Keith Shawcross, with the 1962 Velocette Venom he rode,
when he came to watch the TT in 1978, carrying his 10 year-old
son as a passenger. The day Mike Hailwood made his famous
comeback, they watched at Ballaugh Bridge.
In some ways, it’s even more exhausting to watch the TT than it is to race in it.
At least when you’re racing, you’ve got a single focus. You’re probably living in, or at least near, the paddock. And somebody – if not pit crew at least a mate, wife, a girlfriend or your dad – can be counted on to help make sure you’re fed and have clean socks and underwear every morning.
For the fans, it’s a little more of a grind. Fans probably don’t have actual hotel rooms, since those’re booked years in advance; the only way to get a reservation is to inherit it. Campers pitch up on soccer fields or in parks with plainly inadequate toilet and shower facilities, on ground that, at some time over the TT fortnight, is almost certain to become a mud bog. On many days, it takes a major effort to merely stay warm. Drunks, or bikes, or drunks on bikes wake you at all hours.
If you’re lucky enough to have a friend of friend who will let you stay in his home, there’s a good chance eleven other guys have also taken advantage. I suppose if you’re all sharing one toilet, there’s a bright side to a local diet that’s completely devoid of dietary fiber.
Traffic is heavy, lines are long, and everything is expensive. I spent the TT fortnight showing two guys, one a Hollywood film producer, around. On the first day, we topped up the fuel tanks on three borrowed bikes – just a top-up mind you, not filling them – and it cost us $50. All of which goes to explain why, a lot of the time, the TT crowd is dirty, disheveled, and bleary-eyed.
Then, the sun pokes through. It warms and dries you, and there’s a cracking session. You find some private spot where you get a great view as bikes pass you within touching distance, and all’s forgiven.
That happened late in the practice week, when after several cold, wet days we were guided to a secret spot about a mile from the start. We parked the bikes and left them, squeezing through a narrow space between a house and garage. Then we climbed a fence, squeezed through another narrow passage, crossed some anonymous homeowner’s front lawn, stepped through a hedge, and found ourselves watching at Ago’s Leap. That’s a spot on the course just past the bottom of Bray Hill; we could see the riders bottoming out their suspension on that insanely fast right, then their bikes launched over the gentle crest at Ago’s.
There was no public viewing anywhere near us, but in every front garden there were one or two people, sitting in lawn chairs with a beer or cup of tea. Everyone had a little transistor radio tuned to the TT broadcast, so the sound of the commentary just emanated from, and pervaded, the entire neighborhood.
I think it was number 21, a Superstock rider, who pulled a gnarly pass – diving under a slower rider on the apex of the Bray Hill corner. It seemed a dodgy move in practice, but it was that kind of practice week; sessions were delayed or deemed too dangerous for timed qualifying. Riders were desperate for dry laps.
Friday morning, I took my guests for a lap. Our trip over Snaefell was interrupted at the Bungalow because someone had crashed at Windy Corner and needed an ambulance. There were 500 bikes parked and waiting for the road to reopen. A cold wind whipped fog just above our heads, and riders took shelter from it by lying on the ground, in the lee of a ditch.
At that point in my trip, I’d been checking the weather forecast each day, and each day it had been the same. Basically, it was always, “Today’s going to be crappy, but tomorrow it’s going to improve.” So far though, the periods of fair weather had been brief.
There was another little break Friday afternoon though. We watched from another little-known spot, in the woods between Ballacraine and Ballig Bridge. We could see up the course to the exit of the fast, unnamed left-hander where local hero Milky Quayle creamed himself, and down over the bridge to the fast, sweeping right-left on the way to Laurel Bank.
The sun filtered down through the trees. Insects buzzed lazily. The stream (called the Neb) burbled. The air was redolent with the smell of wild garlic, which grows everywhere in the forests here. To the locals, that smell means that the TT will soon be upon them, but this year spring came very late to the Island, so the garlic flowered during the TT instead of before it.
The sidecars were first out, but early in practice a marshal walked down to tell us that the course had been red flagged because there was a house fire in Kirk Michael, and the fire department needed access. Then, the commentators on Manx Radio said that they could see the smoke from the Grandstand.
Considering that the Grandstand and Kirk Michael are basically on opposite coasts of the country, it had to be a hell of a fire. It seemed unlikely that the course would open any time soon, so we decamped to chef Simon Sinclair’s Waterfall Pub, a few miles away. No sooner had I arrived there, however, than I heard the course would be reopened for two laps of solo practice. So, back to the spot in the woods.
The approach to Ballig Bridge is another breathtakingly fast, technical and dangerous part of the course, but Michael Dunlop used absolutely every inch of it. It was enough to make me wonder, should I really be standing so close? He looked fast but ragged last year. This year he was smooth and controlled, but riding without any apparent margin of error.
When the time finally came for the first solo race, the Superbike, it was clear from the get-go that the rivalry for the win would be between Michael Dunlop (Northern Ireland) cast in the role of challenger, having never won here in the Superbike class, and John McGuinness (English) the most successful living TT rider. Both were riding for the Honda factory squad; I’m sure there were troubles in that tent.
There was no bitterness between the two riders’ signallers. I heard them making good-natured side bets during the race. At the end, one said, “That’s 1£10p you owe me, plus the change from last night’s fish and chips.”
It was Dunlop’s race. He started 30 seconds behind McGuinness, but began eating into that differential from the first lap. To make matters worse, McGuinness’ crew fumbled his first pit stop. Trouble with the fuel cap only added a couple of seconds to the actual stop, but McGuinness was rattled as he pulled away down the pit lane, craning his neck down to ensure the cap was sealed and pounding on it, either to prevent his crotch from being soaked in fuel (I hate it when that happens) our out of sheer frustration.
When I raced here, the pit procedure was quaint; riders came down Glencrutchery Road at about 160 mph, then came to a full stop in a box, painted at the head of pit lane. You put a foot down, then proceeded to your pit. But there’s a new sound in pit lane now, and it’s the raucous arrhythmia of pit-lane speed limiters.
McGuinness, distracted by the fuel cap, forgot to engage the limiter, and exceeded the 60 kph limit. He may have realized it, too late, as he passed another competitor in the pit lane. But the pass that would really have irked him was when Michael Dunlop, who started 30 seconds behind him, caught and passed him on the road early in the penultimate lap. Going into the sixth and final lap, he must have read a pit board out on the course and realized he was now well down on corrected time. He put in a storming final lap, setting the outright lap record, but it was too little, too late. Round 1 went to Dunlop. Ironically, Honda had pressured McGuinness to ride in Joey Dunlop replica leathers and helmet. Penalty or not, Joey’s nephew had beaten him fair and square.
Over the course of the fortnight, I wanted my guests to check as many different boxes as possible, in terms of seeing examples of all the different challenges on the TT course; the fast curb-to-curb town section in Kirk Michael, some of the bumpy and unforgiving forest sections; Bray Hill, right in central Douglas, etc. On Monday it was their turn to see some of the fast, flowing Mountain section.
Early in the morning, we rode to Laxey, on the island’s east coast. We had breakfast in a little cafe in the train station there, lured in by the smell of freshly baked bonnag, which is a traditional Manx fruit bread. It was a tiny little place, with a staff of two. I noticed two crash helmets on a shelf in the back of the kitchen. Both of them obviously commuted by motorcycle.
An hour or so before the first race was slated to start, we got on a Victorian-era rail car, for the ride up to the Bungalow. A bell rang, an electric motor was engaged, and it jerked away. The chatter, in half a dozen languages at least, got more excited.
We watched the scenery slowly pass, as we rocked, creaked, and squeaked out of the forest and up onto high pastures; it was all pleasingly wonky, seen through the wavy glass of the old train’s windows. It took about 20 minutes to reach the Bungalow. From there, we walked a few more minutes through pastures up the left side of the course, past the footbridge, to a spot where we could see all the way from the Graham Memorial area to Brandywell, the highest point on the course.
No sooner had we picked our spot than a guy walked up carrying a pit board with ‘McGuinness’ across the top. Then, Michael Dunlop’s signaler appeared. They installed themselves directly in front of us, at a spot where riders, exiting the right turn after crossing the railroad tracks (!!) would be coming right past the pit boards, on their side of the road, as they accelerated up the long Hailwood’s Rise.
Off in the distance, sheep bleated. We again heard the Radio TT broadcast from all around us; the signalers had a portable radio, and we heard it all faintly but twice as the sound carried from the tinny loudspeakers at the Bungalow.
Michael Dunlop celebrates his second consecutive TT victory of 2013 on the Supersport podium alongside Bruce Anstey and Dunlop’s elder brother, William.
We knew the first of the Supersport bikes couldn’t be far away when we heard the helicopter approaching. Though it was William Dunlop (always fast on the 600) who initially led, the race went to Michael Dunlop again. McGuinness didn’t make the podium.
The question under discussion at the tea shack was, were we seeing a changing of the guard? The consensus was that McGuiness never really gelled with Supersport bikes; his shot at redemption would come that afternoon, in the Superstock class. I walked back to my spot, laid out my rain gear as a groundsheet, and fell fast asleep.
The helicopter woke me.
Although Michael Dunlop and John McGuinness were on nominally identical Honda CBR1000RRs entered by the Honda Legends team, Dunlop had a slight edge the whole time in their personal mano-a-mano battle. The Irishman didn’t get anything handed to him, though; Gary Johnson opened up a small but significant lead in the first lap.
Sorting out who is where in the standings is not that easy during a time trial. The only time a rider can tell, visually, what his status is, is if he starts behind a rival and catches him on the road. The pit signalers listened to the radio coverage and talked with their teams’ spotters on cell phones, in order to figure out what messages to put out on their boards. Towards the end, it was Dunlop’s that read P1. It was all McGuinness could do to get third.
We listened to the post-race press conference on the train ride down, thanks to passengers’ portable radios. Even McGuinness had to admit he’d never seen anyone ride the Mountain Course the way Michael had that afternoon. Dunlop was three-for-three, and while we all thought it was a foregone conclusion that McGuinness would win the TT Zero race on the Mugen battery-powered bike, it suddenly seemed possible that Dunlop would win every solo race he’d entered.
There was a lot of racing still to be done, but the stage for the 2013 Senior TT was set: a battle royale, between the master of the Mountain, John McGuinness who suddenly seemed old and vulnerable – and the challenger, Michael Dunlop, who arrived on the Isle of Man this year visibly fitter, sounding more mature, and riding better than ever.
A year ago, when McGuinness won his 19th TT race, someone asked him whether he had Joey Dunlop’s record of 26 victories in his sights. Michael Dunlop went on the record saying, “I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Now, people wondered whether McGuinness would ever win another race.
To be continued…