Welcome To The Isle Of Man TT

Welcome To The Isle Of Man TT
Intro

The howl of a race engine beckons the masses forward. Conversation stops and eyes become transfixed upon the shiny crown of asphalt that meets a horizon of trees and walls and the final strains of daylight.

Before the crest, with its pub and shops and houses and people, is completely unsighted, hidden behind that black and green mix of bitumen and flora. The wide-open throttle pierces the serenity of this scene, being played out on the edge of a small township named Crosby at nearly 7:00pm in the evening.

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Louder and closer the noise seems, no clear let up as the throttle remains pinned over bumps, through crossroads or passing the endless stream of houses and churches and packed gardens. It’s relentless. Camera in hand, I strain my prone body, lying flat on the ground between a group of legs and camp chairs, to get my eye to the viewfinder.

Hairs tingling, finger twitching on the shutter button, what seems like hours of waiting flashes by in under a second. A blink of an eye, a rush of air, and a deafening scream are all that hint at what’s happening, the camera barely able to react quick enough.

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At 180mph (290km/h) on a road lined not by safety barriers but spectators and trees, race bikes popped over the Crosby Leap at maximum attack, their gladiatorial riders fighting with all they had to wrestle the front wheels of their 1,000cc Super Stock machines back to the ground.

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For the 200m of sight I had of the road, this was utterly captivating. Yet for the riders, it happens as just another bump or obstacle. And besides, they have another 60,520 metres to be dealing with… per lap!

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This is the Isle of Man TT, and for that those that don’t know, it’s right up there with the world’s most draw-dropping motorsport spectacles.

History

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Before I fill you in on all the details of the 2022 event, let’s rewind a bit. Situated between Ireland and the UK, the Isle of Man is an island nation that is self-governed, yet still falls loosely under British rule. The Manx people are deeply passionate about their island and motorcycle racing.

In the early 1900s, strictly-enforced public road speed limits in the UK led to racers looking for somewhere to go and push their machines. The Isle of Man offered that opportunity, thus beginning the ‘Tourist Trophy’ (TT) races which since 1907 have occurred every year on the island, pausing only during both World Wars, the 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, and in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid.

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In 1949, the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix series began at the Isle of Man, and the championship that would eventually morph into Moto GP as we know it now was contested on the island right through to 1976. At that stage, the danger that the TT posed could no longer be ignored, and as grand prix racing moved away from public road circuits to purpose-built tracks, a new breed of superstars emerged – road racers.

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Every rider that edges forward to the starting board, beneath the imposing grandstand and with eyes fixed solely upon the thronged Bray Hill ahead, is heroic. What they are about to set off upon is one of the wildest experiences of some of their lives. A tap on the shoulder and the clock starts; ahead lies the 37.73-mile (62.72km) Snaefell mountain course.

Sadly, it’s worth noting, that tap on the shoulder to say ‘off you go’ is the final interaction some riders ever have with another human. The TT course is unforgiving. Fatalities at this race are a reality every year, and 2022’s TT was sadly no different. Mark Purslow lost his life in practice, César Chanal in the opening Sidecar race, Davy Morgan in Monday’s Supersport race on the last lap, and the father-and-son pairing of Roger and Bradley Stocton in the final Sidecar race of the week.

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Every time the red flag is shown on the course, it leaves a sickening feeling as the anxious wait for news begins. And on days where that news announces another rider lost, it’s a hard blow to the whole racing world. The mentality is always to keep going – it’s what every racer would want – and the risks are silently accepted by each and every competitor who pulls on their race leathers and starts their machine.

Key Details

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This year was not my first visit to the Isle of Man. I made the short trip across the sea in 2019, yet I still feel like a novice when it comes to spectating and shooting spots. Every evening of practice during the opening week of the two-week extravaganza, I would scan social media for the latest wild images, and then try and decipher from onboard videos and Google Street View the best shooting locations.

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The truth is that every inch of the TT Mountain course is a potentially incredibly spot, be it from the squirmy braking points into the tightest bends, the mind-blowing jump at Ballaugh Bridge, or the downright lunacy of the 200mph stretches along Sulby.

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And the buzz for the TT is incredible right from the moment you arrive at the port for the boat ride over.

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While most forms of motorsport record in units of time – be it fastest lap or stage results – the Isle of Man TT’s core currency is speed. A lap in the one-thirty-fives is no 95-second blast, but a nerve-jangling 16:42:778 onslaught, and that lap time set by Peter Hickman in 2018 is yet to be beaten.

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Just think for a second, completing a 37.73-mile loop that includes every road obstacle imaginable, a bridge jump, numerous towns and a mountain at an average speed of 135.452mph (217.989km/h)!

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Coming into TT 2022, Hickman was the name on everyone’s lips, the Brit having risen quickly to become the dominant force in road racing, and not only on his favourite superbike, but across nearly every class contested during the event. With the backing of Gas Monkey Garage for 2022, Hickman and his FHO Racing team had the largest presence within the paddock, and were aiming to bring home a number of victories.

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Contested over four days, the TT at present has four different classes, and in a nod to the more old-fashioned roots of road racing, the top stars freely hop from class to class on a variety of differing of machines. Some do so under a single team, but others jump from awning to awning, swapping leathers between sessions.

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The Superbike class is the pinnacle; these purpose-built 1,000cc race machines are dripping in the finest parts and technology available on two wheels. But the lap times of Superstock class bikes – lightly modified versions of bikes that can be purchased and road ridden by anyone – are getting scarily close to those of the Superbikes.

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The Supersport bike is a traditional 600cc machine (with an exemption for three-cylinder bikes like the Triumph Daytona to run to 765cc), but with the freedom to push the envelope on development similar to that of a Superbike. The final solo class is Supertwin, an evolution of the ‘Lightweight TT’ category of days gone by, open to any water-cooled, two-cylinder four-stroke bike up to 700cc.

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All through the fields, countless stories unfolded over the week that became the point of much discussion. Take for example Paul Jordan, and the look of a man having gone 12 rounds in a boxing ring. The damage was caused by hitting a pigeon while at full throttle, but it didn’t stop the Northern Irishman taking a first podium in the Supertwin class.

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Another rider gaining plenty of admiration was Mike Browne, a local guy to me and someone I featured back in 2019 when following the Irish Road Racing season. With a new team in Burrows Engineering, things looked great, right up until a fall in Cookstown left Browne with a pair of broken ankles. Barely able to walk and having to be lifted onto the bike, it didn’t stop him showing some really impressive pace on a range of different machines.

Hanging On

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While the solo riders and the six races contested over the four classes mentioned seem to grab all the headlines, there are another core group of racers that take to the TT course every year. These are arguably even wilder than the standard racing bikes, as the solo guys don’t have a passenger along for the ride.

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Sidecar racing is pretty much as mad as things get. The machines, the majority powered by 600cc race engines, are little more than a three-wheeled tray shrouded in a fibreglass or carbon fibre body that barely covers the driver who lies in a yoga-like position for the entirety of the race.

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The handles curve down and around the front wheel leaving knuckles close to dragging height, while feet straddle the rear tyre. Comfort seems decidedly down the priority list, as thin strips of foam padding constitute a seat for some, while others run entirely without them.

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While the rider may be shrouded within the bodywork, the passenger is much more integral to the success of the pair, almost acting as human- sized active aero devices for the outfit. Equipped solely with a grab handle wrapped in grip tape, the passenger is constantly moving around, either applying their body weight over the third wheel in corners, hanging off the back over bumps, or curled up out of the air flow on the high-speed straights.

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With the passenger constantly moving and changing position, sometimes mid-corner to deal with camber changes, watching a Sidecar outfit at work is spellbinding.

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Of all competitors on the island, the Sidecar class family likely suffered the most of all, with numerous stoppages on track limiting practice opportunities all week, and the aforementioned pair of fatal accidents during races leaving a lasting reminder of the dangers of this wild branch of the sport. While brothers Ben and Tom Birchell dominated the races that did happen, claiming their 11th and 12th TT victories in the process, the future definitely looks bright with a young Manx pairing of Ryan and Callum Crowe finishing on the podium in a breakthrough performance.

Full Throttle

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Shooting the TT is similar in a way to how I approach something like a rally stage. I choose locations with easy access by road either from within or outside the course, finding out the time the road will close and then arriving in enough time to grab a spot on the bank amongst the hundreds of spectators that seem to have been in position since the crack of dawn.

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What is very, very different is the speed. At times my camera struggles to focus quickly enough as the bikes blitz past at obscene speeds, while at some of the low-speed areas of the circuit, the lack of barriers allow for you to get really close to the action, meeting eye-to-eye with the steely gaze of the riders as they focus on the next marker.

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While Hickman would be the headline grabber in 2022, winning both Superbike and Superstock races on his Gas Monkey Garage BMW as well as the Supertwin on a Paton, crowd favourite Michael Dunlop walked away with both Supersport titles, taking his tally on the TT course to 21 victories.

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The Northern Irish star is road racing royalty, being the latest of the legendary Dunlop clan from Ballymoney who have been the biggest stars in the sport for well over 40 years. Anybody who has ever watched the incredible Road documentary will know the incredibly sad sides of the tale, but the quiet man who rocks around in a rusted-out Mercedes Vito van and works on his own bikes is revered to a level higher than most in the paddock.

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While Dunlop and Hickman left with all the race wins, it was most certainly not for lack of effort from the rest of the pack who pushed remarkably hard. Dean Harrison claimed a string of podiums on the DAO Racing Kawasaki, while the Padgett Millenco pairing of Davy Todd and Conor Cummins were right at the sharp end. The factory-backed Honda team had the ultimate mix of experience, with John McGuinness starting his 100th TT as hot-shot Glenn Irwin started his 1st.

Even just walking the paddock, the big rigs and shiny awnings slowly drift down to lone guys in the back of a van, yet all compete on the same stretch of road for the same ultimate dream – tackling the Isle of Man TT course, of which I have a guide coming up soon.

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To me, there is no motorsport left that’s wilder than road racing, and the two-week extravaganza played out on a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea each year is the absolute pinnacle. For all the negative press and nanny state pressure, the Isle of Man TT is here to stay, and it might just be getting better year by year.

Cian Donnellan
Instagram: ciandon
Facebook: ciandonphotography

Cutting Room Floor

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