There’s a lot to said for the pressure of competing at a home Grand Prix. The eyes of thousands of your compatriots fixed upon you, desperate to see you do well, which can sometimes be a burden but also act as inspiration. For John McPhee, it’s certainly the latter as he prepares to represent the British Talent Team at the British Grand Prix.
“If anything, it just inspires me to do well. I always thrive off the British GP atmosphere and it gives me more confidence”, he told The Checkered Flag. Confidence is already high for the Scotsman who has established himself as a regular contender for podiums in the fiercely competitive Moto3 class, standing on the rostrum three times as well as claiming pole position in Argentina.
As one of the most experienced riders in the lightweight class, McPhee has certainly put in the hard yards, spending four seasons with Racing Team Germany including a 2016 campaign which could be best described as character-building, as an uncompetitive Peugeot machine rendered him an also-ran. One race would prove an exception to that rule, with McPhee conquering the wet conditions of Brno to claim his first Grand Prix win, reminding everyone just how much talent the Oban rider possesses.
For 2017, McPhee is now part of a project which has British talent in its very DNA, with the British Talent Team flying the flag for a new movement to bring riders from these shores to the Grand Prix stage. Supported by Honda and series organisers Dorna, with Grand Prix winners running the operation, John believes the jigsaw pieces are now place for him to challenge the best that Moto3 has to offer.
“With Alberto Puig and Dorna on board this year, Alberto’s handpicked the guys he’d like to work in the team and he’s got a lot of pressure on his shoulders to make the team perform so he’s picked top Moto3 mechanics to work in team. The whole atmosphere is better than it’s been before and the professionalism is that slight notch higher which makes my life a lot easier. Jeremy McWilliams helps me out on track and checks what I’m doing with my riding and what I can improve on. Alberto helps me with the approach to the weekend and the approach to the sessions from a professional and mental side of things. Having them both there is invaluable.”
“It’s definitely been my best season so far. After the first two races with the back-to-back podiums and challenging for the win, obviously the barrier was then raised massively. We then came into a little bit of difficulty in the middle of the season but on the whole, we’ve been inside the top ten and generally fighting for the win so it’s been a massive step forward.”
To many observers, Moto3 can best described as chaotic, frenetic and wildly unpredictable which makes it all the more difficult to stand out from the pack, an achievement which Joan Mir has proven supremely successful at. The Spaniard is the undisputed benchmark and McPhee believes the arrival of the British Talent Team will change the way Britons approach their racing, enabling them to close the gap to their more successful counterparts.
“These people are guys who have had the direct route into Grand Prix and which has been a little bit difficult for a lot of the Brits but we’ve come on a lot more”¸ he added. “We understand more what we need to be doing at world level to compete with these guys. More of the things we’re doing away from the track, experiencing more bikes, more tyres and even supermoto and motocross. All these things make a big difference and the Spaniards and Italians have that from a really young age. They’ve got more tracks and facilities to do that kind of thing.”
Tactical nous is often a key part of a successful rider’s make-up but as McPhee knows to his cost, even the best plans can often go to waste in the mayhem of Moto3. Last time out in Austria, while running eighth, John was taken out by Red Bull KTM Ajo’s Bo Bendsneyder and he pointed out that the nature of the Red Bull Ring gave him little chance of shaking off his pursuers whatever strategy he adopted.
“Austria was a difficult one because it was one of those tracks that was really hard to break away in a group because there are so many long straights where riders could come back into the group by gaining the slipstream and braking late. All they needed to do was brake late that once and they’ll then get dragged along the next straight. I think that’s why we saw a lot more guys in the pack that aren’t normally there. With Silverstone coming up, it’s gonna be more important to get away with that front pack and hopefully there’ll be more experienced guys in there.”
Starting as far forward as possible can often put you in the safest position too, something McPhee hasn’t always succeeded at in 2017. Countless qualifying sessions have been overshadowed by traffic this season as riders search for a slipstream to tow them up the grid, something that has drawn criticism and grid penalties in equal measure, and McPhee has pinpointed the cause of his difficulties.
“It’s one of the disadvantages of having a single-rider team”, he explains. “In Moto3, when I’m doing lap times alone, I’m on par or sometimes even faster because I’m doing all my lap times alone. When it comes to qualifying and team-mates are working together, which we see a lot in Moto3, the slipstream can add up to anything from half a second to a second. It makes such a massive difference. That’s kind of why I’ve been struggling a bit in qualifying but it’s definitely something I need to manage better.”
So if putting yourself at the front of a group isn’t guaranteed to keep you out of trouble, how do you manage it? McPhee doesn’t see a fool-proof strategy to mastering the mayhem of Moto3 but that doesn’t stop him searching for every last advantage he can gain over the opposition, including analysis of previous races.
“Generally, you have to go corner-by-corner but you can look at videos from previous seasons. Ahead of the race, I’ll watch the last two or three years back and try to see if there’s a trend of what happens in the race, what riders do in the first couple of laps to stay out of trouble and what they do in the last couple of laps to position themselves in the correct place. Nine times out of ten, it’s so difficult in Moto3 to predicts what’s going to happen but you can see if there’s a general direction it tends to go and take it from there.”
One thing that the Scotsman can take out of the equation is tyre management. Dunlop have been the exclusive tyre supplier to Moto3 since its inception and thanks to their stringent quality control which analyses each tread compound before construction, the race rubber has drawn praise from the 23-year-old.
“Dunlop has improved year by year, step by step. Since my first year in GP, I’ve found it very difficult for them to make any improvements, which has been the most impressive thing. The tyre life has just changed drastically, it’s much easier for us to manage the tyres throughout the race. The tyres inspire you as a rider and give you confidence, you can always feel the limit and the grip levels are fantastic, you always want more from the bike as the tyre is giving you so much feedback. One thing that is impressive about the tyres, is that the Dunlops have such a massive operating window. We go to Silverstone where it can be as cold as 5 degrees verses Phillip Island or Malaysia where it’s 40-45 degrees, and we can use the same compound of tyres in both places. The operating window is so impressive, it doesn’t matter where we go the tyre life is perfect.”
Although temperatures aren’t expected to fall quite so low this weekend, Silverstone is notorious for its unpredictable conditions but for the first time in his career, McPhee feels he is well-placed to fight for victory on home soil, whatever the weather.
“There’ve been a few times in the past where I thought, if it’s raining we’ll stand a chance, but this time, no matter what the conditions, we can still do a good job”, he said. In a matter of days, the no.17 Honda will take to the Silverstone circuit with the Union Jack proudly painted on its side. McPhee will leave no stone unturned in his efforts to ensure it flies proudly above the top step of the podium on Sunday. Time will tell if those efforts are rewarded.