What! Has he gone mad, this is a car blog, I hear you cry. And yes, you are correct, however I think you’ll agree that the Isle of Man TT is of interest to just about anyone with even the slightest interest in anything mechanical or sporting.
So with this thought and an open mind, I took my almost nonexistent knowledge of motorcycle racing along to experience nearly two weeks of spectating at the TT. In fact the TT is actually the first motorbike race I’ve ever been to, and I reasoned that an event this crazy really needs to be witnessed first hand before someone bans it, like so many other brilliant races before it. Volumes have been written about the TT much more eloquently than I ever could, so this is simply the story of my experience attending the greatest motorcycle race on earth.
To properly understand the TT, you first need to understand its location – the Isle of Man. A little island just 52km long and 22km wide, the Isle of Man sits in the middle of the Irish sea between England and Ireland. Officially it is a Self Governing British Crown Dependency, essentially meaning that the United Kingdom takes control of its international affairs (defense, EU representation etc), and the Isle of Man Government takes control of local matters, such as laws. It’s this crucial legal arrangement that allows events like the TT to take place – there’s simply no way it would be allowed to happen anywhere else in the world.
In a similar fashion to Monaco, the Isle of Man is a popular tax haven for wealthy Brits. One person I met told me that the island’s biggest industry is “sitting back and counting your money”, so therefore its second biggest industry must be tourism. The Isle of Man is blessed with some simply fantastic roads, and the government exploit them with a packed motorsport calendar to attract visitors throughout the summer. They also have no speed limits outside of towns to further encourage visitors when the big events aren’t on.
The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy has been held every year since 1907. The TT is a time-trial format event with competitors released at 30 second intervals – the rider with the quickest time over the specified number of laps is the winner. The TT was a part of the Motorcycle World Grand Prix Championship from 1949-76 but was dropped due to safety concerns. The TT isn’t officially a part of any championship anymore but it still remains the crown jewel of motorcycle racing, and a TT victory is seen as the pinnacle of the sport.
The track is a 37.7mile (60.67km) loop around the island, about half of which runs through towns and villages dotted along the road and the other half an open country road across the top of the island’s mountain range. Multiple champion John McGuinness set a new lap record this year averaging 131.671mph (211km/h) around the course, which is mind blowing when you see the course in person. Riders are regularly swinging through villages at well over 220km/h, and hit top speeds of upwards of 307km/h.
Standing at the bottom of Bray Hill as the bikes race past you at 240km/h is a mind altering experience. Your brain tells you that something isn’t right – you struggle to comprehend the speed. For the photography buffs, shooting at 1/4000th of a second usually freezes everything. The above photo is shot at 1/4000th, and the bike is still in blur.
There isn’t one ‘TT race’, rather a race (or two) for each of the seven classes competing. Lightweight, Supersport, Superstock, Superbike and Senior classes are for sports bikes in various capacities and states of tune ranging from almost standard to F1 spec; Sidecar is for your traditional 3 wheeled motorbike with passenger, and TT Zero is for electric bikes. Most of the amateurs enter one or two classes, whilst the big name riders in the factory backed teams often enter five or six classes with five or six different bikes. The record of five TT victories in a single event was set by Ian Hutchinson in 2010; Michael Dunlop came close with 4 victories this year. The most successful TT rider is the great Joey Dunlop who has 26 TT Victories to his name.
The TT is held over a 2 week period – the first week is devoted to practice and qualifying, and all races are held in the second week. It doesn’t get dark here until about 1030pm, so in the first week the sessions occur each evening from 6pm until about 9pm. Each rider has to qualify at a minimum average speed to race, and with only 2-3 laps achieved in a session there needs to be plenty of sessions. In race week races are only scheduled every second day, during the daytime. The weather is often so terrible here that races are cancelled (it’s far too dangerous to race in the wet), so plenty of spare days are built into the schedule to allow the races to take place. Last year the weather was so terrible that the headline Senior race was completely cancelled because they ran out of spare days – the first time since 1907 that this has happened.
This year there was rain at the start of practice week and a few sessions were cancelled, however since then we’ve had 10 days of solid sunshine and it hasn’t rained a single drop since I’ve been here. This is unprecedentedly good weather for the Isle of Man, especially give a lot of it was under five foot of snow as recently as March.
The TT isn’t just a race, it’s a festival of motorcycling. Some fly onto the Island, but most catch the ferry from either England or Ireland. Literally tens of thousands of people come across for the TT, and every ferry is packed to the brim with bikes and people walking about in leathers.
The whole island has TT fever, and throughout the entire 2 weeks you can’t go anywhere without being swarmed by bikes. Lining the roads, the footpaths, cruising around from morning till late in the night. Half of the fun is coming across with your mates, watching the racing while riding the awesome roads during the day, and drinking (warm) beer at night.
It’s a great event to spectate at because it’s so accessible, and it completely lacks the pretension often found in car racing. The marshals know that the fans want a good view, and within reason they let you stand where you like and trust you to make a safe decision. Standing at the bottom of Bray Hill, a spot I’d seen in so many YouTube videos, was almost a little surreal.
Photos do a poor job of conveying the sheer speed. This video does a slightly better job, but there’s still no substitute for seeing it live.
Everyone is here for the same reason, and it doesn’t take long to make friends. For the Superbike race we pulled a park bench and chairs up in the front yard of a local church, and sat there eating brie and cured meats with bread while watching the racing right in front of us.
The location ended up being the best I found. Perched on the side of a hill, we had a grand vista over the valley behind us, a view of the ocean in front of us, a soft warm grassy wall to sit on and we were so close that if we wanted we could literally touch the bikes as they roared past with enough force to rock the dry stone wall.
In each race there’s probably only 5 or 6 guys that have a realistic chance of winning, and the rest are simply there for the experience and thrill of competing and to do as best they can. On the side of the track I got talking to one guy who is aiming to compete in 3-4 years time, and from what he told me, just making it on the entry list is quite an achievement. You have to progress through a whole chain of prerequisites, which includes racing at the smaller Manx GP on the Isle of Man, to qualify for the license required to compete in the TT. Even the backmarkers are exceptionally good riders.
But the top guys, they’re something else. The weather was perfect and every track record was smashed in 2013, a lot of them by Michael Dunlop. The commitment he displayed was downright impressive to watch – on every corner I saw him he was using 100% of the available road, every lap. There was no margin for error.
A power wheelie at 100+km/h just inches from the stone wall? That’s commitment. But as a few seasoned veterans of the TT told me, he must still be riding at less than 100%. You can’t race at 100% for 2 weeks and not crash, so he must have been under his limit. The mind boggles at what 100% would be for him then.
The TT is and always has been about the amateurs, and whilst big budget manufacturer supported teams are becoming more common, it’s still the enthusiastic amateurs that make up most of the paddock. And just from talking to a couple of them, it’s plain to see that they live and breathe the TT. Their year is spent working up to this event.
The TT is without a doubt the friendliest event I’ve been to, even more unbelievable given its international popularity and encroaching corporate sponsorship. Seeing the TT is completely free. You can literally ride your bike right up the main straight and park within a metre of pit lane and parc ferme.
The roads are closed at the very last minute, so in the hours leading up to the race the start/finish line is a popular meeting place for bikers. Everyone meets up, has a walk through the pits and then rides around the course to find a place to watch from. In this photo the road to the left is the start/finish straight, and pit lane is to the right. This photo was taken less than half an hour before the start of a session.
If you’re careful with your cash a trip to see the TT can be quite cheap. A room in town can be had for $50 a night, however a lot of the local farmers and sports clubs open their fields up for camping. I camped at the Braddan soccer club for $13 a night; if you’re willing to cook some of your food and you go easy on the beer some days you could easily do two full weeks at the TT for $450 or less. Find some cheap flights and your bang for buck holiday ratio is pretty high.
There’s a lot of other free events and activities taking place all over the island when the racing isn’t on. From concerts, pub nights, specific motorbike marque and club meets, rides, movies, talks and exhibitions; there’s always something to do. Each night during race week there’s entertainment on the Promenade at Douglas, the islands capital. One evening there was motorcross racing on the beach.
… to a mobility scooter powered by a 600cc Suzuki sportbike engine. And it’s not just for show either – this bad boy ran to 136km/h at the Ramsey Sprint on Tuesday. And it’s still running the standard front suspension and wheels!
But even without the bikes, there’s just so much to see and do on the Island. I know I was blessed during my visit with superb weather, but the island really is God’s own country. The place is just staggeringly beautiful, and you could spend weeks on end hiking the trails criss-crossing the island as you find more and more sights to take your breath away.
But this beauty does come with a tinge of seriousness, and that’s that the TT is just so dangerous. When you get involved in talking about the bikes, about the riders and lap times and the joy of it all, it’s easy to become complacent about the risks. But simply put, racing at 240km/h down country lanes and through villages is almost the most dangerous thing you could ever do.
If you come off at the TT, a serious injury is usually the best case scenario. It feels cold and callous saying this, but death is simply a part of the TT and it’s a given fact that each year a fatality is likely. From 1907-2009, 240 people have been killed at the TT. Six people were killed in 1970 alone. Whilst the rider of the bike in this image survived and was air lifted to hospital, his bike was simply left there so racing could continue without delay.
And that’s just the competitors – spectators are regularly killed, both in being struck by debris, and in crashing themselves riding the course during race week.
Unfortunately 2013 wasn’t without its dark patches. Before I arrived at the track, Japanese rider Yoshinari Matsushita died in an accident in qualifying. And in Friday’s final race a bike went into the crowd at the bottom of Bray Hill, seriously injuring 11 spectators. That was a huge wakeup call for me – scroll back up and have a look at that photo of me happily standing at Bray Hill just a few day prior. I’m told the front wheel went through the second story window of one of the houses, and the bike ended up exactly where I was standing. At 240km/h, I wouldn’t have had a moment to run.
But the refreshing thing about the TT is also one of the reasons I love the Isle of Man so much. There have been repeated calls to ban the TT, with the coroner claiming in public that it even violates the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (that a government keep their people safe). However, the Isle of Man government continues to ignore the vocal minority.
Their stance is that nobody is forcing the competitors to compete. They know the risks all too well, and for them the thrill and excitement of competing justifies that risk – it’s a rush like nothing else on this planet. Nobody is forcing the spectators to stand in a dangerous spot either, and they do it because getting close to the action is a thrill; a thrill that justifies the small risk that you might get hurt.
The government here operates in such a way that they give people the responsibility to choose their own levels of risk, and the legal system is setup here so that you can’t sue someone else because you made a bad decision. Think the TT is too dangerous? Well then don’t come, and don’t spoil someone else’s fun because you don’t like it.
For example, I think it would be a fantastic experience to compete in the TT myself. But I don’t, because I’m not comfortable with that level of risk. But if I wanted to, I could. I find it liberating that the choice is mine – it hasn’t been made for me.
And that brings me back to my point that to understand the TT, you need to understand the Isle of Man. It’s for this reason that the TT is probably not just the greatest motorcycle race, but one of the greatest sporting events period. It couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world, and that makes it a totally unique experience.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles