Niall Mackenzie started racing 500s at the same time as Kevin, he was British Champion in the 250 and 350 class riding for Armstrong when Kevin first raced in England. "The first time I saw Kevin ride was at Donington in 1986. Robert Fearnall was organising the match races and was keen for me to ride there on a dealer's GSXR75O. I decided not to and turned up on the first day of practice and I saw the bike that I was supposed to ride, it was parked in a corner of a pit. It ended up being Kevin's bike."
"The first time I saw him on track was riding this bike and he came round leading the race. It was the first time I had heard his name and I thought 'who the hell is this!' I think he led it for about three laps then threw it away at Redgate when it started raining. But he was on a mission and the hike was the biggest piece of crap I had ever seen, I wouldn't have liked to have ridden it."
"So that was the first time anyone had seen him in England. Over the weekend he was just acrobatic and getting away with it most of the time."
"Pretty soon after that Donington race I broke my leg and the next time I saw him was at Misano, the end of that year when I was riding the Skoal Bandit Suzuki. He showed up on another RG they had thrown together, a carbon fibre bike. He was two seconds off my pace but he was on Michelins and I was on Dunlops. I think that was the biggest reason, it made me feel good but I think he was on the wrong tyres basically."
"I knew the race track which was a big plus and I had had a couple of rides on the hike, (at the British and Swedish Grand Prix) I knew Suzuki were looking at both of us for the next season so I was keen to impress, the odds were on my side because I knew the race track, the bike and the tyres."
"Martin Oghourne asked if I would let him follow me which I was happy to do, especially as he was struggling. I think I finished eighth in the race and he was tenth. In the end I signed for Honda, he stayed another year in the US and just did a few GPs. When he started his first full season and won in Japan, that surprised everyone.
That first japanese Grand Prix win certainly did put Kevin on the map, Mackenzie had some good rides during his second season on the Erv Kanemoto prepared HB Honda, including leading the US GP at Laguna Seca until brake fade forced him to drop back to finish third hut he could not match Kevin's rise to stardom. While the Scot struggled to make full use of the 500 Kevin seemed to have no such problems.
Niall puts a lot of Kevin's success to his riding style. "It's so different, he leans the bike, pushes the bike down but he's sitting up on top of the hike so that if anything goes the bike just springs up and he's sitting on it whereas a lot of us are hanging off the side and if the rear end breaks away we are off the side instead of on top where we want to he."
"It seems like his riding style allows him to push the bike down, let the rear end squiggle around and it doesn't really matter what it does. And the reason he can do that is that his legs are so long he can prop himself upright but have the bike at maximum angle. Those of us who are a hit shorter have to be hanging off to get the bike to where he has it. I think his style has developed around his build."
The other thing he can do is push the front. I don't know where that comes from. I've seen him at the apex of the corners in pictures with the forks bottomed out and it is obviously ready to break away but he hasn't got a problem with it. I feel that again is his position on the bike, his crotch is right up against the tank, he's not hanging off the side, he's all over the front with good feel for the front tyre. That definitely makes him confident in it."
|"I would say he's one of the more intelligent riders in the paddock, academically.|
If Mackenzie sees Kevin's clear technical advantage on the bike why does he think that he did not win a World Championship earlier? "I think at 89 it was looking good up to Jerez and he chose a soft front and crashed. He also had various mechanical breakdowns. It is always ifs and buts but it seemed that if the bike had stuck together that year he would have had a lot more wins and would have had the championship in the bag. "
"When the bike was right he could ride as fast as anyone at the physical race track, right to the end. It was more that the bike wasn't quite right for him. I suppose that early in his Suzuki days he had no one who was as fast as him to give him any back up. There were two or three Yamaha teams that could help Yamaha riders and three or four Honda riders that could help development at HRC. Kevin was out on his own and new to 500s, there was a lot of trial and error."
In 1990 Niall had the opportunity to find out more about Kevin when he replaced Kevin Magee after the Australian's Laguna Seca crash. "He was a good team mate, I couldn't have asked for better," says Mackenzie who is honest enough to also remember how hard it was to match Kevin's performance especially after missing the winter testing and the first two races. "There were race tracks like Donington where I felt that the bike would he perfect both for me and the circuit and Kevin wouldn't he able to go any faster than me. Then I got there and Kevin was like a second and a half or two seconds quicker and I just couldn't figure it out."
"I think that some of that was that the bike then was really sensitive I had two bikes, one would work good at one race track and the other would not feel right at all. Then at the next race track the opposite one would work, it was really difficult to set up and very sensitive to race tracks. We were dreading going to Yugoslavia but then the bikes worked really well. It never seemed to make sense and no one could explain what was going on."
"One thing, when I rode the Suzukis they were always fast, they always had good top end, which was nice. Chassis wise, it was difficult for me to help Kevin because we had completely different riding styles, the bike seemed to work better round Kevin than it did me. I always tended to have the bike lower at the front and higher at the back than Kevin to get it to turn. He could ride round that and have the bike lower at the back, higher at the front which was much better braking so that he could brake much deeper than I could and still get it to turn. I couldn't understand how that was and I just had to put it down to his riding style and his experience on the bike."
"His other big advantage that year was the starts. The bikes wouldn't get off the line at any race but I could get one guy a lap and Kevin could get one guy a corner and get to the front. He was just so much more confident than I was on the bike. That is where he scored at the end of the race was over the first few laps. He is brilliant at passing people."
Off the track Niall and Kevin have always got on well. The year they rode as team mates Niall recalls that Kevin was concentrating on the racing. "I could tell when we got there for the first unofficial practice at Jerez that he had his serious head on so although he was sociable, he was thinking about the championship at each race. He was pretty serious at times and I could tell when things weren't going well because there'd be things flying around the garage after practice."
"After the first couple of races I understood how he was. Always on Sunday night he was my best mate and ready to have a good time. He just wanted it to work and he concentrated on racing during the week. I think both of us are pretty keen to be party animals from time to time I think definitely when he goes out he goes out to have a good time just as I do, once the serious stuff is over."
"I would say he's one of the more intelligent riders in the paddock, academically. You can tell he's had a decent education. He's got a good race recall, especially when he's won... He knows it lap by lap. When he hasn't won he doesn't want to know that much. When I was there we had a debrief after every race and he was pretty positive about what went on."
Mackenzie is certain that Kevin deserved the World Championship win. "I think he has had to get the Suzuki right on his own. I think he is as capable as anyone around at getting a bike set up now but it has taken him longer than usual to get the Suzuki right because he has been on his own, they gave him a different team mate every year."
"Being consistent and settling for third or fourth if he had to was what won him the championship. That was always going to win him it until he got taken out at Donington. He was particularly impressive after that. In Czecho where he struggled all week he still settled for fifth. It wasn't the normal Kevin but it was what was going to win him the championship, not taking any chances."
Kevin's attitude to the racing may have changed but not, according to Mackenzie, his personality. "I don't think he's changed at all. He's always been one of my better mates in the paddock. He's there because he enjoys doing what he's doing. He's always been generous and been good fun. I can't see any change at all. Particularly since he's won the championship he's so happy that he's done it I think it's a relief."
Niall, like Rob, has had to come to terms with what it. means to be Kevin's team mate and competitor and also to be his friend. Niall and Rob are very close as well yet there is at least as much an undercurrent of steely competition there as there is between either of them and Kevin. There has been one person with whom Kevin's competition has been of the highest tensile variety, at times it has been all consuming.
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