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Isle of Man TT 2019: looking ahead to this year's Tourist Trophy  

Joey Dunlop 
Joey Dunlop in 1996, passing ordinary street furniture on what might be one of the most notorious circuits in the world  Credit: Mike Cooper /Getty 

Believe it or not, the Isle of Man TT Races is a result of a speed restriction. The 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup was due to be hosted in Britain but the Motor Car Act of 1903, and its 20mph speed limit, put paid to any notion of racing activity. So the event was moved to the Isle of Man and eventually morphed into what is now known as the TT Races.

Today, the fastest speed record at the Isle of Man TT is a hair-raising 135.452mph – an average across 226 miles, over which the fastest speeds exceed 200mph and the slowest drop to around 20mph. Peter Hickman – who set the record –  could finish a 37.3-mile lap in just 16.42.778 minutes, which isn't bad considering the TT circuit is essentially a loop of regular roads.

They're roads with all the trimmings too, such as bus stops, lamp posts, walls, cottages, man holes, white lines, zebra crossings and that’s not to mention the wildlife. Dogs, sheep, horses and birds stray onto the track; many a rider has hit a wood pigeon at the TT and in 1958 Sir John Surtees hit a cow during practice.

But the wildlife and the walls have borne witness to the event since it started in 1907. Back then, the fastest speed was 38.22 mph, set by Charles Collier on a Matchless. In 1957 Bob McIntyre broke the 100mph record on his Gilera and fifty years later, John McGuinness set a new bar again: that of the 130mph lap on his Honda Fireblade. That benchmark has now risen to 135.452mph and one wonders: how much faster can these gladiators on two wheels go? Even some of the hardened veterans are starting to wince at the stratospheric speeds set at TT 2018.

For Hickman – who’ll be riding the 2019 BMW S 1000 RR this year in the Superbike and Senior TT – there’s nothing fraught about TT racing. “I actually find it to be quite relaxed,” he says. “You have these big long straights that last for about ten to fifteen seconds and these give you the chance to sit back and assess things. In British Superbikes the racing’s full-on - you’re constantly on the attack – the TT is nothing like that.” ‘Relaxed’ would not be how fans would describe the last year’s Senior event, in which Hickman clinched his record win, however: that race is already being hailed as one of the most thrilling in recent TT history.

John McGuinness is one of the biggest names in TT history 

And in spite of his 135.452mph record he says: “I’m not bothered about a lap record. I’m bothered about winning. And the aim is to win at the slowest possible speed.” Hickman’s fiercest - and possibly hungriest rival, Dean Harrison, however, says that when he’s racing, it’s the world around him that slows down. “Your brain adapts. By the Wednesday or Thursday of practice week you’re up to speed mentally. When I’m racing everything slows down because my brain’s adjusted: things are in slow motion around me - so much that I could pick out a face in a crowd.”

But whether he likes it or not: Hickman’s turned a new page in TT racing – a very fast one at that (even by TT standards), despite having only competed in the TT since 2014. Harrison and Hickman are both tipped for winning this year’s Superbike and Senior TT – the showpiece events at the TT Races – and both are two-time TT winners. But there are other riders too, such as 23-times TT winner John McGuinness, who makes a return to this year’s TT after a two-year hiatus following his crash at the North West 200 in 2017.

He said: “I’m with Norton this year again. The superbike’s great – any machine that goes round at 132mph is a good bit of kit, isn’t it? When Norton turned up ten years ago at the TT people were laughing but now they’re finishing fifth in the Senior.”

It's easy to dehumanise motorcycle racers

There’s a nice arc to McGuinness riding a Norton, however: the marque dominated the TT throughout the 1900s, 1930s and 1950s so the factory has come full circle. Until now, Norton podium appearances have been sparse: the last Norton win was 1992, when Steve Hislop won the Formula One TT in a neck-to-neck race against Carl Fogarty. Before that it was 1961, when Mike Hailwood won the Senior TT on a Manx Norton.

McGuinness said: “There were a hell of a lot of motorcycle manufacturers at the start of the century but Norton stood out and dominated racing for a long time” And if you can’t see the Nortons on track, you can hear them: the machines are as defined by their iconic as they are their classic metallic Norton livery.

“It’s amazing to hear people’s reaction as the Norton races past, they love it: the sound is incredible.”

Other potential victors include the super smooth Kawasaki racer James Hillier, Ulsterman Lee Johnston and the quietly-spoken 16-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson (on the factory Honda) and Manxman Conor Cummins - who finished second in the 2018 Superbike event. And then, of course, there’s the elusive, unpredictable, 18-times TT winner Michael Dunlop.

Michael Dunlop has lost several family members to motorcycle racing crashes  Credit: Dave Kneen 

And it’s the latter who provides the greatest intrigue. The Dunlops are a motorcycle racing dynasty, whose name is enshrined into TT folklore: Michael’s father, Robert was a world-class road racer – with five TT wins – but was killed after a crash during practice at the North West 200 in 2008. Michael’s uncle, 26-time TT winner Joey Dunlop OBE, was also killed after a racing accident in 2002. Michael’s brother, William, was also a TT racer but was killed last year after a crash at the Skerries. The emotional strain on Michael, let alone the pressure to uphold his reputation as the boldest, most formidable rider at the TT – has only added to interest among TT fans.

Speaking of the TT in a rare interview in 2017, Michael Dunlop said: “It's that edge. Everybody wants to push it to the next level. I want to push it to the next level and I love the buzz I get from making mistakes in trying to get it there.”

As the pressure rises to reach that next level, so does race preparation, as Harrison explains: “There are several riders who could win so it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. Riders are also doing more and more short circuit racing between road races now so they’re really up to scratch now. You can’t write anyone off at the TT because it always brings up something that you’d never expected.”

Racing in the TT is, of course, incredibly dangerous. And because of this the event lost its FIM World Championship status in 1976. The decision followed the death of Gilberto Parlotti, in the 1972 TT, after which Giacomo Agostini led a boycott of the event on grounds that it was too unsafe to be a mandatory GP race. So from 1976 the TT was replaced by the British Grand Prix.

Since then the TT has been an independent road race in its own right, though the risks are still there - not least the ‘street furniture’. Riders spend years mastering its corners, of which there are more than 200. “You have your pointers across the course,” says Harrison. “I tend to pick out lamp posts and bus stops because they’re not going to move in a hurry.”

John McGuinness said: “There is no room for error at the TT – you have to know what you’re doing on every inch of the track. But nobody’s got a gun to your head: you’re not forced into racing at the TT, and no-one’s forced to watch it.” Harrison said: “We’re all aware of the risks and we accept them. That’s the attraction of the TT: the freedom. You’re by yourself; nobody can get to you and you’re only thinking about where you’re going. That’s why the TT’s doing so well.”

The Isle of Man TT is a unique event, not least for the Manx people, some of whom can’t even access their homes while the roads are closed during racing and evening practice sessions. McGuinness says: “It’s a magical place. The people are lovely. They put themselves out so much for the races and have done for more than 100 years.”

As for the racing, McGuinness says: “You only have to watch YouTube videos of people watching from the side of the road and see their faces to start to understand what it’s about. It’s sensational. There’s nowhere else on earth you can be so close to a racing bike flying past at 170mph.”

For TT 2019, they’ll be flying that bit faster. This year might well mark a new episode in the sensational saga that is the Isle of Man TT Races. A saga which, were it not for a 20mph speed limit, would never have happened.

TT 2019 runs from May 25 to June 7. Race Week starts on June 1.

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