Brands Hatch started life in 1926 as a grass track circuit, and continues to this day as an old-school English racetrack. The facility is located about thirty five minutes outside of London in Kent, near the village of Fawkham.
Through the years the track itself has not been modified a great deal, although it was first covered with asphalt in the fifties and has received a repave this year. As for world championships, the Grand Prix series never came to Brands but F-1, the old Formula 750 motorcycle series and the 1980s Trans-Atlantic matches (where Freddie Spencer won the affection of the British people with a gritty ride on a Suzuki RG500) all have held races at Brands, as the World Superbike series does now.
Some scribes call Laguna Seca a paved motocross track but for the true definition of a paved motocross track one must travel to Brands Hatch. It really is a paved outdoor national motocross track without the whoops or triples. It's fairly short (2.4 miles) and very undulating, the front straight is banked, sort of, as the inside of the track falls away --a remnant of its early dirt track days for water drainage. The paddock is confined and rugged -- the riders park their motorhomes in what was once a gravel pit.
It's a rider track. Without much of a long straight to speak of at Brands, horsepower, drafting and top speed are taken out of the equation. Here a Superbike is constantly turning, braking or trying to stand-up and wheelie while trying to run fast laps -- with so many elevation changes and different corners. There are things that Brands isn't: it's not a horsepower racetrack, nor a Honda or Ducati track. Riders who can find a balanced set-up and over-ride the bike will do well. It's a fun racetrack for a rider as the challenge is there and also with it's easy to make up time or at least have the opportunity to do so. If a rider finds the set-up that allows him to accentuate his machine's positive points and he's aggressive and willing to push, he'll do well at Brands. Scotland's Niall Mackenzie, on a raspy privateer-sounding YZF750 that he rides in the British Superbike championship finished third in the first race this year (and most impressively ran up the inside of second place Scott Russell a time or two) even after his footpeg broke off before the race was re-started. Both Yamaha riders (and Chili) outran Kocinski's rocket-fast Castrol RC45.
Brands Hatch is one of the premier spectator tracks in the world. Several months ago there was a war of words between track designer and occasional American Roadracing columnist Alan Wilson (who designed the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Gingermann Raceway in Michigan and Pike's Peak International Raceway in Colorado) and British reader Tim Huntington in our letters column. Wilson somewhat favorably compared the recently completed Pike's Peak International Raceway with Brands Hatch, where he once managed the track. Wilson knew from his time at Brands that a good spectator track incorporates wide sight lines and the ability to get the ticket-buying spectator as close the action as common sense would allow.
Huntington, who grew up going to motorcycle races at Brands, saw the illustration of the PPIR facility in Wilson's column and said that there was no way PPIR could ever be another Brands, nor should the two tracks be mentioned in the same sentence in regards to sight lines and being spectator friendly. After seeing both, we'd have to side with Huntington on this one.
Brands isn't one of the new wave of circuits where the owners and designers first came in with bulldozers and leveled the topography of the land and then built a racetrack. No, riders first came to Brands because the natural layout of the land lends itself to racing. There are several areas of Brands that are stunning in their ability to let the spectator almost inside the racing. "Druids" the corner atop the first hill, spectators stand perhaps fifteen feet outside the racing line, just behind a small fence. As the riders pass you can see their eyes, their facial expressions, and you can feel the heat from their machine's exhaust as they run down the hill. When motorcycles are battling for position this close to spectators, this is what motorcycle roadracing is all about. It's very hard to have that same affinity when the machines are tiny little dots on the horizon like at Daytona or Phoenix International Raceway.
And Brands is not a safe racetrack. There are sections that riders dislike for lack of room to maneuver if they find yourself off track. This is a place where mechanics earn their money for being meticulous: Brit Superbike rider Grahame Ritchie's brakes failed at Brands this year when his Ducati's front fender broke and the torn piece sawed through his brake lines. He died after colliding head-first into a wall. Many of the same qualities that make it remarkable for spectators are the same ones that make it dangerous for riders.
Good sight lines, enjoyable atmosphere and a track that lends itself to close competition are attractions that European spectators cannot ignore. The attendance at Brands Hatch for the World Superbike race has quadrupled in the past years, topping out at 67,000 in 1997. But the physical layout of the circuit and it's proximity to one of the largest cities in the world aren't the only draw for spectators.
British bike fans are like Spaniards and the Japanese when it comes to racing: they root for the home team. They turn up at Brands each year to cheer on the current British king of roadracing, Carl Fogarty. Just as the Spaniards only know Alex Criville, and the Japanese quietly cheer on Shinichi Itoh, for the Commonwealth there is only Carl. Fogarty endears himself to fans for so clearly trying his hardest any time he's on the bike. And he's just so damn quotable, a newspaperman's dream. "I didn't even want to know about motorcycle racing," Foggy said after crashing out of race one at Brands. "I didn't want to race, didn't want to ride ever again."
The Brands pre-race advance press would do any muckraking, sensationalizing journalist proud. In the States, the pre-race newspaper stories from the AMA Superbike series are as bland as warm oatmeal, the fiercest of them state, "Chandler Hopeful of Victory on Sunday" or "DuHamel Has Won Three Straight". Those sort of type-written snore-fests filled with idiotic filler (if not faked) quotes would render any Brit race fan catatonic by the second paragraph.
The British, a nation of people clearly living their lives focused on the Royal family and their tabloid's page three girls, want their journalism tawdry and in bold type.
They get it.
Prior to the race, the British press reported on the show-down qualities of the coming event. It was the American John Kocinski versus Sir Carl of Blackburn and their suddenly adversarial relationship that most daily rags focused their attention on. The pre-race news stories regarding the race at Brands pulled no punches: Fogarty said that Kocinski is "a jack-off" and that he tried to take him out in the race at Laguna Seca. Try that again at and you'll go home missing teeth, Yank.
Kocinski played his part in the game, (one played very well twenty years ago by John-Boy's mentor Kenny Roberts with Brit champion Barry Sheene). Kocinski said that Fogarty's team was really owned by the Mafia and that he was just happy to be away from Ducati and now riding for Honda. Foggy had the last word: the next day he told the paper that when Kocinski rode for Ducati his team manager Virginio Ferrari came to him at Honda and begged him to do everything in his power to beat Kocinski, that his entire team had hated him.
The press took their shots at other Americans too: in a preview one newspaper said that Scott Russell could be a threat to win at Brands, if only he'd stop partying; and that Mike Hale better win, or he'd soon be out of a job. The hate did not appear contrived: in the second leg post-race press conference Fogarty refused to use Kocinski's name, calling him "that man" when he had to reference him.
The British fans come to Brands Hatch because the racing is fantastic, the sight lines are filled with action and because Brands is a true little microcosm of Great Britain. Pubs are located on the grounds and having a cold one, actually a warm one, is just a matter of walking a few hundred yards. And everywhere in England King Carl's name is revered. About thirty thousand people showed up for final final-qualifying, thirty-seven thousand more on race day. In qualifying, the pro-Carl mob on a nearby spectator-filled hill were a sight: so many of them were wearing the obligatory red Fogarty Ducati shirts that from afar they looked like a huge bleeding body. They screamed his name, applauded and blasted air horns each time he rode past.
But when qualifying ended, it became so quiet one could hear the beer tap being pulled in the on-track pub across the track. The Brit's beloved Fogarty had missed out on the pole to Ducati's Frankie Chili. They silently accepted this as just more tyranny and injustice they must stoically endure, as they have for nine hundred years. The red coats clapped politely when Italy's Chili was awarded the pole, but the prevailing noise when he smiled to the thousands of Brands Hatch fans was the resonance of a cold wind blowing through the Kent countryside. When Carl crashed out of the first race, taking Simon Crafer with him, the whole venue erupted in one drawn-out agonizing groan.
Brands Hatch is a patched-up and prettied racetrack. Although it may not be a step back, it is definitely not a step forward. World Superbike is outgrowing venues like Brands and Italy's Monza as crowds and media attention in the series increase. Riders and teams are not in favor of returning to Brands next year because of the cramped and crude paddock and the lack of run off room.
Yet, with attendance figures in the high sixty thousands, it going to be very difficult for the organizers of the series and the event promoter to not have a race there. The nearby inns and hotels are already sold out.