This island race

Riders risk life and limb, the health and safety brigade despairs, and yet the Isle of Man TT shows no sign of slowing down. Standing roadside, it’s easy to see why
By Ed Foster

Creg-Ny-Baa, at the end of the mountain section, wedged on to a bank filled with spectators. There’s no fencing, and while there was a sign saying ‘no admittance’, this is now under someone’s bum, keeping him dry. The bank’s only two or three feet high and if we reach out we can touch the Tarmac which the riders will be zipping over any second.

Conversation stops the moment we hear a lone 600cc machine hammering out of the previous corner, Kate’s Cottage, snapping up through the gears. The wail of the engine gets louder and louder and it’s only when the bike, with 17-time TT winner John McGuinness on board, screams past us that it sinks in.

We’d watched the film TT3D: Closer to the Edge, we’d seen countless onboard laps on YouTube and listened to plenty of ex and current riders talk about the Isle of Man TT. However, it isn’t until McGuinness goes past, flat out, brushing the grass with his left leg, that realisation hits home just how breathtaking it is. We’d always considered the Nordschleife the most dangerous track in the world, but on reflection… The Isle of Man TT is top of the pile when it comes to the shortening list of still-sanctioned, out-there loopiness in motor sport.

The 37.73-mile-long TT mountain course, which had its 100th anniversary this year, has always been regarded by many as the pinnacle of bike racing. Two-wheeled racing began in 1907 four years after the first car race – the Gordon Bennett Eliminating Trial, held on the island after the 1903 Motor Car Act restricted cars to 20mph on the mainland. In 1911 the circuit was moved from the St John’s short course in the west to the Snaefell Mountain Course, the track they ride today.

Telegraph poles are covered with padding and on some corners there are barriers, but the course remains largely unchanged from what it is for the other 50 weeks of the year – a public road. It climbs from sea level to 2034ft, riders negotiating everything from tram tracks to bridges that throw both wheels off the ground, and yet the lap record stands at an astonishing average speed of 131.578mph, set by McGuinness in 2009. Watch modern car racing and you might think ‘if I was young and fit, and did a bit of practice, I could do that’. Well, there’s no way any sane person would ever think that about the TT.

Valentino Rossi did a (relatively sedate) lap of the track in ’09 and concluded that you needed, “a lot of bravery to be quick. I’m glad that it is no longer a round of the World Championship [which it was between 1949-76]. This race, it’s not just a race… for the riders who do it, it’s like a battle against the course.” As Motor Sport boarded the flight to the Isle of Man we found ourselves sitting in front of 2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden. The question was irresistible: would he like to race in a TT? “I don’t think it’s for me,” was the reply.

It’s not unheard of for riders purposefully not to have a girlfriend, wife or children because they know that every time they head out there’s a chance they won’t come back. In 2011 alone three TT competitors and four visitors died. The visitors were on their own bikes, no doubt pressing on. But, as Bob the taxi driver told us one evening, “we don’t count those”.

“It’s not as challenging as it used to be,” says a nonchalant Guy Martin, while flicking through the latest edition of Motor Sport. Martin has yet to win a TT, but has shot to fame thanks to starring in the recently released film about the Manx races and is, in the nicest possible sense, slightly unhinged. He speaks so quickly in his broad north Lincolnshire accent, jumping from topic to topic, that it takes a while to compute what he’s said.

He opens the magazine and spots a dealer advert. “Ooo, Ferrari F40, we like those don’t we?” Giving him a copy of the magazine before the interview was clearly an error. We push on. So is riding the TT course no longer a challenge? “Not now, no. It used to be… it’s always a challenge to do a decent lap time, but I don’t see the event as a challenge. It’s a get-out. I work full-time [as a lorry mechanic] so to take two weeks off to go racing is just a good escape. It’s much better to be here than at work, isn’t it?

“I just love the buzz. I love the buzz. If I didn’t compete in the TT I’d do something else to get it. I’ve never taken drugs in my life and I’m not into that sort of thing. I do mountain bike races and things like that to try and replicate it, though.” This coming from the man who made a BBC documentary about rebuilding a canal boat – the most sedate transport in the world. “Everyone gets the buzz in different ways. I put the visor down and set off, but it’s not like I get a buzz then. I get it in tricky situations on certain parts of the course. I think ‘f****** hell’ when I have a massive moment, like I had yesterday [at Union Mills on the 600cc machine]. Wow, that was probably the nearest to death I’ve come.”

This prompts mention of the crash he had in last year’s Senior TT when he got it wrong on the third lap at Ballagarey – or Ballascary as it’s better known. Martin’s Wilson Craig Honda exploded in the 170mph crash and he emerged from the fireball with bruising to both lungs and fractures to the upper spine. It was a miracle he escaped at all. Surely that was pretty close to death? “Nah, last year was big, but not compared to yesterday. I was heading towards this wall at 140mph, picking which bit of it I was going to hit, and for some reason I ended up back in the seat coming out of it. I don’t know how it happened, but it was just one of the biggest moments ever. Once you’ve done that, that’s all you ever want to do.”

You can understand Martin’s eagerness to win a TT, especially when you learn that he’s notched up 13 podiums. “The track’s the main thing that makes it so special,” says McGuinness who won the 2011 Senior and the Superbike TTs. “It’s the longest track in the world, it’s the most famous, it’s the hardest and it’s the most dangerous. It’s unique because it’s just you against the clock [riders set off 10 seconds apart]. It’s just you and your machine – it’s the ultimate test.”

In typical fashion I had organised my trip very late. Such is the event’s popularity I soon realised that my stay on the Isle of Man would be in a campsite rather than a hotel. What concerned me more was that the only hire car left on the island was a pink, soft-top Nissan Micra, which would cost £185 for three days. I politely declined. It turned out to be no problem at all as the usually sleepy island is transformed into a biker’s paradise for two weeks. If you’re standing on the side of the road with your thumb up and a helmet by your side, there aren’t many people who won’t stop. Thankfully I missed ‘the naked biker’ who had managed to do a lap of the track wearing nothing but his helmet, gloves and boots. “Obviously the man is exposing himself, so that is one offence we could look at,” said Inspector Mark Britton in a statement afterwards. “We will see what we can do within the confines of the law. Yes, it’s a bit of fun, but that could have gone badly wrong. If he’d fallen off, even at a low speed, he could have had substantial gravel rash.” A master of understatement, this copper.

Back to Martin’s ‘massive moment’. Had it been hard to get back on the bike after last year’s accident? “Not at all, but they wouldn’t let me on a bike for two months. I was fine, I was 100 per cent and I was racing push bikes two weeks after I’d done it. The problem was that because I’d broken my back they stopped me from going anywhere near a proper motorbike. Two bloody months without racing my bike!”

Getting back to racing after an accident is the priority for these guys in most cases, and as the week progressed it became clear that none of them had any problems carrying on after a ‘big one’. Ian Hutchinson, who won all five TT races in 2010 – the first person ever to do so – had a terrible accident at the end of the year in the British Supersport Championship race at Silverstone. He came off on the first lap in pouring rain and was then run over by another bike. Sixteen operations and skin grafts later, and it was clear he wouldn’t be defending his TT wins. “Physically I got myself prepared to come back, but there’s nothing I can do about bone healing,” he says before doing a parade lap with a titanium brace on his left leg. “Having been told I might lose my leg three times I don’t want to be told again. Last time I sat on the bike my leg got snapped off and now I’m off round the TT track on a full-blown superbike in the wet. It could be interesting. I should be able to ride… the downshifts are going to be the hardest bit, but as long as we can upshift then we can go fast.”

The list of comebacks is endless. Manxman Conor Cummins came off at the super-fast Verandah last year and was flung like a rag doll down the mountain, finally coming to a halt 200 yards from the road. He broke his back in five places, dislocated his leg and destroyed his knee. He broke his upper arm in four places, his pelvis and shoulder blade, and bruised both lungs. He was back in 2011, running in the top 10.

“The thing with the TT is that you’ve got every element thrown at you,” says McGuinness while furiously signing posters in his motor home. “You’ve got high winds, dust on the track, different grip levels up there and down here, and the bike’s got 220bhp so it’s doing 200mph on the straights. You don’t even get a rest then unless you want to get blown off it.

“At the start you shut your visor and your mind goes blank. Everything else in your life fades away as you look down Glencrutchery road. It’s an hour and 45 minutes of intense concentration… well, your mind does wonder. You spot people in the pub with a pint, one or two cooking sausages. You can smell them. I’ve also hit lots of birds this week. I’ve had pheasants through the screen and all sorts. I’ve never pulled so many birds on the Isle of Man!”

Two hours later McGuinness finishes second in the 600cc Supersport TT. This time, thankfully, without hitting any pheasants. He does bring the press conference to a halt though with one of the most bizarre pronouncements ever: “It was a good race, but one problem I had was that I went over a bump going down Bray Hill on the first lap and my foreskin came back. I then had an hour and a half of chafing.” There is uncontrollable laughter in the press room and a look of shock on the interviewer’s face. “What?” McGuinness asks. “I’m not swearing, I’m just stating facts.” Formula 1 this isn’t.

Someone has worked out that the Isle of Man TT track has claimed five lives for every mile of road. It’s not a figure the riders dwell on, but it has clearly ruffled a few health and safety feathers. How long can this race go on? While returning to my tent one night I chatted to campsite owner Bob Kewley. It transpired that he raced the TT in the ’60s on a Manx Norton, selling 2500 rabbits in Liverpool to pay for the £250 bike. I asked whether he thought there was any chance the racing would one day be stopped. “People keep saying they’re going to stop it because it’s too dangerous,” Bob admits. “But give every lad that wants to ride it the same chance I had. Let them ride and forget about the dangers. They know what they’re doing and they know they might be killed. The way I looked at it was that if I was racing and got killed, well, I was doing something I loved. I’d be enjoying myself one second and gone the next. You can’t go out any happier than that, can you?”

“It’s all about the buzz,” says Martin. “If I’m not getting that then I might as well stay at work, but there really is nothing like this place. Nothing. Obviously I’m going to win a TT, I’ve got to win a f****** TT. It’s taking me long enough, isn’t it? Once I win one, though, that’s it. I’ll go and get my buzz somewhere else. I’ll win the bugger, then I’ll be off.”

My week was filled with highs and lows. The lows included a cockerel dawn chorus outside my tent every morning at 3.30am. It turns out when people make noise-cancelling ear defenders they don’t take into account the frequency of a cock-a-doodle-do. Another low was the mild panic I felt as rain delayed the start of the Senior TT closer to the departure time of my flight. But it all paled into insignificance next to the atmosphere on the island throughout the week, talking to the likes of McGuinness and Martin and, of course, the unrivalled rush of watching the racing so close at hand.

You may struggle to understand why anyone wants to tackle a 38-mile road course at speeds of up to 200mph with walls and trees ready to embrace any error. But to this special brand of racer it’s the biggest challenge they can face – just as it has been for 100 years. No other experience in the world brings them close to what they feel as they hammer through villages at 180mph, brushing walls with their shoulders. At that speed if you set out from London at the start of the Senior TT you’d be in Preston when the flag fell 105 minutes later. Madness? Maybe. The most exhilarating motor sport to watch in the world? Without a doubt.