By Christine Robins
Once a wartime airfield, the historic Thruxton motor racing circuit prides itself on being among the UK’s longest, at 2.4 miles. Also the fastest — mainly because of the fabulously long and floaty Church Corner, which describes a long arc leading into a super-fast straight and winds up with a chicane just before the pit lane. Zero motorcycles have a far shorter pedigree, but they can lay claim to a piece of history, as the first electric motorcycle brand to survive more than a decade in the international market, offering a proper production line and dealer networks. Now you’d expect the meeting of these two motoring institutions to be some PR-facing occasion where young speed freaks get their knees down on a few of Zero’s 110bhp SR/Fs (as they did recently at Luna Seca, California). You would not expect the first person to ride a Zero round Thruxton to be a cautious granny on the basic street model S. But this is how it was, because as well as hosting thrilling public events such as British Super Bikes, Thruxton also hosts IAM Roadsmart (Institute of Advanced Motoring) skills days, where people bring their everyday bikes along to develop road skills on track and see what they can do — this gives everything a sort of come-as-you-are party feel. And 20 July was what they coyly call their Ladies Day. So that was how this particular lady got to Thruxton, and was somewhat surprised to find out she was the first Zero rider there.
“No, it isn’t a track day!” the instructors kept saying — the speed limit is 90mph, and you work in small groups, beginning with slow laps to learn the course. Church Corner is set with cones to keep you on the right line and the wondrous straight is broken up with two sets of cone chicanes, so you can practise braking and gears (on a Zero, you practise braking and listening to other people’s gears). Each hour comprises 20 minutes briefing, 20 minutes on track and 20 minutes chilling (sweltering, on the day I attended). It’s all pretty tightly controlled.
But even so, there was a real excitement in the air when we were all started up and waiting our turn into the pit lane, listening to the revving of dozens of motley engines — from the hornet-like buzz of Ducati 848, to the thump of a Moto Guzzi V7, with Triumph Speed Triples, CB500s, an R Nine T and a rather over-excited Suzuki GN125. At this moment the Zero was silent — only when it moved would I hear its gentle whine starting up, over the rumbling of the tyres on the perfectly smooth, gleaming hot tarmac of the course.
Once on the course, it takes you over — you forget the tiresome roaring of the MacLaren company team-building in a Caterham Seven outside the visitor centre; you ignore the brightly coloured biplanes coming in to land at Thruxton’s working runway, which is inside the track; even a helicopter rising up just in your line of sight doesn’t get a second glance. You’re absorbed, first in learning the track and the way through the corners, and then in how to do it better every time, leaning further, turning crisper, accelerating smoother, braking smarter.
For all its history, Thruxton is open to new ways. The circuit staff made this electric biker really welcome, offering me an extension lead to recharge between sorties. I was worried about losing too much power, but as usually happens, range anxiety was all in my head. A sortie of 5 or 6 slow circuits only took about 5% power; later in the day, the faster outings (reaching less than 80mph, I’m afraid — that’s my riding skills, as the Zero is quite happy at 90mph) took less than 10%.
I’d urge every biker to try out the track — even if you’re not a natural racer, you’ll have fun discovering what your bike can do. And if it’s electric, on track there’s no oncoming traffic, potholes or spiky road furniture coming between you and that constant, smooth power delivery which is almost as awesome on the ‘small’ Zeros as on the big ones. You’ll fall in love with your bike all over again and even if you’re a cautious granny you’ll come back home with your heart happy — and your tyres satisfyingly smooshed-up. Thank you IAM (especially instructor Trevor Shearsmith) and thank you Thruxton!