Photography: MAURICE BURGESS Five minutes with... a sidecar racer featured image

Five minutes with... a sidecar racer

31 May 2020
Forget all the old jokes about sidecars, converted solo racer Maria Costello wants you to see three-wheelers in a more positive light

To most of us, scraping around the famous Isle of Man TT course at over 100mph just inches off the ground sounds crazy. But to some it’s the best fun ever.

Maria Costello made her debut on her LCR Kawasaki-powered sidecar at the world’s craziest road race with passenger Julie Canipa in 2019 and is preparing for TT 2021 with new passenger Sarah Stokoe. She’s raced solos and sidecars so who better to explain the attraction to sidecar racing, and why anyone would want to have a go…

Why sidecars?

“Why sidecars? Why not sidecars?! You’re all missing out, I’m telling you. There’s a lot of sidecar snobbery – they’re the ones who drop the oil on the track and all those other awful cliches – and I used to think the same. It wasn’t until Tim Reeves [eight times World Championship sidecar racer] gave me a look at his outfit with the fairing off that I started paying attention.

Sidecars are incredible pieces of engineering, and there’s a lot more to them than you’d think. I’ve loved every second of racing in a sidecar. It offers a different perspective to riding a race bike – you’re on your knees just a couple of inches off the ground, with your toes scraping on the floor and you’re coming out of your seat on all the bumps. In a sidecar, you find bumps you didn’t even know existed!

It’s like Christmas morning every time I get to do laps in my sidecar. Of course, lining up on the start line at the TT made me nervous and there were still those moments of quiet where I would stop talking to people and become much more introverted. But it’s exciting too!

I’d never use the word ‘fun’ to describe racing the Isle of Man TT on a solo because it’s so serious. But I’d use it to describe racing my sidecar – that’s why I love sidecars!

What does it take to race a sidecar?

It’s very different physically [to racing a solo motorcycle]. You’re kneeling down and leaning over the engine, reaching for the handlebars. While riding a solo is all about top-to-toe physical fitness, in sidecar racing it’s all arms and upper body.

At the speeds I was doing [average around 101mph] it wasn’t as physical as racing my solo, but you still need to be fit. And with physical fitness comes mental fitness – they both go hand in hand. In a sidecar you find you reach different physical boundaries, but that’s why it’s all so enjoyable.

How do you choose the right sidecar?

My choice was easy – I chose an LCR because they’re popular and parts are readily available. I chose a short F2 sidecar so I could race it at the TT, because the longer F1s are slowly being phased out. It has a Kawasaki ZX-6R engine, because when I first started out I was riding for a Kawasaki team. But there’s a lot to think about, and some modification is needed.

A key thing is making sure your seating position is unique to you. A lot of people, like the Birchall brothers [nine-time TT sidecar winners], have them fitted and moulded around them to make sure they don’t move around too much in their seat. After I’d had one fitted, it transformed my driving and I could go faster straight away.

At the TT there also needs to be a bigger fuel tank because there aren’t any pit stops in the sidecar race and it needs to do three laps on one tank. A bigger platform for the passenger is needed too, because they’re on it for a much longer time.

How do you pick the right passenger?

It’s really hard to pick the right passenger, because they’re in high demand and there aren’t enough to go around. The sponsor who got me into BSB wanted an all-female team, and there are a lot more female sidecar passengers than there are females in solo racing – but I like that!

When you’re racing a sidecar, you’re very much working as two individuals. People often ask if we have intercoms to communicate during a race but we don’t. I was lucky that Julie (Canipa) had competed at the TT for a few years and her experience made all the difference.

You don’t actually realise how much work the passenger does, but I became quickly aware. What they do is vitally important in getting the sidecar around the track, so having a passenger with experience goes a long way.

Can anybody get involved in sidecar racing?

Yes! That’s what’s so great about it. To get your passenger licence you only have to do a written test.

"We need more passengers. It's a great way of letting people see if they like it"

I know a lot of sidecar drivers who started out as passengers, and that’s probably the simplest route into motorsport because you don’t have to actually own a sidecar.

A lot of people start out just by watching it. They’ll have their kit with them, then an existing passenger will get injured or not be able to compete and the driver will ask for someone to jump on. You can do taxi rides too to have a go with no pressure.

If anybody wants to get involved, they should just go along to races armed with track gear (an ACU Gold helmet, one-piece leathers, leather gloves and boots) and get chatting to the teams and badger someone to have a go. It’s a bit trickier if you want to drive a sidecar – I had to go out and buy one! There’s a fair bit of financial commitment to that.

Why should people try it?

Because it’s brilliant! It’s not given the credibility it deserves. I’m so glad I’ve done it, and why not have a go?! It’s very underestimated and in lots of ways it has a bad reputation. I’d love to provide that platform for people to try it and open it up to more.

We need more passengers in the sport, so it’d be a great way of letting people see if they like it.