Guy Martin returns to the IOM TT after a two year break, while last year’s fastest rider – Michael Dunlop – looks to retain his crown.
The Jewel of the Irish Sea – the Isle of Man – has been hosting one of the most extraordinary events in motorsport for more than 100 years: the TT Races.
Since its debut on May 28, 1907, the Isle of Man TT Races has pushed man and machine to brutal extremes. But few people realise that what has become the mecca of motorcycling actually started its life as an automobile race. And all because of a national speed limit and a road-racing ban in the United Kingdom.
Gordon Bennett – a millionaire media tycoon and playboy from whom we take the expression ‘Gordon Bennett’ – wanted to host his ‘Gordon Bennett Cup’ on the British Isles but the Motor Car Act 1903 restricted automobiles to driving at just 20mph. So Julian Orde – secretary of the Automobile Club of Britain and Ireland – approached the Manx Authorities to obtain permission to race on the Isle of Man.
The authorities obliged and The Bennett Cup was held on the island in 1904, taking place over 52 miles of Manx roads with five laps in a race.
The Gordon Bennett Cup then evolved into the International Tourist Trophy, which first took place in 1905. And this was the start of the island’s long motorcycling legacy.
The International Tourist Trophy included a motorcycle race but the motorcycles struggled with the existing 52-mile course from the Gordon Bennett Cup and so a shorter 24 mile course was established.
But there were many disputes about the event, especially concerning the motorcycle component.
But a handful of men came to the rescue. These included motorcycle racer Charlie Collier, whose family manufactured Matchless motorcycles, and the Marquis de Mouzilly St Mars, president of the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme. Taking inspiration from an idea published by Autocar editor H W Staner, the men decided that there should be a completely separate motorcycle tourist trophy. The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy was born.
The first IOM TT was held in 1907. Its inaugural winner (in the single cylinder race) was Charlie Collier, who rode a Matchless with a fastest speed of 38.21mph – a snail’s pace compared to today’s 132mph average speeds.
But whatever the speed, the motivation to race at the TT is the same – whether Charlie Collier or John McGuinnes: to be the fastest man around the course.
And for the 2017 TT – the event’s 110 anniversary – the pressure to be the fastest is greater than ever. Last year Michael Dunlop made history in the Superbike race with an incredible lap time record of 16.53.929 minutes, the first sub-17 minute lap in history. His average speed was 133.393mph.
So with this being the new standard, the 2017 TT is going to be one of furious racing.
But competition is fierce. Dunlop will compete against 23-times TT winner John McGuinness, 14-time TT winner Ian Hutchinson – who, in 2010, won five TTs in one week, and budding podium winner James Hillier. And then there’s Norton, with Australian riders Josh Brookes and Dave Johnson, who’ll saddle the marque’s new SG6 machine.
John McGuinness said: ‘It’s poised isn’t it? It’s good,’ citing the Norton team and Dunlop among the many elements making this year’s TT one of the most hotly-anticipated yet.
But there’s – more idiosyncratic ingredient to this year’s mix: the eccentric TV star and motorcycle racer Guy Martin, who will return to the Isle of Man after a two-year break and ride for Honda with John McGuinness. Both will jockey Honda’s long overdue Fireblade.
Of course, news of Guy Martin’s signing was kept secret until it was officially announced to the press. Even John McGuinness was kept in the dark. He said: ‘They wouldn’t tell me and then I was diving to Louth and [Honda Racing team manager] Neil Tuxworth rang me and said “Guy Martin’s your teammate” and I nearly put the van through a hedge, I was like “what?”. I didn’t see it coming.’
And while Martin is typecast as a barge-building new age Fred Dibnah, McGuinness says he’s up there with the riders.
And that says a lot. McGuinness is – after all – the man who made history in 2007 in breaking the 130mph fastest average lap speed record.
‘He’s a genuine 132 mph man.’ says McGuinness. ‘And he’s been knocking at the door for a win for a few years. He doesn’t need to do it. He isn’t skint. He’s a big global rock star on the television.’
And speaking of Guy Martin’s character he said: ‘I spent some time with him over the last couple of weeks testing and he’s alright. Some of the stuff he says I haven’t got a clue what he’s on about and he actually believes his dog talks but it doesn’t, it just shits and barks, that’s all they do. But he thinks it talks.’
McGuinness has said he will retire once he matches the record of Northern Irish road racer Joey Dunlop, who won 26 TTs during his career.
He said: ‘I think about the retirement thing a lot. I’ve had 92 starts from two stroke 125s to V Twin Ducatis and there comes a time when I can’t carry on. 2015 Senior would have been a good time to bow my head but it’s so difficult to do it.’
For now, however, he says: ‘I just want to do a good job and I want to be in one piece.’
While John McGuinness – aka the ‘Morecambe Missile’ – is looking to hang up his leathers, Michael Dunlop is itching to get back on track. And nothing will stop him.
Dunlop said: ‘I’m one of those riders who will ride a bit harder if needs be and I will take it to the limit and will cross it if needs be to win races.’
And as for his incredible performance at the 2016 TT he said: ‘I’m the only man to do a sub 17 lap and that wasn’t the only one either, I’ve done five of them so it wasn’t a fluke. I do know there’s more in me.’
Indeed there is.
The Isle of Man TT Races runs from May 27 until June 9th.