If you were to stand at the top of Bray Hill, perhaps where High View Road faces the St Ninian’s High School green, and fired a bullet toward the base of the hill, where Stoney and Tromode Road meet, you’d be branded a lunatic and likely jailed. Sit, however, astride a 200-horsepower Superbike – Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha, BMW, Norton, take your pick – and follow the same trajectory, flat out, head down, arse up, throttle pinned wide open, you’d also be branded a lunatic…but likely revered for it.
Follow a successful passage down Bray Hill, the first obstacle of the Isle of Man’s 37.73 mile road course, by piecing together the full track, all 200-plus corners, in just over 17 minutes, average a speed of 131mph on the island’s bumpy public roads and there might be a trophy in it for you. A bottle of champagne and a kiss from promo-girl too, if your lucky.
But get it wrong, lose the front end tipping through Ballacraine, clip the wall at Ballagarey or, God forbid, go over the edge of the Verandah, you’ll need a lifetime’s worth of luck.
The Isle of Man TT mountain course has claimed many lives but also created many heroes. The likes of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez, MotoGP’s elite few, are often referred to as ‘The Aliens’, their talent being such that it’s scarcely believable they are from this world. That’s short circuit racing though, tracks cushioned by safety measures, gravel traps, tyre walls and the like. To race on the roads takes something special, something far more out of this world. Rossi, Lorenzo, Marquez, Aliens? Not even close.
Road racing, the Isle of Man TT is particular, has produced in recent years a selection of the most remarkable sportsmen the world has ever seen; they’re the ordinary doing the extraordinary; truck mechanics and bricklayers pushing themselves and their machines to new levels of terrifying speed.
Ian ‘Hutchy’ Hutchinson for example, he’s the man who did the unthinkable, winning 5 TT races in one meeting; he’s the ‘Bingley Bullet’, the man they said would never race again following horrific injuries sustained in a crash at Silverstone in 2010. But race again he did, and this year claimed another 3 TT victories in emphatic style, utterly dominating both Supersport races and the Superstock race.
Bruce Anstey too, the laid back Kiwi who, in 2014, became the first man ever to lap the mountain course at an average speed of over 132mph. They say, if Anstey escapes his bed on the right side, something he does just minutes before the start of races, he’s simply unbeatable.
There’s that hairy, tea drinking bloke off the television too; Guy Martin, yet to win a TT but firmly placed as a crowd favourite, the stand-out maverick in a world full of mavericks. Will he win a TT? It’s hard to say. Guy wants it more than most, but converting determination into the talent required may just be out of reach for the truck mechanic from Grimsby.
Guy’s polar opposite, not wishing to play to the television cameras, not there for the fame or popularity, simply there to win, is Michael Dunlop, the most divisive rider of them all. Following in his Uncle Joey and father Robert’s wheel tracks, Michael has proved in recent years to be one of the most talented road racers around, but not an easy man to work with. The bullish Irishman has a habit of jumping ship, swapping ‘bikes and teams from one season to the next. This year, he went a step further, leaving the Milwaukee Yamaha squad just two days before TT race week commenced and returning to the BMW with which he won in 2014. This move, along with a crash early in the week, destabilised Dunlop, and to many people’s surprise he failed to add to his tally of 11 TT victories.
But Hutchinson, Anstey, Martin and Dunlop – true ‘aliens’ – along with the likes of James Hillier, Lee Johnston, Gary Johnson and others have got a way to go to beat the ‘King of the Mountain’; the man they call McPint…
…It was the 7th of July 2013, a date I’ll always remember as the day I met my idol, Sir Stirling Moss. Have I mentioned that I met Sir Stirling Moss?
Everything else that happened that day became a remote afterthought, some of it jotted down in a notebook but all forgotten, everything else seemed to pale into insignificance following my audience with Sir Stirling.
Leafing through that notebook only recently I was reminded of bumping into – quite literally – John Surtees, missing my chance to ‘meet’ him properly amidst a flurry of awkward apology. I remember chasing touring car aces Gordon Shedden, Matt Neal and British Superbike champion-elect Alex Lowes down a crowded, gravel path, just so I could snap a photograph or two.
The notebook reminded me also that Kenny Roberts, the brash American who took motorcycle racing by storm in the late 1970s and early ’80s, told me how much he liked Barry Sheene, but that he “was a right bastard”.
All in all the notebook told of what a superb day Goodwood’s Festival of Speed had been, spouted about the glorious cars and the famous faces, the colour, the noise and the passion on display.
And then the words stop. The notebook offers no more observations beyond the morning. I had met Sir Stirling not long into the summer’s afternoon; nothing else seemingly mattered.
What I had written and subsequently read two years later, was enough to jog the memory of what else happened that day though, post Stirling…
Lewis Hamilton had shot his Mercedes F1 car up Lord March’s impressive driveway, cutting through the trees like an arrow, a silver, deafening arrow. Out of the car the World Champion was swarmed, a crowd gathering instantaneously wherever he appeared.
At one point he appeared right next to me, separated we were by a wobbly wooden fence as the swarm of autograph-hunters and happy-snappers gathered. Within seconds there were twenty or thirty people between me and the champ, another missed opportunity for me.
Today, I told myself, was the not the day I’d meet Lewis Hamilton, and so rather than fight my way through the crowd, I turned and walked away, delighted enough with the fresh memory of meeting Stirling.
As the crowd continued to rush in the direction of Hamilton, I spotted a familiar figure, strolling slowly and uninterrupted as if nobody else knew that this man was no mere mortal; he was a bricklayer from Morecambe, ‘The Morecambe Missile’, the man they call ‘McPint’, 21 times (at the time) Isle of Man TT winner, John McGuinness.
More popular motor racing celebrities there are – one was stood behind me at this very moment, signing his way to hand cramp in front of an adoring throng of people – but none, I find, quite as remarkable as ‘McPint’.
The 43-year old from Morecambe first competed at the Isle of Man in 1996 and was winning by 1999, his first victory coming in the Lightweight 250 race. Since then, he has won a total of 23 TT races, taking his tally to just three shy of Joey Dunlop’s all time record.
Seven of ‘McPint’s’ victories have come in the blue ribbon event, the Senior TT. In this year’s Senior, John smashed the lap record, surpassing Bruce Anstey’s lap of 2014 – an average speed of 132.298mph – by posting a lap of 132.701mph – and people dared to suggest McGuinness had past his prime!
John’s victory in this year’s Senior TT cemented his position as the current ‘King of the Mountain’; the one to beat. But more remarkable is his demeanour and modesty. That day in July when I interrupted his meander through the crowd I expected to meet someone with an incredibly wild persona, a real mad man, a personality befitting of what McGuinness does on a motorbike. Alas, he was softly spoken, seemingly genuinely pleased that I had taken the time to pick him out and express my admiration.
I asked, perhaps naively and knowing I wouldn’t have been the first, what it was like to race at the Isle of Man? “It’s like nothing else on earth,” McGuinness responded. He would know I guess, McGuinness is, after all, the very best ‘alien’, the ‘alien’s alien’.