Lee Hardy Racing ended their 2018 road racing season at the Macau Grand Prix on Saturday and it proved to be a successful conclusion with Gary Johnson taking the Briggs Equipment Kawasaki to a strong fifth place in the shortened race.
The Lincolnshire ace arrived at the Far East venue nursing a damaged vertebrae, the legacy of a spill at the final round of the Pirelli National Superstock 1000 Championship at Brands Hatch last month, which left him in some discomfort and having missed a final test on the Kawasaki ZX-10R he last raced at the Senior TT, he had to use Thursday’s free practice as extra testing, ending the session in 13th.
With a number of changes to the front end of the machine since June, Johnson and the team made additional changes to the rear suspension and fifth place in first qualifying later in the afternoon was a more accurate representation of his pace and potential.
Indeed, a lap of 2m27.513s in Friday’s final qualifying session saw him move up to third on the leaderboard and it was only a late lap from Martin Jessopp that pushed him back to fourth and denied him a front row start. Nevertheless, the 37-year old was feeling confident ahead of the race although he recognised 12 laps around the 3.8-mile Guia circuit would, as always, be a challenging proposition.
With good conditions for Saturday afternoon’s race, Johnson made a great start to slot into third behind Michael Rutter and Peter Hickman at the end of lap one and although Danny Webb pushed him back to fourth a lap later, there was little to chose between the top five riders which also included front row starter Jessopp.
By half race distance, Hickman had taken over the lead and both he and Rutter pulled away from the other three riders which left Gary disputing third with Webb and Jessopp, subsequently starting lap seven in fifth place.
Jessopp began to edge away from the group as he closed in on Rutter but Gary and Webb were still locked in battle as they started lap ten although any hopes of climbing further up the leaderboard were dashed when the red flags came out to stop the race after fellow Lincolnshire rider Phil Crowe and Ben Wylie crashed out at Fisherman’s Bend. Thankfully, both riders escaped serious injury but the result was declared at eight laps which put Gary in fifth place for his eighth top five finish since 2009.
Gary Johnson: “The back injury put me on the back foot a bit so I was a bit rusty in first practice and whilst the changes we’d made to the front were a significant step forward, it altered the feeling I had with the rear. We made some changes and fifth place in first qualifying was a bit more like it but second qualifying was better still and the further improvements we made were a big step forward. The lap times were strong so I felt confident going into the race but knew a good start would be crucial and third place on lap one was perfect.”
“I was struggling a bit in the last sector and through the first two turns but I hung on to Rutter and Hicky for as long as I could before Danny and then Martin came past. I had a good battle with Danny and was conserving my tyre for the last part of the race but unfortunately the race ended early although, thankfully, both riders were ok. As expected, Hicky was a bit ahead of everyone else but with a bit more time on the bike, I think we could have closed the gap to Michael although I’m happy with fifth. I’m looking forward now to working hard in the New Year to get myself back at the sharp end at the TT and NW200 so a big thanks to all the team and the sponsors for their hard work and commitment this season.”
Pictures by Stephen Davison – Pacemaker Press International (SD) and Diego Mola (DM)
Macau Grand Prix race (8 laps)
1 Peter Hickman (BMW)
2 Michael Rutter (Honda)
3 Martin Jessopp (Ducati)
4 Danny Webb (BMW)
5 Gary Johnson (Briggs Equipment Kawasaki)
6 Horst Saiger (Yamaha)