Isle of Man TT – Part Three

Friday is the big one: the Senior TT – the biggest prize in road racing. Idle bar banter in the Railway has led us to try a spot to the north of the island where the speeds are among the highest anywhere on the lap. We want to experience that breath-taking rush from the bikes skimming our ankles as they pass. A wise local has suggested we try the Cronk Y Voddy straight, advising us to seek out the kink part-way along for the ultimate buzz.

This means another dash to find parking and a prime view, and more mildly frustrating running around the island with packs of enduros and sports bikes swarming impatiently. Still, the opportunity to once again gun it through the derestricted zones past the spectators remains incongruous but thrilling.

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We locate a farm offering cheap parking right where our sage suggested and the incumbent farmer is charging £5 for the day and has invited a friend along with a concessions trailer so we can easily purloin a morning coffee. It’s not yet congested but the best viewing appears already to have been annexed. We wander further along the course – we are on the outfield – and clamber delicately over a barbed wire fence into a small orchard. The precise ownership of this chunk of real estate isn’t clear but the path over to the trackside appears well-trodden so we hope for the best. We’re greeted by a clear view of the course – the riders approaching from our right over a crest before continuing away to our left down a gently undulating straight. A handy tree enables us to secure our portable radio and provides useful anchorage for hanging right out over the macadam. Bloody hell – this is TT experience you see in all the videos.

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This unusual proactivity means we are extremely early so we find ourselves basking in the glorious Manx weather, catching up on our caffeine intake, reading and – most remarkably – feeling like we are actually on holiday. So many times you watch the TT coverage and the protagonists are frustrated by rain or mist; once again we laze under clear blue skies and warm sunshine.

The opening competitive action is the second sidecar race of the week. This is of particular interest to our travelling partner Chris, for whom sidecar racing – particularly on the roads – is an absolute obsession.

The Birchall brothers are a shoo-in of course and their form in race one on Saturday is ominous. They appear first and the sound of the outfit is shocking in its savagery; little 600cc screamers, these units are operating right on the limit in hauling a couple of lads along Cronk Y Voddy at 150mph. The outfit gives a shimmy as it floats over the crest, howling towards us, gently drifting out towards the grass verge below our feet. While tiny by car standards, compared to a motorcycle, a sidecar outfit displaces a significant volume of air and Chris’s cap is blown clear from his head, exposing his shiny dome. He is reduced to stupefied laughter; blown away by the visceral thrill of watching his heroes at close quarters.

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The chasing pack emerges from our right at regular intervals. They all scream but none with quite the same defiance and anger as the Birchall brothers’ IEG Racing Honda. The anticipation as they approach each lap and the subsequent assault on the senses remains an absolute highlight of the event.

In the end, there is little dramatic tension in the result. While John Holden and Lee Cain lose on average only seven seconds per lap to the ballistic brothers, the Birchalls continue their domination of the island. Along the way they set a new sidecar lap record at an astounding 119.250mph; their race average is 118.281mph over 113 flat-out miles.

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It’s an amazing privilege to watch all the outfits up close. As they appear into our sight, the passengers are hunched over to the right to help offer some stability over the brow. Then it’s an exercise in ducking down under the canopy as quickly and efficiently as possible for maximum top-end down the succeeding straight. Dave Molyneux and Daniel Sayle are using an experimental low-drag outfit which requires Sayle to adopt a Superman pose, flat on his front, legs out behind him. It’s innovative but the results aren’t flowing for Molyneux – sidecar racing’s most successful ever exponent on the Isle of Man.

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Although the crowd is hardly large on our chosen verge, there’s a palpable tension in the air ahead of the Senior TT. Hickman, Harrison and Dunlop have been on scintillating form all fortnight and lap records have fallen in every category. Everyone wants to see a safe, fast race – and hopefully a new outright lap record. At six laps, it’s a long, gruelling contest; the final duration would be one hour and 43 minutes, undertaken at an average of over 130mph including pitstops. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the numbers to appreciate quite how otherworldly this event is.

Before the race kicks off, we are treated to a demo lap from John McGuiness. One of the island’s favourite sons, he still isn’t yet race-fit after injury but treats the crowds to a 122mph lap aboard the Norton he had been slated to ride in the Senior.

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He bursts over the brow, a reflective blur, front wheel high in the air, bassy engine note straining at high revs. Right on the ultimate pace this exhibition lap may not be but McPint is clearly still operating in rarified air. It leaves the tantalising question of whether he has the last couple of mph in his pocket to challenge Hickman, Harrison and Dunlop should he return in 2019.

First to emerge is local hero Conor Cummins, carrying the number one. You hear him long before he appears into sight, the revs on his Padgetts Honda subtly rising as he ascends the gentle undulations on Cronk Y Voddy. He’s upon us before we realise. The kink is taken at around 170mph on a superbike and Cummins seems to shapeshift: one moment he’s cranked over at the brow, the next we feel the air rushing over our faces as he wails off down the straight, revs still rising hard and fast. Expletives flow, we laugh spontaneously. This is like nothing else we’ve seen or felt before.

Still recovering from the adrenaline spike of Cummins’ outrageous pass, the rest of the field pours through. Notable, though, is Harrison. He is visibly faster than the riders immediately preceding him. Head down, front wheel dangling in the air over one hundred metres after the brow, he is a man on a mission. Equally shocking is Michael Dunlop. The Irishman looks wild; he uses far more of the road than any other rider, both wheels right in the dirt at our feet. More expletives, more laughter. This is legalised insanity.

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That sense of disbelief doesn’t wear off for the next two hours. Each pass causes more sharp intakes of breath – even the ‘slowest’ riders are travelling at ludicrous speed, the kink shrugged off with a 200m wheelie. It’s a tiny snapshot of a lap travelled on the ragged edge.

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In spite of his awesome commitment, Dunlop cannot seem to match Hickman and Harrison. In fact, it seems anomalous that Dunlop never sets a lap in the 134mph bracket all week, while the others stride into hitherto-unknown territory.

The British Superbike regulars are at it right from the off, though Harrison leads right into the final lap. On lap six, after 90 minutes of crazy speed, the pair trading blows corner-by-corner, Deano leads at Ballaugh Bridge by 5.7 seconds. He has passed us a few minutes earlier, as composed as always. By this stage, Hickman is gently but inexorably reeling him in. He blares down Cronk Y Voddy with even greater conviction, the crowds cheering for both riders as they traverse the traffic which is inevitable over such a long contest.

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Manx Radio helps us track the gap. Hickman has been attacking the Mountain vigorously all fortnight and it’s here that he truly makes his move. He arrives at Bungalow 0.8 seconds ahead, having circumnavigated Snaefell faster than any rider in history. Harrison crosses the line to record a new outright lap record, tantalisingly close to the magical 135mph barrier: 134.918mph.

The duo are separated by 40 seconds on the road by virtue of their start times so we can only chase the split times on Manx Radio. The tension is unbearable. Hickman’s final couple of miles are blighted by traffic but it doesn’t stop the Lincolnshire man extending his lead fractionally – he crosses the line two seconds to the good with a truly amazing new outright lap record of 135.452mph.

Roars rise from the spectator banks, even over the noise of the other competitors completing their final laps. Hickman’s BMW has averaged 131.700mph with Harrison at 131.656mph. This has been an absolutely titanic struggle, with both men pushing the other to ever greater heights. Their nearest competitor is Conor Cummins who is the greater part of two minutes in arrears, offering some context to the phenomenal pace at the front.

It’s easy to lapse into hyperbole after a close motor race but everyone on the island knows they’ve just witnessed a very special moment. The Senior TT is once again the fastest road race in the world, having stolen back its crown from the Ulster GP. And it leaves the tantalising prospect of this duo continuing their battles into 2019 and beyond. But can anyone else get near them? Have they lifted the bar to a height that nobody else can reach?

Race week on the island closes with the traditional annual fireworks display in Ramsey harbour. We stand on the front and enjoy a beer, soaking up the atmosphere and able to reflect on a week of motor racing which has delivered tragedy mixed with remarkable achievement and some amazing racing.

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It is said that the TT captures your heart – and that you are never quite the same again after a trip to the world’s most storied motorcycle race meeting. I suspect there is an element of truth in that. Uniquely, this is an event which takes over not just a district or a village, or even a city, but instead an entire island. The whole place is overwhelmed by a series of races which retains a level of danger which seems completely at odds with the rest of the world – even the motor sporting world.

The local community embraces and facilitates this celebration of liberty and the pursuit of absolute speed – the ultimate thrill. The circuit is unlike any other to host racing in the 21st century. To offer some perspective on its speed and challenge: Hickman’s winning speed in the Senior TT is over 20mph faster than he achieved on his way to second place in BSB around Thruxton, the fastest short course in the UK. There is nothing else like it in motor racing and it should be a vital entry on every race fan’s bucket list, even if their interest in motorcycles is only vague.

While the action on the Mountain course is over for the year (at least so far as the TT is concerned), there is a little treat in store on Saturday. The Post-TT Road Races take place over the Billown circuit to the south of the island. This layout hosts the annual Southern 100, a prestigious road racing event in its own right.

The Post-TT Road Races offer a condensed programme of practice and racing rolled into a single day around a challenging four mile course. The circuit itself is roughly square, with a massed start taking place along the A5 on the outskirts of Castletown. Each side of the square is pretty quick, with chicanes to catch out the unwary – including the legendary Joey’s Gate, so called because the legendary Joey Dunlop once found himself charging unexpectedly through an open gate and into a farmer’s field.

We arrive in time to see a few laps of practice from Cross Four Ways at the northernmost point of the circuit before the roads open once again. We complete a quick lap to orientate ourselves before selecting a viewing spot at Malew Churchyard. The parking is, quite remarkably, free and we are given a programme gratis by a friendly marshal. Having brought our own picnic, aside from a hot drink bought from the enterprising church wardens, this is a free day at the races. Liberty Media – are you listening?

The racing kicks off in late afternoon and we establish a neat spot hanging over the wall of the church graveyard. This represents something of a first during my 30 years of watching motorsport; never before have I spectated in a burial ground. Still, the church itself seems comfortable with our presence and we have a great view so we roll with it.

Only a few names are familiar from TT week but the evening’s racing kicks off with a cracking battle between McAdoo team mates James Cowton and Adam McLean in the opening stanza. McLean stalks his rival relentlessly before diving ahead under braking approaching the church. He wins by a scant two tenths. Sadly Cowton would be killed at the Southern 100 later in the year, just a few hundred metres from where we are stood. The highs and lows of motorcycle road racing laid bare once more.

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Mercifully the Post-TT Road Races would pass uneventfully. The racing is less stellar than we experienced during the TT itself but the thrill of the riders dive bombing us as we hang over the ancient church walls is addictive. They apex just past our noses before flicking the motorcycles over to the left to exit the complex in a carefully-metered blare of unsilenced fury. The bravest are virtually skimming their helmets on the wall at the left-hand apex, bringing to mind the lunacy of Macau.

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Because ferries are so congested around race week we have a couple of days left to explore the island. As this is a holiday and we are British we try to ensure a basic level of inebriation every evening, alternating between the Railway at Union Mills and Douglas, a brisk 45 minute walk from our lodgings. That gives us the luxury of a slow start but we decide to spend Sunday exploring the southern end of the island.

We start at a horse sanctuary where donkeys make mournful noises, even when they are blissfully happy, and I try hard to avoid being menaced – the default result of any interaction I seem to have with our equine chums.

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Having escaped with neither kicks nor bites, we venture on to Murrays Motorcycle Museum. This is a proper British museum: small, personal and loaded with ephemera. There are dozens of racing motorcycles with a history on the island including multiple Manx GP winners. Not being an expert, I struggle to reconcile the significance of each one but the passionate is evident.

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The museum sits very close to Fairy Bridge, where we attempt to stop but are thwarted by the navigational ineptitude of the group leader in the silver Porsche. We’ll have to try and meet the fairies next time.

Our ultimate destination on this part of the island is Castletown, home of Rushen Castle. This is a deeply historic castle and it offers a fascinating reveal of the governance of the Isle of Man and its place in British history. Castletown is the administrative centre of the island, with Rushen Castle the monarchic home of the King of Mann. This title was given up during the 16th century when the incumbent decided he would sooner be “a great lord than a petty king’, since when the reigning British monarch has assumed the title King of Mann, while the Stanley family assumed the title of Lord of Mann until overthrown by parliamentarians during the civil war.

It’s a window into a period of history and a part of the world about which I know little and we thoroughly enjoy exploring the castle. The views out across the sea and the small, ancient town are fantastic – well worth an afternoon out.

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We return north via a lap of the Billown circuit, and are delighted to find the speed limits have lifted so we are able to drive at a reasonable pace. We continue north over derestricted roads, enjoying the opportunity to stretch our machinery legally. We branch off to Peel, though struggle to navigate our way to a rest point on the fly and decide to explore further on wheels.

There’s a cracking road out of Peel and back towards the TT course, emerging near Kirk Michael. It’s bumpy and twisty, and probably the only place on the island where I can put some distance between the 911 and Chris’s mental Fireblade, the scarred Tarmac causing him to lift from his seat on a regular basis. Strangely, though the road isn’t fast, I enjoy this drive as much as any all week. We find no traffic and the Porsche can really be hustled. It’s not agile like a Lotus but you learn to use the mass to your advantage, gaining confidence and lunging down each straight in on a wave of boosted torque. There’s little chance for a rest and, though I rarely breach 70mph, I’m buzzing by the time we hit the main road again.

We continue to follow the TT course and finally – a week into our trip – get a clear run at the Mountain course, closed for one more day to two-way traffic. It’s quieter on the roads now than it had been during race week and we file out of Ramsey with some excitement. Ramsey Hairpin is still within the speed limited zone so we proceed with care, emerging at the Gooseneck and able to step up the pace. I have no idea which way the road goes so this is scarcely a balls-out run but we press on as hard as we feel is safe and prudent. A couple of well-ridden superbikes howl past up the Mountain Mile; they evidently know the course and are attacking beautifully – we keep them in sight for barely a minute.

It’s initially disorientating to use the full extent of the road but it starts to feel natural and it makes overtaking really easy. Once dispatched by the superbike pilots, we have a clear run and are not overtaken again over the Mountain. We run at a reasonable pace and it’s so much fun getting to roll the car into fast corners at autobahn speeds without the worry of oncoming traffic or zealous policing.

It’s a comedown to reach the Creg Ny Baa and the end of the run but it’s tinged with a slight relief that all three of us are in one piece, as are our machines. The blast over the Mountain confirms to me that the level on which the top riders operate is totally otherworldly. There’s no way I have the talent and bravery necessary to commit to blind corners at 150mph+, even without the prospect of oncoming traffic. My reverence towards these riders only grows with exposure to their world.

We also have Monday clear so we elect to head to the north of the island. By now, the road furniture is being replaced and we find, much to our delight, that speed limits are being lifted in several places. It would appear that the authorities impose artificial limits during TT fortnight to try and control the tourists. Our primary destination is the Isle of Man Motor Museum at Jurby, adjacent to the airfield, which itself hosts some motorcycle racing.

The museum is an impressive building – large and airy with a vast array of exhibits on two wheels and four (plus a couple riding on eight…). The collection is entirely personal and built up by local entrepreneurs Denis and Darren Cunningham. Each exhibit is described in detail, including the story behind its procurement, its personal history and its significance to the family. From diminutive Peel P50 to a Routemaster bus, it’s hard to know where to start. There is a definite American flavour to the collection and the range of flower cars is fascinating – it’s rare to see one, let alone a dozen.

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Highlights include a TVR Tuscan racecar, tiny 160mph drag bike and one of only six Citroen DS23 Tissiers – the eight-wheeled transporters built in 1970.  It’s an absolute treasure trove and certainly among the most diverting automotive museums I’ve ever visited.

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We travel from Jurby to Ramsey where we pause for a break at Conrod’s, the coffee shop owned by Conor Cummins. The place is tastefully decorated with memorabilia and Cummins’ podium laurels from the previous week’s Senior TT rest above the packaged sandwiches; it doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

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From Ramsey, we divert away from the Mountain course and pause at the famous Laxey Wheel for a drink and a potter around. We haven’t the time to visit the attraction itself but we explore the area a little on foot and observe from afar. The Laxey Wheel is the largest water wheel in the world and was built to act as a water pump for the nearby Great Laxey Mines complex. A proper exploration beckons for our next trip to the island.

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Our ferry back to the mainland leaves on the Tuesday afternoon so we take advantage of one last excursion and head back to Laxey so we can ride the Snaefell Mountain Railway to the summit. The views are wonderful as you snake up the hillside, the mining evident in the valley below. Laxey Wheel passes to our right and there is a genuine frisson of excitement as we cross the TT course at Bungalow. For the first time during our trip, the mountain is shrouded in cloud. We find ourselves at the top of the island but blessed without the panorama we had expected. We have to conclude that it was better to have enjoyed the racing under uninterrupted sunshine and count our blessings.

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Still, what a way to close out an amazing ten days on the Isle of Man. This is a place rich in history, with its own distinct culture. The racing is central to that for us but the track action is only part of the appeal. For an entire community to throw open its doors to petrolheads from around the world is unique in my experience – it’s intoxicating and all-consuming. We must return but decide that we should wait: this has been such a perfect trip that an immediate follow-up would surely disappoint. The veterans are right though – the TT grabs your soul.

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