The greatest race, the greatest reward

What is it that draws a motorcycle racer to the Isle of Man for the TT? The prize money is meagre, the cost can be absolute but the challenge is unlike any other

The Isle of Man TT races are everything that’s spectacular about motorcycle racing. There is no greater challenge than taking to the closed roads of the island and trying to calm the inner demons that tell you to stop. That tell you to slow down. That tell you to just survive. The best riders don’t think about surviving; they think about pushing harder than ever. Only a handful of riders will make a living racing on the roads, even fewer will taste champagne or stand in the winner’s enclosure. What drives them to do it?

Honestly I can’t believe it’s legal to go out and do this,” explained Lee Johnston in the build up to winning his first TT this year. “There is nothing like it. Nothing comes close.”

It’s hard to dispute that. Riding a 200bhp Superbike through towns and villages, between hedges lined with fans and then hurtling over the mountain passes of the Isle of Man. Once they’ve done this, everything else on a bike has to be less of a thrill for these riders.

Riding at 330 kmp/h on the Sulby straight, the riders will travel at almost 100m per second. The slightest mistake could be your last. It’s the ultimate battle of risk vs reward, fight vs flight. These riders don’t have a death wish; they have a life to the fullest wish. And they achieve it every year on a small island in the Irish Sea,

The 2019 Isle of Man TT is the 100th time that riders have arrived on the island with the ultimate goal of winning the Senior TT. Only World Wars and a health scare have halted proceedings at this festival of speed.

Some riders enjoy it and others don’t,” explained TT veteran David Johnson. “I loved it from the start. I came over from Australia and all I wanted to be was a world champion but I couldn’t find the right bike. I knew I could have been at the front if I had a good bike. I come to the TT to try get a good ride for the British championship but once came here racing anywhere else wasn’t as much fun anymore. I’d do the TT and then when I’d race at a short circuit I was angry and I didn’t want to be there at all. It actually felt like a job to be there. Riding at the TT though it has its hard time but it’s a different feeling that you can’t replace. There’s nothing else that can replace it”

Johnson isn’t the only rider to think that. A host of riders have come to the island and left as different men. Lee Johnston, from Northern Ireland, arrived on the roads by accident but immediately he was hooked. Everything else bored him and he stopped racing short circuits for years because they didn’t excite him.

You have to have the right of frame of mind to go racing,” reflected Johnston. “I did my first road race by accident but I absolutely loved it. I remember going back to race on short circuits and after ten laps, when I was going flat out, I just thought ,‘this is boring.’ I had no interest in it at all. I absolutely loved racing on the roads. There’s no feeling like it. We’re lucky to do it. Not many get to do this. It’s so special. After starting on the roads if there was no buzz in riding I saw no point in doing it. I was only interesting in racing on the roads.”

It’s not just riders that are susceptible to the lure of the roads. Manufacturers have spent over 100 years trying to prove the machinery. Trying to prove to customers that their engineering know how is better than anyone else. They’ve tried to prove that racing improves the breed. For the likes of Honda the Isle of Man held a special lustre. It was a race to win and to prove that post-war Japan was at the forefront of technology.

Honda declared their goal to compete on the world stage in 1953 with Soichiro Honda famously stating that, “I will put my heart and soul and my creativity and skills to the goal of entering the TT races and winning them.” Within three years of their debut, Honda’s goals were met and it marked the moment that motorcycle racing stopped being dominated by European manufacturers; the age of Japanese success had arrived. Since that first victory Honda has won 183 races around the famous Mountain Course.

It’s not just Honda that has tasted success on the roads however. Kawasaki and Suzuki both used the TT as their proving grounds almost 70 years ago. Since then the TT has lost its place on the MotoGP calendar but it was at the TT that Kawasaki achieved their most recent premier class success in 1975. For Suzuki the TT become the turning point of their history. For years they struggled but the arrival of a defecting Ernst Degner, and technical secrets from Europe, saw their fortunes transformed.

At that time manufacturers were making huge efforts to reinvent the wheel on a yearly basis. Four-stroke and two-stroke machines were racing against one another. Lots of different engine configurations were being used to try and tame the power delivery and offer tremendous performance. Revolution, and not evolution, was the watchword of the time and the Isle of Man was the ultimate proving ground.

Not much as changed since then. The TT Zero class, for electric bikes, is now in its tenth year and once again Japan is leading the way. The Mugen Shinden Hachi has been the dominant force of the class for five years. Year upon year it has been the most expensive bike in the TT paddock. Mugen is a Honda in all but name and it has shown that, even though Honda are not supporting their road racing programme from Japan, the TT is still seen as natural habitat for Honda. 

Over the last number of years the rate of development on the TT Zero machine has slowed but still laptimes improve at a huge rate. The current lap record for the class is held by the Mugen at an average speed of just under 122mph. With the MotoE class set to join the fray this year, in support of selected MotoGP races, electric racing is big business and Honda has proven again to be at the fore.

The lap speeds have risen consistently with the first TT seeing a fastest lap of just over 40mph. Year on year speeds increased as more and more bikes were developed. With each decade a new target was set. Who would hit 50mph first? Who would hit 60mph?

It took until the 50th running of the famous Senior race, in 1957 until we, finally, saw the first ever lap that averaged 100mph around the course. At that time the practice sessions were still run the morning at 5am on open roads where riders were liable to meet the early morning milkman! Just like breaking the four minute mark for a mile once the feat had been achieved once it was suddenly a glass ceiling that was smashed. Bob McIntyre had another three laps over 100mph in the same race to dominate proceedings.

It took another 19 years to break 110mph with the Suzuki of John Williams breaking the mark. That year’s TT would also be the first time that the Manx fans caught a glimpse of Joey Dunlop. The Northern Irishman would eventually go on to become the greatest road racer of all-time and a 26 winner on the island. That year’s race would be the last time that the event held the status of a Grand Prix. From that point onwards the world’s top riders were not obliged to return to the Mountain Course. It was as a result of the complaints of the top riders that saw the TT suddenly lose some of its appeal but it would ultimately be crucial for ensuring it’s survival. Suddenly it wasn’t obligatory and it become optional. If you wanted to race at it you had to be committed to the cause by choice rather than by contractual demands.

From what seemed like the end of the TT after the loss of Grand Prix status suddenly saw the event return to being the greatest race on the calendar. When Mike Hailwood made his racing return in 1978 it was on a Ducati on the Mountian Course and it was the biggest story in the racing world. The TT was front page news and by winning the Senior it is still regarded as one of the greatest sporting comebacks.

The drama of the TT was back and in the 80’s it was the era of Dunlop and Honda. The two were an unlikely pair but there was nothing that the quiet Dunlop couldn’t do on the island and his six wins in a row marked him out as one of Honda’s stars. To this day he’s still fondly remembered by the manufacturer. 

The last year of the 80’s finally saw the 120mph barrier broken by Steve Hislop. The 130mph mark fell to John McGuiness in 2007. Across the record books it’s basically been 20 years to find 10mph but we’re now at the point of diminishing returns. How fast can a TT racer get? At the moment the record is held by Peter Hickman with a 135mph lap. 

Hickman’s adaptation to the roads has been amazing and this year he was rewarded with a trio of successes. He has risen the bar of what can be expected at the TT and it’s only been Dean Harrison that can consistently compete with him. The Harrison/Hicky show has dominated the headlines over the last two years and this year. A trio of wins for Hickman added to his previous success but it was Harrison that claimed the biggest race of the year; the Senior TT on his Kawasaki.

After a fortnight of terrible weather and long delays the final days of the TT saw lots of racing and once again saw the world in awe at the riders willing to take the risks to live the life they want.

“Why do I do it? Because I can,” that’s how these riders sum up their ability to race on the world’s greatest circuit.

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