Isle of Man TT 2018 – Part Two

Day four has been earmarked for our first trip up onto The Mountain and we’ve allocated Bungalow as our preferred spectating spot. This entails a bit of a hike so we elect to leave early to bag a parking spot and a pitch with clear views of the track.

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Being mindful of the mass of enthusiasts anxious to traverse the island in search of their chosen spot, and imminent road closure, we leave relatively early but still find the course well-populated with bicycles, motorcycles and cars. There’s a brilliantly surreal moment as we blat flat-chat along rows of spectators hanging their legs over the walls on Cronk Y Voddy. The road is unshackled from restriction here and hammering through the gears with the punters mere feet away gives the briefest, vaguest insight into the riders’ view as they spear onwards unto the breach. It’s a proper ‘pinch yourself’ moment.

We turn off the course between Ballaugh and Sulby onto the A14, bisecting the island and the TT course. This is narrow farmland territory, redolent of tight Lakeland passes in Cumbria. Luckily we see no other vehicles but it’s hardly a road on which to push, especially when it opens out and sheep criss cross the route at will.

While breathing in through a couple of tight cattle grids, the road starts to look familiar. It transpires that the A14 has been used as a stage on the Manx Rally and this section is the one featured in the legendary Ari Vatanen on-board when he rescues his Opel Manta from certain disaster after clipping a stone wall at terrific speed. The moment even causes ice-cool co-driver Terry Harryman to utter the immortal line, “oh, dear God” before continuing with his pace notes.

It will surprise nobody that, in spite of bone dry Tarmac and the outrageous potency of the 911, I traverse the A14 rather more slowly than the great Finn.

Having awkwardly tackled two fiendish first gear hairpins and dodged the indigenous livestock, we pop out within sight of the Mountain Course. The A14 abuts the track just between the railway tracks and the pedestrian bridge: perfect. In fact, such is our anxiety over claiming a good spot; we’re unfashionably early and find ourselves twiddling our thumbs for a couple of hours. Still, with some good reading matter and Manx Radio to entertain us, the time passes quickly as the crowds gather and the tension builds in anticipation of another fine day’s racing.

It’s worth noting that the skies are resolutely blue, without the hint of a cloud to stifle the sunshine. The views up here are spectacular but this elevated part of the island is notorious for mist and cloud. From our perch on the outfield banking, we have an  uninterrupted view of the peak of Snaefell, with the distinctive electric trains plodding up and down to the summit.

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Meanwhile, scores of spectators emerge from trains running from Laxey as the normal service is augmented to cope with the race day crowd. What a way to watch a motor race.

The track action is busy and kicks off with Supersport Race Two. After the ferocious, record-breaking pace during Monday’s supersport race – and the fierce battle between Dean Harrison and Michael Dunlop – much is expected. In the end, Harrison dominates from the front, the Yorkshireman building a near ten second lead by the time the riders pit at the end of lap two.

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Dunlop has no answer for Harrison’s sheer pace and is 15 seconds in arrears at the end of the race, slipping from second to fifth after a 30 second penalty is applied for breaching the pitlane speed limit. A bitter pill to swallow but doubtless the pace deficit will have hurt more than the punishment.

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Behind the leading duo, Peter Hickman takes a close third on the road on the Trooper Triumph, belying the weight penalty his tall frame applies on the smaller bikes. The balance of the top ten is a veritable who’s who of road racing heroes with the moustachied Josh Brookes, James Hillier and Conor Cummins all starring. Ian Hutchinson braves it out for 11th position, hobbling to his Padgetts Honda with the aid of a walking stick.

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After Monday’s titanic action, the second supersport race perhaps lacks a little dramatic tension. It doesn’t, though, lack visual and aural drama. Our spot affords us one of the finest views in motor racing. The riders appear from our right – way into the distance, perhaps a mile away. The course clings to the mountain and, even on a 650cc supersport ‘bike, they are carrying tremendous speed through Veranda before appearing in front of us. The top guys are dropping a couple of gears and lowering their left knees to the Tarmac, hugging the grass verge before smoothly standing the bikes back up to cross the railway tracks.

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The motorcycles appear unfussed by the tracks, squatting down under full acceleration, barely a feather ruffled. The supersport runners are then wide open, heads down, under the pedestrian bridge and up the long, rising straight run to Brandywell. The 650cc engines are screaming up the hill and the aural assault is particularly satisfying from down near the trackside with the pipes facing you. You hear the crackle of throttles closing long after you see the riders jink right and then left out of sight for another odyssey across the top of the world’s motor remarkable and scenic race track.

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In my experience, only the Rechberg hillclimb in the Styrian mountains can touch this for sheer visual impact and drama. Two miles of rolling, storied mountain pass traversed at autobahn speeds and completely unneutered. The challenge is absolute.

The day’s next track action is the TT Zero. There remains some controversy over whether the Zero should count as a true TT win but what is irrefutable is the amazing progress of the bikes during the category’s short history. Mugen has historically dominated and that remains the case in 2018 but the combination of Michael Rutter and Lee Johnston promises a tight intra-team battle.

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Sadly this fight fails to crystalise as Johnston limps into our sight and parks the silent bike in the opposite lay-by. Ironically, the failure isn’t a high tech electrical component but a simple case of a chain jumping off its sprocket. Johnston fixes it at the roadside and continues apace, leaving a reasonably dominant victory to the veteran Rutter who posts a remarkable 121mph lap as he goes.

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While these machines are still very early in the development of the electric motorcycle, their pace is awesome. They punch so hard out of Bungalow, visibly much faster than the internal combustion powered bikes which precede them. There is a long way to go before they’re capable of achieving superbike times but don’t bet against it happening within the next ten years. It’s also hugely encouraging to see Daley Mathison take second on the University of Nottingham bike. From a crude trackside assessment, this looks the most powerful runner of all and offers hope that the team can threaten the Mugen hegemony in the near future.

With the opening two races run, we clamber over the pedestrian bridge to watch from the circuit infield for the rest of the day. While some hardy souls have climbed the vast ridge behind us in search of a truly panoramic view, we opt for a short two minute stroll.

This affords us a totally different visual, with the riders much closer and appearing stage left. Without the previous long-range view up to Veranda we rely on the sound of incoming motorcycles and the TV chopper to warn us of their impending appearance.

The Lightweight TT is a motorcycling legend and now runs for thumping 600cc twins, generally dominated on pace by the Italian Paton brand and numerically by Kawasaki. The acknowledged master of the class, Ivan Lintin, leads from the front and looks set to break the Dunlop / Harrison / Hickman domination of the weekend. Sadly his race is cut short by a mechanical failure while leading by nine seconds on lap two and it’s left to Michael Dunlop to once more show his class with another TT win – his 18th overall and his first Lightweight crown.

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Dunlop didn’t have things all his own way though and a slow pitstop meant he trailed Derek McGee into the penultimate lap. McGee, Lintin and Dunlop all dropped under the previous lap record of James Hillier, with Dunlop leaving it at 122.75mph. Another race, another lap record shattered and consigned to the history books.

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The day closes with short practice sessions for the sidecar and Senior fields. The sidecars are hugely entertaining from this spot. As they turn hard left through Bungalow, to an outfit, they are lifting the inside wheel – in spite of the passenger’s strenuous efforts to keep it nailed to the surface. It’s such a treat to study they close-to and the bravery required to cross the A18 at over 150mph is beyond all rational comprehension.

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Closing out the day’s proceedings is a single, fast lap for the Senior. This offers a great insight into the difficulty of riding a superbike over public roads. Where the supersport runners could pin open their throttles with impunity out of Bungalow, suddenly the same racers are having to handle their machines bucking and pitching from the sheer firepower of the big engines. It looks like a rough ride but the commitment of the top guys is immediately apparent, even if the quickest laps are off the absolute pace at ‘just’ 132mph. It’s a terrifying window into a world where few dare to tread.

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With the track activity over until Friday, we take the opportunity to pay our respects at the Joey Dunlop memorial. A statue of the man and his machine, in prime position, surveys the land which became synonymous with him – as he did with it. Road racing is so raw, so feral that the riders’ mortality is never far from one’s mind. This gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the tragic passing of Dan Kneen and Adam Lyons earlier the meeting, while praying for safe passage for all racers during Friday’s sidecar and Senior curtain-closers.

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Our location also finally permits an opportunity to drive the mountain, albeit missing the section from Ramsey to Bungalow. Most spectators drift away as there’s a lengthy delay before the police reopen the road but we have nothing to hurry home for and we’ve been longing to experience the A18, having now twice failed to traverse it due to accidents closing the road.

When we are finally ‘unleashed’, we find ourselves jumping immediately into the flat-out, uphill and unerringly straight run to Brandywell. With the local constabulary on guard at Bungalow, I’m faced with the bizarre invitation to gun a 480bhp car through the gears in plain sight. It’s impossible to resist and soon I’ve run out of revs in fourth and find myself changing into fifth, right foot still pinned. I’m neither a brave nor ambitious driver so back off and brake hard for Brandywell, having no clue whether the road turns right or left out of my sight and even less clue how severely it does so.

I am immediately thankful for my timid nature as Brandywell is slow by the standards of this road and bears hard left with only a sheer drop to the right-hand side. Now, though, things open up, allowing us (for my Fireblade-riding pal is in my slipstream and grinning demonically in his helmet) to build momentum and maintain it. With no oncoming traffic to worry about, we use the extremities of both verges to smooth out the flowing corners and to overtake slower traffic. Running out to the white line on the right-hand side feels very naughty at first but soon becomes second nature and the challenge is to comfortably carry speed, allowing those big turbos to punch up to really serious speeds on the straights.

I don’t totally trust the front end on the car into the really quick stuff and it’s only after the event that I learn of a broken spring which goes some way to explaining the erosion of my confidence turning into the really high speed stuff. Of course by the standards of the TT, we are merely cruising. Our terminal speed barely nudges the average of the top riders across here which brings it sharply home just how vast is the gulf between enthusiastic road motoring (aboard both car and motorcycle) and true road racing. One’s respect for the racers grows exponentially with every day on the island.

Thursday is a fallow day on the track so we enjoy a leisurely morning and potter into Noble’s Park in the afternoon. This is the epicentre of the TT with the paddock, shops, bars and concession stands directly behind the pitlane and podium on Glencrutchery Road. Selecting the appropriate merchandise is not the matter of a moment and the stands do brisk trade – much like the Indy 500, a TT t-shirt (try saying that in a hurry) is a crucial part of the event.

The paddock is one of two halves: the minority of pro teams with big trailers and expansive public-facing workshop areas; and the clubman end where weekend warriors spread tarpaulin on the grass and wield the spanners under rudimentary awnings.

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The top professional teams also compete in British Superbike so the set-ups reflect that but our visits to the paddock never seem to coincide with much activity from the riders. In terms of star-spotting, we stumble up Dean Harrison, Lee Johnston and pundit Steve Plater but otherwise the most notable celebrity sighting is DJ and team owner Carl Cox. The house legend performs a low-key set at Conor Cummins’ newly-opened coffee shop in Ramsey over the week.

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Certainly the paddock is as informal as one might wish for, given the professionalism of the big teams. It never ceases to surprise me quite how far the teams strip down the bikes in the open. Engine heads are removed and naked frames sit like skeletal aliens, denuded of their bodywork and mechanicals. Not possessing a well-trained eye for motorcycle engineering, I’m sure to be missing the greatest nuances of the machinery but it’s still a pleasure.

It’s incredibly moving to find ourselves outside the Tyco BMW transporter, where Dan Kneen’s superbike sits unridden and well-wishers have laid flowers in tribute.

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Following a circuitous path, we wander from Noble’s Park to Onchan where the sublime skill of the motorcycle riders juxtaposes abruptly with the ridiculous antics of the banger racing world. We arrive just in time for the commencement of racing which is a pity as we discover that no alcohol is sold on site but it can be drunk if carried-in. Having gently lubricated ourselves ahead of an entertaining evening, this is something of a disappointment – worth considering in the future.

This is our first experience of banger racing and it’s hilariously entertaining. Also competing are F2 stockcars, Ministox and hot rods, though the show is stolen completely by the curtain-closing chain race. This frankly ludicrous form of racing involves two moribund cars being chained together in tandem in competition with similar outfits. While the other categories over the evening are fun, the chain race is incomparably entertaining with blown motors, blown tyres, crashes, smashes and massive smiles around the spectator banks. As family-friendly evening fun, it’s untouchable and definitely won’t be our last banger race.

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