Riding Factory Superbikes With Michael Schumacher!

Date :

November 25, 2014

Riding Factory Superbikes With Michael Schumacher!

In light of this latest news, we wanted to share a story from one of our contributors, Jim McDermott, who a few years ago had an unforgettable experience riding factory superbikes with Schumacher. Godspeed, Schumi. – Kevin Duke, Editor-in-Chief

Circuit Algarve, Portimao, Portugal, October 2008: My second lap, and thoughts of crashing an Australian’s priceless Italian museum piece started to dissipate. Riding a bit looser, getting harder on the gas, I started to feel almost confident.

And that’s when the most memorable 60 seconds I’ve ever spent on a motorcycle began.

I was in Portugal to test ride the 2008 factory World Superbikes for Superbikeplanet.comthe day after the season wrapped up. The series organizers had asked Soup editor Dean Adams to send a fast guy to the first group test for journalists they’d ever done. Why Dean chose me, I’ll never know, as I’m anything but fast. I’ll be eternally grateful to him for picking me. As a longtime WSBK fan, it was nothing less than a dream to sample the factory machines of Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Ducati. 

It was a special event on several fronts. Portimao was a brand-new track, the World Superbikes series racing there for the very first time. Ducati hero Troy Bayliss, who had already wrapped up the 2008 Championship, was hanging up his leathers after this round. Bayliss’ 1098 F08 featured a special one-off livery, with elements of the Australian flag. Bayliss rode out like a true champion, winning both races on Sunday to cap off a truly emotional weekend.

Those invited to the test were instructed to turn up at the circuit at 8am for a briefing, followed by riding. Portimao is on the south coast of Portugal, and on that October morning, it was cold, every exhalation leaving a cloud in the air. About a dozen journalists showed up, and while huffing double espressos, we were told: 1) We’d get two laps on a scooter to “familiarize ourselves” with the Algarve Circuit, followed by 3-5 laps on each World Superbike. 2) We’d be required to sign waivers relieving everyone involved if we seriously injured ourselves. 3) If we did crash, the team of the bike we binned would likely ensure we were seriously injured. This was said in jest … I think.

The Ducati guys handed me Bayliss’ 1098 F08 in his “as raced” preparation; the suspension settings, tire compound, mapping, and gear ratio settings he had used to ride the Ducati to victory in both races on Sunday, the last of his World Superbike racing career. They set the traction and anti-wheelie control quite a bit higher than what Bayliss normally used. Ducati were quite generous, letting journalists ride this piece of history before it was tucked away, but they weren’t stupid.There was one last announcement, and it was incredible: Legendary F1 racerMichael Schumacher would be riding with us. The seven-time Formula 1champion had become obsessed with racing motorcycles since his retirement in 2006, and he was at Portimao to ride the Yamaha and Ducati WSBK bikes. So, on this Monday in October, the day after Bayliss’ last race, we’d all be riding his motorcycle, on a new track, alongside one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time.

As eager as I was to ride Bayliss’ bike, I had serious concerns. I’d never ridden a bike with slicks, or with a reverse/race-pattern gearbox. Acclimating to both, while riding a priceless factory racebike around a racetrack I’d never seen before, was intimidating to say the least. And the other guys, many of whom were “name” European ex-racers, were absolutely flogging the bikes. I just hoped I could ride fast enough to keep heat in the slicks and not kill the gearbox or crash. Luckily, between the scooter laps and a session on another factory machine that morning, I had a good idea which way the track went.

Bayliss’ 1098 F08 did not disappoint. Riding it was like glimpsing an ideal future and wishing you could stay there. Relative to a street Ducati Superbike, I had expected the factory machine to be a beast. Surprisingly, it felt incredibly refined: superlative suspension, fueling, braking, and stunning speed, delivered in a wholly usable, unintimidating manner. The connection between the bike and the rider was almost spiritual in nature. Unlike the other factory bikes I rode that day, the 1098 F08 seemed to want to help me be the best I could be.

So on that second lap, caught up in the rapture, I braked deep into the hairpin by the VIP Tower, looking uphill, over my shoulder. After a short run through a left-hand kink, with Turn 8 ahead, I clicked down (up) two gears, the revs going high under engine braking, aural nirvana. Lightly dragging the front anchors as I approached my turn-in point, I thought, “Wow, I can’t believe how late I can leave the braking on this bike.” Just then, I heard an exhaust note, violently shredding the air slightly behind and to the right of me. There was little room between me and the curbing, and we were almost at the corner. I was sure I was about to be hit, or watch the rider go into the gravel trap. “Who can this damned fool be,” I thought, “This isn’t a race!”

In my peripheral vision, Michael Schumacher shot into view, riding Noriyuki Haga’s YZF-R1, hard on the gas. As he charged into the corner, his eyes loomed large behind the visor, fixed on his turn-in point, far beyond where mortals like me would peer. He downshifted, the dual exhausts spitting long tongues of unburnt fuel from the Yamaha’s cauldron heart. And then, at an apex that seemed so delayed he’d need a hinged bike to complete it, Schumacher shot through the corner. I turned in a moment later, albeit much wider, and was already several bike lengths behind the R1.

My memories of the next 45 seconds or so are very ABC’s Wide World Of Sports. The colors saturated, images grainy in my mind. I thought of all the Formula 1 drivers who had been passed that close by Michael Schumacher over the years. He was fast on a bike, no question, riding with total commitment, but there was something else happening. Close to him at speed, I felt the history he carried, his incredible record of victories, an aura which had a stunning effect. For a few heartbeats I forgot where I was, and just watched him go.

I stayed within reach of Schumi for a few more corners, the 1098’s booming V-Twin counterpointing the shrill revs of the R1, and I mimicked his movements as best I could. Countless others had followed Schumacher to gain a tenth here and there, why not me? But I couldn’t stick with him. He pulled on me steadily, and by the time we came down the hill to the front straight, he was gone. Speeding past the empty grandstands on Bayliss’ Ducati, I knew that those 60 seconds were the best I had ever spent on a motorcycle, and likely ever would.

It was incredibly sad to hear of Schumacher’s grave injuries in December, 2013, five short years after I encountered him. It seemed impossible that a tenacious legend such as he would be stopped in his tracks whilst on a ski vacation with his family, after living a lifetime on the edge of danger.

As I grow older, a few magic rides stand tall in my memory, when the road seemed mine alone, a rusted glow illuminating every perfect corner. Rides where I thought, “It cannot get any better than this.” But none were more magic than those 60 seconds, riding that Ducati alongside Michael Schumacher.