At the inaugural Motor Sport Hall of Fame event a few months ago, two grand old men of racing stepped onto the stage and discussed the thorny issue of race track safety. Jacky Ickx delighted in the huge advances made in driver security during recent decades. “Today’s racers have the chance to be alive, a pure joy,” he said. And you’d find it difficult to argue with that sentiment. Nonetheless, Sir Stirling Moss did disagree. “Motor racing should be dangerous,” he replied. “You’re a young man and you want to show how brave you are.”
It’s a subject worth debating. Many older racing fans might agree with Moss, feeling that the sport has lost something since the brave old days of swashbuckling racers who stared death in the face each time they took to the track, then came back – if they were lucky – to regale their drinking mates with terrifying tales of derring-do. But who would suggest that we replace run-off areas with concrete walls and Nomex with string-back gloves? Surely no one; and yet there are some racers who willingly choose to inhabit that old-fashioned world of racing danger.
Riders who contest the annual TT races on the Isle of Man are fully aware of the risks they take. Eleven-time winner David Jefferies had this to say about his favourite event: “You have to be totally at ease with yourself, know exactly what you’re doing, and accept that you might be going home in a box.” Jefferies died in a 160mph accident during practice for the 2003 event.
The 37-mile TT circuit incorporates mostly B- and C-grade country roads that wind tortuously between dry-stone walls; yet the lap record stands at more than 130mph. Over the past 102 years the circuit has killed 227 racers, and there will be more because the circuit can never be made safe.
Critics of the TT (and, unsurprisingly, there are many) continue to argue for its demise. The only reason the event continues in a safety-conscious world is because the Isle of Man is a self-governing state that does well out of the racing.
In recent decades the TT has shrunk as an event (it lost its Grand Prix status way back in 1977) and was long ago cast asunder from mainstream motorcycling, which mostly regards it as a ghastly orgy of death that blackens the name of the entire sport. But currently the TT is enjoying something of a renaissance.
It is difficult to work out why, but perhaps it has something to do with the western world’s suffocating health and safety obsession. The safer our world becomes, the more some people want to search out extremes to live a more raw and visceral life. TT riders simply say they find modern short circuits too boring.
Last year the TT was given the ultimate honour when MotoGP king Valentino Rossi graced the event. Rossi watched some racing and then rode a respectably fast lap, following 1960s and ’70s legend Giacomo Agostini.
When Rossi – a man with plenty of old-school racing swagger – presented Superbike TT winner John McGuinness with his laurels he looked him straight in the eye and said: “You are a true gladiator.” As usual, he was spot on. It’s a corny analogy, but TT racers are about as close as you’d get to 21st-century motor sport gladiators.
The TT has other respected admirers, among them Red Bull F1 driver Mark Webber who, after witnessing his first TT, commented: “This is the first time I’ve been blown away as a spectator”. And presumably Webber has watched a lot of races over the years.
Once christened ‘Death Island’ by Fleet Street, the TT’s rehabilitation as a respectable, marketable happening continues apace with news that Porsche will provide course cars at this year’s event. However, the event can always turn into a PR disaster.
The TT isn’t the easiest race meeting to visit, with ferries and flights booked up months in advance, but the latest TV coverage is superb, with breathtaking on-bike and helicopter camera footage. ITV4 covers race week action from June 5-11.