MV on the mountain
MV Agusta once ruled the Isle of Man TT races. Our former winner climbs aboard the company’s latest superbike for a ride round the world’s most dangerous race circuit
When the Isle of Man was the most important race in the world, MV Agusta built the world’s fastest race bikes. Between 1952 and 1972 the Italian marque won 34 TTs, so it seems right to tackle the notorious Mountain course aboard MV’s latest creation, the 201 horsepower F4RR.
MV would surely have won more TTs if its star rider Giacomo Agostini hadn’t left the Island after the 1972 event, swearing never to return. Ago turned his back on the Island following the death of friend and rookie Gilberto Parlotti, who crashed during the 1972 ultra-lightweight TT, probably because of a fuel leak.
Parlotti was the 99th rider to die on the Mountain course. The death toll now stands at 237 and yet still the riders come, lured by the TT’s unique challenges and unique thrills. If motor racing is a drug, then the Island is its crack cocaine.
Yet despite the dangers, it’s easy to see why people fall in love with the place. Nowhere else gives quite the same feeling as whistling along the island’s country lanes, threading the eye of a needle through the village of Kirk Michael, sniffing the wild garlic after Rhencullen, trimming the hedgerows after Handleys, climbing the Mountain Mile and then plunging down towards the inish line, past uninterested sheep grazing on the moors. As some riders say, every lap is an adventure in itself.
The topography of the TT course changes dramatically as it works its way around the Island, each section presenting its own special challenges and demanding certain techniques. Sometimes the weather changes every few miles, so riders need to understand what effect sunshine or rain might have on various parts of the circuit. And then there are 250 or so corners, which means 250 or so peel-off points and apices, plus a multitude of camber changes, the kerbs, the manhole covers, the stone walls and the sheer speed of the place.
The Mountain course is fast, ridiculously fast. There are several sections where you are lat out in top gear for a good mile or three. And much of the lap is spent in fourth, ifth or sixth, cutting through 150mph-plus sweepers where maintaining momentum is everything. The TT’s few slow corners count for virtually nothing.
There are many places where you take apparently incorrect lines, making ground through one or two corners to get yourself set up for the next three or four. And there are corners you take more slowly than might be possible because otherwise you’ll be fighting the bike for the next few hundred yards instead of getting hard on the gas.
There’s so much to learn, so much to think about and absolutely no question of getting anything even slightly wrong. That’s what makes the TT so thrilling. For obvious reasons you don’t ride the course as you would ride a Grand Prix short circuit, treading the limits of adhesion at every corner with the certain knowledge that every so often you will go too far.
Ideally, you should never crash on the Island, because there’s a good chance that your first crash will be your last. Every rider has sections he hates, though few admit it. There are several corners I used to dread reaching each and every lap. Such corners require a huge girding of the loins, a duel between your brain and your throttle hand. You want to get through flat-out – because that’s how you make time at the TT – but somehow your right hand feathers the throttle a degree or two.
Some corners are approached by heading straight at a wall and then peeling off at the very last moment. If there’s one simple rule to staying alive on the Island it’s the late apex. Go in as late as you dare because whatever you do, you don’t want to run wide on the exit.
The TT doesn’t allow riders the luxury of easing themselves into a lap. The start is on the Glencrutchery Road, the highest point in Douglas and, eerily, right next to the cemetery. From the downhill start it’s quickly into sixth gear and over St Ninian’s crossroads, where a nasty bump can kick the handlebars lock to lock. Here the good riders brace their arms and pull on the handlebars to lift the front wheel off the Tarmac. Keeping the front slightly airborne, so it glides over the bumps instead of kicking side to side, is a key TT technique.
And then it’s straight off the edge of the world. The ultra-steep descent down Bray Hill, revs building crazy fast as you plummet past ranks of suburban semis, is total heart-in-the- mouth stuff, especially with a full tank of fuel and cold tyres. The bravest superbike riders can do the right kink at the bottom of the hill at full throttle in sixth. They prime their bodies for the 185mph compression and then bound out the other side and up the next hill, front wheel kicking skywards over Ago’s Leap.
Bray Hill claimed MV Agusta’s only TT loss: Les Graham. A decorated Lancaster pilot in WWII and winner of the inaugural 1949 500 World Championship, Graham died here on June 12 1953 when his MV 500 veered to the left on the ascent, pushing him into a garden wall.
Now it’s downhill again to the irst slow corner, Quarter Bridge. You get round here as best you can, especially with a full tank and cold tyres, and save the heroics for the highspeed
Out of Douglas, you cut north west across the centre of the island, alongside the River Dhoo, through the village of Union Mills and up through the gears to one of the most important corners. This is Ballagarey – rightly nicknamed Ballascary, where Guy Martin had his fireball of a crash two years ago and where Kenny Blake and others have lost their lives
(See On Two Wheels, page 41).
The right-hand sweeper is one of those frighteningly quick corners you approach while giving a irm lecture to your throttle hand. It’s over 160mph now and absolute precision is vital, which means reference points are required for a perfect line. You choose your markers from a combination of painted kerbs, garden walls, telegraph poles and any other item of street furniture that catches your eye. Line them up and make sure you don’t mix them up with your markers for another corner – a lot of TT corners look confusingly alike on the approach.
Ballagarey is important because it precedes several miles of lat-in-top motoring. Gain an extra mile an hour through here and you’ll carry it a long, long way, through the flat-out lefthander in Crosby village (where nine-time winner David Jefferies died in 2003 when he hit an oil spill) and over a 180mph jump that precedes a 190mph blast past the Highlander pub, one of many watering holes conveniently situated around the course.
The road rises and falls at the tricky Greeba Castle complex but is otherwise mostly lat as you skim the hedgerows towards Ballacraine. If you went straight on you’d quickly come to Tynwald, the Island’s ancient parliament, but instead you turn sharp right, drift right up to the dry-stone wall on the exit and ready yourself for a very different section of the course.
The road now runs through the deep valley of the River Ebb – rock walls on the left, the river on the right and a dark green canopy of trees above. At first it’s astonishingly fast,
taking you uphill and then down towards Doran’s Bend where some riders have found to their surprise and discomfort that the hedge on the inside is actually an ivy-covered wall. The road climbs, then appears to vanish into a menacing cliff-face. This is where Honda’s first World Champion Tom Phillis lost his life during the 1962 TT.
Like it or not, it’s dificult to ride round the course without remembering the names of the fallen. It would be worse to forget them. The circuit leaves the river at the Glen Helen pub, where the Mountain course claimed its first victim in 1911. An inquest into the death of Victor Surridge suggested that the circuit had so many corners that it was impossible to learn.
Climbing Creg Willey’s Hill (so steep that early TT riders had to dismount and push) takes you onto higher ground which delivers a first glimpse of the Irish Sea on your left and Snaefell Mountain on your right. This section is a favourite with many riders – down the Cronky-Voddy straight and into a series of sweepers between hedgerows bursting with wild lowers.
If you’re really on it you will scatter petals as you go – it’s like a mega-fast blast down your favourite country lane, interrupted only by the daunting Handleys Bend where you only use half the road on the exit, or the camber will suck you into the hedge.
The flavour changes again at Barregarrow (Manx for ‘rough road’) crossroads where you plummet downhill at a breathtaking rate into Barregarrow bottom, a 150mph kink and compression which knocks the wind out of you and sends you wobbling off to the 13th Milestone. Sweeping right into Kirk Michael village you head north, running along the west coast, flat on the tank at 175mph, past the grocer, the post office and the church and then into one of the TT’s greatest challenges – Rhencullen.
You need markers here as you veer right and then left over a scary 140mph jump that has claimed more than a few victims. The difficulty here is getting the bike upright before the jump – hit it cranked over and you’re in trouble.
Archie Birkin died at Rhencullen in 1927 when he crashed during practice after swerving to miss a delivery cart. Following his death the organisers decided it would be a good idea to close the roads for practice as well as for racing.
Downhill again, getting a whiff of the wild garlic and lying lat under the bubble, knees and elbows tucked out of the breeze for the super-fast run towards Ballaugh. Brake late as you dare for the bridge which is a 60mph jump on a good day, but take care not to over-stress the motorcycle on the landing.
Back into sixth gear as quick as you can – full speed and fully airborne over the Ballacrye jump – pop it down a gear for the devilishly fast Quarry Bends and then back into sixth for the Sulby Straight. This is the fastest part of the course for most bikes – the quickest surpass 200mph.
Sharp right at the end of Sulby straight, pop a wheelie over Sulby Bridge and steel yourself for what is for many riders the nastiest part of the course. Sulby to Ramsey is dark, hellishly bumpy and treacherous in the extreme. You fight ‘tank-slappers’ all the way here, so it’s a light-ish grip on the handlebars and your arms locked hard against the petrol tank as the bike kicks over the bumps, the engine revs rising and falling as the rear tyre lies, drives and then lies again. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll tackle this section – and others like it – standing on the footpegs. If you sit down you repeatedly get thrown out of the seat and the bike reacts more violently to the bumps.
Arrive in the seaside town of Ramsey with a huge sigh of relief – the worst is over and the best is yet to come. This is the extreme northeast corner of the course where you turn south, leave town and climb steeply uphill, slowly at first and then faster and faster.
The Mountain section begins at the Gooseneck, a slow right-hander just above the tree line. After this you are on windswept moorland, driving hard uphill, towards the summit of Snaefell. A good pace up the Mountain Mile is vital to a quick lap and as luck would have it the mile is preceded by one of the TT’s most unforgiving corners – an unnamed right-hand kink between two granite walls taken at 150mph plus. Six inches off-line and you’re done for.
Over the Mountain the going is fast and open and for once you can see where you are going, unless it’s foggy. You launch into the Verandah right-hander – a four-part 130mph epic taken in one arcing sweep – and then you skirt round Snaefell’s summit, past the Les Graham memorial and over the railway crossing at Bungalow Bridge. Another short blast uphill – Hailwood’s Rise – and you reach the highest point of the circuit, almost 1400 feet above sea level.
From here it’s downhill all the way, the engine driving hard, shorter delays between gear shifts. But beware – don’t run away with yourself because there are a few blind sweepers which, if misjudged, will fling you down the hillside like an air crash.
Several of these corners have permanent damp patches, owing to springs under the road. I hit one of these on my last lap when I won the 1985 250 production TT. The loss of grip sent my bike sideways at about 130mph. That sobered me up for the last few miles.
The tight-ish right-hander by the Creg-ny-Baa pub is one of the few corners where you are really aware of the crowd. Not surprisingly, the TT’s most popular viewing spots are pubside but the best vantage points are to be had at faster, less accessible sections where the spectacle of speed is quite breathtaking. You need an Ordnance Survey map, stout walking boots and a good picnic for the best spots.
It’s another 190mph run down from the Creg towards Cronkny-Mona, the inal fast corner that takes you over a brow as you’re banked hard left, the bike feeling like it’s about to take off.
It’s a spooky feeling and there are several other corners around the course where the bike goes so light that you really are cornering on air. You need to bear that in mind when attacking these sections.
You are now back in the Douglas suburbs, just six corners to go, including the slowest, the Governor’s Bridge hairpin where your senses struggle with slowing to walking pace.
The final corner is uphill and takes you out onto Glencrutchery Road. I managed to crash here on the last lap in 1986. It had been drizzling and the road was still damp under the trees, a common cause of TT accidents. Luckily, I missed the wall and was able to remount to finish third.
The run along Glencrutchery Road brings you to the chequered lag or the start of another lap. The Superbike and Senior TTs run for six laps: 226 miles, an hour and 45 minutes that leave you mentally exhausted and black and blue from all the bumps and jumps. The fastest men now average 128mph over six laps. Not bad for a B-road.