The Isle of Man - a unique place in motorcycling
Dave Morris, TT 99, photo by Eric Whitehead
This small island, 30 miles long, set in the
Irish Sea between NW England and Ireland, is one of the few places where road racers still practise their art. Over in Northern Ireland there is a similar scene, but this little rock in the sea is still considered the Mecca of true roadracing. Visitors flock from all over the world, and there are very few who visit once and aren't seduced. For two weeks in June the island is invaded by 45,000 motorcycle fans, and you cannot move on the roads for bikes. The 37.73 mile Mountain Circuit is the most demanding racetrack in the world, and though there is no true international status for the races, it still commands great respect.
The TT was the first target for Soichiro Honda's racing aspirations, and it is a place that became dear to him and his team. Now the Honda effort is run by Honda (UK), and the dominance of the v-four Hondas (RC30s and RC45s) has been a major component of their marketing campaign. In fact, they regard the TT as more important than the domestic Superbike competition, though one has to wonder if that is not unrelated to the cost of leasing RC45s for a season rather than a few weeks.
Radio presenter and TT fan Andy Kershaw describes the atmosphere and characters and gives a taste of spectating
1998 - Honda passes 100 wins
In 1998 Honda attacked the TT with even more gusto than usual. It was their 40th year of competition, and they were on the eve of the company's 50th anniversary. The result was that they won every race bar the singles, where Jim Moodie rode the Sanyo Honda to second place behind Dave Morris of Chrysalis Racing. The Fireblade won the reinstated Production race, giving Honda their 100th victory at the Isle of Man. They subsequently produced a lavish hardback book "Two Weeks in June", documenting the rather wet 1998 TT.
1999 - Yamaha's turn
Until 1999 the V4 Hondas had reigned supreme. The Yamaha R1 came along and proved that a modern lightweight road bike with a few modifications can compete with the mighty v-four race bikes. However, there are two facts that suggest that luck was not with the Honda riders that year. Sadly, Simon Beck, a popular rider, died during practise. Jim Moodie failed to complete the Formula 1 race, but a small consolation was provided when Moodie broke the 7 year-old outright lap record in the Senior race, with a stunning 124.45mph lap - from a standing start! Also, TT veteran and 26-time TT winner Joey Dunlop recorded his fastest ever lap on the RC45 (123.06mph).
2000 - Joey and the SP-1
For 2000 Joey was equipped with an RC51 v-twin, which was fitted with a WSB engine. The kitted VTRs in the UK Superbike championship had been well off the pace, and corporate pride meant Honda pulled out the stops for the TT. Yer Maun rewarded this effort with a win in the Formula 1 (as well as in two other classes). It was the first victory by a twin cylinder machine in a Formula 1 race since Hailwood's famous victory on the Ducati in 1978. Honda later produced a limited edition replica RC51, details on the Joey Dunlop
Joey failed to match David Jefferies' astounding speed in the Senior, despite setting his fastest ever lap round the circuit. Jefferies won convincingly, and smashed Jim Moodie's record (though on a flying lap) and managed the first ever 125mph lap on his R1. The V&M Racing
R1 bikes had slippery R7 bodywork, while engine modifications had released some more horsepower. The rumour was they were geared for 200mph! Jim Moodie pulled out of the Senior race, after realising that the so-called 'special' Honda Fireblades shipped over from Japan were no match for the Yamahas. HRC had sent them over too late to get them set up correctly - something which is crucial on this tricky and dangerous circuit.
There was no racing in 2001, due to fears that Foot and Mouth would spread to the Island. In 2002 David Jeffries asserted himself as the man to beat at the TT, by winning the Formula 1, the Production and Senior races, all on the light and powerful Suzuki GSX-R1000s. He set a new record lap in each race, the fastest being over 127mph in the Senior. Honda's efforts, with the very capable John McGuinness on a special Honda Fireblade, were hampered by less well setup machines.
Mark Gardiner is a name that probably went unnoticed during TT 2002. A DVD has since been produced about his journey, and it is reviewed here.
In 2003 the big bike classes were again dominated by the Suzuki GSX-R1000, with Jefferies' team-mate Adrian Archibald winning both the Formula 1 and Senior races. Ian Lougher rode the SP-2 Honda, but was unable to get the bike to handle satisfactorily over the mountain course. Sadly, the whole event was overshadowed by the death of David Jefferies during practice week. Jefferies, the fastest ever rider around the 37 mile course, died on 29th May 2003 during practice.
Tributes to Jefferies and Steve Hislop (who died later in the summer) appeared in the 2004 issue
of Island Racer
Veteran journalist Norrie White died later in 2003. He was a hugely popular race fan and journalist for Bikesport News. He too will be missed. You can read his tribute to Joey Dunlop
2004 saw good weather and stunning lap times in several classes. John McGuinness set the pace in practice, and went similarly quickly in the races. He won three, but could have taken more but for the riding of Kiwi Bruce Anstey (who won the Production 1000) and Adrian Archibald (the Senior).
Jun Maeda at TT 2004
click either to see
McGuinness dominated the Formula 1 - to be renamed the Superbike race from 2005 - on his Yamaha R1 and the 400cc Lightweight aboard the RLR Honda RVF400, smashing lap records in both classes. He also won a fast and furious 600cc Junior race.
2004 saw the last of both the 125cc grand prix and 400cc four-stroke classes, after a poor entry in each. This means the TT is now dominated by production-related classes, and I feel it will be the poorer for it. As lap times increase the smaller classes are an opportunity for riders to savour the handling of the little bikes, instead of hanging onto a 200mph missile around the world's toughest and most dangerous race circuit. Several riders commented that the 400cc was the most enjoyable class to ride, yet average speed for the top riders is over 110mph. 2004 was to be Robert Dunlop's last time competing at the TT. We'll miss you Robert.
The most closely fought races were for the production machines, where changes are tightly controlled. This really is a case of racing a road bike minus the lights, and with a loud race pipe. The absence of an official Triumph entry was disappointing, after their successful entry last year (Anstey won the 2003 Production 600cc race with the ValMoto Triumph Daytona), but they had other priorities. Instead Ryan Farquahar won aboard the McAdoo Kawasaki ZX-6R, the first time a Kwak has won at the TT for aeons.
The sidecars are often under-reported. As usual, the two sidecar races, run using tuned 600cc road bike engines, were as much fun as any of the solos. Local ace Dave Molyneux, partnered by Daniel Sayle, won both races and set a new lap record of 20min 00.2 seconds (113.117mph), agonisingly close to the 20-minute lap mark.
Away from the racing, the David Jefferies Memorial Lap on Mad Sunday attracted 3,500 riders while many spectators lined the course. Big Dave is sadly missed. In the Classic Parade Jim Redman rode a six-cylinder 250cc Honda, reputed to be one of the bikes ridden by Mike Hailwood (like this one), with Phil Read and Charlie Williams aboard Yamaha two-strokes, along with many others.
Also discussed on the island was the recent death of Davy Wood, the man known to many as Joey Dunlop's manager. Davy, a hugely significant figure in Irish road racing, died on 25th May after a short illness. Bikesport News described him as "one of the most influential people in the Irish racing scene for the last 20 years". He worked hard to promote many riders, a list of whom would read like a Who's Who of Irish road racing.
Radio TT once again broadcast its vital commentary, and included an interesting piece on Steve Hislop. Hizzy, one of the island's most celebrated racers with 11 TT victories to his name, died in a helicopter crash in 2003. Although he made his name on the Isle of Man TT circuit, he was a supremely talented 250cc and superbike rider, who recently held the outright lap record at Donington Park, as well as the TT course. The Guardian has an obituary by Frank Melling. Honda Racing supremo Neil Tuxworth paid tribute to Hizzy, remarking that he was
"one of the most talented motorcycle racers of his, or any, generation. He was one of the best riders that I have worked with on the island and one of the best all-round riders that we have produced in the UK over the past two decades."
2004 saw the publishing of a new book about the TT, written by Mac McDiarmid. Pop over to the Books & DVD page to read about it.
This year saw a radical change in the classes. The 400cc and lightweight/ultra-lightweight classes have been abandoned, as has the Production 600 class. There were two Junior class 600cc races, the Formula 1 was renamed the Superbike and both F1 and Senior races were run over 6 laps. This allowed riders to have a full race week while paying for and setting up fewer machines.
John McGuinness was the man tipped for the most wins, and he was fastest in practice. The F1, delayed until Sunday, proved to be a close event, with several riders pushing McGuinness and his Yamaha R1 for the victory. McGuinness also won the Senior after lapping at over 127mph. Adrian Archibald was close behind McGuinness before suffering with a puncture on his TAS Suzuki. Archibald seemed destined not to succeed this year, with mechanical or fuel problems curtailing his challenge in 3 races, although he did take some consolation from a victory in one of the two Junior 600cc races.
In the sidecars Dave Molyneux was hoping for a sub-20 minute lap and record number of wins, but stopped with mechanical problems in the first race This let Nick Crowe through to win. Moly made up for it in the second, lapping at record speed and taking a comfortable win.
The Senior TT was marred by the death of Ian 'Gus' Scott and marshall April Bolster, after Scott's 1000cc machine collided with Mrs Bolster as she crossed the course to attend to another rider. While the TT's detractors are quick to jump on racing deaths on the circuit, most people will not have noticed the deaths of a 41 year old visitor at Onchan and a 28 year old from St John's in a two-car incident on the Ballamodha straight. It is easy to target the races as a cause of 'unnecessary' deaths, yet many people turn a blind eye to the daily toll of casualties on our roads; in 2004 3,221 people died on UK roads. Yes, over THREE THOUSAND. [Source: Department for Transport] In conclusion I'd like to quote 9 times TT winner, David Jefferies:
"if you don't want to do it then don't, but leave those who do to enjoy it as best they can... people mortgage their houses to enable themselves to compete and I believe if you're passionate enough to make sacrifices, you should be allowed to do it."
Michael Rutter RC45 1998 © Simon J Evans
Ian Lougher Honda RS125 1998 © Simon J Evans
Ian Simpson RC45 1998 © Simon J Evans
Irish road racing