"I look back and think about what could have gone wrong… before I never had to think ‘is my back wheel tight, is my engine bolt going to be dragging along the road’. I used to just ride the thing."
It’s fair to say John McGuinness has acquired an unwelcome new perspective for when he takes to the start line of the 2022 Isle of Man TT.
And it’s all down to his brief but calamitous stint competing with Norton in 2019.
"It was hard. It made racing unenjoyable and when it becomes unenjoyable it is dangerous," he told BikeSocial in an exclusive interview exploring his perspective on the company’s farcical-turned-criminal actions under its former management structure.
Indeed, no motorcycle racer ever wants to ‘go wrong’ while competing, but when those words are uttered in the same breath as the ‘Isle of Man TT’ they take on a more macabre gravity.
And no racer feels the force of those weighty words more than Bennetts Ambassador McGuinness, a legend of the road racing discipline that has made the Snaefell Mountain Course a 37-mile scene for immense success against the shadowy backdrop of the sport’s darker tragedies.
A race that requires pure precision of both biology and physics as man and machine flirt with plus-180mph limits without overstepping them, McGuinness has made the subject of the TT his masters with a career tally of 23 wins, just three shy of the all-time record held by the late, great Joey Dunlop.
But while he has long since graduated with distinction, it doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons still to be learned, as McGuinness himself discovered in 2019 when he bought the vision being sold by disgraced ex-Norton CEO Stuart Garner only to discover a fraudulent reality.
As it transpires, McGuinness was just one of hundreds - or as he puts it ‘one corner of a 1000-piece jigsaw’ - to bear the cost of the hyperbole and smokescreens being fanned by a man who once masqueraded as an entrepreneurial innovator but now faces jail time as a shamed swindler.
The story of Norton’s decline and near-collapse in February 2020 has been well documented but while the company today itself is looking healthier than ever under new management, the truth emerging from Garner’s falsehoods over the past two years is coming towards a feeble inevitability.
Soon Garner will be sentenced after pleading guilty to three charges of breaching employer-related investment rules, ending one chapter of this sorry tale.
While McGuinness emphasises that his own experience with the company pales into comparison of those who lost their savings through fraudulently handled pension funds, his testimonial of the company at the TT sheds some light on a project that was all vanity with barely any substance.
"You can see what’s happened. I am part of the jigsaw but it is a 1000 piece jigsaw and I’m just piece 250," McGuiness. I’m old money but I’m not going to dwell on it, I never had it in my hand so I never lost it whereas people with pensions who grafted lost it, then the small guys who contributed nuts and bolts, they had their trousers pulled down.
"It’s not as if I’m making it up, it’s not as if I’ve had a bad do and I have a personal vendetta against them, it’s black and white."
The 2019 Isle of Man TT should - from a personal perspective - have represented a momentous fortnight for McGuinness.
A horrific accident while competing in the 2017 North West 200 consigned him to the side-lines nursing a broken leg, vertebrae and rib, not only ruling him out of that year’s TT but also in 2018, the year he was originally due to race with Norton.
Above: McGuinness begins his 2018 parade lap on the Norton
Despite the belated debut, the significance of McGuinness’ deal with Norton couldn’t be underestimated. A Senior TT win in 2016 meant McGuinness was at his peak and looked well on course to bridge the slender margin to Joey Dunlop and become the most decorated rider to have ever accelerated down Bray Hill.
However, his injury in 2017 and the subsequent frayed relations with Honda in its wake led McGuinness to consider pastures new from which to break that long-standing record, eventually choosing Norton.
The collaboration wrote a spectacular headline as the most successful living road racer joined forces with a quintessential British motorcycle manufacturer mounting its own comeback in the competitive ranks more than a century after claiming its first of the 94 TT wins it would go on to forge its global reputation on.
However, by the time McGuinness threw his leg over the V4 in 2019, there were already uneasy murmurings behind-the-scenes that all was not well with Norton. Talk of growing waiting lists, serious quality control issues and financial shortfalls led to an increasing number of column inches being given over to an increasingly tarnished name.
Garner smiled on as the charming public face of the brand but the fissures that travelled through the company were in evidence come the 2019 TT. While many questioned the wisdom of shelling out on hiring McGuinness and the expense of competing at TT amid a growing backlash behind the scenes, there was a solid counter-argument that a strong result would have had the desired effect of stimulating positive publicity.
At least that might have been the case had Norton focused on at least delivering quality control on track under the spotlight of the world’s media and motorcycling community.
Of course, knowing what we know now, Norton’s woeful performance in 2019 triggers little more than a shrug of hindsight-laden inevitability.
Above: Josh Brookes blasts down Glencrutchery Road in 2017
At the time though, the project had shown glimmers of promise in the right hands with Josh Brookes proving himself as a remarkably adept road racer by squeezing out a 131mph lap and a top five result.
However, McGuinness’ expert eye credits that result solely towards a ‘genius’ Brookes ‘rinsing’ the machine for all it was worth… not least because it wasn’t worth all that much by the time it had come across the finish line.
"Josh Brookes did 131mph on it - incredible, the man is a genius!
"Simple as that. He is a top, top TT jockey. I didn’t ride in 2018 but Josh knew everything was f****d and everything was worn out. So he took the last out of everything.
"Myself and Josh stood at the back of the bike he’d just finished the race on and it had two engine bolts missing and the swingarm was cracked all the way around - so how much further would it have gone?
"We were stood there and just went ‘f*ck’... he had rinsed everything out of it. Then it just dropped to bits around me."
Come McGuinness’ turn in 2019, he combined the two Superbike races with a stint on the Superlight in the Lightweight class and subsequently tallied three DNFs from three finals.
The result was embarrassing on paper but the reality of what happened - not to mention, what ‘could’ have happened - was of more concern to McGuinness, both for himself and the riders around him.
Moreover, according to McGuinness, a brazen Garner then attempted to point the finger at him for the poor performance, reportedly saying ‘there was nothing wrong with that 650, John just didn’t want to ride it’.
Such an accusation receives a blunt appraisal from McGuinness, even beyond the somewhat scandalous notion that a professional racer would simply park up out of choice.
Nevertheless, McGuinness contests the 650 blew at possibly the furthest point from the paddock - with video evidence - leading him to borrow a fan’s motorcycle to ‘ride like a t**t’ through the villages in order to get back for the TT Zero race that followed.
"It has an on-board camera and you can hear it being a f**king grenade going into Ballaugh," he remarks.
"I had to borrow somebody’s road bike to get back to the paddock. I had minutes to get there and I rode like a total tw*t through the villages on somebody’s Triumph like a total kn*bhead, which is obscene really. The bike broke down at the furthest point it could possibly have."
"[Garner’s accusation] It’s laughable… if I was going to break down I would turn left at Quarterbridge so I can get back into my Mugen leathers safely and have a rest before I ride my electric bike.
"Why would I decide to stop at Ballaugh, I’ve raced there for 20 years, tell you what I’ll stop 17 miles into the track?
"You see two sides of the coin and point the finger at me, but when it’s dropping bolts, blowing up, misfiring, the tank is splitting, the sub-frame is cracking, the front wheel is rubbing on the mudguard… it just went on and on."
Indeed, McGuinness is uneasy at the unwitting part he played in Norton’s fallacy and admits to being upset at having promoted the brand on false pretences.
His interactions with Garner when he first signed on speak of an approachable man, while McGuinness admits he appreciated the romance of competing with such a premium and historic marque as Norton.
"He was OK with me, he sold it to me and he seemed genuine enough. I handed the first ten bikes over, those V4s, and I’d say seven of them have never started.
"Thankfully for him, they are beautiful ornaments. A couple of the guys there were like ‘I’ve got my next meeting, that’ll look good in my office, see you later…’
However, his close company with the upper echelons of Norton management allows McGuinness a different perspective to most, one he is unhappy to have both witnessed and been associated with.
"It’s the world we live in and people like that should be stopped. You can’t go up a ladder without a certificate, you can’t go on a building site without steel toe cap boots but people can go around and do things like that. Somewhere down the line the system is wrong.
"I’m not bitter about it, it is what it is. But I feel like I robbed my genuine fans, I sold them Norton t-shirts, it was all Hollywood, it was chrome, it looked the b*ll*cks, it sounded amazing.
"There was a lot of expectation and it just fell apart around me. I felt like I cheated everyone at the time, which hurts my feelings."
While the Norton fiasco is now a fairly distant memory both for McGuinness and the company itself following its takeover by Indian giants TVS Motors and re-location from Castle Donington to a purpose-built facility in Solihull, with COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Isle of Man TT, the return to the island in 2022 dredges up some ill feeling.
However, McGuinness himself feels he has come full circle as he prepares for this year’s event with a high-profile return to Honda. It’s a move that gives him some welcome peace of mind.
"If you cut me in half, I have Honda written through me…
"I have worked with Honda for many years, we’ve had a few bits and bobs - 2017 was well documented with my injury - but the connection with my mechanics and the way they put the bike together is good."
Poignantly, his latest TT tilt is brimming with worthy notes; McGuinness will be 50-years old, he will ride the latest generation CBR1000RR-R in the 30th Anniversary year of the Fireblade and he will reach a century of TT starts.
Though there has been a mention of retirement, McGuinness has cooled the talk of late, insisting he will know when the time is right when that time comes, whether it is this year, next year or in ten years.
However, while you might think McGuinness is driven to race in 2022 to secure the elusive wins that would allow him to shuffle alongside Joey Dunlop on that all-time pedestal, his true motivation is somewhat blunter than that…
"I just couldn’t finish my career that way with the Norton mess…"