duke of Richmond’s garden to catch a glimpse of the latest £1/2m supercar that 99.9% will never sit in let alone drive, or the vibrant variety of racing heroes from the two and four-wheeled world as they demonstrate their rides. Some quickly, some slowly.
Clambering to make ourselves heard over the swathes of polished fibreglass with their V8s, V10s and V12s roaring was a humble selection of motorcycles dating back over 100 years from modern day road bikes, including the new Harley-Davidson LiveWire, to the iconic race bikes shipped over from Honda’s Japanese museum including an NSR500 ridden by Mick Doohan and Marc Marquez’s 2018 championship-winning MotoGP machine ridden by Tadayuki Okada.
Meanwhile, I’d turned up on the Friday morning, day two of the Festival of Speed, and found a pair of beautiful Rotary Norton’s with their iconic no.4 emblazoned on the front fairing, side-by-side in the bike shelter alongside a handful of older machinery also brought out to stretch their legs by The National Motorcycle Museum. The newer of the two JPS race bikes was to be my steed for the morning’s first race bike batch; the NRS588, which appeared on the scene in mid-1991, had the 588cc, water-cooled twin rotar Rotary engine in a Harris alloy spar frame. Weighing just 143kg and making 140bhp, the JPS-liveried machine was competitive enough initially the hands of Ron Haslam in the MCN TT Superbike championship and then with Terry Rymer and Robert Dunlop.
It was the Dunlop-spec machine I was to ride and, until I swung a leg over the bike, it hadn’t dawned on me that I stand 8” taller and 5st heavier. It was the moment when I felt wedged in the seat between the fuel tank and rear seat unit and having the hoik my feet up onto the tall pegs. No complaints from me though, this was a rare moment for any bike fan.
Like a jack-in-the-box, I popped out of the tight seat to inspect this piece of history further and ask relevant questions while retaining saliva. A race shift box was one piece of vital information. And no electric start but a dolly instead. The run from paddock to assembly area is all downhill so I didn’t use the engine and simply free-wheeled. The crowds on the way down were gathered and wide-eyed for the wide-wheeled F1 cars from the 80s and 90s yet they clearly had taste because many had their mobile phones pointed at the Norton too.
The first time I fire up the bike was in the assembly area as I’m about to ride down to the bottom paddock/start-line, alongside many superstars from the motorcycle world; Casey Stoner is beside me on Fred Merkle’s RC30, Doohan is in front, with Steve Plater on a Mugen TT racer and John McGuinness with his far more modern Norton race bike. Sidecars, electric bikes and racing machines covering nine decades all trundle down the hill to turn around and queue up once again – it’s the most sensational, rare and unique bike meet. The sounds and smells are a mix that any bike fan would kill to be near.
Then, one-by-one we head up the hill. Some are giving it all they’ve got, others are pulling big wheelies, and the rest of us are demonstrating our wonderful bikes and allowing social media feeds to be crammed full of them.
The marshal blows his whistle and shouts “helmets out”. The time has come. The adrenaline starts to pump a little faster. Faster still when the mechanic shoves the starter wheel against my rear tyre - I slip the Norton into second gear and the wankel engine fires without much persuasion. He yells, “leave it in second, you can start in second”. I obey.
Each rider heads off the start line in 10 second intervals with a marshal indicating when you can go. The small crane operated camera hovers above your head as thousands both at Goodwood and watching the live feed online are tuned in. To stall it now will be more than a little embarrassing. I use plenty of revs and feed the clutch out slowly, the howl is glorious, the bike is light enough to move around with ease despite its apparent size – long yet slim. The riding position isn’t interfering though I only just now notice the orange sticker positioned at 10,000rpm whereas the clock displays up to 13,000rpm. I’m not here to thrash it but still fancied a go at seeing how responsive the throttle is and spread of power available. When I’d run down to the start-line with the engine running, it felt like an old two-stroke that needed a gentle caress of revs every couple of seconds to keep running. I’d been warned that without them, the engine would simply stop without warning.
There's a huge spread of seamless power over the entire rev band and because throttle pickup is extremely responsive, revs rise very quickly and acceleration up to the first double right-hander impressed. The higher the revs, the more power there seemed for this rotary newbie pilot but calm I must remain.
Peripheral vision takes in the vast crowds as I cruise under the bridge outside the house and up towards the off-camber left at Molecomb. Still in second gear too. Well it saved confusion and I got to take in the lush and deep sound from the NRS588 too.
Over the finish line and the top paddock comes into view. The marshals usher me towards a wooden stake which I can lean the bike against until it’s time to ride back down the hill to the paddock once more, and then let the next lucky soul to take her out in the afternoon run.
Strangely, road bikes and race bikes are in separate parts of the paddock. Nowhere near each other, in fact. Which is a minor inconvenience for two-wheeled fans but a major one for those riding in both batches! Jogging in full leathers from one side to the other on a roasting hot day was worth it when another run up the hill is the reward. This time Aprilia had wheeled out their new-for-2019 powerhouse; the RSV4 1100 Factory. Yep, the one with wings and 214hp.
I’d ridden the bike in anger at the press launch at Mugello but this was to much more sedate. Soaking in the multi-million-pound car park as we all waited in the bottom paddock for our turn was an experience in itself. Sitting astride the £21,500 super bike, I felt humbled by the finest collection of metal and carbon fibre as every new and coming supercar lined up in front. I was directly behind the £1.1m 814bhp McLaren Senna GTR Prototype that had only been unveiled two months earlier. I went for a peek inside and sitting behind at least four GoPro’s was Bruno Senna. “I admire what you guys do on the bikes,” he said. “I ride a Piaggio three-wheeler near my home. I’ve thought about getting my full licence and a bigger bike but I’m always worried about the front end grip!”
As the pack shuffled forwards, the other road bikes in the group including a world debut for the new ARC electric bike, a Harley-Davidson LiveWire, BMW S1000RR M Package (ridden by my colleague, Kane Dalton), a Kawasaki Ninja H2R and Steve Parrish on an Indian FTR1200 all vied for position.
The starter marshal give you the nod and away giving it plenty of revs off the line for two reasons; stalling would be incredibly humiliating but equally, the V4/Akrapovic combination provides a beautiful symphony. A shift to second gear before turn one allows for a smooth turn and the chance to open her up a little down the straight in front of the largest section of crowd plus the Goodwood House – demonstrating just a petite amount of the Aprilia’s power.
At the end of the run in the top paddock I mention to Kane about performing a double burn-out for the crowd on our return trip to the paddock back down the hill. After all, with the volume of cars to follow, we’re guaranteed to come to a stop at some point. We did but it was under some trees near the infamous flint wall where the only people who can see us are a handful of marshals – this was not our opportunity. Parrish whips by on the grass skipping by the world’s most expensive traffic jam, so I nod to Kane and we follow the Indian to the front of the queue… near the main bridge. Pulling to the side of the track away from the cars so as not to spray them with grubby rubber, the BMW and Aprilia put on a 10-second smoke-filled show!
Even though the short ride up and down the Duke of Richmond’s driveway is not the RSV4 1100 Factory’s usual hunting ground, the glorious noise, perfect poise and ease of operation all contribute to happy Mugello memories. If a £21.5k is lying around ready to be spent on a modern-day superbike then I’d urge a trip to your local Piaggio dealership.
My final run was back in the race bike batch and on something completely different – the Harley-Davidson XG750R flat-tracker. A competition-only bike that has been doing battle on the dirt ovals of America since mid-2016, yet that has never been ridden in the UK… until now. Unfortunately, or should that be fortunately, the 60-degree V-Twin fuel-injected, liquid-cooled Revolution X V-twin engine is a tricky one to operate at a non-racing event so the bike had been fitted with the engine and gearbox from the Street 750 road machine instead. Probably a good thing because the road-shift gear change was now back in the more familiar left-hand side. Oh, and did I mention there’s no front brake. Eek.
The bike has been seen as a bit of a ‘show pony’ both at Motorcycle Live and at The Bike Shed London Show but never ridden on these shores.
A simple yet striking design with the twin Vance & Hines high-sided race pipes, three oversized ‘44’ number plates, wide bars, big treaded tyres and bright orange air filter clashing with the red paintwork. The tall seat is also pretty wide and requires a degree of dexterity to place your legs to avoid the hot parts. Posing for photos in the paddock didn’t set me up for the non-symmetrical foot pegs – another part designed for dirt-tracking as opposed to hill climbs in the English countryside.
The starting mechanism is a simple affair – the mildest touch of the slave battery to the connector and it fires up instantly with a deep roar. Quirky, yes but a solution created just for the Festival of Speed, and necessary with the stop/start process of queuing in five different places on a warm day with limited cooling.
The gearing is short, like it would be for racing although I’m cautious on the throttle knowing that the engine braking and the rear brake are all I have at my disposal for stopping or slowing. It’s odd to get used to, especially when trying to find neutral on a slope. Think about it. The XG750R is also out of its comfort zone with an actual right-hander looming straight after we begin our run. Unchartered territory but even with a flat-track virgin on board, we successfully negotiated the two rights before chomping through a couple of gears down Park Straight. Into Molecomb and I attempted to add a little style by sticking out my left-foot – despite being in one-piece leathers. Well, I was smiling at least.
The Harley is lightweight, simple to move around even with those vast tyres, and has a lovely punch of torque from low in the rev range making it a delight to ride from a hooligan’s perspective. Entertaining and eye-catching; two elements that are oh so important at Goodwood when in with a crowd full of top names on one-off bikes.
A gracious thank you to The National Motorcycle Museum, Aprilia UK and Harley-Davidson UK for allowing me to play with your toys and get away with calling it work.
Keep an eye out for Goodwood Festival of Speed 2020 dates and tickets.