John McGuinness on the TT: “Just terrifying, there’s no other way of putting it”

Motorcycles

Isle of Man TT legend John McGuinness takes us on a journey around the Mountain circuit, telling us about the bits he really loves, the bits he doesn’t like at all and the bit where races can be won or lost

John McGuinness at Kates Cottage in the Isle of Man TT

McGuinness tips into The Nook – less than a mile to go to victory in the 2009 Superbike TT

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The most important bit: Bray Hill

“Down Bray Hill you’re hanging on for your life”

McGuinness reckons that TTs can be won or lost in the mega-fast, off-the-edge-of-a-cliff plunge down Bray Hill in Douglas, which is scarier than ever with new tyres and a full tank of gas,

“This is crunch time, off the start, this is when your nerves are gone. It’s a relief to get going because your nerves disappear. Before the race I’m shitting myself – it’s the TT! I just carry on and try and spend some time with the family and the kids. The kids are a great leveller, they’re not interested in whether you win or not, so I hang around with them and they calm me down.

“It’s bucking and weaving and moving around, so you’ve got to really boss it down here”

“It’s just the uniqueness of the start – every other race in the world you get a warm-up lap, so you get some sort of a feel for how the bike’s going to react. At the TT you don’t get that, so you don’t know what the bike’s going to do. It’s bucking and weaving and moving around, so you’ve got to really boss it down here; well, boss it to a certain degree, but also let it do what it’s got to do, otherwise you tire yourself out. If you get a good smooth run down Bray Hill and all the way through the bottom, it sets the lap up.

“We usually take off the tyre warmers a couple of minutes before we get going, so there’s still heat in the tyres. I used to scrub them in at Jurby but now I do them at Douglas Head, on the road. I’m really critical about my tyres being scrubbed and hot – I’m obsessed. Some people aren’t that bothered, but it psychologically does my head in if they’re not hot. If I feel comfortable I can get stuck in.

“I’ve had a few moments down here where my feet have been off the ’pegs and it’s a bit of a terrifying thing, really. It’s the unpredictability of the thing: 600s are all right, but big bikes with slicks don’t half give you a scare.

“If you look at Bray Hill, there’s junctions all the way down and there’s a little kicker on each one where the camber changes as the side roads join the main road, so you’ve got all these humps, so as you come down the bike’s taking off. If you get a bit of a wobble, you’re out of the throttle, then you’re back on it again, then you’re back off it again.

“Everyone says they do it flat out, but you don’t do it flat out, no chance. You’re sort of flat-out through the top, then you’re over the crest and you’re playing with the throttle, trying to keep the bike balanced. Over the crest it’s just terrifying, there’s no other way of putting it. Down here I’m scared. On the second lap I feel really, really good, then you come in for your pit stop, chuck a new back tyre in and 24 litres of fuel and it’s like the first lap again. So, laps one, three and five are a bit of a rollercoaster down here. If your bike isn’t good you’re psychologically destroyed.

“You always think you can get down here a touch quicker next time but you just can’t do it. In your own head, somewhere, your brain is telling you that you can do it. You think, I’ll hold it flat out… but no… you go over the top and you get out of the throttle.

“I’m on the left going down, about three or four feet off the kerb, to give myself some room over those humps at the junctions. Where do I peel in? I couldn’t tell you, it’s all happening that quick. People say that lamppost or that manhole, but I don’t see any of that, I just do it by feel. I’m never on the kerb at the bottom of the hill, I’m always five or six feet off the kerb because it’s a lot smoother, so it’s a lot less stress on the bike.

“DJ [David Jefferies, the nine-times TT winner who lost his life during practice for the 2003 event] told me that line in 2002. I’ve had people come up and say, oh, you’re miles off line down Bray Hill. Yeah, whatever. It’s sixth gear and it’s got to be 180mph at the bottom because you’re doing 170 through the start/finish and you’re still accelerating. I dread to think really. At the bottom it looks impossible, like you’re going to go straight through the fence.

“At Ago’s leap I’m pinned in top, obviously, though it feels a bit lazy coming up the hill. I’m over the rear brake over the leap, I’m f**kin’ hanging off the rear brake with my thumb. I’ve used a thumb-operated rear brake since 2006 because it’s so hard to move your foot around at high speeds because the wind is pushing your feet back and moving your foot forward and back tires you out. On the Superstocker I get a bit of a tired leg trying to keep the front down, because you aren’t allowed a thumb brake.”

“Down Bray Hill you’re hanging on for your life. You hold so tight because the start is so intense, so you’re hyped up. You release the grip as you get a feel for the bike, but definitely the first lap you’ve got hold of it because you don’t know what it’s going to do.”

 

TT course map

The 37.75-mile Mountain course – about 250 corners in all

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His favourite bit: McGuinness’

“Every time I go through here I get a rush, I really do”

McGuinness’ – it’s his favourite corner, which is why it’s named after him – barely seems a corner, but at over 160mph it most definitely. And it’s this kind of super-quick kink, out in the middle of nowhere (a few miles before Kirk Michael), where the brave, knowledgeable and talented TT rider makes the difference.

“The corner is 160, maybe 170 miles an hour and it’s not massively important. I just like it. If you spoke to a layman and said right, I’m in sixth gear there, he’d think you were taking the piss, but honestly you are; it’s that quick.

“It’s the second left after Handley’s. I don’t like the first left because it unsettles the bike. There’s a bit of a drop-off, like it’s motocross, so the front wheel comes up. You’re into fifth, then the next left is McGuinness’. It’s just so fast and it looks impressive to do it pinned in top gear. You get hooked right into the hedge and then the road opens up for you. Every time I go through here I get a rush, I really do.

“I’m tucked in and subconsciously pushing and steering with my feet and hands.”

“It may not be massively important, but if you do it right you can be going ten to 15mph faster before you get on the brakes at the top of Barregarrow, and you’ve done it all at my corner.

“The useful thing is that you can get held up to death on that little shoot towards the top of Barregarrow. No disrespect to anyone, by the way. But if you do get held up you’re through Barregarrow top and bottom and through the 13th Milestone before you get to the next passing point into Kirk Michael, and even then you’d have to make a lunge.

“I made a really good strong pass on the run to Barregarrow on a real top rider who’s not with us anymore. He hesitated at that left and I passed him, and I’ve passed a few of the leading riders there. It’s just getting through that left kink flat out. I’m tucked in and subconsciously pushing and steering with my feet and hands. I’m not hanging off. I move a little on the bike, but I never hang off. I’ve never done it, even on short circuits. I just sit on top of the bike, like John Surtees.

From the archive

“The corner is top gear but not maxed out, the revs go up as you go onto the side of the tyre. This part of the track is all left and right, so you’re always on the narrow diameter of the tyre and picking up rpm. I come through Handley’s in fourth. It feels good when you’re leant over, then it feels a bit lazy when you pick the bike up. As I go left after Handley’s I short shift into fifth, I don’t even rev the bike, I just snatch fifth there and accelerate hard and get into top before my corner.

“I let the bike run, you’re better off letting it run a bit. A lot of people try to pick the bike up, but that just kills the revs, especially on the little bikes. You’re better off bringing it up slowly.

“It’s different in different parts. At places like Bishopscourt and Alpine Cottage you let the bike run the full width of the road. Here you’ve got to get it back and onto the right line because you’re building speed.

“I like all the fast stuff, like Gorse Lee, the right-hander before Ballacraine, just because it’s a real ballsy corner. I like the end of the Cronk Y Voddy straight, I like the 11th Milestone, I like Bishopscourt and the exit of Alpine Cottage.”

 

The bit he doesn’t like: Whitegates

“You chuck it in and you get this dead, vague feeling”

You might expect McGuinness to dread some of the fastest, scariest parts of the track, but in fact he doesn’t dread any of it. How could he do that and still be in with a chance? Nope, his least favourite corner is a nondescript left-hander after May Hill in Ramsey

“Whitegates doesn’t look that rough but it’s horrible. Every time I go around it I always feel like I’m going to tuck the front. I don’t know why because looking at it closely it looks quite smooth. I think there’s some strategic bumps in the track that make the bike pick the back up and put you over the ’bars. Then you chuck it in and you get this dead, vague feeling through the front tyre

“May Hill is rough as arseholes, but I don’t mind that, you know where you are; it’s got camber, you come out of there and it’s just spinning, spinning all the way up the hill, then you stab the brakes and the bike tends to pick the back up and you can’t get it settled before you get into Whitegates. You’re constantly chasing it to get it to sit down. And you brake really early into it as well, so you’re thinking what’s going on? Otherwise it’s a standard left-hander, middle of the road on the right – you don’t want to be in the gutter.

“This is just scratchy, scratchy. No disrespect, but the lad who finishes 30th is going to get around here as fast as I am.”

“When you look at it, it’s not a standard corner, it’s like a double kink, so it’s more of a longer radius than you think. You always tend to run wide on the exit, but you could use the junction over on the right side of the road. That’d probably have you heading towards the kerb but you could probably go up the kerb if you needed to.

“Luckily, it’s not a really important corner. You scratch a bit through here, but everybody’s doing the same sort of pace from Parliament Square, so there’s nothing to be gained; some might get a few tenths on you. After the Gooseneck, that’s when you start galloping on, that’s where you make your big time… all that fast stuff. This is just scratchy, scratchy. No disrespect, but the lad who finishes 30th is going to get around here as fast as I am.

“I like the whole track, to be honest. But I’m not keen on Whitegates, the 13th Milestone, because it’s off-camber and sucks you in a bit, Laurel Bank and Governor’s Bridge and the Nook, but then I don’t think anyone likes Governor’s Bridge and the Nook.”

John McGuinness into The Nook at the 2009 Isle of Man TT

McGuinness tips into The Nook – less than a mile to go to victory in the 2009 Superbike TT

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More McGuinness TT highlights

Union Mills

“Going out of Union Mills I start to relax. I always think the left out of Union Mills is a super, super important corner. You go into the preceding right a little slower, because if you scratch your nuts off there, you’re going to lose time through the left and that will cost you all the way up the Ballahutchin hill.

“You want to be building speed and driving hard out of Union Mills. It’s important, especially when you get a sniff of someone you’re catching. Then you get a bit of a rest, which is good, because off the start it’s hellish, fighting your way down Bray Hill. Up this hill I talk to myself: right, relax, just get into it. I gibber to myself in me head. In 2011 when Guy [Martin] looked like he was going to clear off in the Senior, I was a bit tense on the bike, making a few mistakes. I told myself come on, there’s lots of miles still to go. You’ve only got to nick a little here and a little there and you’ve got your claws back into the leader.”

Glenduff (1 mile after Ginger Hall)

“I had one of the biggest scares of me TT career here – I’ll never forget it. It was on an R6 Yamaha during 600 practice in 2005. I had this huge tank-slapper and I’ve no idea why. It snapped the steering damper and broke the bodywork. It went bang-bang-bang-bang on the stops and I was an absolute total passenger. I f**king shat myself!

“You get weaves and headshakes, but that was the only lock-to-lock tank-slapper I’ve had. Awful, absolutely terrifying. I’ve tried to find a smooth line around here but there isn’t one. It’s just madness here, like motocross, you’re stood on the ’pegs through to Ramsey.”

Riding Technique

“You need an economical style. A lot of people put that much energy into it that they’re huffing and puffing and they don’t breathe properly because they’re holding on too hard. That comes with time, you can’t educate people on that.

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“I don’t move around much on the bike. A lot of the others do, but it’s just the style I’ve adapted. I’ve never really thought about it, what it would do if I did move around. There’s certain bits where I do use my body as an airbrake – I sit up to scrub off some speed without jamming on the brakes which unsettles the bike. I always think moving around too much is more effort, it tires you out. I do a lot of counter steering, pushing and pulling on the ’bars. That takes all the skin off my hands, the left hand gets torn to pieces.”

“Subconsciously I work really hard on the ’pegs, but I’m not consciously thinking about it. I must push pretty hard because my boots are knackered by the end of the week.

“I move a little fore and aft, but probably not as much as I should do because my bike’s always on the back wheel everywhere. I watch on-boards of Cameron [Donald] and others and their bikes are flat over the jumps. In my own head I think I do get over the front, but maybe I don’t.”

Staying sharp

“On the Sulby straight you get a bit of a rest. You’ve worked hard all through the last section and you know the next section is going to be tough, so I relax a bit, try to breathe, move my fingers about and jiggle my toes to get the blood flowing. It’s a simple little process, it’s not rocket science.

“I really work on my breathing, taking big deep breaths where you can, because a lot of it is hard work and you’re holding your breath a bit. You’ve got to get some oxygen into your blood because once the lactic acid hits your muscles you’re f**ked and your mind goes different places.”

Losing your skin

“I tape my hands for endurance racing, but not at the TT. At the TT I end up with no skin on my left hand and the hand bleeding and my right hand will be fine for the whole two weeks. I’ve never been able to understand that. I’ve tried taping them but it feels uncomfortable and the tape ends up undoing. If I can get through the TT with a bit of skin off my hands, I’m having that.

“Some bikes get really hot, so the ball of my right foot gets burnt because it stays on the ’peg because I don’t use a foot back brake. Alpinestars have now made me some special boots with a stronger sole and a heat shield. I get a few aches, mainly down my back and my neck – that’s the wind.”

The year-round obsession

“The TT is always there in my mind, all year round. I’m always thinking about it. I admire the riders who do it privately, who’ve got to prep their own bikes, run around the country, put their engines in and out. I’m lucky, I’m just strutting round, doing what I do.

“I never even book the ferry until the last minute. It hits home when I’m walking out the house, thinking, f**k me, hope I get back. Me granddad always come around and we have these awkward hugs. I don’t look him in the eye.

“I’m not so much gagging to get there, but I look forward to it in a roundabout way, it’s a hell of a lot of work, a lot of stress. But the buzz when you finish… you go around with the other riders, gibbering on at 300 miles an hour to each other, talking about what you’ve done, the moments you’ve had.”


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