There are a few ‘greatest races on earth’, depending on where you are and what interests you. Americans will probably think of the Daytona 500; Australians, the Bathurst 1000; Formula One fans the Monaco Grand Prix and those with staying power, probably the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But for motorcyclists, there is only one great race; the Isle of Man TT.
The Isle of Man is a bit of a law unto itself; it is one of three Crown Dependencies (the other two being Jersey and Guernsey) and as such, forms neither part of the United Kingdom nor British Overseas Territories, though the UK is considered responsible for it. It is permitted a certain degree of autonomy when it comes to local legislation and as a result, there are certain differences between it and mainland UK.
One is the lack of an island-wide ‘national’ speed limit; there are familiar limits in place in towns and villages but de-restricted roads have no limit at all and this inevitably attracts petrolheads from across the world. And no time is more popular than TT – or Tourist Trophy – race week. The event actually runs over two weeks at the end of May and beginning of June either side of the first Sunday in June – AKA Mad Sunday – and sees the first week given over to practice and the second, actual racing.
It was inevitable that racing would follow the development of the motorcycle as sure as eggs is eggs and the first TT races were held in 1907, as racetracks weren’t a thing by that point and racing on the British mainland roads wasn’t allowed. That first event was the brainchild of the editor of Motorcycle Magazine at the time and two races took place in May of that year – one for bikes with single-cylinder engines and one for twins.
The circuit for the first race was a ‘short’ 15-mile loop from Peel to Kirk Michael on the north-western edge of the island and back via inland roads, with the start/finish line at St John’s, hence the name of the track – St John’s. However, in 1911, the circuit changed, taking in the now-famous Mountain stretch across to Douglas and back towards St John’s. But instead of carrying on to Peel, it followed the former route from Ballacraine to Kirk Michael to become virtually the circuit it is today, at 37.43 miles in length.
Racing resumed in 1920 after the end of the First World War and the course remained essentially as it was prior to the war, with some slight changes including as the riders approached the town of Douglas, to become the current circuit at 37.73 miles in length.
After the Second World War, the TT was chosen to form part of the FIM Motorcycle World Grand Prix series and was frequented by riders such as Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood as well as local hero, Geoff Duke. By the mid 1970s though, many riders felt it was becoming too dangerous and the last time it formed part of the world championship was in 1976.
The TT was subsequently developed as a motorsport festival by the Manx government and has become a firm favourite in not only the motorcycle world but also, the world of motorsport generally. The fact that it has run, largely unchanged and uninterrupted save for the outbreak of Foot and Mouth in 2001 and Covid-19 in 2020, since the end of WW2 is a testament to its popularity and importance to the Isle of Man.
Other road racing also takes place on the island; in addition to the contemporary TT, there is also a Classic TT meeting for older bikes over four races and the Manx Grand Prix, which has been going almost as long as the TT and caters for amateur racers who were driven out of the TT by the works teams. This takes place in late August/early September and uses the same course as the TT.
The Isle of Man mountain course is run entirely on public roads around the island, closed for the races. The lap begins and ends at the grandstand and pit complex outside Douglas on Quarter Bridge Road. It heads down Bray Hill towards Casteltown before turning right at the double roundabouts at Quarter Bridge and heading North-West towards Peel on the western coast.
By the time riders reach Crosby, halfway to the next major right turn, they are hitting close to 200mph and clipping apexes just millimetres away from walls and the kerb. They turn right at Ballacraine on to the A3 heading north, towards Kirk Michael and then, Ramsey.
Up to this point, the course has been largely semi-rural and partly open, partly covered with trees between stone walls or hedgerows. However, after Ballacraine, the course starts to climb and the tree cover closes in, with the long, fast straights and high-speed bends of the first section giving way to tighter and more technical sections.
The trees soon give way to more open countryside as the riders pass Glen Helen and head for the open moors and Cronk y Voddy. As the road begins to descend into Kirk Michael, the trees close in again, before the riders have to negotiate the tight streets of the town.
After Kirk Michael, the course runs through low-lying fields as it heads for Ramsey. A famous spot is the left/right flick over the bridge in Ballaugh where bikes regularly get both wheels off the ground and land with an alarming tank-slapper. Riders pass through Sulby before starting to climb again, this time through the trees before dropping down into Ramsey.
After the town, the road climbs up to the famous left-hand hairpin and out onto the mountain section of the course. As the riders climb higher, they become more exposed to the elements, snaking their way up towards Snaefell mountain before skirting its summit at Bungalow and and continuing across the edge of the hills on the famous – and often terrifying – mountain section.
The fast and flowing roads continue their way southwards past Kate’s Cottage and towards the right-hand bend at Creg-ny-Baa in front of the restaurant. From here, the road descends into Douglas and the hairpin chicane at Governor’s Dip before heading back to the start finish straight.
There are various classes of bike in the TT: Superbike/Senior allows highly modified 1000cc superbikes based on road-going examples; Supersport is for less modified bikes based on 600cc four-cylinder or 650cc three-cylinder bikes; Superstock is for virtually showroom-specification 1000cc sportsbikes; Lightweight is for modified 650cc twin-cylinder road bikes; Sidecar is for highly specialised machines using a driver and passenger to change the weight distribution; and the TTZero, a class for zero-emissions bikes – read electric.
The first week of the schedule is for practice and this takes place in the evenings, so visitors can explore the island and select their ideal viewing location. The first race takes place on ‘Superbike Saturday’, the day before Mad Sunday and halfway through the TT’s action. Then, the remaining races take place on the Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the second week.
The racing is based on a time-trial schedule; racers set off at ten-second intervals and effectively race against the clock, through it is common to see them racing each other on the road as well.
The Sunday of the weekend between practice and race week (always the first Sunday in June) is known as ‘Mad Sunday’ and, for almost as long as the TT has been running, is an opportunity for bikers and car drivers to ride (or drive) the circuit to get a feel for the roads. Standing speed limits still apply so anyone trying for a high speed lap through one of the towns is likely to end up in jail but where the roads are de-restricted (and hence, no limit) then this stands. The Mountain section of the course is made one-way so that riders and drivers can make the most of the stunning roads but wannabe superstars riders can be a constant threat to those just out for a leisurely bimble to enjoy the scenery. Everyone needs to keep their wits about them.
Just like Le Mans for cars, the TT is a mecca for bikers and thousands flock to the Island every year to watch the racing and contribute to the unique atmosphere. There are grandstands located around the course but the majority of people tend to head out around the course – as long as you’re not moved on by a safety marshal or the land owner, you can watch from pretty much anywhere you can get to. A quick squint at YouTube will show you just how close you can get to the action…
The Isle of Man TT is the stuff of legends and a look at the record books shows just how big those legends are.
Lap records began to be broken almost as soon as racing started and the current lap record was set by Peter Hickman, riding a BMW S1000RR in 2018. He completed the 37.73-mile course in 16m42.778s at an average speed of 135.452mph. Considering the nature of the course, that is both a remarkable – and terrifying – achievement. You can watch the lap – with commentary from Hickman himself.
The most successful rider at the TT was the late Joey Dunlop, who recorded an amazing 26 race wins on the island as part of a career that stretched from 1977 to 2000, when he was tragically killed in an accident while racing in Latvia.
The most successful rider on the course when it was part of the FIM Motorcycle Grand Prix World Championship was Mike Hailwood, with 12 wins in four classes from 1961 to 1967.
The favoured route to the Isle of Man for riders is the Steam Packet ferry, from Liverpool, Heysham, Dublin and Belfast but for those not taking their own bike or car, you can also fly to Ronaldsway airport from a variety of British airports, primarily with LoganAir.
The Isle of Man TT will take place from Sunday 30th May to Friday 11 June 2021, pending the Covid-19 situation. The dates for the Classic TT and the Manx Grand Prix are yet to be released.
Other Crazy Racing
If motorcycle action is your thing, it’s not just the TT where you can get your fix.
England’s only ‘road’ racetrack, Oliver’s Mount in Scarborough is a great venue to get up close and smell the action
Weston Beach Race
If you want to see bikes and quads charging down a purpose-made sand track, then Weston-Super-Mare is the place to be in early October
Low speed but huge skills as motorcyclists seemingly defy physics to ride up the side of hills, rocks, cliffs and all sorts of natural and man-made obstacles
While the TT riders set of at ten-seconds intervals, the Northwest 200 sees the entire grid start at the same time, a la MotoGP, on nine miles of Northern Irish tarmac
Top fuel drag bikes
There can’t be much scarier than strapping yourself to a 1000bhp bike, pointing it down a ¼-mile drag strip and hitting 200mph in six seconds…