The Isle of Man: a 32-mile-long wide and 14-mile-wide jewel in the Irish Sea, home of course to the TT Races and Manx Grand Prix, but away from those events this beautiful island is still a motorcycling mecca, a haven, courtesy of its exquisite views, stunning scenery, history, bike-friendly restaurants and cafes, and of course the extraordinary number of top-quality roads and trails to be ridden, many of which are deserted away from TT time.
In this series, Motorcycle Island, we aim to introduce as many of them to you.
However, in this first episode we are going to focus on getting familiar with the Island’s largest tourist attraction, the TT. And who better to guide us around a lap of the famous 37.73-mile Mountain Course than Bennetts ambassador and 23-times a TT race winner, John McGuinness MBE. At the 2022 TT McGuinness will make his 100th start in his 50th year on board the 30th anniversary Honda Fireblade, having returned to race for the marque that has brought him so much success at the TT.
Alongside him is the shy and retiring Glenn Irwin, who, despite his road racing success at the Ulster Grand Prix, North West 200 and Macau Grand Prix, has yet to race at the Isle of Man TT. His debut was due in 2020 with Honda Racing but as we know that event, nor the subsequent version took place. And here, in rear of a Honda CRV, the teammates sit, just three months before heading off down the Glencrutchery Road for, in John’s case, the first time since the Bennetts Classic TT in August 2019, and in Glenn’s case, for the first time on a thoroughbred race bike having only ever completed one closed-road parade lap.
We set off for a lap to discuss pre-season training, the new bike, a return to Honda for McGuinness, how the course familiarity training has been going for Irwin, and how they’re getting on together.
We’re barely 500 yards into the lap and as we approach the St Ninian’s crossroad, Glenn’s already quizzing his vastly experience teammate, "Do you try to get close to that hedge?"
"No, not really. You are close to the hedge to open up the left, but you don’t need to be trimming it," comes the advice.
"These road endings are a bit sketchy," says the TT legend as he describes the noise from the bike as it skips down Bray Hill in top gear. The crowning as the ‘three of four’ side roads meet the race course provide an uneven surface for these 230+ bhp monsters to negotiate.
Then, at the bottom of the hill, an astonishing place to spectate if you need any advice, McGuinness tells us more, "Hang off the apex a little but because if you’re near the kerb, there’s a massive bump. It looks impossible to do it flat but once you hit the bottom the road opens up for you and off towards Ago’s Leap. The boys who say they’re flat out down there, they’re lying! You’ve just got to roll it a bit otherwise you’d never get it to turn.”
Above: McGuinness explains about the notorious bumpy section towards Ramsey while standing outside the Ginger Hall pub
Prior to the 2020 event, Honda announced a new generation of Fireblade – a revolution expected to compete for World Superbike and British Superbike crowns while putting in a competitive shift on the roads too. Of course, that road racing debut has been on hold for two years, but the Honda Racing UK team have put up quite a show in BSB especially, and that development time will benefit the road set-up rather than going in cold to both the short circuit and road racing seasons with a fresh new model.
The technology in the new bike far supersedes its predecessor and Irwin has been on board for the last two BSB seasons, guiding it into consecutive showdowns, honing it and learning it along the way, which means he’s not just soaking up the TT information from McGuinness, it’s a two-way street with the Northern Irishman feeding the Lancashireman his Fireblade knowhow in return.
Traditionally the rear brake of a motorcycle is right-foot operated but in recent years, the left-thumb seems to have taken over many of the responsibilities. Some are now using a lever, much like you did on your BMX growing up. The Honda Racing version is a push mechanism below the left side handlebar and McGuinness admits to not using it anywhere else other than the TT, whereas his teammate is a little more familiar with the system. "It works really well on the Honda; it helps control the wheelie. It’s an area we work harder at in BSB compared to others, but I don’t see it as a problem at the TT, it’ more the jumps!"
We digress with our set-up chat as Irwin continues, "I’ve got experience at other international road races, like where we are now, [on the approach to Braddan] is smooth like the North West (200) and I’d be down one spring rating or two turns of preload. You’re not braking like you’re coming into a stop, it’s progressive braking over a longer period of time. We’ve spoken a lot about the bumps from Ginger Hall to Ramsey and it’s been interesting because we were watching 1986 TT documentary and Joey Dunlop says [as Irwin begins mimicking his compatriot], “We’re taking 15mph out of it compared to the North West, it’s more important to be more stable around here”, and when you’ve got the man with the second most amount of wins and then the documentary we watched shows The King of the Road saying the say same thing."
John adds, "I hung off every word from Joey, he was my hero. And it makes sense. At the TT, even though it’s the hardest track in the world, it is quite a basic motorcycle set-up. You don’t need fancy suspension potentiometer pots, fancy dashboards, multi-functional footrest hangers. You want a good safe solid bike, and it’s track time. The old story: reliability and stability build confidence. You all want an extra 20-horsepower down the straights but it’s an hour and forty-five-minute race, you try and hold on to something trying to pull your arms out of there sockets! I’ve got a lot to learn to; fly-by-wire on the new ‘blade, so I’m going to be hanging off what Glenn says too. And the nice thing about it, as I’ve spent a bit more time with Glenn, is that there’s no egos – we all want the same result and for Glenn it might take a year or two. I’m at the end, he’s at the start, it’s a time in my career where I need to helping other people and seeing them safe and embrace the newcomers."
More valuable insight from the man with 99 TT starts under his belt as we near the Crosby Jump – “You’re always in the middle of the right-hand side of the road, it’s quite an easy climb. Then coming down in Greeba Castle I’d also check my front brake lever is still on, it might scrub 1000th of a second off but I’d sooner have the brakes!
He continues, “Through Appledene you have to work the bike, it’s quite hard to change direction. It’s fourth gear and then as you go through the long right you snick into fifth. You’ve got to boss it. There’ll be a bale there [points to the left] attached to that telegraph pole which will get in your vision.”
Despite all of his road racing success thus far in his career, the build-up to Glenn’s first TT is far greater in terms of prep. He takes notes. ‘I give myself an A* for revision effort. “I’ve never had an A* in my life!”
The BSB race winner has ridden around the Mountain Course on a closed road lap during the Classic TT in 2019 on the Lap of Honour. “I got to ride with some real legends including Agostini but he was riding one of those old classics that does about 70mph and I went by him on The Mountain and I was absolutely bricking it!”
Further into the lap and once through the tricky, tight and unforgiving Ballacraine to Glen Helen section, we start to climb a little steeper as McGuinness reels off another gem, “This is an important corner, late apex at Sarah’s Cottage leading onto the Cronk-Y-Voddy Straight. If you run wide here you screw the next left up then the next two rights, you get all out of sync. Obviously, the more momentum you carry up here the better line you’ll get out of the second right opens up the left. The grass verge is chamfered so you get quite tight. All that lot is all quite physical, up and down the gears and changing direction so it’s time for a rest up here. Take some deep breaths.”
“This has been resurfaced, the 11th, new for this year. For an experienced rider it might feel quite weird, a bit too smooth and vague.
“It’ll be interesting to see what the new ‘blade’s like, the old one just wheelied everywhere…”
From the driver’s perspective I could do lap after lap listening to my entertaining and well-informed passengers, it’s a pleasure to be in their company. And they continue…
Glenn adds, “That’s what’s been good. Me learning the geography and watching the on-boards and they give you an idea, even how the bike’s going to sound. You can sometimes memorise the sound but what it doesn’t tell you ‘watch kerb, kerb jumps out’ in the middle of Kirk Michael, so that’s new to me.”
Above: the view through Union Mills
The Rider Liaison Officer who looks after the newcomers. “He’s so passionate. He’s brilliant to go around with, there’s a lot of information in a lap with so many references and I like going around with him. Even if you learn 10%, 20%, 30% of them, you’ve gained something. I’m passionate about this job and he, well that fella loves it….
“…he’s another level! He makes all the noises too – down the gearbox, rear is spinning!”
That’s what road racing is all about isn’t it? It’s different to what I do in the day job. That’s that respect, laid back and raw enthusiasm. I’ve never seen a BSB rider with enthusiasm for BSB like that!”
John and Glenn continue to point out kerbs that jump out and bits of grass…
“You’ve going to be braking into Quarterbridge, Braddan and Ballacraine just as hard as anybody but these are the bits where you’re in fifth and you snick it into sixth gear, you go around this left and around the right, and if you’ve got the confidence to keep it in, to keep the throttle in then the overall time from Rhencullen to Ballaugh will be 4 seconds, 3 seconds. These are the bits where I started being strong, I used to take loads of time out… especially on the big bikes.”
At the time of recording, John had only ridden the standard road bike with standard road tyres, and had completed around 80 laps on one Bennetts Track Day in September 2020. Glenn: “I’m looking forward to him riding it. He’s talking about how good the road bike was around don Cadwell on road tyres and you and I have both experienced that, Michael, but the race bike, the Superbike, even the Stock bike on its race tyre, in a positive way is a different kettle of fish.”
“It’s so rough now down the Sulby Straight, you can’t really realx. I’ve been down it in the middle, or a foot this way, or a foot that way and I can’t find a smooth line. You can take a little bit of an opportunity just to… you’re not looking anywhere, you’re just looking forward to a little dot at the end, where you’re heading. Then it’s hard on the brakes, simple 90-degree right over Sulby Bridge and a bit of a squirt up here [we’re stood outside Ginger Hall as John speaks], it’s a bit of an iconic bit of the track. There’s lots of spectators here and they’ve all got a pint in their hands, and you’re stressed to death!
Above: Darts, pint and chat with the locals
“And then this is the start of the bumpy section: the famous bit that we all talk about, the bumpy bit from Ginger Hall to Ramsey. I quite enjoy it in a weird sort of way, I think it’s challenging, scary and ridiculously fast as well”
Glenn adds, “It’s one of the places that when I drove it in the car I could feel it was bumpy… even in the car. I’ve asked people for advice while I’m trying to learn, and from what I’m being told it’s an incredibly fast section regardless of the bumps. Then you add in the bumps, then you add in the K Tree. Watch out for the kerb, front wheel’s up a bit, laying rubber. I’ll just ask John for as much advice as I can get…”
Into the second half of the lap and as we leave Ginger Hall, our encounter with the aforementioned bumpy bit is of course less intrusive in a car but still noticeable. And this is yet further evidence of the rigours a TT race bike faces when it comes to setting up suspension, for example.
“I went to the Ulster Grand Prix and had a podium on the 600 in the first year. Had another podium in race two - well, I was leading it but there was an incident, so it went back a lap and declared a result. The North West is where I’ve had a lot of success, four superbikes wins on the trot, it’s where I get to race before making my debut here (Isle of Man). It pleases me, I love the place. I stood as a kid for years at Juniper’s Chicane, I watched John and all them boys; DJ, Duffus.”
John jumps in having notice the lack of trees on the inside of the course at the left-hander known as Glentramman – one of the changes to TT course – “Weird isn’t? It was very open anyway and very confusing because it was quite tight but if you went in on the right line you can actually get on the gas quite early and it opens up, there’s a road on the right and you can use that entrance to the road if you need to. Psychologically in your head it looks another 5mph quicker!”
“I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. Harv was pretty good with on the approach to the TT, now the time was right because of the support network around me. Even to touch on Macau – it’s not like you can go there and learn it. I sat on You Tube and I bought a Playstation and hammered it and hammered it. I even asked my friend if I could use the sauna at his gym in the evenings, and me and my trainer went and sparred in the sauna to get used to the humidity. I am an outgoing character, I’m bloody mental at times, I love the craic and I’m the last one to leave a party, people probably don’t see the effort I put into racing.
“There will always be the perception of me being a BSB rider and that I’ll step in with an ego but you’re just one of the boys.” John chips in, “If you’re good at what you do, you will make it.”
He nonchalantly adds, “It’s just like a Sunday afternoon ride just an unbelievably fast Sunday afternoon ride where you’re not going to go to jail for speeding on the roads!”
As we pass the commentary point at Ramsey Hairpin where Roy Moore of Manx Radio has sat for several decades, I ask John if he’ll miss that reference point with the changes for 2022. “I came to the TT here in 1982, and then there were three commentary points: Ballacraine, Ballaugh Bridge and The Bungalow and as we’ve gone faster and faster, so they’ve had to condense that down to two. I’ll miss it but I’ll embrace the change, it’s only changed for reason and that’s to make it better.”
“I’ve got all my early races on a cassette tape. There were no transponders so the way to try and figure out where you needed to sharpen your pencil up a little bit was listen to the radio so if you dropped a little bit of time over the Mountain, you knew you had to sharpen your pencil up a bit over the Mountain, or from the Start to Glen Helen, according to the commentary feedback.”
“Murray Walker was reduced to tears back in 2007 when I did the first 130 [mph average speed lap] because he never thought he’d be alive to see it. His first passion was motorbikes. I came into the winners’ enclosure as Murray was going through it, Becky and Euan were there, and Murray welled up as I rode behind him. Epic moment, I didn’t see it at the time but I played it back and it choked me, and I get it. I was emotional when they did the first 135 lap. I didn’t race in 2018, I was still injured but I could see it building, I was looking at the sector times on my phone, I knew where they were on track and I knew what they were going through and the fighting and the dicing for the lead with Harrison and Hicky. This is unbelievable. I can’t remember the last time the Senior went to the wire, to the last lap. It was a dogfight.”
“I saw Hizzy do the first 120, I saw DJ do the first 125 – I was in the race.”
Glenn swoops in asking John if a 140mph could ever happen. “Why not?” comes the reply. “The way things are going with the thousands, unless someone sticks a spanner in the works, caps the capacity. Everything would have to line up – Harrison was in the same team for a while, Hicky had been in the same team for a while. They both weren’t injured, all of a sudden everybody’s perfect and you won’t find the limit, but you can get super close to them when you’re doing lap after lap after lap.”
John’s not a fan. “There’s always a lot of people here, it’s an iconic bit of track but I’d rather watch somewhere where it absolutely scares the pants of you. Once you get around this bit it’s really steep and the bike’s working hard. But from Parliament Square to here, I don’t particularly enjoy. It doesn’t flow, bumpy, quite difficult, stop-start, and it’s always a bit patchy and wet under the trees. It’s not the greatest bit of the track.”
Turning to Glenn, “You’ve got a natural feel for an engine and here you work the bike hard here – you rev it right to limit but on the way down you just feed it gears”
“When I drive on to the North West 200 track, you feel alive, you feel energy through the tips of your fingers, it’ incredible. And when I land at Ronaldsway (Isle of Man’s airport), that feeling is the same as when I drive onto the (North West 200) track at Bally Sally. It’s so unique and special, this Road Racing discipline of motorcycle racing, and to have a track that goes the whole way around this beautiful island, everyone ‘s friendly here, it feels like I’ve gone back 20 years in time.”
John’s joins in the philosophical retrospective, “In 1907 when those dudes got together, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall! There were no speed limits, and those group of troops sitting around that table have controlled my life for the last 30 years, cheers lads!”
“Change is always a good thing. I’m a sport fan and I’m not mad on the digital world, well I probably am without realising it. So the TT joining the ability to access via an app is good for the rider, good for the teams, and good for the fans. Yes, we’ll miss the likes of Roy Moore but we won’t go backwards…”
“It’s time to hand the baton over to the new breed. When I’m on the start line about the shut my visor and the fella’s about to tap me on the shoulder, will I worry about it being live on TV? No, I’m going to worry being safe. I think it’s a great idea if we can get a bit more juicy stuff, a bit more content, we’ve got to embrace it as riders that we’re helping to push it forward.”
“You’d be surprised, maybe 2015 believe it or not. Always followed it religiously on Manx Radio and with live timing but my few trip over, I’d met a few guys through a friend who sail from Ardglass (Northern Ireland) into Peel for three days of the event, backwards and forwards on the same day. I’ve stood at Bray Hill and St Ninnian’s and it’s mind blowing, even on the grid. I can tell from my road racing experience; I can see in other what I can feel at the North West… you go into a powerful place where as a rider you can see the nerves. Being a fan but with the experience I can look at people and feel the eeriness on the grid with the mechanics and families. It’s a weird place.”
John adds, “You look around and there’s some of the old heads, the families, the wives, and they’re going through that hell. They’re watching you go around and it’s selfish really. I’ve been on plenty of grids around the world; BSB, World Endurance, Macau, but there’s nothing that comes close to lining up on the TT grid, I’m proper nervous, heart’s pounding out my chest.”
“It’s sixth suspense or something, like time or air pauses – it’s still. That’s a really cool thing for me to see. Every time I come over I get myself to the grid, I experience that raw emotion and suck it in before plant yourself down on Bray Hill …”
“Class when you cross the line, when you come up the access road and when you’ve finished the Senior, the emotion comes pouring out of you, the relief. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think nothing’s going to happen to you. Then when you finish you’re like, ‘someone get me a beer or an ice cream!’ – you can see it in everyone else’s faces as well.”
As we head down from the Creg-ny-Baa to Brandish having chatted over the Mountain about everything but the course, we talk about the fast left hander, “It’s breaking up a little bit, it’s got quite rough here it was really smooth. It’s in between fifth gear and fourth gear. Fourth is quite revvy and fifth’s quite lazy. I do it in fourth then drive out of it, Hillberry they resurfaced a few years ago and you can be greedy on the throttle because it’s so steep on the exit. Then into Cronk ny Mona is like three corners taken as one and it undulates up and down, it’s quite unique.”
John nudges Glenn and points out a bus shelter as we head towards the start/finish line and tells him to use it as his brake marker on laps two and four before his pit stop. We pass the entrance to the pit lane and John says “you’re still in fifth at this point and you grab sixth on the line meaning you’re doing about 185mph over the crossroads, ‘what’s going on?!’ he adds”
“From a Superstock point of view, it has a bigger tank and the electronics from the kit electronics and we’ll turn off a few things that we don’t want to use. Fundamentally it has to a road bike that is converted, it has to fit and comply with the rules and this 2022 model year machine has had some fantastic upgrades from throttle bodies, airbox, cylinder heads, cylinder, crank, swing arm, to name a few. From a base point of view we’ve got a fantastic package. Tom Neave winning the Superstock Championship in 2021, this machine has evolved from then.
“For the Superbike, that’s a different kettle of fish. These are different regulations so kit ECU, different gearbox, easy access endurance style rear wheel set-up, screen, bodywork, aerodynamics. The bigger tank’s going to be a challenge because it is such a tight area, but we need that for the fuel capacity. Other than that, following on from the Superstock to BSB Superbike to the Roads and trying to configure the engine specification for the roads.
“This bike has never been on the roads, in terms of us working and testing and developing, we’re using Metzeler tyres, we’re using Öhlins suspension – different to what John’s ridden with us in the past with Showa or K-Tech. So there’s lots of differences but we believe the standard package is incredible.”
“For 2022, it’s an exciting year for us with the 30th anniversary of the Fireblade. When you look at having John in there with his 100th TT start, and Glenn Irwin in the level of a team as we are but as a newcomer, it’s one hell of story. I know Glenn has won at the North West, and been successful at Macau but this is the Isle of Man TT – it’s totally different kettle of fish. You’ve got to put the homework in, and you’ve got to treat it with the respect that you are a newcomer.
“John’s got the history, the result and the pedigree that he brings to the team, so I’m hoping that the two are going to work very closely together. John has so much experience and Glenn is a good listener and a good learner, and I’m hoping he can take that to the next level.”
Glenn was due to make his TT debut on what was a brand new Fireblade (in 2020) but the Covid-enforced delay has allowed him to do the extra homework. Says Harv, “He’s really, really knowledgeable about where he is on the track and key points in certain areas but he’s still yet to run down here on a motorcycle at 100+mph and to experience the bumps for the first time on a bike, which are going to be so different than in a car.
“I’ll come to pit lane and make sure he’s in the right place and remind him to go out and enjoy it, look at the work and effort he’s put in and I want to go through it with him after practice and understand what it’s meant to him, what he’s experienced.
“With John, he’s still got something in him. We’ll support him with whatever he wants to do but if he goes out and isn’t feeling it then that’s ok.”
Qualifying for the 2022 Isle of Man TT gets underway on Sunday 29th May with the first race, the RST Superbike 6-lapper, due to start at noon on Saturday 4th June.