Mat Oxley: Fatal crash that transformed the Isle of Man TT

“Gilberto Parlotti’s death at the 1972 Isle of Man TT was a watershed moment”

The Isle of Man TT was the world’s biggest, best-known motorcycle race for most of the first century of the internal combustion engine. Then 50 years ago something happened that transformed the event forever.

On June 9, 1972 Gilberto Parlotti was leading the Lightweight 125cc TT when he crashed on the 37¾-mile course’s mountain section, sustaining fatal injuries.

Parlotti had never previously contested the TT, which was already notorious for its dangers and complexities. He only considered the risk worthwhile because he wanted to defend his lead in the 125cc world championship, taking advantage of the absence of reigning champion Angel Nieto, a Spaniard who had made his TT debut in 1968. Nieto broke a leg in practice and vowed never to go back.

In 1970 another Spaniard, Santiago Herrero, made his TT debut, riding to defend his lead in that year’s 250cc world championship (he’d won the previous race in Yugoslavia at Opatija). Herrero lost his life when he crashed at the notoriously tricky 13th milestone section. He was one of six riders who would lose their lives in that year’s event.

“The TT promoters had been ripping us off for years”

Therefore the moment that Grand Prix riders turned against the TT had been a long time coming. Parlotti’s death was that watershed moment. The 31-year-old Italian was good friends with 29-year-old compatriot Giacomo Agostini, already a multiple TT winner, who did his best to help Parlotti make a success of his debut.

“The night before the 125 race Parlotti and I had dinner together and he said, ‘Please, Ago, why don’t you take me for a lap in a car, just to help me remember all the track?’” Agostini recalls. “I was very tired, but he needed my help, so we did one lap in the car. The  next day my race was in the afternoon but I went to the paddock early to see the 125 race and everybody knows what happened…”

Remarkably, Agostini contested the Senior 500cc race later that day, winning his tenth TT. Afterwards he announced he would never return and would do everything in his power to have the TT removed from the GP calendar.

“It was very, very difficult for me, because riding the Isle of Man is the best emotion ever and the atmosphere is fantastic, but if you think about safety, this is the problem,” Agostini says. “Every year, two or three riders died. The first time you think it’s OK, the second year the same, because you are young and you don’t really think about it, then the third year and the fourth year you are a little bit older, so you think about it more.

“I spoke with many Grand Prix riders and they told me they were obliged to do the TT or they would lose world championship points, so I spoke with the FIM [the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme] and said we should take away this obligation. If riders want to do the TT, this is fine, because it’s an incredible track, but we had to take away the world championship status, for the future and for the riders.”

Agostini’s lobbying was a success. In 1975 the sport’s governing body announced its first regulations for GP venues, which stipulated a maximum circuit length of six miles, run-off areas, track edges marked with anti-slip paint and so on.

The TT, which had hosted motorcycling’s first-ever Grand Prix world championship event in June 1949, hosted its last in June 1976.

However, the FIM didn’t want to destroy the TT, so it created a new world championship for riders that wanted to continue racing on road circuits.

“We take into account the TT’s importance, the tradition attached to the event and the services which the TT races have rendered to the development of motorcycle racing,” said an FIM statement in April 1976. “We consider that simply removing the event from the classic event calendar, even though this decision would be legal, would be detrimental to the TT itself and to motorcycle racing in general.”

The new world championship was christened Tourist Trophy Formula. The three categories – TT F1, TT F2 and TT F3 – specified motorcycles powered by tuned road engines, with four-strokes given a considerable capacity advantage (1000cc versus 500cc in the biggest class) to encourage their return to racing. By the mid-70s Grand Prix racing had been entirely taken over by faster two-stroke machines.

Obviously the TT’s loss of GP status didn’t make the course any safer but it did force the promoters to pay better money because they could no longer rely on riders coming to the Isle of Man to gather GP points.

Briton Phil Read, who had joined Ago’s post-1972 boycott, controversially returned in 1977, because he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“The promoters had been ripping us off for years,” says Read. “When I did the 1972 TT my appearance money as a five-times world champion was £50 [£700 now]. And I had to pay for my own ferry, hotel and everything, so even if I won a race or two the Isle of Man still cost me money. In 1977 they gave me £6000 to race there. I entered the F1 and Senior races and came away with more than £20,000 [£135,000 now].”

The TT F1 championship grew to include other road circuits in Ireland and mainland Europe. It survived until 1990, by which time its place as motorcycling’s road-based world championship had been taken by the new World Superbike series.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley