On the road with Simon Arron

KINGS OF THE MOUNTAIN 

Isle of Man, May 31-June 4: The Irish Sea is no excuse. Science is powerless to explain why Arron had never previously visited the TT…

If anybody has lost a black scarf, could they please come to the security area to collect it. We have also found a shirt…” Located to the Isle of Man’s south-eastern tip, Ronaldsway might just be the world’s finest airport – basically a bus stop on steroids, devoid of bustle and symbolic of the gentle pace of local life at most times of the year.

Most.

Given that I was raised in the North-West, and that the Isle of Man lies only about 60 miles from the mainland coast, it seems odd – borderline criminal, in fact – that it took more than half a century to witness my first TT, but the wait was worthwhile.

Before I travelled, British Touring Car Championship commentator, bike nut and TT aficionado Tim Harvey had offered sage counsel. “You build up an image of how quick it will be,” he said, “but no matter how vivid that is, in reality the bikes will always looks faster…”

It took a couple of days for that truth to become apparent. On my first evening practice was flagged off after a lap as low cloud reduced visibility to approximately zero on the course’s upper extremities. Rain and mist forced the complete cancellation of the following day, though there was scope to complete a full lap by car. Conditions meant 40mph was prudent through the course’s mountain section, though many a bike was going at least twice as quickly. Casualty numbers have fallen since a one-way system was imposed on that part of the track during TT week, but members of the public continue to tumble – and regularly so.

It was easy to see why riders are caught out, though: in addition to the obvious road furniture, the 37.73-mile route features countless surface changes, kerbs of varying ferocity, manhole covers and the aftermath of recent roadworks. In some parts the asphalt is incredibly smooth, in others it is just about north of cobbled. Preparing a suitable tyre is not the work of a moment – and Dunlop (which has competed successfully in the TT since the event’s inauguration in 1907) uses a small selection of circuits for the purpose, including Castle Combe. A converted WW2 airfield in Wiltshire might have little obvious commonality with a road course about 20 times its length, but as Dunlop’s TT event manager Pat Walsh said, “Castle Combe is fast and quite bumpy, so closely represents some of the TT’s challenges. If we wanted to get as close as possible we’d have to use the Nordschleife, but that’s so busy that hiring it is pretty much out of the question…

“In road-racing terms I’d say that the TT and the North West 200 present the biggest challenges. The Ulster Grand Prix is very fast, but the roads are smooth. We use a hard centre and softer shoulder compounds, but here – despite the loads – the centre tread does get a chance to rest because there are lots of lefts and lots of rights so you’re spreading the effort across pretty much all of the tyre. In the NW 200 the bike is upright most of the time, with hard braking from 205mph into chicanes, so the tyres get one hell of a hammering.

“At the TT, the top guys will change their rears during pitstops because they have quick-release systems, can get the job done before the fuel is in and it doesn’t cost them any time, but it’s not because they need to change. With practice laps, we’re aware that some teams have done 10 laps on a set.”

Around Mallory Park that wouldn’t be much of a claim, but here that means nudging 380 miles – or pretty much two standard F1 Grand Prix distances.

The biggest recent gain in Walsh’s mind has been improved warm-up, assisted by what Dunlop calls HCT (heat control technology). This features two layers: an outer compound designed to cope with the aforementioned endurance and a heat-generating base that does not come into contact with the track. “Ten years ago it would take a couple of miles before the compound kicked in properly,” Walsh says, “but now it’s at the optimum temperature pretty much off the starting line. That has been a massive improvement.”

I finally saw action on Friday evening, watching solos and sidecars high on the mountain. They looked brisk through the flowing sweeps, certainly, but the sense of speed was diluted by the adjacent expanse of open, sheep-speckled land. The TT’s full effervescence finally hit home the following morning at Ballacrye, where a crest launches superbikes at about 150mph as they thread along a narrow lane between stone walls, houses, telegraph poles, road signs and suchlike. I guess a TGV coming through your hallway at full tilt might leave a similar impression, but I can think of no comparable motor sport experience.

Nor was it just the on-track stuff. Before each session, the paddock ambience was ripe with tension, anticipation and the calm acceptance of risk – some riders lost in their own thoughts and staring blankly into the distance, others playing to the camera and Guy Martin talking loudly about nothing in particular. Sidelined by an accident in the NW 200, Martin’s team-mate John McGuinness was present to sign books, but even in his diminished state – on crutches, with his lower right leg in a cast – he might have done a better job than Martin (who couldn’t be blamed for his opening-lap fall, after his Honda engaged neutral at the best part of 140mph). Despite his low-key performance he continued to be a draw, the public tracking his every step as he strolled around (accompanied by pet Labradors Nigel and Steve).

Every morning, the dawn chorus was not so much the blackbird’s vocal trill as the sound of a phalanx of bikes heading who knew where (though I could hazard a guess). Other commitments obliged me to leave after the first superbike race (won by Ian Hutchinson for BMW). It’s not the first time I’ve had to abandon an event before its conclusion, but never before have I done so with such regret.

CONGESTION CHARGE...

Lydden Hill, May 27: A snapshot from what might just be the most intense weekend in racing history

There had been a tentative offer to attend the Indianapolis 500. The Monaco Grand Prix was but a train ride distant. MSVR was running a decent-looking meeting at Oulton Park, the world superbike series was in action at Donington Park and then there were must-see events at Brands Hatch (the Masters Historic Festival, where I managed one day), Snetterton and Santa Pod, but…

Lydden Hill was unquestionably the biggest draw – not so much because of the unparalleled dynamism of a modern world rallycross car, but because this year’s WRX event was scheduled to be the last of its kind at the sport’s true home. Regrettable, certainly, but the underlying reasons are plain enough: Lydden is still accessed by the same single gateway that was in use when first I visited in the mid-1970s, fine for absorbing 200 spectators at a clubbie but slightly less so when 20,000 plus are clamouring to see Petter Solberg. It’s doubtful that Silverstone will ever be able to replicate the ambience that’s unique to Lydden (which has fan-friendly vantage points and a wholesale absence of debris fencing – benefits of a kind unlikely to be offset by the larger car parks at WRX’s new base).

Lydden’s homely fittings were barely visible beneath a sea of awnings, each potentially almost large enough to cover the whole venue – not so much a paddock, then, as a hilly city (a small-scale version of Sheffield, if you like). The atmosphere was brilliant, too, with families fully engaged in the whole event, wearing team apparel and queuing up at lunchtime in a bid to catch one of the T-shirts freely dispensed by sponsor Monster Energy. One contained a voucher for a free PlayStation 4: how to attract youngsters, lesson one in a series…

For the slightly older among us, the sight of historic cars coming out to practise was a reminder of how dramatic Group B seemed in period – an effect diluted a few minutes later when the WRX cars illustrated how the world has moved on: violent acceleration, speed and balance wrapped up in a VW Polo-sized shell. Formula 1 cars might be more efficient, but even around Monaco they don’t provide a fraction of this spectacle.

Fact.

TIN SOLDIERS

Cadwell Park, May 14: the essence of UK club racing, minus chips

At some sporting venues the failure of the canteen chip fryer might be considered a cataclysm, but at Cadwell there is plenty to savour without such culinary delicacies. The first liveried car I spotted was a Jaguar XJ-6 that looked far too wide for the circuit. Nearby lurked several Smart ForTwos that were more dimensionally appropriate yet still seemed somehow unsuitable for track use – the extremes of UK club racing a few metres apart in an appropriately grass paddock ahead of
a 17-race schedule.

It occurred that almost exactly 35 years had passed since my first trip to this engagingly lumpy slice of Lincolnshire. Back then Roberto Moreno won the 10th round of the British F3 Championship, the penultimate such race before F3 moved away and left the venue to the enthusiast community – British Superbikes apart.

This modern menu included Legends, classic touring cars, Caterhams and Citroën 2CVs, which are not perhaps everybody’s cup of tea yet seem irresistible when there’s an eight-car lead battle lurching around at an average speed only slightly above 60mph.

In a 2CV, that’s plenty.