WRITER: Simon De Burton PHOTOGRAPHER: Brian Grissom
It’s unlikely you’ve ever stood at the side of a road and watched in awe as a missile travelling at over 300 km/h hurtles towards you at ground level. But if you want to know what it feels like, head to the Isle of Man, stand at Bray Hill and witness the jaw-dropping spectacle of the annual Tourist Trophy motorcycle races.
Better known simply as the ‘Isle of Man TT’, this unique event was first staged in 1907 but is still regarded as one of the greatest challenges of man and machine ever devised. One of the last true ‘road races’ in the world, the TT is unusual in that the riders go all-out on a route normally used by everyday vehicles.
But when that route is closed to normal traffic for ‘TT fortnight,’ competitors ride against the clock through built-up areas at full throttle dodging street furniture, roundabouts and drain covers before heading out into open country where a mechanical failure or a second’s lapse of concentration can result in a potentially lethal collision with a tree, a dry stone wall or even a stray animal.
In the early days, the TT was held on the 25-kilomtere ‘St John’s Short Course’ and comprised 10 laps for road-legal ‘touring’ motorcycles. In 1911, however, the far longer and more challenging Snaefell Mountain Course was inaugurated and the first purpose-built racing machines were entered.
Still in use today and currently measuring 60.7 kilometres, the Mountain Course is dangerous, gruelling and – as even experienced competitors will readily admit – nothing short of terrifying when tackled at full race pace.
Starting and finishing in the town of Douglas, riders set off at 10-second intervals and pass through the urban environment of Bray Hill before heading west to Ramsey in the north of the island via course landmarks with evocative names such as Sarah’s Cottage, Quarry Bends, Gooseneck corner and Ballaugh Bridge (where bikes frequently become airborne).
Despite the myriad dangers of inconsistent road surfaces, the lack of run-off areas, the 200-plus corners and the almost 400-metre altitude change, the top riders cover the course at staggering speeds – with Michael Dunlop (whose late father, Joey, won a record number of TT races) setting a new, fastest-ever average of 215.5 km/h at this year’s event in June.
Ironically, the long stretches of open road which form part of the circuit mean it is possible to sustain far greater speeds than are seen on safer, purpose-built race circuits – and that has proved lethal on many occasions.
Indeed, those who say the TT should be stopped on safety grounds believe today’s motorcycles have simply become too fast and too powerful for conditions which have remained largely the same for a century. In the early years of the Mountain Course, even the best machines struggled to exceed 80 km/h. Now they can break the 300 barrier.
All the same, it was as early as 1911 that the TT claimed its first victim when Englishman Victor Surridge crashed his Rudge-Whitworth at Glen Helen during practice. The blackest year in TT history, meanwhile, was 1970 when five died, with a further four fatalities in 2016 bringing the toll to 250. Although not all of them were racers.
One of the most dangerous and most opposed elements of TT Fortnight is the day known as ‘Mad Sunday’ when, instead of competitors using it for practice, the course is laid open to members of the public to ride around on their own machines. Despite everyone travelling in the same direction, accidents, sometimes fatal ones, still occur.
But regular attempts to have the TT banned have so far ended in failure, its millions of supporters worldwide citing the fact that it remains one of the last challenges in motorsport which isn’t subject to state ‘nannying’, a rare event where adults are allowed to make up their own minds as to the risks involved and whether or not they wish to face them.
One man who has certainly proved it’s possible to race numerous TTs and survive is Lancastrian John McGuinness who, since his first outing at the event in 1996, has won no fewer than 23 races across the various categories – although he is still chasing Irishman Joey Dunlop’s outright record of 26, which included winning no fewer than three races in each of three separate years.
The 2017 Isle of Man TT will take place from May 27th to June 9th. So, if you really do want to see what a missile looks like coming down the road, go ahead and book a ticket.
What is the Isle of Man?
The Isle of Man is a self-governing dependency, which, despite having Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, is not officially part of the United Kingdom. As a result, laws are made by its own parliament and government and it exists as a low-tax economy with an upper income tax limit of 120,000 GBP per person, with no taxes applied to capital gains, wealth, inheritance or property purchases.
Measuring 51.5 kilometres long by 22.5 wide, ‘Mann’, as it is sometimes called, sits alone in the Irish Sea, roughly equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The population stands at around 85,000 and some still speak the Manx language. The island’s symbol is the three-legged ‘triskelion, and it is known for the short-tailed Manx cat and the distinctive Manx Loaghtan sheep, some of which have as many as three pairs of horns.
Ironically, only three ‘Manxmen’ have ever managed to win the TT.