Lunch with... John McGuinness

He is the greatest living exponent of motor racing’s most thrilling, historic and dangerous event: the Isle of Man TT. So we tried to have lunch with him

We could hardly have chosen a better place to have lunch with John McGuinness. We are sitting in the dining room of the Midland Hotel in his home town of Morecambe, Lancashire. Beyond this 1930s art deco masterpiece lurks the grey swell of Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. Just over the horizon lies Mona’s Isle, the island that has defined McGuinness’ life.

Everything seems perfect, but for one thing: McGuinness isn’t here. Calls are made, texts are sent. We seek him here, we seek him there, but he is nowhere to be found. Finally, long after the restaurant kitchen has closed, he texts me. “Really sorry, I screwed up, I forgot. My head’s all over the place. I went out on my enduro bike. Can we do it at my house at four-ish?”

The 44-year-old, 23-times TT winner has recently moved just outside Morecambe, where he’s lived most of his life, to a place in the hills, with wife Becky and children Ewan and Maisie. The snow-capped peaks of the Lakeland hills brood in the background as we turn into his drive. He is full of apologies and covered in mud, the residue of an 80-mile dirt-road blast on his enduro bike. No mobile-phone signal.

We take a seat in his kitchen/diner, thinking a cup of tea might be a nice idea. John opens the fridge and gets out some beers, so the story is no longer ‘Lunch with John McGuinness’, it’s ‘A few beers with John McGuinness’.

The circumstances could hardly be more different from your average Formula 1 interview: a PR sergeant-major summoning you into an office, “Okay, it’s 13:00, you’ve got till 13.15.” Instead we chat for two hours, discussing life, death and everything in between. 

McGuinness started racing bikes when he was 18 and made his TT debut six summers later. In the late 1990s he won the 250cc British title and scored points in several Grand Prix events, proving his ability on short circuits. But he is best known for his exploits on road circuits, all the way from the Isle of Man to Macau, where bikes share the Grand Prix weekend with cars.

I ask him whether Macau might be even more dangerous than the TT, because the whole track is lined by Armco. Not even a slim chance of landing in a hedge.

“Not really,” he says. “At Macau you can hit the barriers quite hard and carry on; so long as you hit them at a good angle. I’ve seen people do it; it does get a bit ‘pin-ballish’.”

As we down our first beers I notice that John’s face is still dirty from his ride, so I suggest he might want to have a quick wash for the photos. “I’m just a scruffy twat,” he shrugs with a grin. “Look at the state of me, but this is the way I am and I’ve always been like this.”

Scruffy, yes. Also, more down to earth (and covered in it) than a sportsman of his stature has any right to be. And beyond brave. McGuinness is the second-most successful rider in the history of the Isle of Man TT, the world’s longest-running motor sport event and almost certainly the most dangerous. There is rarely a TT fortnight from which at least one or two riders don’t return.

The 37¾-mile Mountain circuit, first used for car racing in 1908, is a winding, bumpy, undulating and unforgiving country road ridden mostly at warp-speed. Each race week begins and ends with a six-lap race for the fastest superbike machines, more than 200 horsepower and geared for close to 200 miles per hour. The week-ending Senior TT is the biggest deal of them all: 226 miles of flaming synapses and adrenaline overload, averaging more than 130 miles an hour.

“It takes a long time to come down from that, a couple of days,” says McGuinness. “After the Senior I lie on the sofa and I could sleep all night but then you’re out on the town all night; it’s like a celebration of being alive. Just a huge relief.”

The risks are certainly great, but there is no buzz in the world like racing around the TT course: the bowel-loosening ride down Bray Hill, moments after the start, like falling off the edge of the earth, then flat-out in sixth gear through sleepy Manx villages bracketed by 30mph signs, dashing between hedgerows and drystone walls, the scent of wild garlic on the rush towards Ballaugh, the wide-open curves that speed you round the rump of Snaefell mountain and then the final plunge home to Douglas, with the Irish Sea glinting in the sunlight, if you’re lucky. Every other racetrack pales into insignificance.

Some people get it, some people don’t. For those who don’t, the TT is something that belongs in the history books, along with the gladiators of Rome. For those who do get it, the TT is a glorious anachronism in a western world so weighed down by health and safety that you can’t even walk into a café without having to dodge past a bright yellow caution sign telling you to mind the slippery floor, which isn’t slippery at all.

For these people the TT is the last stand of primal motor sport; a living, breathing version of the early days of Grand Prix racing, on two wheels and four. TT racers walk the line like none of today’s Formula 1 or MotoGP stars, which is why many fans see them as a breed apart, worthy of a special kind of respect. Among these disciples is a growing band from the car world.

“Mark Webber comes over every year and he gets a bit emotional,” says McGuinness, who has become good friends with the Australian. “It makes him all, like, wow! Martin Brundle loves it too. Paddy Lowe comes over and we’ve had Toto Wolff there. I speak to Toto and he’s got massive respect for what we do.

“It’s weird because I got quite pally with Michael Schumacher just before his accident.
I did some riding with him down at Ricard and we were chatting away. It was weird talking to him because he’s such a legend and he didn’t seem real because he was so immaculate. Then he dragged me to one side and said, why are you still racing at 40 years old? I said I’ve got bills to pay and I still enjoy it. He was massively intrigued by the TT and he was going to come over. We were texting back and forth and he was all excited. Then he had the accident.

“I’ve done a couple of events with Lewis Hamilton. He was on about the TT: ‘Yeah man!’ He’s a bit hip, a bit ‘dudey’, isn’t he? He said, ‘Man, you’re crazy.’ I don’t think he gets it, he just thinks I’m a nutter. Fair enough.”

There are times when even McGuinness wonders why he does it. “I buzz after a TT, but at the start I’m shitting my pants. I don’t want to be there. I’m sat in my motorhome thinking, why am I doing this? What am I putting myself through here? I’m looking at the kids, thinking this is a bit selfish. To be honest it’s a bit shitty, really. But then you get on the bike and you do your bit and afterwards you’re chuntering away at a million miles an hour, talking about the race. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Some sections do scare McGuinness, most especially the 170mph plunge down Bray Hill with a full fuel tank and a new rear tyre. “Bray Hill in the Senior and Superbike races is horrendous on lap one, lap three and lap five, because you’ve got a new rear. You’re just a passenger down there, you’ve got a bull by the horns, really. The bike does one thing one lap and another the next, so you’ve just got to let it do what it wants to do, then boss it when it gets out of shape. When they show us slow-motion clips, I’m thinking, ‘Jesus, is that the sort of knots we’re in?’

“I mean, it’s horrible, horrible down there on the first lap, it really, really is. And you’ve no choice but to go for it. You could lose two or three seconds, which you’ll never get back, so you’ve just got to grit your teeth all the way down. It’s scary, scary stuff.”

Which begs the question: why do they do it? Despite the fear, McGuinness adores the circuit, always has done. His favourite corner is typical of the TT – a mighty fast kink in a series of nameless twists and turns through a tunnel of trees that delivers a dazzling strobe effect on sunny days.

Just over 12 miles and five minutes into the lap and a few hundred yards after Handley’s (named in honour of 1930s TT hero Wal Handley, who had an almighty crash there) it’s the kind of place where the brave, talented and knowledgeable can make the difference. The corner didn’t even have a name, until it was christened in McGuinness’s honour.

“It’s 160, maybe 170 miles per hour; I just like it. If you spoke to a layman and said, ‘Right, I’m in sixth gear there,’ he’d think you were taking the piss, but honestly you are; it’s that quick.

“It’s the second left after Handley’s. I don’t like the first left because it unsettles the bike. There’s a bit of a drop-off, like it’s motocross, so the front wheel comes up. The next left is just so fast and it looks impressive to do it pinned in top gear. You get hooked right into the hedge and then the road opens up for you. Every time I go through there I get a rush, I really do.

“If you do it right you can be going 10 to 15 miles per hour faster before you get on the brakes at the top of Barregarrow, and you’ve done it all in one corner.

“The useful thing is that you can get held up to death on that little shoot towards the top of Barregarrow; no disrespect to anyone, by the way. But if you do get held up you’re stuck through Barregarrow top and bottom and through the 13th Milestone before you get to the next passing point into Kirk Michael, and even then you’d have to make a lunge.

“I made a really strong pass on the run to Barregarrow on a real top rider who’s not with us any more. He hesitated at that left and I passed him, and I’ve passed a few of the leading riders there. It’s just getting through that left kink flat out. I’m tucked in and subconsciously pushing and steering with my feet and hands. I’m not hanging off. I move a little on the bike but I never hang off. I’ve never done it, even on short circuits. I just sit on top of the bike, like John Surtees.”

McGuinness’S relationship with the Mountain course goes back to when he was a little boy, pretending to be Evel Knievel in the garden on his bicycle. His father contested short-circuit events on the mainland and entered the amateur Manx Grand Prix, run on the full TT circuit. “We lived in Heysham, a few miles from the ferry to Douglas, but dad missed the ferry and couldn’t race. What a dick!

“First time I went to the island was with him. It was half-term and TT practice week, so I got to watch practice. When race week started, dad took me back to school. I went mental: screaming, kicking.

“After that, every year I’d be stood at Heysham docks watching the bikes go past on their way to the ferry and waiting to see a racing truck, a Merc 508 or something. I’d get well excited. So there’s always been that connection. As the crow flies it’s my closest track – I was looking at the island today, from up on the hills on my enduro bike.”

McGuinness made his first solo trip to the TT when he was 14, as a stowaway. “You used to be able to buy a programme on the ferry, so I asked the bloke on the gate, can I go on and get a programme? So I went on and just hid with my bicycle.”

Unlike MotoGP riders like Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi, who learned to race minibikes around kart tracks, McGuinness
fell in love with “twisting the tiger’s tail” (as sometime racer Steve McQueen once put it) while riding road bikes around the lanes
of Lancashire.

“I was the king up here: flat out everywhere, past Red Well, down to Kirkby Lonsdale and onto Devil’s Bridge; wearing trainers, jeans and a paddock jacket.”

McGuinness made his first TT visit on a motorcycle in 1989, just weeks after getting his learner licence. “I went over on my [Yamaha] TZR125 and did lap after lap after lap after lap, then put some more petrol in, then lap after lap after lap…”

Back home, his reputation as the local teenage tearaway soon caught up with him. “There were people reporting back to me dad, saying ‘Your lad’s going to kill himself.’ I was a bit crazy. So me dad got me by the collar and said, ‘If you think you’re good enough, let’s go racing.’ We entered a club race at Aintree in the summer of 1990, on my Kawasaki 250 road bike. I thought I was going to win but I got annihilated. I came in about 29th. Ah, this racing isn’t quite so easy…”

His racing apprenticeship continued with the 250, using his father for long-distance advice. “My dad was working on the gas rigs up in Aberdeen, so when I was at a race I’d go to a telephone box and ring him at a certain time, so I could tell him what the engine was revving to and all that.”

Money was tight, to say the least. McGuinness lived with Becky in a council flat in Heysham, working as a bricklayer and sometimes earning extra cash picking cockles in Morecambe Bay. His soon-to-be-published autobiography Built for Speed tells it like it was. “There’s not one bit in the book where I go on about getting a soft tyre and going two tenths of a second quicker; it’s all about siphoning out red diesel, just to get to race meetings.”

He made his TT debut in 1996 and won his first TT, the 250cc Lightweight, three years later and has been one of the island’s top exponents ever since.

No other motor sport event has as much history as the TT and most riders have a deep respect for the event’s past, which is why McGuinness’s favourite victory was at the centenary TT in 2007.

“Every win has been special but the centenary Senior was really special, because I also got to do the first 130mph lap. One of
the others was the 2015 Senior. I’d not had
the best of race weeks, so they’d written me off and I was up against the wall. But I came out boxing that day – 131.8 miles per hour from a standing start. I don’t know where that came from.

“The centenary was mega, just because of the history and all that. Murray Walker was in the winner’s enclosure and he was welling up. I said, ‘What’s up Murray?’ He says, I never thought I’d witness that – I saw the first 80mph lap, the first 90mph lap, the first 100mph lap.”

Walker’s father Graham was an important part of TT history during the inter-war years. He won the 1921 Lightweight TT on a Rudge and wrote extensively about the event.

“There was no tar, consequently dust and stones were a terrible bugbear and the roads were abominably bumpy,” he wrote in the 1920s. “It is a solemn fact that grass and moss grew up the centre of the road over the mountain. I once hit a sheep coming down to the Bungalow at about 60mph. I was lucky to get off with a black eye and a dislike for mutton that has lasted ever since. Keppel Gate was a very narrow affair – it seemed impossible for a pair of handlebars to pass through it.”

The Isle of Man hosted its first motorcycle race in 1905, a year after its first car event, an elimination trial for the Gordon Bennett Cup. The first bike race was also an eliminating trial, to select the British squad for the Coupe Internationale motorcycle races. The trial took place on the island because racing on the mainland had been effectively banned by the Light Locomotives Act of 1896, which limited speeds to 12 miles per hour.

The first TT of 1907 was staged over a triangular 15-mile circuit between Peel, Ballacraine and Kirkmichael. The more challenging Mountain course was introduced in 1911. “The sensation of speed is superb and yet appalling for the intoxication of speed is upon me,” wrote a rider of that era. Some things never change.

Like all the best TT riders, McGuinness has huge respect for the course. That’s why he is still here.

“If you’ve got a screw loose, you’ll last five minutes on the island. I’ve done it for 20 years, hit every apex and all that and it’s been all right. I’m not an idiot, I’m a family man. It’s just what I do. People are still going to get hurt and worse, but it’s what we do.

“I’ve fallen off once, during practice for last year’s Classic races. The night before I was lying there thinking, ‘The law of averages says that someday I’m going to go abroad here.’ The next day I flew into Quarter Bridge, got greedy on the throttle and lost the rear. On one side I was livid, on the other I was happy.”

The number of lives claimed by the TT course makes for sobering reading: 252 deaths since the first fatality in 1911, including 79 since McGuinness rode his first TT.

McGuinness never talks matter-of-factly about the event’s darker side but he does talk about it. And he knows that you don’t have
to be the one who makes the mistake to pay the ultimate price. McGuinness has lost three of his best friends at the TT – David ‘DJ’ Jefferies, Gus Scott and Mick Lofthouse – all of whom were blameless for the accidents that claimed them.

Jefferies was once the TT’s main man, winning nine races between 1999 and 2002. During practice for the 2003 event he hit oil dropped by another machine at the 170mph left-hander in Crosby village. Scott died two years later when – unbelievably – a marshal walked across the track, taking a cup of tea to rider whose bike had stopped. Both Scott and the marshal were killed. Lofthouse died in 1996 during early morning practice, blinded by the rising sun. These sessions, which started at 4.30am to minimise disruption for Manx residents, were later axed. The marshalling failures that led to the deaths of Jefferies and Scott triggered a complete overhaul of event practices by new TT management.

“I give all three of them a nod every lap,” says McGuinness. “I was a newcomer when Mick died at Milntown cottage. I saw his helmet on the side of the road. When I got back to the pits I said, ‘Oh, Mick’s broken down at Milntown…’ It was hard; I was thinking, ‘I’m going home.’ Practice week was crap – cold, wet, horrible – then race week was glorious. I did my race and loved it, it was ace.

“The DJ thing was tough, same with Gus. I went onto the podium after the 2005 Senior, spraying champagne, living the dream, I didn’t have a clue. I got down from the podium; ‘Oh, Gus is dead.’ It was real difficult.”

You would think it couldn’t get any tougher than that. But it does. The growing popularity of the event is only making life more difficult for McGuinness and the other top riders.

“There’s more pressure on us all now. When I first started doing the TT 20 years ago, not so many people had heard about it, so you were a bit more under the radar. You could go into a bar in Douglas and you might get one or two people say hello. Now it’s on TV, it’s on YouTube and we’ve got Guy Martin, so it’s like we’ve all turned into superheroes or something. Everybody’s all over you.

“But what I love about the TT is that everyone who goes has a great time. They all say it’s fantastic, they’re just blown away. It’s a free show where you can get away with sticking your feet over a grass bank, within 18 inches of motorbikes coming past at 180mph.”

McGuinness has been with Honda for the past decade and his latest team-mate is TT/TV star Guy Martin, who is returning to bike racing for the first time since breaking his back at Dundrod, a Northern Irish road circuit. McGuinness admits he is somewhat concerned for Martin, who has yet to achieve his lifetime ambition of winning a TT.

“First of all, I didn’t see the team-mate thing coming. I was driving to the team headquarters in my van. The team manager rings me and says, ‘Oh, your team-mate is Guy Martin.’ I nearly stuck the van through the hedge. I do get on with Guy and I don’t begrudge him. He’s earned a few quid and done some cool stuff – flying Vulcans and Spitfires, the jammy bastard! But I’m a bit worried about him. After a year off he needs a year or two at it. He’s never won a TT so he must be pulling his hair out and I don’t want him to push too far. He’s great for the sport and he will take pressure off me because everyone’s going to have Guy Martin fever.”

Both riders will use Honda’s brand-new Fireblade superbike plus Mugen electric bikes in the Zero TT. Apart from the Isle of Man, McGuinness will contest other roads events like Macau and the North West 200, plus various short-circuit meetings, mainly to keep his eye in for the roads. There is no doubt that he is in the twilight of his motorcycling career, which is why he’s on the lookout for a touring car drive.

The Isle of Man hosted the very first world championship grand prix in June 1949, but by the early 1970s many riders had had enough. It was 10-times TT winner and 15-times world champion Giacomo Agostini who led the push to have the event stripped of Grand Prix status.

The last TT counting for Grand Prix points took place in 1976, since when the event has had to stand alone. Over the years there have been many prophecies of its demise but not so much now. A global TV audience, the presence of Guy Martin and a visit from a certain MotoGP rider have all helped turn things around.

For many years the Grand Prix paddock hated the TT, because the riders believed the event gave motorcycle racing a bad name. That all changed in 2009 when Valentino Rossi visited, spectating at Bray Hill and riding a high-speed, closed-roads lap behind Agostini. Rossi has always appreciated racing history and was mesmerised by the Mountain course.

On the last day of race week Rossi climbed the podium to present McGuinness with the Senior winner’s trophy, inspired by the original RAC TT trophy for cars. He handed the silverware to the winner with the words, “You are the true warriors.”

And that was that; if Rossi believes that TT riders are the true warriors, who is to argue?

Since then McGuinness has got to know the nine-time world champion. “Whenever I see him at a MotoGP round he’s got nothing but praise for what I do. I get a one-to-one with him without a load of heavies around, so it’s pretty special. He was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed a couple of years ago. He came over, gave me a cuddle and said, ‘How are you doing?’ It was Rossi fever at Goodwood, he out-strutted Nico Rosberg and everybody.

“Where do you start with him? It would be so easy for him to give it up because he’s got everything, but he still wants to race and he still wants to win. He’s inspirational. He’s a god, isn’t he? But one to one he’s normal, he’s just a biker. I do have one thing in common with him – we’re both in the BRDC!”

McGuinness also has a couple of things over Rossi: in 2014 he was inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame and last year he was awarded the Royal Automobile Club’s Segrave Trophy (previous winners include Surtees, Stirling Moss, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Amy Johnson), the ultimate proof that he is in the motor sport pantheon.

As we say our goodbyes we pass the Fireblade he rode in the Centenary Senior TT. McGuinness stands by the bike and happily gurns one more time for the camera. Here is a racing legend who couldn’t take himself less seriously. We just wish he would keep a better diary.