- Author John Steward
- Published May 28, 2014
All you need to know about the Isle of Man TT
Every year, motorcycle racers from all over the world head to the Isle of Man to race on real roads, with real manhole covers, lined by real stone walls. At speeds that bend the needle. John Steward explains why you should watch the TT this year…
The last time I rode my motorbike 236 miles, I did a bit of motorway and mostly A-roads. I had to stop halfway for a wee, a coffee, petrol, lunch and a big stretch. It took about five and a half hours, including bacon sandwiches. My average speed was about 42mph.
When John McGuinness rides 236 miles, he stops only for a new rear tyre (it’s changed while he’s still sitting on the bike), a super-fast refuel, a new visor and a deep breath. It takes him 1 hour and 45 minutes. And it’s all on B-roads.
But then McGuinness is something else. A road-racer. When he laps the Isle of Man’s 37.7-mile course, he’ll go north of 200mph, negotiate 200 corners, and thrash every single one of his 200 horses to maintain an average speed of around 131mph. And that’s just one lap (he does up to six), over one race (he does at least five races over the week-long meeting).
Mainland Britain introduced a 20mph speed limit in 1903. But even back then, when some people thought you’d simply expire if you went too fast, many drivers didn’t care for the restriction. The Isle of Man, with its more relaxed attitude to velocity, was the answer.
1907 saw the first proper motorcycle TT races. They focused on the road-touring nature of bikes: there were regulations for pillion seats, mudguards and pedals, and bikes had to be able to achieve either 75- or 90mpg, depending on class. Fuel consumption (and exhaust-silencer) rules were scrapped in 1909. Progress.
The first races on the Snaefell mountain course took place in 1911 – a four-lap (150 mile) Junior race, and a five-lap (189 mile) Senior event. Oliver Godfrey took the chequered flag on a 3.75bhp Indian bike, at a jowl-bothering average speed of 47.63mph. The first 100mph lap fell to Scotsman Bob McIntyre in 1957.
The TT is a time-trial. Average speeds and total times are what matters: the object isn’t to finish first, it’s to finish fastest. That means there’s no starting grid. Instead, riders set out at 10-second intervals, and aim to set the fastest time possible. So, the guy who starts 10th can still win even though he doesn’t finish first.
The closest ever TT race was in 2012, when Bruce Anstey pipped Cameron Donald to the win by just 0.77 seconds. That might seem a lot in racing terms… but not when you realise that this was after four laps. That’s three-quarters of a second’s difference over 150 miles. Can you imagine doing that flat-out in your car?
Unlike most bike races, there are also pit-stops. Riding that hard, that fast, that far, means the riders drain their tanks and shred their rear tyres pretty quickly. A well-trained pit crew can change the rear wheel, refill the tank, give the rider a drink and change his visor in just under a minute. The riders will stop two or three times in a six-lap race. (Oh, and that 131mph average speed figure includes stopping for a minute or more every few laps.)
It’s dangerous, too. Since 1911 240 riders have died on the TT course in all its forms.
The current TT course is 37.7 miles long. It starts with a long stretch down Bray Hill (bottom-right in the map above), and winds its way through residential areas, countryside and up over the mountain. There are roundabouts, stone walls, manhole covers, road paint, bus stops, petrol stations and humpback bridges to negotiate (and yes, they get some pretty mad air).
And don’t think you can go there on your first year and set a record lap, either. The course is so long, with such variable surfaces and conditions (it can be sunny on one side and raining on the other) that it takes years to learn the course properly. Here’s why…
These machines are derived from 1000cc production bikes. They can put out over 200bhp and hit speeds approaching 210mph. Superbikes must have the same frame and appearance as the model you can buy in the showroom, but teams can modify the suspension, brakes, swingarm, electronics, wheels and fit full race exhaust systems (as well as removing lights and fitting race bodywork). That’s where the money goes, and these bikes can easily hit six-figure sums.
These are far closer to the 1000cc bikes you can buy in the shop. The only modifications allowed are to the rear shock and front fork internals, minor brake tweaks and changes to the exhaust and electronics. While the superbikes run on slick tyres, the superstock bikes use treaded road tyres. Even so, they still top 180bhp and are only a few seconds off the full-on superbikes…
Much like the superstock class, the 600cc supersport bikes are very close to the versions you can buy in a dealer. The exhaust, suspension internals, brakes and tyres can be tweaked a little, but they’re largely stock machines. So next time your friend is moaning about how his 600cc road-bike doesn’t have enough power, point him to a TT Supersport race video and ask him if he really needs any more…
This class is for smaller, lower-powered bikes up to 650cc – currently they’re two-cylinder ‘supertwin’ machines, mainly modified Suzuki SV650s and Kawasaki Er-6s. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they’re slow. The current Lightweight TT lap record sits at 119.13mph (well done, James Hillier) on a machine that develops around 90bhp.
Electric bikes got their own TT event in 2010. It’s raced over one lap (that’ll be a battery-range thing), and serves as a test-bed for up-and-coming tech. The Isle of Man government awarded a £10,000 prize for the first 100mph lap (step forward, Michael Rutter in the 2013 event), and speeds are still increasing. The bikes have to be completely battery powered and can use regenerative braking or KERS systems.
Also, they sound brilliant.
One pilot, one passenger. The pilot navigates the course, the passenger drapes himself all over the machine, sticking arms and legs out to redistribute the weight and keep it flat on the road. They have three wheels, four-cylinder motors up to 600cc, enormous tyres and are utterly bonkers. Look:
John McGuinness, 42, Morcambe (main picture)
With 20 wins across all classes except for the Zero TT (and sidecar races), the Morecambe Missile comes second only to TT legend Joey Dunlop in successes on the Island. He recorded the first 130mph lap in 2007, and set the course’s absolute lap record of 131.671mph in 2013. This year he’ll be competing with Michael Dunlop (below) for a clean-sweep of five wins across the week. Not bad for a man on the wrong side of 40.
Guy Martin, 32, Lincolnshire
Tea connoisseur, truck fitter and occasional TV presenter, this 32 year old was the subject of 2011’s brilliant TT documentary Closer To The Edge (see below). Despite gaining 13 podium finishes across nine years of TT racing, Guy has yet to win one. Perhaps this’ll be the year…
Michael Dunlop, 25, Northern Ireland (above)
The son of respected racer Robert Dunlop and nephew of Joey, Michael first appeared in the Superbike TT race in 2007, coming 25th. Fast-forward to his successful 2013, with four victories and one second place, and it’s clear that this year could be a bit special for this aggressive racer.
Michael Rutter, 42, West Midlands
He’s won the TT Zero event three times, Northern Ireland’s North West 200 road-race 13 times, the Macau GP eight times (see the video at the bottom of this page), and has had nine podiums in the TT. He’s a regular in the British Superbike Championship, and has even appeared on the MotoGP grid. Lord knows what Michael Rutter has for breakfast, but it’s clearly working.
Conor Cummins, 28, Isle of Man
The IoM native has been racing on his home circuit since 2006, when he picked up the Fastest Newcomer award. He’s been on the podium four times. In 2010 he was in with a shout of another when he suffered a horrifying crash on the high-speed Verandah section of the course. He broke his arm, his back and his pelvis, among other injuries… and was back at the TT the following year.
Bruce Anstey, 44, New Zealand (above)
This taciturn Kiwi fellow has 27 podiums and nine wins under his belt. He’s also the second fastest TT rider ever, and holds the unofficial top-speed record for the course at 206mph (set in 2006). Judging by his practice times for the 2014 event, Bruce looks like he might be a bit tasty this year too…
Cameron Donald, 36, Australia
Representing the other bit of the Antipodes, Cam Donald had his best TT year in 2008, when he picked up two wins in the Superbike and Superstock classes. He has four podiums overall. This year he’ll be racing for British manufacturer Norton. Over the past few years Cameron also raced in the World Endurance championship.
Ian Hutchinson, 34, West Yorkshire
Hutchy has eight TT wins to his name. He gained five of these in one week, in a stellar 2010 campaign – and is the only rider ever to win all five main races in one event. Unfortunately he badly injured his leg a week later in a race at Silverstone. A whopping 29 operations later, he’s back to the Island on a heavily modified bike. And hoping for a ninth victory.
Dave Molyneux, 50, Isle of Man (above)
Third in the list of all-time winningest TT racers is this sidecar-racing maestro, with 16 top spots since 1989. Moly has set the fastest-ever sidecar time on the mountain course, clocking in at 58m 59.28s over three laps, at an average speed of 115.132mph. He also builds racing sidecars, and has supplied them to several other TT winners. We like Dave Molyneux.
How to watch it
Assuming you aren’t one of the lucky beggars who’s bagged tickets to the event itself, your best bet is to tune in to ITV4 every night, or catch up on ITV Player (available on your LG Smart platform). There have already been three shows on – one profiling Michael Dunlop, one concentrating on Norton bikes and another on the new rising stars of the race.
Here’s the full schedule:
Thursday May 29, 9pm – Preview show
Thursday May 29, 10pm – Joey: The Man Who Conquered the TT
Friday May 30, 10pm – Qualifying
Saturday May 31, 9pm – Superbike TT race
Sunday June 1, 9pm – Sidecar TT race 1
Sunday June 1, 10pm – Closer To The Edge
Monday June 2, 9pm – Supersport TT race 1
Tuesday June 3, 9pm – Superstock TT race
Wednesday June 4, 10pm – Supersport TT race 2, TT Zero race
Thursday June 5, 9pm – Sidecar TT race 2
Friday June 6, 9pm – Senior TT race
Saturday June 7, 9pm – Lightweight TT race
Monday June 9, 6pm – Review show 1
Monday June 9, 7pm – Review show 2
And if you’re still hankering for more, follow Guy Martin through 2010’s event in Closer To The Edge on Sunday June 1 at 10pm on ITV4, or get the full-fat TT3D: Closer To The Edge on Blu-ray. If you have a Netflix account, you can also stream Charge – a documentary that examines the emergence of the TT Zero event.
The best race in the world
We love the TT. That it exists at all is amazing. Only a handful of road races exist these days – most of them in Northern Ireland and a few in mainland Europe. And Macau – which is just nuts…
It’s refreshingly crazy to see that some places still allow this kind of thing to happen. Sitting on a grassy bank eating Marmite sandwiches while bikes howl past and blow your hair back from only a few feet away only makes it more special.
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