Man to Manx: John McGuinness prepares a new generation for the Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT returns at the end of May after a Covid-enforced hiatus, with Honda’s line-up a fascinating mix of legendary experience and youthful exuberance. Stephen Dobie joins 23-times winner John McGuinness and debutant team-mate Glenn Irwin to listen in to the pair’s preparations

John McGuinness talks to Glenn Irwin

McGuinness trackside with Irwin

Dave Collister

That’ll stay damp for hours, that bit… Brake early into here, Glenn – get it lined up… It’s rough  through here – they’ve resurfaced it, but they’ve only resurfaced the bumps!”

It’s no use. Perched in the back of a Honda HR-V, bunched up beside TT newcomer Glenn Irwin as he prepares for his much-delayed debut racing the infamous 37.73 miles of the Snaefell Mountain Course, I flip my notebook full of questions shut. Studiously typing info into his phone as team-mate John McGuinness sits up front, readily dishing out tips on how best to dissect each corner, my voice is unequivocally the least interesting in the car.

And I couldn’t be more content with that. As someone who’s long admired the gladiators who take on the Isle of Man, I’m lapping up his mentor’s advice too. Even if I’ll never put it to use myself.

Seeing the pair interact this way – Glenn’s feverish thumbs barely able to keep up as John natters at roughly the same velocity he rides this fearsome course – is a real privilege. It’s the first time Honda Racing UK’s 2022 riders have shared a car around the island and it’s clear that 23-times winner (and recent MBE) McGuinness cares far too much about Irwin’s safety to fear the Northern Irish rider tugging too hard on his illustrious coattails. “Go through the ‘O’ of the SLOW sign on the road,” John continues as we pass through Cronk-y-Voddy, 11 miles into the lap.

John McGuinness kneels down on the kerb to demonstrate Isle of Man TT cornering technique

Eyes ahead, knee to the kerb… McGuinness shows how to take a corner on a road course at high speed

Dave Collister

Both of their appearances at the 2022 Isle of Man TT are noteworthy. Glenn, now 32, should have made his debut in 2020; after wringing YouTube dry of on-board videos in preparation, his ambitions were put on ice as Covid gripped the world and cancelled the first TT since the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. John, a fresh-faced 50, needs little introduction to anyone who follows the death-defying world of road racing, pegged just three wins behind the illustrious Joey Dunlop. But his return to Honda might. He suffered the worst injury of his career upon a Fireblade in 2017 with the bike at fault; his blockbuster return aboard the latest ’Blade could be deemed a surprise. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world, however.

“I like the racing, I like the place, I like the ego side of it. We all love wind blown up our arse, don’t we?” Within seconds of us sitting down – tucked up in a cosy Douglas bar, his and Glenn’s whirlwind lap wringing the neck of a hybrid SUV now over – he slots straight into his infamously no-nonsense delivery. But there’s a real sweetness to it, an irresistible twinkle in his eye. He’s as hopelessly obsessed with racing on this island as the fans who disgorge from the Steam Packet ferry each year to camp on the Manx hills, much like John did as a teen.

“It was meant to be, wasn’t it, being back at Honda? I feel like I’m back where I belong. I’m a creature of habit. I love the build-up,
I love the fact my new leathers are here, it’s the 30th anniversary of the ’Blade, it’ll be my hundredth start – you can’t not do your hundredth start.”

John McGuinness with Isle of Man TT trophy

Senior trophy for McGuinness in 2007

Glenn Irwin racing for Honda in British Superbikes

Irwin has been with the works Honda team in British Superbikes since 2020

John lands back in the throng of TT riders wearing No1 but with the bar having risen significantly since he left. John was the first rider to breach the 130mph lap average, but it’s since soared past 135mph via new hero Peter Hickman, with Dean Harrison inches from his tail. They’re names that I simply must broach with John, who’s 15 years Hickman’s senior and racing – you’d assume – with a lot less expectation upon him.

“To do a 135mph lap you’re riding like you’ve got run-off area. If any of them say they’ve got room for error, they’re lying. That is all your cards in, mate. But I did 132.7mph slowing down for the pits seven years ago. That Fireblade wasn’t massively advanced in 2015 when I rode it. If it had been a BMW or Kawasaki on a flying lap it’d have been what, 133, 134mph? It’s not a million miles away from what they’ve done. If I can match that and go a little bit better with the new ’Blade’s extra power, it might put us in the hunt.”

But he won’t go replicating younger riders’ fitness regimes in pursuit of their speed. “These current guys are obsessed with heart rates and all that. When I try to get involved, all of a sudden I’m unhappy. Unhappy John is not a fast John.” Hours after Princess Anne presented him with his MBE, stories circulated on social media that this would be the final fling for John McGuinness and the Isle of Man TT. He plays those down. “Nonsense,” he says. “The last thing I want to say to anybody is, ‘This is going to be my last race.’ That’s the one that gets you. I want to come here, enjoy it, and see where I feel at the end of it all. I want to race until I’m 70 – until I’m 80! – but the reality is I’m probably not going to be able to. I’d stay involved in the sport, though. I’d love to do something. I enjoy talking to Glenn; I want the kid to do well. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a duty of care for this lot.”

John McGuinness and Glenn Irvine at an Isle of Man TT corner

Field work

Dave Collister

The TT’s return has seen the event come back leaner and more honed. Schedules have been reshuffled to allow more practice laps and less frenzied qualifying while starting grids have shrunk in size to improve safety by upping the overall standard, likely at the expense of those teetering on the edge of being ready to race.

“I want Glenn to do well. You’ve got to have a duty of care of this lot”

“I think you should be at least 21 before you go on the roads,” affirms John. “They need to learn. Just general life skills. A bit of maturity. Road racing is very hard. We’re all gibbering and laughing but the other side of it is heavy going. There’s peril here and I’m not going to stand there and tell somebody to come and do it, but if they are already going to do it, then I’m willing to help them. We’re all different characters. There are people I’ve shown round who’ve not taken advice that aren’t with us any more.

“It’s nice to see where Glenn is. The passion is there. He really wants to do it. It’s not just ticking off a bucket-list item or making a quick buck. As fast as I’m telling him stuff he’s writing it on his phone. He takes it seriously and there’s a lot of information going in. Glenn is going to be vulnerable. He’s going to make mistakes, he’s going to frighten himself. In a selfish way I’ve got to look after myself. There’s a lot going on in my head and I can’t be with him all the time. But if he takes three or four comments out of what I said, and they help him, then we’re onto a winner, aren’t we?”

Glenn Irwin cornering in British Superbikes

Irwin has raced as No2 in British Superbikes since 2016

Glenn Irwin on the grid in a British Superbikes race

He’s had six seasons in British Superbikes

It’d be easy to conclude that Glenn’s lucked out. After seven years infusing British circuits with Irish road races – with notable success at the North West 200 – his TT debut in 2020 was to be alongside Davey Todd, a vibrant young rider with similar experience. Fast-forward two fallow years and he’s soaking up advice from the greatest living road racer instead.

“Me and John were standing on the mountain earlier, three seasons of weather going on at once, saying, ‘We’re allowed to race here?’ It’s class. I can’t wait to do it. It’s hard to believe I should be rolling into my third year here and it would be easy to ask, ‘Where would you be?’ But I could have ended up anywhere – good and bad.

“I feel like I’m in the best position. First of all, the bike is incredible. John is great and him asking questions of the bike is going to benefit me. Davey Todd is a mate of mine and it was going to be good craic, but we’d have been encouraging each other to go to the pub. John is at a different stage of his career but he still wants to win. He probably still can win. Joey Dunlop showed you can roll back the years; that’s what the gods of this sport can do.”

John McGuinness in action in the Isle of Man TT

Only a fourth for McGuinness in ’15

His new team-mate is proving a trustworthy agony uncle, too. “It’s not about ‘Glenn, do this flat out’, it’s ‘Glenn, do this to keep you safe’. He probably doesn’t realise how much I look up to him. I’m a bit of a fanboy, really. When he was first coming to dinner I was nervous. It’s John McGuinness, and I’m chatting away to him! It’s feeling more normal now. It feels like John and Joey when they rode here together in 2000. He’s Joey and I’m Wee John!

“He’s a grounded person. We’ll be in the car having fun then boom, he spots something and you’re getting information. I’ve had six years in British Superbikes and I’m still learning the circuits. You never really know any track completely, but you know where the bumps are. You’ll find secrets all the time and he probably has more secrets here than anyone. I think he’s been guarded in the past but he’s dropping it now. I just hope he’s not dropping it for anyone else!”

John McGuinness and Glenn Irwin driving the Isle of Man TT route

Driving the TT with the master

Dave Collister

Glenn’s affable persona goes some way to mask a methodical sportsman who’s taking his TT debut very seriously. While Honda are understandably keen to not heap pressure on him, the oldest of three Irwin brothers is unflappably competitive and has his own targets tucked away. “I’ll jot them down and stick them in a letterbox to my own address before I leave. When I come back I’ll open them up and share them with social media.

I have a fair idea of what I think I can achieve through effort and if we get the right conditions. I get a kick out of doing something where people go, ‘How’d you do that?’”

He’s previously spoken with refreshing honesty about his mental health struggles, but heads to the TT in a relaxed state of mind. “All the build-up, all the ‘what-ifs’ – one lap round here and it all goes away. It’s obviously not the safest sport in the world, but you can build it up in your head to be worse than it is.”

His father was a road racer and raised his sons hoping they wouldn’t follow suit having witnessed the sport’s danger for himself. “You wouldn’t be a human if you didn’t have certain pangs of anxiousness looking at your kids,” says Glenn. “That’s the mental battle you have with this place. But my family will all be here, and they’ll love it. My son Freddie’s got two weeks off school for it.”

Glenn Irwin on a Kawasaki in the 2019 North West 200

Irwin leads a Kawasaki 1-2 at the 2019 North West 200

John McGuinness offers Glenn Irwin advice ahead of the Isle of Man TT

Even at 50, McGuinness has no plans to stop racing the TT

Dave Collister

Back out on the course, Glenn says he’s clocked up around 70 laps on open roads in a car, but he uses YouTube every day, often on his phone as he does fitness training. “Driving round in a car doesn’t tell you your line, it tells you where the track goes. You can’t exactly go into Ballacrye on the right-hand side of the road looking for that late apex. It’s putting two pieces of knowledge together; you learn the geography in the car, you learn the racing line from YouTube on-boards.”

It’s a tool that wasn’t around when John made his first TT appearance in 1996, but then he debuted on more junior 125cc machines, whereas Glenn is being thrown straight into the top-rung 1000cc Superbike class. “Is it easier having no YouTube but starting on a 125, or having YouTube but starting on a big bike? I think having the 125!” he laughs.

John McGuinness points to his helmet marking 20 Isle of Man TT wins

Closing in on his hero’s tally – Joey Dunlop has three more wins than John

“If you’ve got the minerals, you’ll pick it up,” adds John. “There’s no sugar-coating it. I’m worried about Glenn. I know how hard it is. But if you’re not worried, you’re not right.

“People who come have got to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and not go, ‘Flipping heck, these guys are mad.’

I want people to go, ‘Wow, look at them, these guys are gladiators.’ It’s not mad. You can’t do the 52,000 miles I’ve done round here if you’re mad, because you’re not going to get through them. We’re not lunatic Hells Angels death-wish monkeys, we’re properly focused individuals who do a good job.” It’s a nugget of no-nonsense wisdom my own thumbs can’t help but feverishly note down.