TG drives the Piaggio Ape racer
We get a feel for new, cheap racing series using three-wheeled motorbikes…
Posted: 27 Sep 2012
The last time I had anything to do with a motorbike was two years ago, when John McGuinness ‘kindly' gave me a pillion ride around the Isle of Man TT course. Today, things are slightly different.
Because today, things are slower. A lot slower. We're at the Rye House kart circuit to test out the UK's newest and thriftiest racing series - from April 2013, you'll be able to compete in a Piaggio Ape. The stats might not be impressive - top speed of about 40mph, single-cylinder, air-cooled petrol engine, 20bhp - but you'll never have so much fun for so little cost.
Anyone unfamiliar with the Ape should know that it's Italy's equivalent of the donkey. A three-wheeled motorbike with a pick-up body at the back, it first appeared in 1948, and has been keeping Italy moving, and tourists cursing, ever since. If you've ever been on holiday in Italy, the chances are you've spent countless hours stuck behind one as it crawls from one olive grove to the next, wizened old farmer sat resolutely behind the wheel.
But now the Ape is being officially imported into Britain, so it's inevitable that someone thought a race series would be a good idea. And given the current economic climate, this sounds like an inspired thought - a full season's racing of four, two-hour races will cost about £6,000. Which might sound pricey at first, but is bargain basement in motorsport terms, and even more so when you consider that it includes everything, such as the Ape itself, race entry fees, petrol and preparation. And the £6,000 outlay is per team, so by clubbing together with four of your mates, it becomes even cheaper.
Granted, this isn't going to be a high-octane sport - the speeds just aren't there. But it will be enormous fun, and weirdly requires more skill than you'd think.
The controls are basic, but strangely laid out. On the floor, there's a pedal where the accelerator would normally be. That's your rear brake. The front brake and twist grip accelerator are on the right of the handlebars - twist towards you to accelerate.
Conversely, don't twist the other side of the handlebars in the same direction to change up a gear - no siree, that will drop it down a cog. Twist away to shift up. Oh, and there's a handle in front of the ‘gear lever', and that's your clutch. Honestly, at one point, I overdo things into a corner and panic that I'm heading for the tyre barriers in the UK's only race-prepped Ape. The solution? Pull and stamp on everything in the cabin in the hope that one of them will have the desired effect.
We had a quick go at Rye House (which is hosting all the races in 2013), and after 10 minutes my arms ached and I was getting muddled as to which way I should be twisting the grip to change up a gear. I dread to think how confusing it will get as you battle with another Ape during a race.
Because you will be battling. There's so little pace on offer that racing these things will be all about maximising speed. At Rye House, you never touch first and second gears once you're up and running, and even third is a rare event because you can carry so much (relative) speed into the corners. It rides the kerbs really well, and you can use those to tip it into the corner to try and counter the understeer.
Your weight is important as well. You've got to get really leant over to try and keep the Ape as flat as possible, otherwise the inside rear wheel lifts clean off the ground. And that is mighty disconcerting. It looks spectacular, but I'm sure it isn't as quick and it upsets the Ape through the rest of the corner. Smooth is best.
One thing's for certain, that first race in April 2013 is going to be a steep learning curve for everyone, and a hoot. I can't see many of the Apes coming back from that event with a straight panel between them. But who cares? Not when it's this cheap.